03 December 2013

Mullet and Egmont: A Natal Reflection

I was born in Lakeland Memorial Hospital on 30 November 1950, but my parents lived ten miles away, in Winter Haven.  That is where I grew up.  While living in the center of the state of Florida, my parents had a strong affinity for the Gulf coast...especially the area south of Tampa By.  There is some history to this.

My maternal grandmother (maiden name:  Agnes Amelia Hofacker) was born in Largo, FL in 1901.  Largo was a fishing and merchantile community nestled between the, then, small towns of Tampa and St. Petersburg.

There is some contention as to where my maternal grandfather was born.  National Archive records show the Burden family moving from the Northeast Borough of Erie, PA sometime between 1890 and 1892...settling in an area near the town of Miami generally known as the Homestead Region.  They were mechants.  My grandfather was born in 1892...either before or just after the pioneer venture to south Florida.

Some cultural history.  Florida has lived under four flags:  Spanish, French, English and United States.  The Spanish laid claim to the region in 1538...as part of their quest for precious metals and an alleged "fountain of youth."  There had been a strong indigenous population dating back about 8,000 years.  On the west coast of Florida, the Timacuan, Tocobaga and Calusa groups populated the regions from what is now Crystal River down to what is now Naples.  The Spanish were harsh "conquerors" and treated the indigenous populations very badly...usually killing the leaders and torturing the people to either get them converted to Catholicism or to find out where the gold and silver were located (there were neither).

On the east coast of Florida, the French had built a fort in a place that the Spanish later called Matanzas (means "place of slaughter") and laid claim to the peninsula.  The Spanish landed at a place they called St. Augustine and did, in fact, engage and slaughter the French garrison.  The oldest continuously inhabited city in North America was established in 1565, as a result of the French "deeding" the land to the Spanish, who called it "La Florida" (land of flowers).

To make a long story short, the Spanish established a string of missions and settlements from the the panhandle and down the east and west coasts of Florida.  The Spanish colonial capital of the region was established in Havana, and the area claimed by Spain included the Caribbean islands, Florida, Mexico and parts of the regions now known as Central and South America.

During the French and Indian War (1757-63), the British captured Havana as a reprisal for the Spanish supporting the French.  The Spanish traded Florida in order to get Cuba and their capital back.  The British held Florida until the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American Revolution.  Florida was returned to the Spanish.  After some rather ugly fighting, the Spanish ceded Florida to the United States in 1821.  Florida became a state in 1845.

 The real losers in all this?  The Indigenous peoples of Florida simply ceased to exist.  Either killed or dying of invading European diseases, the remnants of these once proud people became what we know as the Seminole Nation.  The term "seminole" is a Muskogee derivative meaning "runaway" or "wild."  When Andrew Jackson began the campaign of moving whole nations west to the Oklahoma Territory, those refusing to go fled south into Florida and banded with the few remnants of Florida's indigenous nations.

There were three periods of fighting that are known as the Seminole Wars.  During that time, the United States garrisoned troops in a string of forts...mostly along the western half of the state.  The Seminoles were never defeated and have never lived under a treaty.  Such cities as Ft. Meade and Ft. Myers reflect the investment of the United States in both the wars and then to protect the ranchers and settlers that began moving into west Florida in the 1850s.
Francisco Celi Map of Tampa Bay, 1757

Tampa Bay was not much explored or utilized by the Spanish.  The most complete cartography of the area was done by Captain Francisco Celi in 1757.  His map has become quite famous.  His name for the island that sits in the middle of the deep channel at the mouth of the bay was St. Blas y Barreda.  There were several barrier islands that ranged around the mainland that was called Pinellas.  They bear names I cannot read on the original map copies.  When the English gained control of Florida in 1763, they changed many of the place names and took great interest in the large, natural deep water bay.  Barreda was renamed "Egmont Caye" in honor of John Perceval, Second Earl of Egmont (Ireland) and then Lord of the British Admiralty.  The largest of the barrier islands at the edge of the bay was named "Mullet Caye" after the abundant fish prized by incoming settlers.  The French/Spanish term "Caye" (pronounced Key) was shifted to the American English, "Key" somewhere in all this.

My deep interest in cultural history began quite early, and, obviously, Florida has a rather unique evolution.  The Spanish, French and English influences remain obvious.  Because the Spanish were harsh rulers...especially in Cuba...refugees from that island nation fled to the Tampa Bay area...beginning in the 1700s.  (the name "Tampa" may come from a Calusa term meaning "sticks of fire" from the large number of lightning strikes common to the area).  This heritage is still very much a part of the flavor of the Tampa Bay region.

My maternal grandparents would bring their family (my mom and uncle) to the north island of south Tampa Bay...Anna Maria...in the 1920s and 30s to camp, rent a small cabin and enjoy both the Gulf and Bay as a vacation from my grandfather's work as an entomologist for the Florida State Plant Board (a precursor to the United States Department of Agriculture).  In addition to his work with the Mediterranean Fruit Fly and Citrus Canker, Grandad was a true Florida naturalist.  His growing up in south Florida and later work with south Florida citrus and botanical diseases created a number of bonds with Seminole hunters and guides.  I remember a number of visits with my great uncle Carl Hofaker and Aunt Hannah, who lived on Treasure Island (a key off south St. Petersburg) as a child.

The last seven years of her life, our mom lived on Anna Maria Island.  Prior to that, our parents would rent a cabin on Longboat Key (south of Anna Maria) each summer.  So, my childhood included a strong attachment to the area in which we now live.  I have a memory that, around age 11, on a visit to Sarasota, I told our dad, "This is my favorite city of all, and I want to live here some day."  Fifty years later, much to my surprise, we actually moved here.

Many times...especially as a young adult...I would do a morning six mile run around a large part of Anna Maria Island and end up on the fishing pier at the north end of the island (called City Pier).  There was a small coffee shop at the end of the pier.  I would get a large glass of water, a cup of coffee and sit on one of the benches to watch the fishermen and a +variety of avian and marine life.  It is a place where Tampa Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, so there is an ever shifting ecosystem (with the tides and weather).

As I would sit, my gaze would often rest on Egmont Key, nestled in the midst of the mouth of the bay.  The lighthouse beacon always blinking and Coast Guard craft moving about, I would wonder what that island was really like...vowing someday to take a boat trip to see for myself.  I knew that Fort Dade had been there, and small garrisons had occupied the island, prior to that, to protect the bay from pirates; to incarcerate captured Seminoles (during those wars); to protect the Union blockade during the Civil War (the Confederate militia holding the island was defeated in a small but bloody skirmish in early 1862); and to fortify this part of Florida at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898 (the building of Ft. Dade).   These garrisons and the fort were attached to larger garrisons and a fort on Mullet Key...on the north side of the deep channel.  The 1898 building of Ft. DeSoto on Mullet Key and Ft. Dade on Egmont Key completed a coastal defense plan that had originally been submitted by a young U.S. Army Colonel and Engineer in 1849...Robert E. Lee.  Col. Lee three other Army Engineers spent four months surveying and creating plans to complete a revision of the United States Coastal Defense Network, that had been instituted by Thomas Jefferson, during his presidency.

I told you I love history.  It is all around us.  When my wife asked me what I wanted to do for my 63rd birthday, I rather quickly hit upon a plan that would satisfy a curiosity that began in childhood.  We would spend the day exploring both Mullet Key and Egmont Key.  I reserved seats on a ferry that travels once daily from Ft. DeSoto Park to Egmont...a 20 minute boat ride.  The ferry picks up its passengers in mid-afternoon, which allowed about three hours on the island.  What can one do in three hours?  If you  hang around with me, you won't get it all done.

At the height of Ft. Dade's life, it garrisoned 175 soldiers in two artillery units.  A small town supported the work of the artillery batteries, and the total population, at one time, reached 500.  What remains, after the fort was deactivated in 1921, are the brick paved streets, concrete sidewalks and a number of concrete foundations of buildings that were largely made of wood.  It is a ghost town that is maintained with explanatory markers and plaques with original pictures of the structures.  Much of the five gun battery structures remain, but water erosion and storms have claimed some of the concrete buildings.

The key feature of Egmont Key is the lighthouse.  The original was built in 1847 and was destroyed in a hurricane 10 years later.  In 1858, the present lighthouse was completed and operational...and remains operational to this day.  After its use in World War II for harbor defense and bombardier training , the Coast Guard took over the north end of the island and maintained the lighthouse.  It is now full automated with daily visits from Coast Guard engineers.  There are no permanent human inhabitants of Egmont Key.  The Harbor Pilots have facilities on the island but do not live there.  Pilots meet every incoming ocean going vessel and guide the ships through the channels to the various ports in Tampa Bay.

Mullet Key has a museum, remnants of Ft. DeSoto and a self-guided walking trail to view the layout of the 1898 buildings that comprised the fort and its support systems.  It garrisoned 250 artillery soldiers at its peak.  There was also a  civilian quarantine hospital on site.  The actual fame of the area and rapid growth of Tampa and St. Petersburg are the result of the influx of military during the Spanish-American War.  Tampa Bay was THE staging area for all troops going to fight in Cuba.  The infrastructure for that short war and World War I training...along with the increasing Cuban population at the turn of the 20th Century established modern Tampa as a major city in Florida

There is always much more to who we are and where we live than that to which we are awake.  History isn't simply a gathering of facts and figures.  To do history, one needs to be open to experiencing the "vibration" of one's surroundings.  The bigger questions (bigger than the "who and "what") are "how" and "why."  For answers, one has to walk around, be quiet in order to perceive the sacredness and life forces (human as well as other life forces that we call "nature"), and engage curiosity that is innate but often occluded by issues of self.

This is just one story and one place of curiosity satisfied after years of speculation.  Now that, for me, was a real birthday gift.

Love and blessings!


02 December 2013

Where The Lines Meet

There are places, in the cycle of life, where paths seem to cross.  The obvious such crossings are the seasonal changes:  vernal and spring equinoxes, and the summer and winter solstices.  These are "sidereal" crossings...based upon the relationship between the sun and earth.  We are nearing that place where the days in the northern hemisphere are the shortest, and our angle of axis and revolution around the sun will make for days becoming longer again.

There are much more subtle crossings that happen in our surroundings.  My native and current home is Florida.  I grew up in the center of the state and now live in the southwest coastal part of the state.  The environment here is different...considered to be "subtropical."

Having lived in the north and central parts of our country for twenty years, I moved in a cycle that was much more definitive.  With the coming of the fall season, almost everything except evergreens lost their leaves and entered a five to six month dormant period.  All farm crops were harvested and fields "bedded" for winter...with exception of a few hearty grains (e.g. winter wheat).  Lawns and landscaping entered a dormant cycle, and I generally did not have to mow from early November to early/mid April.

In the subtropical climate, it is a bit different.  There are two lines of life cycle that meet about now.  There are deciduous trees (like the Bald Cypress and Florida Maple), that are showing signs of entering a dormant period.  Florida grasses are also entering dormancy.  Instead of mowing weekly, our condo community lawn service mows bi-weekly...and could probably stretch it to once a month starting in January.  There are signs of life quieting down.

However, there is also an emerging vibrancy in our ecosystem.  The long dormancy of fruit and vegetable growth (May - September) has already shifted.  The first harvest of citrus began in mid-November.  A variety of locally grown vegetables are available, and farmers markets that have been closed for five months have re-opened to sell a wide variety of newly harvested veggies.  This will continue (and increase) through late April.

The only drawback to the agricultural growing season in our area is the potential for a large arctic cold mass or winter storm to make it this far south.  Usually, by the time such systems reach us, the affects of the Gulf, Caribbean and southern Atlantic waters have softened the edges of the freezing temperatures enough to drop local temperatures only into the 40s or high 30s...still tolerable for sensitive fruits and vegetables.

Surely, "deep freezes" happen here.  The most notable to me (because I was here for both) were the freezes of 1962 and 1983.  For the citrus industry, it was a "one-two punch."  The first deep freeze killed whole groves of citrus in Central Florida.  The second freeze killed the trees that had survived and many of the replaced groves that were just coming to a place of maturity for full fruit production.  Those two events alone, changed the landscape...literally.  Florida has also moved through several extended periods of drought and warmer than normal summers and winters.

Yesterday (1 December) marked a place in the Christian cycle of life that is generally called the "new liturgical year."  The First Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new cycle of liturgical life...new biblical cycles for daily prayer and Sunday lectionaries and a variety of shifts in how we worship/pray and live our common faith journey.  This is an emergent line of vitality and renewal...preparing us for the birth of the Christ and the coming of the Kingdom.  It is a deeply incarnational time.  As it happens, it is also based upon the solar calendar (the cycle for Easter is lunar, but this is another story entirely).

Our culture has chosen to create a line of increased activity that parallels the deeply spiritual one that has been in place.  While it mirrors the spiritual, this line is almost totally secular.  Our mobility and relatively increased wealth has allowed for a "north-south" shift that begins in November and shifts into its highest concentration after Christmas.  Our population, in this area alone, will increase by more than 70% and will last until around 15 April (tax time).  People who either own two homes or have seasonal rental agreements will close up their northern residences and be here, in the warmer climate, for the winter season.

This shift is not "bad" in itself.  Local retail does quite well during these months.  Many restaurants and businesses will make enough money during "the season" to sustain their year-round budgets.

I am not going to "rant" about the secularizing or commercializing of Christmas.  I did enough of that as a parish priest.  I simply choose, for the most part, not to play the game of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays.  I tend to fly under that high wire of frenetic activity.  I am energized by the cycle of quiet but steady expectancy and subtle shifts of life that come with this cycle.  Bald Eagles are nesting...as are Osprey and hawks.  There is a quiet vibrancy, as one walks through nature preserves and the "back trails" of more rural parts of south Florida.

I am a contemplative and tuned, it seems, to the quieter frequencies of life that are, nonetheless, essential to the ongoing stability and order of creation.  There is, within me, in this cycle, a time to embrace the ever emerging vibrancy of life.  This line meets with the external, cultural hyper-activity.  As long as we don't confuse the two, we can enjoy both.  But, one has to choose which direction to take, when the lines meet.

Love and Blessings,


26 October 2013

What Now?

"Sign, sign everywhere a sign; Blocking up the scenery,
Breaking my mind.  Do this don't do that; can't you
read the sign?!"
--Words by Les Emmerson of the Five Man Electrical Band.
The group released the song in 1971 in the album, Good-byes and Butterflies
(NB:  The link above is filtered via Google Gmail and Norton scanned)

(Editorial Note:  This post began during the second week of October as a series of thoughts following two very good conversations with colleagues.  The final paragraphs of this post are also reflected in the work I published just ahead of this ... "Beyond Ideologies."  I apologize, in advance, for the repetition.  Also, I am publishing this just prior to suspending computer work for the coming nine days, while traveling)

Tom Brokaw authored the 2007 bestseller book, Boom!  Voices of the Sixties:  Personal Reflections on the '60s and Today.  It was a follow-up to his first social reflection, The Greatest Generation.  I read both books, because the complex global and social issues surrounding the Great Depression, WWII, post-war industrial/marketing shifts, Civil Rights, a series of shocking assassinations, and the Vietnam War changed the entire function of our culture...not to mention our standing in the emerging global community.  Plus (just to mention it), I like Tom Brokaw a lot.  He is an example of well balanced and thorough journalism.

I know I am a dreamer...and I know I am not the only one (to provide a twist of phrase from John Lennon...a musical voice of the Boomers).  I am a dreamer in both the psychological and mystagogical definition.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) classifies me as an INFP....Introvert, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving type.  Jungian typology seeks to help one understand how one engages internal and external realities.  There are four "spectra" in identifying types.

  1. Extrovert..........0..........Introvert
  2. Sensate.............0..........iNtuitive
  3. Thinking...........0..........Feeling
  4. Judging.............0..........Perceiving
The measure is how much energy is required for one to experience one or the other end of the spectrum from the zero, or center, point.  The MBTI was developed in the late 1940s and is one of the most realiable research and evaluative tools in the field of behavioral and analytical psychology.  Each person finds it more comfortable being somewhere on each spectrum.  There are sixteen possible combinations, and each of those combinations tells a descriptive story about how we tend to engage our realities.  

Without a painstaking exploration of each of the four spectra, I will simply summarize.  
  1. An extrovert is more comfortable and energized by being with others.  An introvert is more comfortable and energized by being more alone or in his/her own space (or with just a few others in "short spurts").
  2. A sensate person gains creative energy by engaging his/her senses and is, thus very pragmatic.  An intuitive person is energized by the "creative juices" of ideas, possibilities and insights.
  3. A thinking person relies upon concrete, logical and objective (outside) data in responding to others or reaching conclusions. A feeling person "goes from the gut" and processes data through the internal, emotive field.
  4. A judging person tends to go by stated or published standards and work at a pre-determined pace.  A perceiving person will often "read between the lines" to find alternative methods and works at a less planned pace to complete a task.
From the zero center, the spectrum goes to 49 on either end.  The higher the number, the more natural is the function described at the extreme of the spectrum.  I am a 37 on the Introvert side; 32 on the intuitive side; 22 on the Feeling side and 11 on the Perceiving side.  Thus, I am very introverted and intuitive; moderately emotive and lightly perceiving.  

Folks who have worked with me on a daily basis can see my "type" in action fairly easily.  If there was commotion in the outer offices, I would get up and shut my office door (true mark of an introvert).  Being highly intuitive is a good trait for a theologian/pastor/educator.  Since my first response is often "from the heart," dealing with conflict that directly involved me was always more painful than for a person who is a strong thinking type.  Because I am a "light" perceiver, I can work well at deadlines and can "think on my feet" in critical moments...thinking often "outside the box."  I tended to know the rules, but I also knew where they can be bent or stretched when necessary.

Mystagogy is the practice of what is called the "mystical arts."  Every kind of spiritual tradition has a mystical element.  It is the part that seeks the experiences of the deeper Presence.  The Christian tradition is replete with mystics:  John the Divine, Columba, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and the list goes on.  

My best kind of experience:  A week with a monastic community with four daily gatherings for the Prayer Offices and Eucharist:  mostly silence with reading, writing, contemplative prayer time: and several one-on-one chats with a spiritual director.  As a parish priest, doing that twice a year was pure fuel for doing my parochial work.  On a daily basis, spending an hour early in the morning -- half an hour with the Daily Office and a half hour of contemplative prayer -- has been a major part of my Rule of Life.

I share all this for a reason.  Now in my seventh decade of life (60s), I have been spending some time adjusting my journey and engaging the world in ways very different from the 33 years of being a parish priest.  As a "child of the 60s" my typology was well suited to imagining possibilities and dreaming of ways that humanity could be brought together in healing and creative modalities.  It is what shaped my character as an adult.

I read a recent Facebook quote from Billy Graham:  "'Hope and change' has become a cliche in our nation, and it is daunting to think that any American could 'hope' for 'change' from what God has blessed." (Newsmax.com, dtd 9 October2013, article/interview by David Patten, dtd 6 October 2013).

It may seem presumptuous of me to disagree with an American icon of civil religion, but I honestly do disagree...with vigor.  God has blessed our nation in any number of ways, but we risk grave moral error by making the "American experience" a mystagogy of its own.  We have made terrible errors in our history.  We, as a nation, have sinned boldly at times.  The framers of our Constitution did not, in large measure, use the bible as a founding tool...many of them were Deists or adherents of Rousseau's "noble savage" concept of civilized man (see The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, published in 1762, which was a foundation for both French and American revolutionary governmental platforms).  

What has made us a more Godly nation (if that is applicable as a title), is that we have had leaders, on all levels of societal life, who embodied hope and the possibilities for change.  It is what emancipated slaves, created opportunities for the common citizen to experience a safe environment and earn a living wage, placed all persons on equal terms and protected civil liberties.  Where God has been most present is when the Beatitudes have been best lived.  There is much discourse in our culture that flaunts the Great Commandment (Love God and Love Neighbor as we love Self...to summarize).  Yet, we continue to dream.  In our dreaming, we imagine a time when we might reconcile with those who were displaced by our ancestors' greed for land ownership...when we abused mystagogy by proclaiming that God had manifested a destiny for the European to conquer and own this land.  

This is not a sermon, but it is an extension of the feeling I had in the 1960s, when we were asked to dream big; when Martin Luther King shared a dream; when hopes long held became a true reality.  After the 1960s, other shifts happened, and the pragmatics of making a living narrowed our dreams to the scale of "me."  

As I was driving around on errands about three weeks ago, I was listening to a BBC broadcast on Sirius-XM radio.  A British journalist was interviewing a British economist.  Because I was driving, I cannot quote this exactly, but here is the gist:  The current shifts and rancor in American politics and social rhetoric might suggest that we...the rest of the world...are witnessing the beginnings of the breakdown of the Great American Experiment.  The United States has provided hope to many fledgling societies making their way toward equality and representation in a free, electoral government.  America, of the past 25 years has become quite ragged around the edges I do think.

The commentator said more, but, again, I was driving and had no way to capture what was about five to seven minutes of reflective Q/A format.  I present this as one aspect of how our society is being viewed from a distance by well educated and thoughtful folks.  

I am hopeful and, in my deepest times of reflective prayer, long for the kind of change that will bring wholeness and balance to what is a great experiment.  We will fail, if America itself becomes our definition of God rather than a society whose very heart is centered in Divine Love.  When balance is achieved, we will...in our diversity...with one voice...be able to proclaim that this grand experiment has, indeed, succeeded.

Love and Blessings!

Fr. Fred+

Beyond Ideologies: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

I think there was a time when, for me, belonging to something provided a unique sense of both personal identity and place in the larger social structure.  To be sure, belonging to a group is a natural human trait (as it is with almost all known biological species).  It not only insures survival but creates structure and order within a given system.  However, belonging in that manner is not my point here.

Beyond familial and human culture infrastructure, there is a kind of "belonging" that acts as a means whereby we can classify our behaviors, beliefs and thought patterns.  For instance: I was born into a family whose ancestry is Northern European...in my case, mostly Scottish.  My parents were Christians...as it seems my ancestors had been for as far back as I can verify at this time (16th Century).  My parents were Episcopalian Christians.  This further identified/defined a particular methodology and doctrinal stream of belief.  I was baptized into this tradition and raised in that micro-culture of the larger community.

I was raised in a small town environment in Central Florida.  The population of Winter Haven, FL was roughly 30,000 during my growing up years.  Further, it was a community with a mix of retired folks and families with post-World War II children...the Baby Boomers.  There were several elementary schools, two Jr. high schools (as they were known at the time) and one high school.  So, in the final three years of education, 430 (or so) of us were educated by the same teachers and in the same environment.

The defining membership duality that occupied our parents (and, thereby, us) in the 1950s and 60s was "Americanism vs. Communism."  I vividly remember "A-Bomb Drills," fallout shelters, and the rampant cultural paranoia known as "McCarthyism."  It was named after Senator Joe McCarthy, who spearheaded a relentless hunt for "Commie spies" along with individuals and cells of communists.  Because mass media was still young, we weren't inundated 24/7.  Yet,there was a palpable paranoia and anxiety about communism.  There was also the dualism of race....being an "integrationist" or "segregationist" defining part of our teenage years.  It was the only truly intense argument my dad and I ever had.  I was 14 yrs old and supported integration in a paper I wrote in a Jr. high English class.

Somewhere during all of this (not even speaking of the rapidly intensifying Vietnam War-that-was-not-a-war...as we were often told), I decided that political ideology was a dirty game.  For me, the one, truly safe group of my teenage years was the Boy Scouts.  I lucked into a great group that included many of my childhood/neighborhood buddies.  I immersed myself in the rugged outdoor activities that defined our particular scout troop and became an Eagle Scout just prior to my 14th birthday.  I remained very active until my college years.  Boy Scout Troop 122, St. Paul's Episcopal Church and Winter Haven High School shaped the critical teenage years of my life.

My vocational path emerged from the confluence of the above groups.  Fred the "science guy" ultimately became Fred the Episcopal Priest.  Early in my graduate studies leading to ordination, it became clear that one got defined by, a) the seminary attended; b) the theologians studied; and c) the collegial friends made.  Without any effort on my part, I became known as a "High Church Anglo-Catholic" within the Episcopal Tradition.  Even though my reason for going to my particular seminary had a whole lot more to do with my working through a potential call to monastic life, the ecclesiastical ideology brand got imprinted and stuck.  My seminary graduating class may have been among the most culturally diverse group of folks to move through Nashotah House up to that time.  Our average age  was 28, and we ranged the whole gamut of socio-political and ecclesiastical orientations.

My growth path from high school was:  college-military-seminary-priesthood.  That path began in 1968 and culminated with ordination in 1978. Of the 33 persons in my seminary graduating class of 1978, only three of us had military service prior to graduate studies.  That was not a popular time to be a military veteran.  It took time to overcome the prejudice and judgment leveled on us in the seminary community...by a small but vocal group.  It was during this time that I made a decision.

As far as it would be within my skills, craft, resources and leadership position to do so, I would create space in my working environment so that any person would feel comfortable and welcomed.   That decision became a passion and defined how I conducted 33 years of active parochial ministry.  While I remained true to this passion, I must report that I failed to create a truly inclusive community in any of the four parishes where I was the Rector (read: canonically in charge).  Systems tend to not like diversity, because differences are used to define grouping.  I like the word "glom."  We prefer to glom onto others who think and behave like we do.  It is the essence of Dualism.  There it is....the central "-ism" that, in theological parlance, is the nature of sin itself.

It is true, in large measure, that we so much want to identify with something -- or someone -- that we end up belonging to...that is, being possessed by...that group or person.  It has been my experience, as a parochial priest, that the term "demonic possession" has a great deal more to do with what or who we belong to than an actual malevolent, cosmic entity.  Journeying with folks through the pain of deliverance from such possession occupied a great part of my pastoral work.

I am reminded of the story of Jesus and the rich young man.  The young man questioned Jesus regarding salvation (wholeness).  Jesus countered (as usual) with his own question about keeping the law.  After the young man reflected that he had done all those things from his youth, Jesus simply said, "sell all you own and come, follow me."  At this, the young man turns (sadly it seems) and walked away...."for he had many possessions."

Bishop Michael Marshall, an English theologian, did a teaching on the above story at a conference I attended some 25 years ago.  As he reflected on the outcome, Bishop Marshall simply said:  "He longed to belong, but he belonged to his belongings.  He was possessed by his possessions."

Ultimately, Jesus was not equating wealth with discipleship.  The request reached for something much deeper:  Upon what is your ultimate value based?   For the young man in the story, it was what he owned.  For someone else, it could have been the group to which he belonged, or the position he held or the knowledge that he held.  Think, for instance, of another encounter.

Jesus had an evening visit from a Pharisee, Nicodemus.  Pharisees, as part of the local Sanhedrin, were both highly educated and carried great weight in council as teachers of the Law.  Along with the Sadducees, they formed the Judean "political parties" of Jesus' era.  Nicodemus asked what was necessary for salvation.  This time, Jesus responded with, "you must be born anew."  Nicodemus was considered one of the wisest of the Pharisee party, but he could not wrap his head around re-entering his mother's womb and starting the life process over.  Jesus ultimately became frustrated with Nicodemus' inability to get past the practicalities of knowledge and into the deeper wisdom of Truth.  My image is of Jesus throwing up his hands and saying, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and you do not understand these things?!...If I have told you about earthly things, and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you of heavenly things?"

In our age, we take great pride in how much we know, how many degrees we own, how many factoids we have ready to hurl at those with whom we disagree.  Nicodemus is a person with whom we might readily identify.

One of the things I don't like about living in Florida is the necessity of declaring one's political party affiliation as a prerequisite to eligibility to vote in a primary election.  One of the things I quit doing many years ago was defining my political ideology, and I did that based upon the automatic judgment from others that being a member of a political party invites.  My ideology simply isn't that "clean," meaning it depends on the issue or the particular political theory attached to an issue.  Yet, a huge amount of money and rhetoric is thrown into partisan politics.  Such terms as "doing battle" or "go to war" is common, and abusive, language in speaking of opposing ideological stances.  The arbitrary lines of being either "in" or "out" of these groups creates a duality that has great potential for a kind of near demonic possession.

It is highly unlikely that anything I say here will cause a shift in our currently toxic political and socio-economic rhetoric.  The division between wealth and relative poverty; the "hostage taking" involved in partisan legislative process; the cultural and racial biases that are much more obvious than folks will admit within our decisions on who is in and who is out (e.g. state voter registration); the constant finger pointing and abusive language within all classifications of social media; the extremes of dualistic thinking that leads to "all or nothing" and "win or lose" behavior....all of these paint a grim picture.  None of it reflects anything that I have experienced in my study of cultural and political history, regarding the hopes, dreams and intentions of our founders and those who articulated the great "American Experiment."

I am not, by nature, a cynic.  Nor am I, in any way, a "doomsday prophet."  Most of the time, I am both hopeful and optimistic.  Most of the time, I am simply able to ignore abusive language, paranoid rantings, and opinions that obviously lack grounding in thoughtful or well researched investigation.  My way of "doing business" has almost always included having some depth of knowledge or insight.  Because I am emotive in my personality type, I know that the first level of response to anything is going to be "from my gut."  With years of practice, I automatically do a "gut check" when faced with almost anything....and simply refrain from response until, and unless, I can apply my thought processes to the information being received.

I am not always successful in any of this.  A person shoves an RNC or DNC card in my face....I know that that person is feigning a blow (a boxing term...throwing a fake punch to distract an opponent and get them flustered).  That person is also insecure enough to believe that showing others that "I belong to this group" will somehow empower them; intimidate those who are not in that group; and set up some level of "I am in and you are out" rhetoric.

Actually, my response to someone, who "flashed" me with a political card, surprised them into speechlessness, when I pulled out my wallet and flashing my health insurance card.  I simply said, "I'm covered, are you?"

There is an emerging level of spirituality and healing that is bringing people together in ways not seen in our history.  I think the Great American Experiment will extend itself, but it will shift.  It will not be fully what it could be until we get our own house in order.  It means healing some very deep wounds:  with indigenous peoples and peoples of various ethnic and cultural origins who are part of the tapestry of life but still marginalized by fear, bigotry and negligence.  One essential component of any true democracy/republic is compassion.....the ability to "walk in solidarity with".... all creation.

Meanwhile, I practice the advice given in Desiderata:
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time. Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.          -- Max Ehrmann
(In the Public Domain, No copyright)

Love and Blessings!
Fr. Fred+

09 October 2013

A Journey Begins With.....

-- Claude Debussy, "Claire de Lune for Flute," featuring James Galway

Looking at the title of this reflection, the majority tendency might be to complete the sentence with the words, "A Single Step."  We have heard this any number of times, and it is part of the public domain of sayings.  However, it is not what I had in mind.  

I am suggesting that:  "A Journey Begins with a Possibility."

To take a step is to engage an action that purports a destination or intention.  While not a universal truth, most journeys have marked intentionality.  My thesis is that, before the first step is ever taken, one must go deep enough within to perceive a possibility from which...at a later time...a step can be taken whose destination may turn out to be very different than the possibility suggested.

I know.  Again, this might sound like some philosophical mumbo-jumbo.  It's okay.  Should you bear with me, I'll work though this a bit.

Hi, I Was A Rigorist

When I was doing graduate theological studies, I was in my mid-20s and had moved through a great many shifts and changes in the seven years leading up to entering seminary.  Our dad had died suddenly (heart attack) just two months prior to my graduating from high school.  I made a shift in college locations to be closer to home, so that I might be more present if our mom needed me.  After spending several years preparing for a potential medical career, I suddenly (and literally) awoke to the realization that I did not want to spend the rest of my life doing that.  A struggle ensued internally... and with my suddenly chaotic academic career...from which I emerged with the vocational track that I had least expected.  In fact, it was the farthest possible track from anything I had imagined in my life to that point.  

If that was not enough, the interlude (or creative three years) between college and graduate studies was occupied as an enlisted specialist in the U.S. Navy...doing the kind of work I would never had expected that I (of all people) would be doing.  Thus, when I found myself at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, WI (27 miles due west of Milwaukee), I had developed a highly managed style of being who I thought I was becoming.  Make sense?

In other words:  Being an Episcopal Priest surely meant that I had to be a very "put together" and disciplined practitioner of the theological and spiritual arts.  I took this emerging craft very seriously.

I embraced the fundamentals of biblical, theological, liturgical and prayer disciplines so tightly, that several of my classmates would quip, "you are such a rigorist."  I didn't take those words too seriously...until about ten years later.

In early December 1987, our mom died.  Her death was relatively sudden.  Three weeks earlier, she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Her death was from a pulmonary embolism that doctors believed originated in the area of the pancreas.  I was certainly not prepared for the avalanche of both emotions and resultant chaos of events that shattered my highly "disciplined" interiority.  In essence, I crashed.  With two exceptions, no one around me realized this was happening.

In all of that, I did manage to have the good sense to, a) have a very good spiritual director, b) talk with my bishop about my spin-out, and, c) seek help from a very gifted psychotherapist.  The latter actually was one of those Grace points that gets sent at just the right time.  

It was in the psychotherapist's office that a whole new journey began.  On my second visit, she was running a few minutes behind schedule.  As I waited, I was browsing their resource room, which was full of books and materials.   My therapist came to fetch me to her office and, as we ambled down the hall, she said, "When I entered the resource room to get you, you appeared to me like a solitary eagle...unsure of your destination or purpose."  Nothing more was said until we sat down in her office.

Her first question to me, in her office, was, "What do you most want to be in your life?"  To my utter shock and amazement, I blurted out this response:  "A saint!"  She was silent for a moment...a twinkle in her eye and head tilted in amusement.  "How is that working for you thus far?"  My second response was more of a surprise to me than the first: "Frankly, Marian, the whole thing sucks!"  (the exclamation marks in my responses correctly emphasize that I was both fast and forceful in those responses).  I was very close to tears in that moment.

I cannot rehearse the year that followed that office visit.  Several major events reshaped me from my core outward.  I had an encounter with the Holy that almost literally spun me around and shifted my internal orientation in a way that made my theologically rigorous style unworkable.  It reshaped how I prayed, how I studied, how I did my entire craft as a Christian and Priest.  The theophany type experiences (two) can't be described, but they were powerfully experienced...opening a door I never knew truly existed.  

Hi!  I Was Obsessive-Compulsive

I actually do not know which is more problematic:  being a rigorist or being obsessive-compulsive.  The latter is a term used by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known simply as the DSM with the edition number behind it.  The DSM5 has just been recently published).  What came out of my therapeutic journey was a clinical diagnosis of "mild OCD."  It manifests as anxiety regarding the ordering of my environment and having everything in proper order.  It's that low-level anxiety I spoke of in a former blog posting...like a nervous energy.  If one would look at my desk, one would not think OCD.  Look a bit deeper or know what projects I have going, and the drive for order, surety of accomplishment and having operational details fully arranged becomes obvious.

One of the effects of retirement is that I no longer have charge of a large system that engages a diverse and large number of people on several levels simultaneously.  My mild OCD made it possible for me to do that without generally seeming rushed or harried.  It was like the juggler spinning a row of plates on sticks.  I could do that in my vocational craft and make it appear relatively easy.

There is a toll exacted in ongoing obsessive activity.  Like an engine running at constant overdrive, parts will begin to deteriorate over time.  Even though I could have gone longer, something deep within clearly engaged me by saying, "Shift now!" The possibility emerged, and the journey began.  I retired.

Retirement is not a shift into neutral.  I suspect it could be for some.  We certainly have that image in our cultural imagination.  The Bishop of Southwest Florida (who has known me for about 30 years, and this being the diocese in which we now live) said this to me at lunch in early June, "I know you well enough that you simply can't park yourself on the sidelines..."   Though I hadn't given it much thought, I immediately knew he was correct.

Hi!  I Am Simply Me.

Remember the tune, "Me and My Shadow?"  Part of growth is recognizing that we have a "shadow self." It is that part of us capable of doing the things that we might normally find distasteful or ethically & morally objectionable.  For instance: speaking a lie, being hostile or angry, death wishes, cheating, stealing, etc.  If we are attempting to live a balanced and "upright" life, we may deny that those parts of us even exist.  If we are able to admit they exist, we may spend a huge amount of energy trying to will them into total submission.  We tell ourselves such things as, "I can't let myself think this way, or feel that way..."  Our definition of ordered spirituality may engage such methodology as "doing battle with my anger or prejudice."  Ultimately (and unfortunately), the more we try to do battle or deny even having these shadow parts of our self, the more they will literally sneak out and be projected onto others.

Observation exercise:  The next time you find yourself really angry with someone or casting judgement, try to stop long enough to observe where that is coming from.  Better than 90% of the time, it is something inside us that needs to be owned and really has little to do with anyone else (beyond the fact that we begin by disagreeing on some issue).

I have a very good friend with whom I talked at length via phone yesterday.  He has a lot of wisdom and experience.  We were simply catching up with each other...having not chatted for quite some time.  In the course of our conversation (covering many topics), he simply asked me, "Hey, Fred, have you been able to dance with your shadow self yet?"  Almost without thought, I responded, "You know what, I really have been able to do that.  It doesn't happen as often as I'd like, but, yep, we are getting to that place."

Earlier this year, from deep within, a possibility for a new experience of wholeness began to emerge.  The parts of me that I have found either most objectionable, or least attractive about myself, over my entire lifetime, began to simply pop up.  At first -- kind of like the "whack-a-mole" game -- I would try to knock them back into the subconscious.  For some reason, after a time, I simply invited them to come out and introduce themselves.  Just this morning, in the predawn quiet, I had an internal conversation with a person who caused me great pain in my junior high school years.  That included a conversation with a strong root of anger and self-esteem issues.  This went on for about 90 minutes.  Then, as I arose and made my first cup of coffee, I simply imaged all that and asked, "Care to dance?"  What had been a dark place in my life suddenly became much lighter.  I spent about five minutes simply laughing at the spectre.

If you read the New Testament, you will find a story in Luke of Jesus healing a group of lepers, telling them to go wash and show themselves to the priest to "certify" their healing.  One of them, who happened to be a Samaritan, recognized the possibility that this healing was much deeper than a skin disease.  He turned around, went back to Jesus and gave thanks to God for making him well.  To this, Jesus replied, "Weren't there nine of you?  Only you have returned....your faith has made you well."

In the original language, the first word for healing (making the skin well) is a different word than the one used for the Samaritan being made well.  That final healing was the knitting together of his True Self and making the Samaritan God Realized.

All journeys begin in possibility.  That is what puts the wind in the sails and motivates us to press forward toward a destination.  But the wind of the Spirit will bring shifts, and each new horizon a clearer sense of purpose.  This new time of life, for me, brings a new kind of wholeness and new possibilities for engaging creative energy.  Creation is still happening.  The Spirit still hovers.  Love is all around us.  Care to dance?

Love and Blessings,


06 October 2013


--Cosmic Voyage, Narrated by Morgan Freeman, IMAX/NASA

--Powers of Ten (1977), EamesOffice, LLC for IBM

Today (Sunday, 10/6/2013), I was asked to assist at St. Boniface Episcopal Church in their 9:00am liturgy.  It was a more than usual special today, because there were two baptisms as part of the Eucharistic rite.  The Rector, Fr. John Hall, presided at the portion of the worship that included the baptismal rite.  I was asked to preside at the Eucharistic rite itself (at the Altar), which goes to the end of the worship.  For whatever reason, I was aware of the special experience of both the space and the time of this worship.

I was also in for a surprise today.  The Rev. Charles Kiblinger, Episcopal Priest and retired faculty member at Virginia Theological Seminary began a four part adult forum series entitled, "The Gift of Life:  Its Mysteries and Responsibilities."  As a way of coming at his topic, he utilized the YouTube presentation of Powers of Ten, which is the second of the two links above.  I have added the first link, Cosmic Voyage, because it is an updated and technologically advanced version of the original.  Both are excellent and worthy of watching before going further.  Each YouTube presentation is about 9 minutes long.

Because I was already mentally and emotionally captured by the sense of space, being part of Charles' class caught me up in the wonder and awe of what space means.  Whether we step back in chunks of 10x from a 1 meter frame, or go inward in chunks of 10x magnification below skin level, there is an almost overwhelming sense of space.  It shifts one's perspective regarding how we fit in the scheme of things.

At "platform level" (our daily reality), we see ourselves as individuals, or units, within a particular environment.  Our frame of reference is based upon the input given us by our senses.  If all senses are in working order, I can, for instance, be a fair judge of my distance from an object or another person.  If one eye is not working, the lack of parallax will make it more difficult to determine depth distance.  If I can't smell, my capacity to taste and to experience that depth of my surroundings is diminished.  

At "platform level" I look up at night and see a panoply of stars, a few planets, perhaps the moon.  There is a sense of vastness -- especially on the Great Plains at night and away from any city lights -- when looking into the night sky, but there is so much I do not see by the limitation of my sensate capacities.

On the other side, if I experience a leg cramp while exercising, I can immediately feel the pain and, in many cases, see the muscle knotting under the skin.  In the morning, when I check my fasting blood glucose, I stick my finger with a special lance device and draw a drop of blood.  The strip that absorbs the drop will then give me a glucose level in mg/dl (milligrams/deciliter).  A good microscope might show those glucose molecules, but what about the insides of the red blood cells...the atoms that make the cells and the quarks that are the building blocks of protons and neutrons in the cell nucleus?  How about the center of a carbon atom within the double helix strand of a DNA molecule...the foundational substance of what formed us as a human being?

We are held together (literally) by forces at the atomic level.  While our bodies and objects appear and register as solid to our senses, there is actually a vast amount of space between those particles at submicroscopic levels (measured in angstroms).

The universe is held together by similar forces on a cosmic scale, which is ultimately measured in light years  -- each light year equaling the amount of space traveled by light in one year, or about 5.878625 trillion miles.  We have an extremely limited (if not impossible) capacity to grasp those distances and space.  Yet, they exist.  What is a human that anything beyond us should count us as significant?  Or, what is a human that the subatomic building blocks that make us should continue to do so with such reliability?

Yes, that is where my thoughts were going this morning.  Even the reading from the Gospel of Luke conspired to challenge me regarding space.  "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed...," said Jesus.  The kind of plant that Jesus used produces pods, inside which are seeds, each of which is no larger than a grain of standard table service pepper.  That's pretty small.  But, we are told that our capacity to trust something as vast as Divine Love starts at the level of something smaller than a grain of sand.

As Charles Kiblinger began is class this morning, he made an almost off-handed remark about his goal for the parishioners gathered in this session.  He said, "It is not the priest who does ministry.  The priest simply creates and holds the space where folks can experience God's Love and be equipped to accomplish what they have been ultimately created to do."

The profundity of that statement almost stunned me.  My work has been to make sacred space possible and to "hold" that space for others to engage a Love of immeasurable breadth.  What I experienced, as I entered the parish church this fine, fall, Florida morning, was a single "platform level" cellular community functioning in a manner for which it has been uniquely designed...as such spaces have been created since we first appeared as uniquely human.  I don't know about you, but the shear scope of that is daunting for me...and I have lived and moved in it for a fairly long time.

Perhaps because I am retired, I can step back from the intimacy of sacred space and see it on a more "macro" level.  Perhaps, also, because I am not fussing with the details of operation so much, I can catch glimpses of the more "micro" aspects of such space.  

Perhaps, because of my background in, and love of, science, I have very little problem engaging both science and spirituality as a single experience...without the boxes that have been called things like "evolution vs. creation."  Perhaps, because I came to experience the great expanse of Divine Love by going deep within, it has become more comfortable for me to expect to find vastness in very small spaces...and vice-versa.

So, we move at incredible speeds.  We rotate around an axis at about 1040 mph (at the equator).  We move around the sun at a mean velocity of 66,600 mph.  I will not even quote the speeds with which the solar system moves through the galaxy or that the galaxy hurls through space in universal expansion.  I won't even begin to describe how quantum physicists and cosmologists are beginning to understand our universe as something like a single cell.  My mind gets a bit achy when I do that kind of math.  

All this continually draws me back to the space I currently occupy and the time I am given to be in this space.  One of the great, but often overlooked lessons of biblical revelation is that I am but one very small part of a single cell called the human community.  My holding this space makes it possible for the cellular community to function at its most viable.  That is true for each of us.  Don't sell yourself short.  At the same time, don't try to expand your importance to override the essential function of others.  See the vastness of God's Love that rests in the deep interior core of your being.  Yet, see the smallest exterior space as an essential part of the universe.  Function in ways that enhance the capacity of others to function at their best.  Allow Divine Love to do the work...seeing yourself as the space through whom that love will work...if we simply invite our ego to step aside.

Science and Spirituality?  It occupies the same space and created with the same breath that brooded over the chaos in the beginning.

Love and Blessings,


27 September 2013

"What, Me Worry?" (Part II of the "Cancer & Society" posting)

Alfred E. Neuman, Mad Magazine
Harvey Kurtzman, Adaptation
Mad magazine has been around since the early 1950s.  For us Baby Boomers, it was something of a comic relief staple in the 1960s.  I may have explored every issue published between about 1965 and 1972.  Like many things, with growth and change, I moved on to other forms of finding levity in what was (as an adult) becoming a more complex world. The icon of the magazine was the image of Alfred E. Neuman...along with his motto, "What, Me Worry?"  The picture to the right is the cover of issue #30, December 1956.  As an aside, the price of this issue was $0.25 in 1956.  Amazon now has this issue available for collectors at $125.00.  Harvey Kurtzman was editor of Mad magazine from 1952-56 and "found" the image that would become the mascot/icon of the magazine.  It is said that the image was based on an actual person, but the fact of that may be lost to history.

For us humans, anxiety is the foundation emotion for almost all manifestations of the ego-self in our outer environment.  It is akin to a low level electrical current that keeps the system functioning in ways that insure cellular integrity and our capacity to engage all dimensions of our physical reality.  When all things are functioning in a "neutral" mode (read:  metabolic normal and all senses registering safety), we feel "at peace."  If we are triggered by a sudden thought that must lead to action or engagement on some level, the anxiety in the system rises to motivate the appropriate response activity.  Psychologists and neurologists call this normal anxiety function "eustress."

If our ego structure or physical nervous system registers that there is a threat to the system, the anxiety level can amp up to a level that has a number of hormonally engaged responses.  The most basic of these is the "fight-flight" response.  Safety is the first order of life business...insuring survival.  When the human system responds to this level of anxiety with sudden movement, genuine "worry" and other feelings and physical responses that keep us at a heightened "security alert" status, it is known as "distress."

In our evolutionary pattern, we humans were designed to experience distress for only short periods of time, and in the kind of energy packets that would meet immediate survival needs.  The overall affect/effect was not problematic and most always automatic.  However, as interpersonal relationship dynamics evolved (along with the emergence of stable societies) the periodic distress of hunter/gatherer was replaced by ego manufactured distress.  This kind of anxiety is more chronic and does not necessarily abate when things get to a place of overall safety and security.  Chronic anxiety in relational systems has to be acted upon in some manner.  Fears, phobias, projections, paranoia (inventing a foe that needs to be fought or fled from) and a host of other ego manifestations lead to actions that are designed to reduce the effects of heightened internal anxiety.

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, did not invent the little litany that Yoda shares in an early episode:  Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to destruction.  This progression is actually part of the "neural equation" of emotive progression in all humans experiencing a rise in anxiety.  The actual progression:  anxiety leads to fear; fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to destructive behavior.

The progression I just shared is a foundational element of Bowen Theory, which I reflected upon in my last blog posting.  Just the idea that every human on the planet does this may create some anxiety in, and of, itself.  Our lives, in this culture, are relatively safe -- compared to our ancestors.   We are not concerned about being another creature's lunch.  We can protect ourselves from the shifting elements.  Food is relatively easy to procure.  Our culture has laws in place that are designed to maintain our safety and security.  To the extent that all of this works, our anxiety levels should be fairly normal (i.e. "metabolic normal").  This, however, is far from the case.

The ego projections of anxiety I described above (paranoia, et.al.) are now normative in our cultural relationship fields.  We can make fun of them, ignore them or try to change them, but they do not go away.  Social Media has allowed high anxiety to become a 24/7 reality.  Think about any given day:  someone posts what they believe to be a sincere warning of impending danger to our security (e.g. Facebook is making our photographs available to the world).  Within hours, there can be a hugely intense "fight-flight" response.  Even after individuals have introduced data that assures such is not true, the anxiety (expressed as fear or paranoia) continues or rejuvenates for a long period of time.

Our society has learned to use anxiety as a marketing tool.  In the course of doing extensive research on diabetes, nutrition and healing, I have tapped websites that now send me daily "warnings" about the dangers of what I am eating, or what is lacking in my daily intake, or the supplement without which I am in danger of shortening my life.  We can begin to believe we don't have the latest breakthrough knowledge, because the anxiety surrounding our wellness has been manipulated by talented marketing folks.

This could go on into a lot of ways our anxiety remains amped.  Healthy individuation (i.e. optimal personal functioning in a relational field) requires one to be a "non-anxious presence."  We are not equipped simply to do this as an act of will.  It requires some tools.

1.  Internal Controls.  Imagine your your mind has some dials in it.  One dial is volume.  The inner voice, which is a function of ego structure, can be lowered.  Identify the origin of the voice's expressed anxiety.  Is it actually real (impending) or imagined (an idea or possibility)?  Sit with what is going on in your head and try to become the observer of the activity.  This takes some practice, because our ego doesn't want to be observed.  It wants to run things. Dial it down.

2.  Explore Data.  Most of what creates modern anxiety is couched in perceived distress.  The only way to neutralize most of this is with sound data.  If I am about to take a trip, and I have identified a level of anxiety as being generated by a fear of transportation problems, I do research and take responsible steps to address those fears.  The anxiety abates when I know the facts about what I need to do.  Assuming that what I see or receive is valid in our culture, without supporting data, invites anxiety to move into the domains of fear, paranoia, and misplaced anger.

3.  Be Flexible.  The biggest source of anxiety is transmitted in the need to be acceptable to others.  We want to be with the "right group."  We want to belong, but we become owned by that to which we believe we must belong.  To protect ourselves, we become rigid in our belief structures that guide/govern that group.  This rigidity is very much like the narrowing of an artery surrounding the heart.  It will eventually lead to dysfunction.  When a leader in a group begins to narrow the group's flexibility by touting a "party line," (either/or, all/nothing mentality), anxiety levels go up at a tremendous rate.  Everything outside that sphere of relationship becomes a threat to one's integrity (read: lifeway).  It takes diversity to make a true unity.

4.  Disengage.  "But, you said we are relational...disengage?!"  Just the descriptive word can make some folks anxious.  One can use a variety of terms that embrace disengagement.  My term is "contemplative mode."  Some might call it "prayer" or "meditation."  Most of the terminology carries anxiety producing responses for most folks.  Contemplative modality, for me, has no words.  I haven't prayed, internally, using words or formats in a pretty long time.  I do use "mantras," which are simply in the form of either a word, or a short phrase used to move from ego awareness to a place of relative silence...where the word or mantra dissipates.  In this place, I am free to be in my most elemental, created Self.  It is the least anxious stance we can attain.  Even 15 minutes is good to begin being non-anxious.  What I find, as a gift, upon completion of a contemplative time, are helpful insights to the things that may be producing anxiety in my functional, daily state.

5.  Abide.  The absolute hardest part about being a parish priest was living with the expectations that parishioners had for how I would function...on all levels.  It included such things as where we should live, where our children should go to school, what my political, social, professional affiliations should be.  Most folks want to create or remold their priest into their own image of "the perfect one."  For a long time, I labored under the premise that it just might be my job to be "all things to all people."  Real fact: This is impossible and can lead to a mental and emotional breakdown in time...a disintegration.  It is an invitation to lose all self-regulation or specialization as a unique human living in community.

What I have learned in my journey is that it is far more important and, in fact, vital that I abide in the level of function and with the tools I have been given to live this life.  It does not require that I be a card carrying anything.  My journey and place in community is only dependent upon the integrity with which I function in relationship.  To abide in a place that defines my "Self," and puts "self" (ego) in a properly balanced part of being, is the ultimate non-anxious space.

Do I get anxious?  For sure.  Do I get distressed?  Of course.  Do I get angry?  You bet.  However, as I continue to grow and shift, the anxiety, distress, and anger are no longer defining characteristics.  I don't have to be anyone but me.  And, when I show up, that's who is present.  Folks can define it any way they wish (and they try).  It's fine.  It's their story, and why should I bother trying to change it.  It's not my story.  The integrity of functioning is to do so with as little anxiety involved as possible and to speak the best truth I have at the time of speaking...being flexible enough to shift as I encounter new and more complete truth.  Abide.

Jeff Bridges,  The Dude
The Big Lebowski
Love and Blessings!


A number of friends in the Kansas City/Lee's Summit area began calling me "The Dude" when I grew my hair out during sabbatical in 2008 and again at retirement in 2011.  In sunglasses and with my goatee, I guess I reminded them of Jeff Bridges' character.  Tall cotton! eh?  

26 September 2013

Cancer and Society

Self-sufficiency is a delusion, a dangerous delusion.
We are all, to a degree, interdependent. It’s a fact of life. 
It’s true. And truth sets us free.
Truth opens the door to grace. 
Truth opens the door to blessing. Even if we cringe to hear it.
-Br. Mark Brown 

Of all the illnesses that affected the faith communities in my care, over 33 years of parish work, cancer was the most prevalent.  Cancer research is the largest area of medical investigation.  Much progress has been made over the past 25 years, but the rate and tenacity of cancer, in general, continues to dominate our society's medical energy.

This blog is not about the medical disease called cancer.  Cancer, however, is the model that has been used in other areas of behavioral, sociological and spiritual wellness.  I have said this before (numerous times, I think) that compartmental thinking is, in itself, a type of dysfunction.  To divide ourselves into smaller, systemic groups leads to the inevitability of our becoming unbalanced.  Such unbalance has rather far-reaching implications for our ability to attain the full measure of Self (as a total being) that we were created to experience and express.

This sounds like a mouthful of malarky.  Perhaps, 40 years ago, I was in that place of thinking such.  Science and religion were definitely two entirely separate entities, in my youthful, internal reality.  What I thought, how I felt, and what I did were three very separated functions.  At a particular point, around 1987, I came face-to-face with Reality in a way that I did not expect, and for which I was not prepared.  I cannot rehearse that story.  It did lead to a journey...one that continues.  It has morphed, as all authentic journeys do, but the process that the behavioral, sociological and theological disciplines call "integration" continues.

I sit on my lanai* this morning Tuesday, 9/24) and watch a progression of thunder storms roll in from over the Gulf of Mexico.  The rate of movement is inconsistent enough that clouds roll under one another as they move ashore.  This is not an isolated (compartmental) event.  A "cold" front is draped over Florida...having moved southwest from its origins in Canada.  Late last week, rain and storms affected long stretches of the central and eastern states.  With the Gulf providing a constant source of water, the unstable atmosphere ahead of this front has a great well-spring for generating storms that move from southwest to northeast along the front.

Watching this weather put me in mind of "systemic continuity," which is my term for the realization that all these storms didn't just arrive here for no reason.  We are simply the current locus of experience of a system that emerged in another part of the world and has morphed in its movement to be what it is for us in this moment.

It is a hard thing to wrap our heads around, but try:  Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens simply as an isolated event.  A point of origin, with a shift of some kind, creates a reality.  That reality has an affect on all reality around it...and beyond.   It's something like:  "a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the earth, and a breeze is experienced on the other side."

An over-simplified schema of how cancer happens:  Our cells are in a constant state of creating new cells.  All cells, in their maturing process, "specialize" to become the specific cells needed for the organ or part of the body it serves.  This usually happens with a genetically programmed clockwork that is super efficient.  Occasionally, however, after division, a new cell will fail to mature properly.  These cells are rogue cells and are haphazard in their continued development.  These are technically called "cancer" cells.  Normally, the body reads this anomaly, sends a group of cells called "T-cells" that work to flush the rogue cell from the body.

If, for some reason, the above flushing process doesn't work right, the rogue cell attaches itself to the host organ or body part and begins sending signals of "normality."  Research shows that perfectly healthy cells adjoining the rogue cell can begin to "act out" in ways that mimic the rogue's activity.  This is the beginning of a cancerous lesion and future tumor.

What I just described is a tremendously complex event/process.  What I have done is simply describe behavior observed in research studies.  One of the many questions asked in this behavior is, "What is it in the healthy cells that reacts to a rogue cells in ways that produces dysfunction and degeneration of normative process?"  Finding that answer is part of the "package" of knowing an eventual "cure."

Dr. Murray Bowen, an MD psychiatrist, began his research in family emotional process at Menninger Institute in 1946 (after an internship at Bellvue Hospital, NYC and a fellowship at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN).  In 1954, after 8 years at Menninger, he began work at the National Institute of Mental Health (Bethesda, MD), where he developed the framework for what became known as Bowen Theory.

In 1959, Dr. Bowen became the clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.  It was there that he founded the Family Center at Georgetown Medical School.  He still held that chair at Georgetown at his death in 1990 (at age 77).

As part of the Family Center, Dr. Bowen trained practitioners in family therapy.  One of his students was Rabbi Edwin Friedman.  Dr. Friedman developed a family practice in Bethesda, MD and, in his own research wrote the book, Generation to Generation:  Family Emotional Process in Church and Synagogue.  Dr. Friedman began working with clergy leadership in developing vocational skills for attaining congregations that reflected health and balance.  Both Bowen and Friedman began with the premise that, just as cells form the human body and function as a, usually, well-balanced system; so individuals in a biological family or any organizational group present the same innate capacity to function in ways that create a healthy and balanced relational field.

I came into direct contact with Bowen Theory when I read Dr. Friedman's book in early 1988 (it was a Christmas gift from a colleague).  It addressed a great deal of what I was finding problematic in working with parochial relationships and dysfunction.  Later in 1988, I was accepted into Dr. Friedman's "Post-Graduate Studies in Family Emotional Process" for clergy leaders.  I studied with Ed Friedman for eight years...until his untimely death in November 1996.  I continued to work with his Bowen trained faculty...on a more limited basis...until 2003.

I have utilized a lot of tools in the vocational work of parish ministry.  In terms of organizational leadership and the more clinical elements of pastoral care, nothing has served better than the tools of Bowen Theory and its applications in relational fields.  Primary to working in any system is the leader's own function in that system.  Here is where the cancer analogies are most useful.

1.  The leader in any system must have a healthy and balanced "self definition."  Internal regulation, ego function, emotional response and being in touch with one's own family of origin function/dysfunction are critical and continuous areas for being a viable catalyst for larger systemic health.  This is identical to the individual cell's healthy maturity and individuation process.  Dysfunction in those processes can create "rogue" dynamics.

2.  In the discreet dynamics of interpersonal relationships, one must know where "self" ends and "other" begins.  Something in healthy cells sometimes breaks down the boundary in contact with rogue cells.  In macro (person-to-person) relationships, the "acting out" of one person can shift the behavior of others who come into community contact.  Anxiety is a primary "dysfunction" in almost all humans.  When a person becomes anxious, he/she becomes reactive to anything that might either feed on or enhance that anxiety.  In a relational field, where boundaries are not healthy, anxiety can "amp up" to very high levels with the result of creating "tumor like" rogue functions in the larger relational system (a family, a congregation, a community, or an entire society).  Anxiety is the initial  "failure point" in further maturation.  Anxiety leads to fear.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to aggression on any number of levels.

3.  Being a "Non-Anxious Presence" is a quality of personal maturation that can diminish anxiety in the system.  In this work, however, Ed Friedman warned us of the "T-cell factor."  If the rogue cell(s) of the body has succeeded in disrupting the surrounding cells to the point that an undifferentiated mass (tumor) now exists, it is likely that the differentiated T-cells cannot neutralize the further affects/effects of tumor growth.  Non-anxious presence can, and does, neutralize anxiety in its early stages.  It requires a person to realize that the relatively anxious elements of the organism will attempt to sabotage the leader.  To the extent that others are functioning in a mature manner, the anxiety will have no place to "dig in" for further growth.  The anxious person(s) will either leave the system or begin a process of maturation.

4.  One of the more sublime elements of Bowen Theory is the individual drive and need to either win at all costs or to be right (correct) in ways that can be driven by forces other than those that seek the greatest functional health of the whole organism.  This is the part where, in Pauline theological analogy, "the eye cannot be the hand..."  Maturity and individuation does not lead to individualism.  The liver is absolutely essential to the well-being of a human body.  But, so is the heart, the brain, the pancreas, etc.  We can function at a satisfactory level without some parts, but, without those parts, other elements of the body must adapt in their specialization processes.  The great mistake of human community is to think that we are either, a) indispensible, or b) are the momentary incarnation of all truth.  If a liver gains the sense that the entire body must be a liver in order to be complete, dysfunction, degradation and disintegration will quickly follow.

For a number of years, I have experimented with how one functions in community.  I have been "measuring" phenomena regarding how anxiety is generated in a system.  In a sort of half-assed way, I have done this in the social media on a couple of occasions.  The latest one was last night (Wednesday, 9/25), when I posted a cartoon that had mostly no personal energy for me.  In fact, I decided to share it on my wall on a whim that it just might generate reactivity.  It did.  I removed the cartoon and shifted my self-regulatory stance to a place that was not neutral, but more conciliatory.  It created a different kind of reactivity (a measure of anxiety).

There are ways to enhance non-anxious function.  Next installment.

Love and Blessings,


[*Lanai:  a fancy name for a screen porch.  The term itself is Hawaiian in origin and was picked up by the construction and real estate folks to make having a screen porch seem more attractive to folks moving into places like south Florida.  Technically, a lanai is built into the structure rather than as an extension of it.  For the sake of what our condo association calls this space, I use the short term, "lanai."  For my fellow deep-south friends, yes, the damn thing is a screen porch.]

20 September 2013

The Price of Love

When I was a graduate student in seminary, I was singularly blessed by the friendship of The Rev. Russell G. Harding.  Father Harding was known to me simply as "Pop Harding."  He stood all of about 5'7" with a shock of white hair.  A bit rotund and with ruddy cheeks, he was almost always smiling.  I always saw him as someone who could easily have played the part of Santa Claus.

Pop Harding was retired from nearly 40 years of parish ministry in the Episcopal Church.  About 22 of those years he was Rector of a parish in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was very proud of the fact that, "A brewery built our church."  He and his wife decided to move south in retirement and made their home in my hometown of Winter Haven, Florida.  He worshiped in and often assisted for my home parish of St. Paul's...especially at the Friday morning Eucharist.  As a teenager, I often served as an acolyte at that liturgy during the summer or when Friday happened to be a school holiday.  I got to know Pop Harding, who always treated me something like a grandson.

I was away from St. Paul's a lot during college years and then totally for the two years I was overseas with the Navy.  Upon returning, I spent five months at home in Winter Haven preparing to transition into three years of studies at Nashotah House Theological Seminary (one of the, then, eleven seminaries in the Episcopal Church).  Pop Harding was still at St. Paul's, though it was a bit harder for him to get around.  His hips were in bad shape.  Nevertheless, Pop Harding was elated that I was heading to Nashotah.  He had graduated from that seminary nearly fifty years earlier.  He became very invested in how my formation as a future priest was taking shape.  Each time I would return to Winter Haven for a holiday visit, we would have lunch and talk for, sometimes, three hours.

Pop Harding was truly a man of deep prayer and quiet wisdom.  In spending time with me, he was actually being my spiritual director (a person who listens deeply and guides another's spiritual formation and journey).  He gave me much wise counsel and encouragement.  He was pivotal in keeping me in seminary during a five week period in my second year of studies, when I was struggling with vocation and considering leaving seminary.  Never forceful, Pop Harding spent quiet time on the telephone asking questions and sorting through the morass of my conflicted thoughts.  He didn't tell me what to do, but, in the end, he made it possible for me to determine what was truly important for me to do.  Obviously, I stayed.

In June 1978, I graduated from Nashotah with my Master's degree, completed my required "oral comp exams" for diocesan endorsement for ordination and prepared for being ordained on 29 June.  I had eight days at home between comps and ordination.   Pop Harding took me to a wonderful place for lunch.   Amid the jocularity of celebratory conversation, Pop got suddenly serious.  From across the table, he fixed me with a steady, blue-eyed stare and gravely stated, "I have only two pieces of advice for you, my friend.  First, remember who it is you serve as a priest.  If you ever go to the Altar and don't have a feeling deep inside of something akin to terror, leave immediately; for you are no longer connected to the reason you are there.  Second, never make close friends with your parishioners.  You will lose your objectivity and capacity to be their pastor."

I remember those words as if they were spoken yesterday.  I was ordained a Deacon on 29 June 1978 and a Priest on 29 December 1978.  The first Eucharist (Mass) at which I presided as Priest was on 31 December.   From that day to this...almost 35 years later...I have never gone to the Altar as the one presiding and not felt that deep inner sense of terror.  This terror isn't one of impending doom, or abject fear, or some kind of dark foreboding.   It is what Rudolf Otto described as the "mysterium tremendum" or "tremendous mystery" (Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto, 1917).  It is also known as "numinous dread" --- a deep, almost overwhelming awe at what is actually at work in that moment.   Hint:  it isn't about the Priest.  Pop Harding was saying that, if I wasn't in touch with that "awe-fullness," I was relying on my own ego and will-fullness. If I was there for me, I should not be in that position, where being a vessel of Grace is the practice (craft) of Presence.

Pop Harding's second counsel that day in June 1978 has been not so well kept by me.  In every parish I have been, as either Associate or Rector, I have made friends within the parish family.  Those experiences have been like two-edged swords.  I have remained close friends with several parishioners over the last 35 years.  Others, who were good friends and co-workers during my tenure, seemed to have dropped out of communication following my departure.  I have called that "friendship for a season."  On a few occasions, being a friend with a parishioner has led to deep pain and, in three cases, deep conflict.  Two of those situations were psycho-pathological.  It opened a door for the perceived friend to project deep anger and fear in very inappropriate ways.  One incident led to the Bishop having to take disciplinary action with the parishioner.  Another, led to strong action on the part of elected parish leadership with the parishioner.  The third led to an estrangement that has never been healed completely.

After sharing that, it is important for me to say that, while doing a vocational craft that deals with a lot of unseen ... but very real ... energy, it is essential to remain both a bit aloof and very neutral.  It is hard for the average parishioner to fully comprehend how that works, and there is always subtle manipulation being played in parochial interactions.  It is most often not even recognized.

Well, how have the persons with whom I have strong, ongoing friendships from parishes dealt with this?  The only insight I have is that the level of balance in these folks is such that, when in personal crisis, they see me as their priest.  When things are going well, they see me as a friend with whom they can have a coffee or a beer and talk sports or other pastimes of the day.

Now two years retired, my wife and I worship at St. Boniface, Siesta Key.  It is about five miles from our home.  Like Pop Harding (who died in 1986), I am now a "Retired Priest in Residence."  When called upon, I do liturgical, pastoral or teaching work in the parish.  I am also available to the larger diocese.  Now, I have the silver hair.  Unlike Pop Harding, I am tall and told I can be an "imposing figure" (whatever that means). Now, I am the guy who slips in with a briefcase, does the work needed, and slips out again.

I have never been able "not to love."  Nor, have I ever been able to "not be a friend."  I have been present in the tragedies of daily life and walked with those folks.  I have been present to more deaths, funerals, births and weddings than I can count.  I have worn clothing covered in tears, sweat and blood of those who have endured outrageous pain and injury....or experienced uncontainable joy.  When I have been able to get to a place alone, I have wept my own tears of pain and grief....or shear joy in someone's healing or transformation in life.

To be allowed into those spaces shared above is an act of tremendous trust.  It is foremost an act of love.  In that love there is friendship....both Divine Friendship and the spiritual friendship of people engaged in a journey...even a journey of only moments.  I have made friends...many, many friends.  I have lost friends.  I have been accepted and rejected.  It is the price of the kind of love that knows no distinction between self and other.  It is the space in which True Love dwells.  In that space, all manner of things will be well.

I am grateful for Father Russell G. "Pop" Harding...a true formation mentor for me.  His first piece of advice was absolutely "spot on."  The second piece of advice...well...let's simply say, I was led down a different road in my vocational journey.  It is the price of Love.

Love and Blessings,