30 August 2013

The Cutting Room Floor

"Some day, after we have mastered the winds, the waves, the tides,
 and gravity...we shall harness the energies of love.
Then, for the second time in the history of the world,
 man will have discovered fire."
--Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955:  French Jesuit Priest, philosopher and theologian, also trained as a           paleontologist & geologist; from The Phenomenon of Man)

I have been re-reading a book I purchased in 2010 through the Alban Institute -- a research and resource organization for the Church.  The title:  Know Your Story and Lead with It:  The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership, by Richard Hester & Kelli Walker-Jones (2009; Alban Institute Publications).  Though retired from active parish ministry, this book affected me deeply and helped shape my style of presentation for the last 1.5 years of parish leadership prior to retirement.  It was one of those "chance" purchases and, ultimately, a book I decided to keep during the "great purge" of my professional library (going from 900+ books to about 150 that I now retain).

In this phase of my life, I have left behind the intensity that is the daily parochial and organizational elements of Episcopal Church struggles over issues.  There is a lot of judgmental rhetoric and dualistic thinking in the organizational element of any group.  One does not generally expect it in the Church; but, as one wise theologian once quipped:  "There is no more secular environment in the human community than the Church." (NB:  anytime I use the term, "Church," I mean the Church universal.  I will specify, when I speak only of my own tradition, which is the Episcopal Church).  

This, however, is not a rant about what I have left behind in retirement.  It is a reflection on two levels:  What I seem to be becoming in this phase of life; What about the "gaps" in my, or any, story?

All of us who have any sort of career maintain a resume of some type.  In the Episcopal Church, for instance, we have two types:  the personal "paper" resume and the electronic/digital deployment online resume available only to those with a need (in a search process, for instance).  A resume tells a summary story of where we come from; what level of education/training we have had; what employment positions we have held; what our goals and vision may be in our vocational journey.   The key word here is summary.  A resume only highlights a person through one particular lens.  A resume, in no way, says anything about the whole of one's life and experiences.

This is also true in the emergence and saturation of social media worldwide.  A typical Facebook or LinkedIn posting is a literal split-second "photo" of what a person is thinking or experiencing.  It is even more limited in its descriptive scope than a typical resume.  The content of social media expressions is very different from a resume insomuch as social media allows for expression of  "emotion in print" and opinion without necessary objectivity (resumes strive to be totally objective in presentation, e.g. I earned a BA from the University of Florida in 1972....period).

What is left out of a resume, or social media expressions, or even in casual group/personal interaction are the myriad experiences, thoughts, joys, fears, anxieties, successes, failures, grief and triumph that "flesh out" our full personality and character.  Each human being has an internal gyroscope...a balancing element of being that centers us and expresses itself as Self.  It is a combination of core character and ego structure.  Some folks call it the "moral compass," but I find that a bit limiting.  At the core of all human life is a fundamental being that is, by its very nature, good.  It is formed in love.  The ego, which is formed as we move from birth into an environment of relationships, is the voice that we normally associate with our reality.  However, it is only the adjunct to the central reality of Self.  In living our lives, it is the content of this inner dialogue that is missing from both us telling our own story, as well as the story others have in experiencing us.

Those missing elements of our journey are like the pieces of a film that have been created.  Pre-digital film making meant shooting a lot of movie scenes to create the narrative envisioned by both the writer and director of the movie.  Once all the scenes were on film, the editing crew went to work to cut scenes and enhance other scenes to produce a final movie product that met both time and narrative limitations.  The pieces of the movie that had been cut were consigned (in movie making language) to "the cutting room floor."
At some point, if the movie had achieved success, there might be a second release advertising, "never before seen footage"... respliced scenes that had been cut before first viewing.

In the digital age, this is all done very differently, but the concept is still the same.  It is simply a seamless stream, with the unwanted portions of the original filming either deleted or archived.

Life, as human beings in community, is different.  We cannot cut out unwanted material.  We are in a continuous and constant flow of engagement...even in sleep.  We have "scenes" that we classify as "mistakes" or "triumphs."  There are things we say or do that we would rather no one else ever know.  We  have experiences that are either so distressing or disruptive that we bury them deeply in our unconscious so that we, ourselves, don't remember them.  Nevertheless, all these things are there.  They simply are not part of the narrative story that we share.  If we were to write an autobiography that detailed every moment of our lives, we would, for certain, come to places where we would say, "leave that chapter out" -- hoping to permanently consign it to the "cutting room floor."

Another facet of this is the story that we have about others.  I want to share an example.  All names have been removed for obvious reasons.

I have a colleague friend who arrived at a parish church to begin a new ministry.  As all congregations do, his new congregation had an identity by virtue of its history and ministry styles.  At the first meeting of the wider community of clergy, this person was received well by most.   My friend was from another part of the country and not familiar with the diocese we were in.  To the amazement of many, there was a group who had already developed a "story" about the parish who, after introduction, launched into my friend with words like, "we know what kind of person you are and what you believe."  

I did not know what to think of this moment of characterization of a relatively unknown individual.  Not knowing much of this person's deeper story, I arranged a time, over lunch, where we could share our deeper stories.  My intent was to listen to my friend's story without either judgment or rejoinder.  What emerged over the two-hour period was a vast amount of experiences that painted a picture hugely different than the pre-fabricated story based upon heresay or corporate identification.  And, still, this is not nearly the whole story.

Our opinions and judgments about persons in the larger environment are more often shaped by conjecture, innuendo, a "snap shot" by someone who has had a brief encounter, or by the "expertise" of those whom we have given some level of authority.  Cable television news journalism is overwhelmingly a series of either diatribes or "opinion editorials" without benefit of personal knowledge or deeper stories of anyone featured in a presentation.  I do not know the inner workings of any of the persons in either the White House administration or either chamber of Congress.  I personally know only one Congressman.  We have been friends for about 10 years, and I have had the pleasure of having lunches, coffees and other times of sharing thoughts, experiences and life stories.  But even with that depth, I am not in a place of tagging him with motives or characterizations.

Our culture is currently in a relatively unhealthy place.  We've been captured by dualistic thinking for most of  the last two millennia (perhaps far longer), so this is not new.  Dualism comes down to someone winning and, therefore, someone losing; someone good, and, therefore, someone bad;  someone left, and, therefore, someone right.  All of these dichotomies are fabrications based largely on supposition that anything different from our own experiences must, somehow, be flawed.  There are folks close to me, for instance, who feel compelled to find mistakes or flaws in anything I place into public discourse.  In dualistic environments, folks find it incredibly difficult to to simply accept differences.

In this phase of my life, my internal balance is more and more dependent upon finding homeostasis in the larger system.  In every parish that I led over 31 years, it was important to insure that all persons who entered the doors for worship felt both safe and welcomed (I was not the lead priest the first four years of ordained life).  Now, in retirement, this seems even more important.  Even if my ego wants to say, "this person has the wackiest ____(politics, theology, social behavior, attitude, etc) I can imagine," my earnest endeavor is to ask questions, actively listen (without creating a story internally as a form of judgment or rebuttal) and find common ground in our deeper experiences.  It was a gift that Martin Luther King, Jr. had that made the cause of Civil Rights the transformational shift it has been in our culture.  He could tell his story -- his experience of both spiritual and emotional depth -- in ways that ignited the possibilities for a "color blind" society.  Are we there yet?  Of course not.  There are still pre-fabricated stories and ego driven prejudices that cast judgment on those who are different.

Truly, we who are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist cannot even tell our personal stories, or our foundational faith stories, to each other in our own traditions in the space of Love -- much less speak our stories to one another across the lines of these major traditions.  An increasingly larger number of people are trying, but this is a slow, agonizing and painful process.

My blog is, in large measure, an attempt to reclaim some of my story that has been consigned to the cutting room floor and present a clearer, more accurate presentation of Self --- the more "uncut" version.  It's a risk, but I value integrity of character over the judgment of others.  I don't know how much time in this phase of life I have before me, but it will not be defined by dualistic diatribes, snap judgments, or type-casting based upon race, ethnicity, heritage, gender, socio-economic status, or political ideology.  Life, as I face it, is truly too short for that.  We are meant for much more than that...to be sure.

Love and Blessings,

Fr. Fred+


  1. Thanks for sharing some of the unedited parts of Fred and for joining me for parts of our journey.

  2. Wise words and good counsel mi hermano.