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,


14 September 2013

Aimless Purpose

One would tend to think that retirement means suddenly having a lot of free time to do little...or nothing...as one might feel led.  One might think that the biggest occupation of a day might be, say, hitting the grocery store to stock up, spending an afternoon wandering through a library, or sipping coffee and reading at a Barnes & Noble, or simply reading a good book in a favorite home chair.  "Isn't the idea of retirement to be somewhat aimless?" I was recently asked.  The answer to that, from me, was, 'I don't really know, because I have never done this before...retire, that is.'

When I began planning to retire, it had not been on my list of things to do.  A couple of times, my wife and I talked about me perhaps retiring at age 63.  That was kind of out there from about the early part of the first decade of this new century.  For those who do not know about parish ministry, it is not really easy work.  Regardless of the size of the congregation, it is usually a rangy, diverse and an all too human environment.  I was the Rector (senior priest) in four congregations and the Associate in two congregations (right after seminary).  Stress in those environments is rather a constant, because being a parish priest requires more than just a graduate degree in theology.  It is one of the very few vocations remaining where one has to be a true "generalist."  One moves from one layer of specialization to another in a matter of moments, and multi-tasking is an expectation that is unspoken.

It was when my wife told me, on my 59th birthday, "If you want to retire early, I will totally support you doing it," that I suddenly heard the bell.  She wanted her husband to be alive beyond retirement.  It was also the only conversation like that before that moment.  It was four days later, on 4 December 2009, that my bishop and I had that conversation, and I made the decision.  Eighteen months later, on 30 June 2011, I retired.  Between those two dates, I worked as I always had worked.  I had only one dream, and that was to write a book that seemed to be emerging from my 2008 sabbatical project with the Lakota.  It was a project that continued to give new insights and energy.  Other than that, I had no ideas about what retirement might look or be like.

The decision to move to Sarasota, FL began being serious only two weeks prior to the date of my retirement.  Suddenly, the first year of actual retirement got very full.  Selling a house, buying a not-yet-built townhome, planning and executing a move, downsizing and, the real kink, the infection in my shoulder that meant four trips to Mayo Clinic and two major surgeries.  So, the first year of retirement was really just me doing a different kind of work.  Most all of my time was occupied with deadlines, decisions and lots of activity.  Oh, and did I mention that our younger daughter's wedding capped that first year of retirement?  Purpose?  Lots of it!

So, retired and living in Sarasota, Florida in a new townhome and only slightly shy of five miles from the Gulf of Mexico...a land of year round vacation-like atmosphere.  If aimless is the way of being retired, this is really a helluva good place to be aimless.  It is not necessary to maintain anything outside the inner walls of our home.  We have only about 2000 square feet of space to keep clean and organized.  I am five minutes from the fitness center, a major grocery store, Walgreen's Drug, a Starbucks, and I-75 going north or south. The Gulf of Mexico five miles west and the beauty of wild, old Florida that is Myakka River State Park eight miles east.  Sarasota is a good size and supports an incredible array of the arts.  Aimless?  Lots of opportunities here!

On a whim, we decided to spend this morning (Saturday) on one of the Siesta Key beaches.  That sounds kind of aimless, yes?  Well, there was a purpose.  It's like this:  The only people you see covered with sungrease and baking like hams in the sun all day are tourists...or the "seasonals."  There is a love/not-so-much love relationship with seasonal folks.  You know, the ones that have a summer home somewhere in the upper tier of the country and a winter home somewhere in the subtropical area of Florida (roughly a line west-to-east across Florida from just north of Tampa to Cocoa Beach.  Sarasota is one of the Suncoast destinations for "winter overs" (like an extended sleepover, but for senior kids).

We are both multi-generational native Floridians...yep, the real deal.  People who live here all the time mostly know that one does not grease up, drag enough food and equipment down on the beach to supply a small city, and spend an entire day in the sun.  Natives go to the beach in the mornings for a couple of hours of sun and surf.  Or, they go in the late afternoon for some sun, a swim and a sunset view.

This morning, we went to the beach with a purpose...to work on a bit more of a general tanned look before we take our first formal retirement trip to Belize at the end of next month.  It is a major birthday and anniversary trip (not my birthday...I leave it at that).  So, as we were lolling in the waters of the Gulf at mid-morning, it occurred to us that we were here for a purpose, when the design for going to the beach is one of those aimless pursuits.  It did strike us as odd.

Honestly, for me, retirement is nothing like I thought it might be.  I have always been a creature of purpose and planning.  I have a great education and lots of experience in areas really needed right now.  I am not a "sidelines" person.  I am having some real issues around not being able to do what I love and what has been my passion for nearly four decades of my life.

Honestly, my book dreams are in a barren space.  It hit me early this summer, after making a two-week trip to South Dakota for research and development of my thesis, that a week or two, here and there, will not suffice to do justice to this project.  The cost for that trip alone took two months to actually pay off.  I realized that, to do this without destroying a retirement income will take a grant or project income of some kind.  I had not prepared to face that inevitability.  Costs?  My best estimate is about $20K.  This is not easy for me to face for some reason.

Honestly, there is one thing I have gotten used to.  That is being able to structure my own days.  You see, it's not that I don't have anything to do.  I can fill a day pretty easily...and not by doing "retired things" about which folks tend to fantasize.  I do a lot of research, which means a lot of reading.  I practice writing (welcome to blogdom).  I have several quiet projects that I am doing...very much like being a consultant, but unpaid and not really "official."  I have friends here who think I am could be, perhaps, more available.  In all of this, I can construct my calendar in ways that spread things out and allow for some quality reflection time in the midst of the projects.  No bells, buzzers, lines at the office door, or incessant phone call returns.  And, no night meetings!  This last thing is huge.  I'm not a night person.  I am a morning person.  Long, complex and sometimes intense parish night meetings never grew on me.  My dream meeting:  7:00am to 8:30am.  In all my years, I had one group willing to do that, and we got a whole lot done.

I have created a classification for how I am attempting to construct retirement.  It is called "Aimless Purpose."  Each day has a series of activities or projects that have clear objectives.  Outside of certain pre-set appointments (e.g. a doctor, getting the car serviced, someone who has made an appointment for meeting), that series of activities has maximum flexibility.

Let's say, I want to spend some extra time in the morning doing contemplative prayer.  I delay my time at my study desk by thirty minutes or so.  I get an urge to go exercise at the fitness center at 11:00am rather than the usual 2:00pm, I move things around.  I want to take a break and go see a movie or go for a walk in one of our great parks, or take a ride to Anna Maria Island and sit on the pier for an hour, I can work harder to finish what I planned or, if it isn't urgent, re-plan it for another time.

'That's not very organized,' one might quip.  Exactly!  It is an exercise in a kind of spontaneity that has both structured objectives and ultimate flexibility:  Aimless Purpose!

You know something?  The Lakota have known about this a very long time.  They wouldn't call it "aimless purpose."  They simply call it life.  I have long admired their capacity to be totally "in the moment" of what they are doing...and getting it done.  Then, they move on to the next event or project.  It frustrates the stew out of non-First Nations folks.  We are clock watchers, multi-taskers and product slaves.  

Now, I come home from an appointment, put a leash on our dog and head down to the mailbox at the corner of our block.  I pause to look at the clouds.  I listen to the cicadas, the hawks and other creatures moving about.  I inhale the smell of newly mowed grass or the fresh scent following a summer afternoon rain. I decide that this trip won't simply be to the mailbox and back.  We are going around the block.  Then, I think I will finish what I started in the morning.

Today, I decided to write this blog post.  I made that decision while at the beach this morning.  There are a couple of other things that need doing.  They will, indeed, get done...but perhaps not today.  Aimless Purpose.

Much love,


06 September 2013

Breaking Good

"My only job is to be clear, like a hollow bone,
so that Spirit can work through me."
-- Frank Fools Crow (1890-1989), Oglala Lakota Spiritual Leader

For some reason, as I began this day, Frank Fools Crow came to mind.  While I never knew him personally, I have had a strong attraction to his life, his teaching -- both through two books he co-authored and others who did know him -- and his style of sharing his spiritual journey.  The quote above came to me from one of the two books written by Thomas E. Mails, a Lutheran Pastor, who became a close friend of Frank Fools Crow.  Both books are the products of conversations between the two (the books:  Fools Crow and Fools Crow: Wisdom and Power).  

In 1975, Frank Fools Crow was asked to give the convening prayer for the United States Senate.  This is a YouTube presentation of that prayer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOmX49_zMeg  

While on the Pine Ridge Reservation in June, I had the opportunity to meet Bette Black Elk O'Rourke, who is the great-granddaughter of Nicholas Black Elk -- the famed spiritual leader in the Oglala Lakota community.  He was Frank Fools Crow's uncle.  Black Elk was a cousin of Crazy Horse, so we are talking about a family steeped in the deep traditions of the Lakota People.  

For two hours on a Wednesday afternoon (6/12/2013) Bette shared stories of her family that seemed to come alive in the kitchen and dining area of her home in Manderson, on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Bette's stories did not simply relate geneological history.  As she reflected and shared photographs, she brought to life the power of love and deep integrity that most folks would miss, if simply thinking of Native American culture and history.  

Over the years, I have become vastly amused that we can so easily compartmentalize elements of our lives.  Dualism is the separating of things into such compartments so that we come to believe that something is either good or bad, for instance.  Dualistic thinking doesn't much allow for "shading" of things.  So, if I am good, and you are not like me, then you must be bad.  Now, inside the "good" box, there can be a state of "better" or "best," but they exist in that place of being like the person who sees him/her-self as "good."  The same gradients happen in the "bad" box (i.e. "worse" or "worst").

These boxes can get complicated.  If one is a Christian, it is very tempting (and an alarmingly regular way of thinking) to immediately classify those who are not Christian as something "not right"... or "bad".... or "flawed."  In whatever way we may choose, we both charge those different folks with most of the bad things that happen in the world, and we go to the kind of painful lengths to change those different into what we believe ourselves to be.  At its worst, it leads to the medieval practices of the Inquisition (torturing people until they capitulated to Christianity) or burned them (Catholics burning Protestants and vice-versa).  In our own history, it can be seen in the genocidal practices that almost annihilated our indigenous nations.  

I am picking on Christianity, because I am part of that tradition.  History, however, is replete with examples of this happening in all religious traditions....as well as all political and cultural groupings.  

If one reads and carefully reflects upon the words of the prayer that Frank Fools Crow prayed before the U.S. Senate in 1975, one of the features of Lakota life (and all Indigenous spirituality that I have studied) is the seamless way of experiencing all things.  Wakan-Tanka (God) is the source of all that is.  Our life comes from the Mother (earth....the Island).  There is a unity in that experience.  Life and Death are not separate experiences but simply a shift in the way of being.  There is no word for either "evil" or "sin" in the Lakota language (or the several others I have explored).  The wrong that happens springs from unwise choices and a disconnect from one's being centered in Spirit.  [If one reads the Hebrew book of Genesis in its original language, the moment we call "original sin" is translated "turning away"...a poor choice having been made]

Just this week, I was asked to  spend time with a young man who had made a couple of unwise choices.  To escape personal pain of loss, he went to a country in South America and found himself among a group who promised to heal him of his pain.  He was told that the elixir he was given to drink would relax him and bring him balance.  It did way more than that.  In the end, he escaped that group by running away....but only after they told him that they were in control of his mind and his soul.  In essence, they had infested him with demons.  He was referred to me by a priest, who knows something of my background in spiritual direction and my work with the Lakota People.  This young man was convinced that only a Yuwipi Man (special spiritual craft in Lakota community) could heal him.  [NB:  "Medicine" in Lakota is about spirituality, rites, ceremonies and healing of the deep inner self.  It is a broad term with specific spiritual gifts]

There is no doubt that a Lakota Medicine Man could re-integrate this young man.  However, one does not simply show up, and spiritual leadership in the Lakota community is one of humility and integrity...no advertisement, resumes or "shingles" hanging out.  It would be irresponsible of me to send this guy packing off to South Dakota in the near psychotic state that confronted me.

The details of this encounter are confidential.  It was long and deeply involved.  My point in sharing it at all is two-fold:  1)  any accomplishment of healing was not an act of my will or because of any special "power" that I possess; 2) the process was that of synthesizing what had been so badly separated in his fear, that it had taken on an identity he was convinced was not part of him.   

The use and abuse of power is as old as our earliest human ancestors.  The ego is determined to exercise control of our internal and external environments; and when it does not happen, power can be abused in ways that are only limited by imagination.  No need to rehearse this.  In its most twisted form, abuse of power diminishes others -- often to the point of death -- and is devoid of light (i.e. seems very dark and oppressive).  Abuse of power is born of fear and casts fear into others.  It can be most insidious.  Frank Fools Crow said, "my job is to be clear, like a hollow bone..."  True Power has only one definition:  Love.  Love is not something we manufacture.  It is a gift.  It is also at the very core of our nature.   We are created from that core of Love.  It is the first principle of Life.

Mind and spirit are not two separate entities within us.  It is a finely woven tapestry that has a continuity of vitality.  If, for whatever reason, we become convinced that there is separation, that dualism creates what St. Paul called "war in our members."  In that struggle, what is basic to our being....Light and Goodness....can be forgotten, or displaced.  What my tradition calls "salvation" is actually a process of "being made whole" or "healed" or "synthesized." (the latter word is a modern description of the ancient practice of the desert monks of early Christianity, who gave counsel and prayer to those who sought them).  

The young man, with whom I spent time, began a process.  By the time we parted, he was relaxed.  His eyes were steady and clear.  He even gave me a smile.  He said that it seemed like a light had been turned on in his head.  I asked him if it illuminated any demons.  "No, just me hiding in a corner."  Yep, it is possible to be convinced that within us, "there be dragons."  Somehow, I think he will be just fine.

We are created to "Break Good."  If we can first love ourselves, it takes minimal effort to love others.  When we connect with Divine Love, we see love in all that is created.  The earth is Mother, and we are grounded in her and formed of her as uniquely human (again, a Genesis image).  The energy that moves through us and animates us is a gift.  We are vessels of light.

Keep Breaking Good!