A couple of days ago, I took three engineering notebooks of a shelf in my home office and threw them in the trash. These three notebooks represented three years of my life as a computer professional. I thought I could put those notebooks in the trash in some casual sort of way and was surprised when it hurt. The hurt continued as I emptied out the shelves of my home office of all computer manuals and reference books. I opened a vein and put some of my life-blood into the carpet of the various computer jobs I worked on down through the last thirty years. That’s as it should be. I haven’t seen anyone do a job really well without being passionate about their work. But it’s surprisingly hard to let go. It seems pretty obvious why it should be hard to let go. Such knowledge doesn’t make the process any easier. The letting go needs to happen in my heart.
When a person’s life makes a radical change in direction, it’s almost always painful. All the things (like the need for computer books) change. All the relationships change. Even a primary relationship such as between my wife and I will change. 2014 brought the kind of radical change that I would normally expect to be painful.
In 2014 I was allowed to grow into a preaching ministry at the jail. This ministry started out with me praying for David as he preached. That part of the ministry continues. David is a really good preacher. I would support him however I can. Next, there was a very simple music ministry. The simple music ministry grew into a full blown music ministry. On group of inmates eventually began to come to the chapel service asking me if I had brought a new song for them to try out. In the meantime, I was preaching every third Sunday. I’m preaching because David, my ministry partner and the lead in this ministry wants me to preach. David has heard some of my sermons. He wonders where I have got the stuff that I preach. David doesn’t object to what I have to say. He just finds my sermons spiritually curious.
I look forward to 2015. David and I have come to an agreement that I would preach every other Sunday. 2015 will also be interesting because the inmate group we have been ministering to has been moved to a new housing unit. We’ve been ministering to the same group of men for about nine months. 2015 brings a new group of men to our ministry – and with that change a large opportunity for new spiritual blessings.
So, with the unexpected twinge from the computer notebooks, 2014 has been a year of profound blessings.
A good friend of mine says “excuses are like elbows, everyone has some”.
My jail ministry requires me to preach, on average, once a month. Right now, it takes most of the month to come up with a rational presentation. I was an adjunct professor for a while. I taught somewhere between fifteen and twenty different IT courses. Public speaking isn’t the problem. I’m having some difficulty finding what it is I exactly want to say to the inmates.
I do a lot of ‘off-line’ thinking. When I understand better what I’m doing, it shouldn’t take so much time.
I once had a pastor who was having some carpentry work done in his house.When lunch time came, he invited the carpenters into kitchen to eat lunch.One of the carpenters asked my pastor what it was he did all day long.My pastor replied that he did some praying, an occasional pastoral visit, some studying and he prepared the sermon for next Sunday’s service.
There was a pause. The carpenter said “So, you don’t really have a job”.
February and March both saw work on an essay about the Blessed Virgin. That essay turned out to be very personal and strange to the point of unbelievability. What I have to say about the Blessed Virgin needs to come up one level of abstraction from personal to something more publicly acceptable.
I think there is a missing component to our Christian worship. We lack an understanding of the feminine face of God. There is a very logical, rational explanation for this lack. The early Christian church adopted the administrative model of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was a patriarchy. William Massy, the famous Biblical scholar, says that the Roman Empire was originally held together by force of arms. The force capabilities of the Roman Empire began to degrade in the second and third centuries right at the same time Christianity was on the rise. At the end of the third century, Christianity had created a unity in the Roman Empire that the force of arms could not create.
In the Roman Empire women were chattel. The existence of female leadership in the first century church was expunged from the scriptures and from the historical record as Christians tried to fit in to the Roman society. It was enough for Christians to have an unusual belief without also having an unusual administrative structure.
I once knew a bishop who was fond of saying ‘hierarchical structures are inimical to the gospel message’. That’s a really strange thing for a bishop to say. But ultimately it is true. I don’t like hierarchical systems but I’m not quite ready to give up bishops. The Baptist church of my high school years split because the head of the board of deacons decided to fire the pastor. Baptists eschew hierarchical systems. There are at least twenty different kinds of Baptist. If you want to count the barking dog kind of Baptists there are probably about fifty different kinds.
The Baptist experience and other with similar non-hierarchical structures tell us we still need bishops. I wish it weren’t so. It seems to me we’re waiting for an expanded human consciousness. I hope and pray that change comes in my lifetime. When the human race does take the next step upwards, the reality of the Kingdom of God isn’t going to seem so strange.
Several more months have passed without anything written here.
The reason that’s happened is that I’ve been putting a lot of energy into the jail ministry. I’ve been visiting the Lower Buckeye Jail with another jail minister. My partner is a fantastic preacher. I do my best to teach the inmates how to have a deeper Christian life. My partner who preaches likes my efforts. It seems my teaching sets a context for his preaching. That context setting takes a burden off the person who preaches.
I’ve been to the jail four times now. The first time I observed and prayed. My deepest interest continues to be teaching. I’ve been talking with my ASM supervisor about what I want to teach and after one of these discussions she said she understood what I was trying to accomplish – she thought I wanted to teach discipleship. My supervisor hit the nail on the head.
The strange but true fact is that I’ve been working as a novice counselor in the Third Order the Society of St. Francis for twenty-five years. I’ve counseled approximately seventy-five people. Novice counselors teach Christian discipleship. We are experts in ascetical discipline. And as you would expect, all the T.S.S.F. novice counselors live life under a rule.
I’m feeling my way at the jail toward a definite connection with the inmates. One of the salient facts of the jail is that the recidivism rate is 65%. My instinct is that this number caused the inmates to try and think of ways to not come back to jail – ways that didn’t involve putting Christ first in their lives. I have a ways to go before I can interest them in a life in Christ as an alternative to whatever solution they have presently in mind.
I heard mention of a Bible study group in the 4th Avenue Jail that lacks a teacher. I’ve volunteered for that position. My supervisor at ASM has said she would talk to the chaplain at that jail to see what could be done.
The last several months have slipped through my fingers with little to show for them written here. John Lennon says “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. I did write an essay on open commensality that my editor didn’t approve. I’m not willing to go against her best judgment. It did take a while to figure out what to say about this strange subject that so captured my attention.
I’ve been looking into a prison ministry – as in “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “ (Matthew Chapter 25)
One of the last computer jobs I had before I retired was in the building that is one block south of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous Fourth Avenue Jail. This jail does the intake processing for all offenses committed in Maricopa County that aren’t processed elsewhere by City courts. The Maricopa County Superior Court is one of the largest court systems in the United States.
The Fourth Avenue Jail is also the largest wellspring of human misery I’ve ever encountered. Sheriff Joe believes that people who go to jail should be punished. The Fourth Avenue Jail is the first place where people who are going to be punished find out what that punishment looks like. Understand that a person who is arrested goes to the Fourth Avenue Jail, innocence or guilt is determined later in court. My own experience with the Fourth Avenue Jail was walking by it to get to the express bus out of downtown Phoenix. By the second day of my six week contract in the building south of the Jail, I was searching out paths to the express bus stop that included as little time as possible next to the one block sized building that is the Fourth Avenue Jail.
My search for a jail ministry has brought me to an existing ministry called ‘Along Side Ministries’ (ASM). This ministry focuses on a Christian prison transition ministry. The recidivism rate for people coming out of prison in Arizona is between 65 and 70 percent. The recidivism rate for people coming out of the ASM transition program is 10 percent.
ASM will train me to visit people in prison. They do visit the Fourth Avenue Jail. I can’t fix all the problems with the jail system. I can visit people who are in jail and try to lessen the impact of that very difficult situation.
Going forward I have jail ministry training and I want to write some stories about the Blessed Virgin Mary. That’s an interesting combination.
My cardiologist has given me permission to live life to the fullest (for the next year). By which I mean I don’t have to go see him until a year has passed.
T’ai Chi continues to be the kind of challenge everyone is looking for, but few seem to find.
This last essay on the commonweal was very difficult to write. The subject didn’t have a story line. It just had a large number of inter-related ideas.
I’ve been in contact with a Muslim friend. It looks like he and I will co-author an essay on the Five Pillars of Islam. As I was telling my Muslim friend, we can either talk about our differences or fight over them. It seems Christian and Muslim fundamentalists both want this fight. I think a world war between Christians and Muslims would be the end of life on planet Earth. So, we need to talk. We really need to talk.
I feel as if I’ve recovered my physical strength and endurance back to the level it was before the open heart operation. I go see the cardiologist for an eighteen month post-op checkup the first week in June. I expect he will be happy with my progress.
I figured out, for the third time in twenty years, that I have to do T’ai Chi every day if I want to improve. So I’ve taken up that challenge once again. I once had a teacher who said if I miss one day’s practice, I can see the effect. If I miss two day’s practice, my teacher can see the effect. If I miss three days practice, everyone can see the effect.
My T’ai Chi teacher tells me to stand up straight. But, there’s a little bit more to it just than standing up straight. T’ai Chi is based on Wu Ji, the standing posture. The student is supposed to stand with feet shoulders width apart, knees bent and back straight. And then the student is supposed to relax and breathe from an area of the abdomen three finger widths below the navel.
The ‘relax’ part is almost impossible. My muscles tense up. I have to repeatedly, intentionally relax them. My left hip is up about a half an inch higher than my right hip. My right shoulder is about three-quarters of an inch lower than my left shoulder. I have some work to do here.
Advanced students are expected to be able to hold the standing position for at least an hour. I have some work to do in that area, too.
My Lord wants me to stand up straight. He wants me to “measure up to the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4). My Lady assures me that she will heal every wound and that one of these days I will be able to stand as I should.
Here’s a link to my T’ai Chi teacher’s web page.
John Lennon once said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. That statement does a good job of explaining why I haven’t published anything for about eighteen months. I had open heart surgery right at the end of December 2011. The whole of 2012 was spent on one kind of recovery or another.
About a month before my operation, I was meditating. This is something I do regularly. I use a yoga style of meditation that is centered around chakra work and pranayamic breathing. My meditation practice usually brings me to a place where I feel spiritually connected.
My meditation space has icons of St. Francis and St. Mary. It seems as if they have always been there in my meditation space. I’ve only been a Franciscan since 1980, so that can’t be true. Anyway, in this state of heightened spiritual awareness, I looked over at the Icon of St. Mary and she said ‘Hello, Andrew’. I had never looked at the icon of St. Mary in that way and I was shocked. It’s probably more accurate to say shocked and disturbed.
The first serious mystical experience I had at the age of twenty was very difficult. One way of describing that experience is that my personality got rebuilt from the ground up. I’ve been meditating ever since, but I’ve done my best to avoid any more mystical experiences. If I sound conflicted, I was. I meditate because that’s who I am – as a result of that first experience. I’m trying to do the meditation thing and avoid any more painful, difficult, life transforming experiences. Such a spiritual position doesn’t really make sense. I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to have a visit from the Blessed Virgin.
In some distress, I called my friend Geshe Jampa at the Emaho Center. I told him what had happened with the Blessed Virgin and asked for help. My reasoning was that if I had had a teacher when I had my first mystical experience, I wouldn’t have suffered so much. Geshe-la was completely willing to help me. I went to visit him, but before we could really engage on my issues, he went back to India to the Tibetan center in Dharamshala . And, I had open heart surgery.
I need to digress here and explain the relationship between the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) and the female spiritual presence that talked to me through the icon of the BVM in my meditation space. Roman Catholics (mostly) and Episcopalians have put limitations on the BVM. It’s as if they would say she’s only SO big and can only do SO much. The woman who spoke to me and who continues to interact with me has no such limits. Perhaps ‘My Lady’ is an appropriate title for her.
Back to the open heart surgery. I didn’t have a heart attack. I was in very good health when I had the operation. I only had two bypasses. That part went very well. The next four days in the hospital recovering from the surgery were very difficult. I couldn’t sleep. I was having strange dreams that would wake me up with a start. (When you’ve had open heart surgery, that’s not the way you want to wake up).
A recurring dream that was somewhat pleasant was of My Lady offering me healing. She always had some kind of pink liquid that effervesced. She wanted me to submerge myself in the liquid. She wanted me to at least sit in this jacuzzi-like pool. Finally, she offered me a tankard of the liquid to drink. I reluctantly declined all these offers. I was basing my refusal on my previous mystical experience. My Lady persisted and eventually I breathed in the bubbles coming off the tankard full of pink bubbly liquid she gave me. She looked at me and said ‘I can work with that’. My physical healing began to turn toward the positive at that point. One of the very strange things that happened at this point was that the surgeon said that I ‘needed to go home so that I could get better’.
At home I slept in a recliner chair for the first four weeks. A more accurate description is that I lived in a recliner chair for the first four weeks. My physical healing continued. I had the goal of matching the pre-surgery kind of effort I put into my private T’ai Chi exercise. Eventually, I got back to that level.
On the spiritual side of things, Geshe-la came back from India. About the time he came back from India I felt able to resume my pranayamic journey. My Lady had continued to work with me, continued to heal me. When I went back to see Geshe-la, I was mostly comfortable with My Lady’s presence in my life. Geshe-la encouraged me to proceed with the pranayamic work that would invite My Lady into my heart and soul in it’s totality. I did that work and My Lady and I are on very good terms.
My Lady does think I’m a funny guy. As near as I can figure, her amusement at my efforts come from the various agendas I take up from time to time. I have good ideas. I can see good results if I implement those ideas. This is what she thinks is funny. None of my plans have any validity compared to what she has planned for me. After inviting her into my heart and soul, I don’t really have a choice when she wants me to do something. Life is very interesting. And John is right. It’s what happens while you’re making other plans.
St. Francis Holds out His Hand
I think I have something useful to say about St. Francis. I even started to write that essay and didn’t get very far because what I have to say lacked the context of a life lived with a spiritual focus. Here is the context that was missing from that future essay.
I had been meditating for about twelve years when I ran into the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis (TSSF). The TSSF is a religious community in the Episcopal Church. TSSF has provinces in all the places the Anglican Communion exists. The overall estimate of membership in the TSSF is about 2,500 souls. Generally speaking, the TSSF is the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Third Order Secular Franciscans. TSSF members live life under a rule and have jobs, homes and families.
The TSSF rule of life is made up of nine different sections, each section pointed to a spiritual virtue or discipline. Within each of the nine sections there is often a minimal requirement. Sometimes the requirement is left to the member entirely. In any case all nine sections of the rule have to be addressed in a prayerful, considerate way. At the end of the process of writing a rule of life and living that rule, the TSSF member has effectively chosen his or her own particular remedies to whatever spiritual opportunities present themselves in the member’s life.
A local TSSF group is called a Fellowship. My local fellowship met a my local parish, due to an association they had with my assistant pastor. I was stunned. For the first time I met a group of people who obviously had a shared prayer life and who weren’t monks in a monastery. I asked to join their group. I was told to write a letter of inquiry to an address in Long Island, New York and given general instructions on how the process of becoming a member of the TSSF would play out. I recall saying ‘No, I want to join up right now, right here’.
I did go through the regular, normal process for joining TSSF. I wrote a rule of life according to the guidelines presented by the Order and began to live that rule. After six months of postulancy and two years of novitiate, I was life professed in 1982. That’s the official minimum description of the process to become a TSSF. There are at least two major hidden features of this process that everyone who becomes a TSSF also encounters.
First of all, its very, very difficult to be the kind of hopeless radical Christian that I was going into the TSSF novitiate. My meditation practices using yoga had put me into a very strange spiritual reality. The guidelines for writing a rule of life require the TSSF postulant to undertake steps that result in spiritual mental health. The rule of life balances and protects a person’s soul from dangerous ext reams.
Secondly, I went to TSSF Fellowship meetings. In these meetings I met people who were professed members who were even stranger than I was. I explained how strange (and special) I was to these wonderful people and they said ‘so’? It was impossible for me to be that ‘special spiritual person’ that I considered myself to be in this community environment. The TSSF saved me – they brought me in out of the cold.
I didn’t join TSSF for Franciscan reasons. I joined because I was looking for a common spiritual discipline and a common prayer life. I received those two blessings and many other wonderful things besides. Fellowship meetings are usually spent discussing Franciscan goals and values. This discussion has an almost infinite dimension in terms of content because we are discussing spiritual virtues and how to implement a spiritual virtue in a practical, down to earth kind of way. Spiritual virtues are multidimensional. What may be a practical application of Franciscan Simplicity for one person won’t work for another person. But, as each person shares what Franciscan Simplicity means a larger picture emerges. It’s easy to see why St. Francis wanted his followers to live simple lives. In the presence of the larger picture of Franciscan Simplicity, some people find ways to change their rule of life that produces more effective spiritual results.
I didn’t join TSSF because I was fascinated with St. Francis (that’s the other main reason people join). But there was no way to avoid being captured by St. Francis’ life and witness. I’ve read numerous books about St. Francis and continue to try to explain the complex spiritual realities that are Franciscan goals and values to my brothers and sisters in the Order and generally to anybody else that will listen.
St. Francis died more than 800 years ago. His life and witness has reached out and touched me across all those centuries.
Way back when
My father made a career of the Army. This choice of career put several negative constraints on my early life. I was in nine different elementary schools in the first eight grades, two of those schools being in Germany. I’ve moved several times since I left home to go to college and every time I swear I’ll never move again. Another unfortunate result of being an ‘Army brat’ is that all the dependents of an Army officer are de facto members of the service. If a dependent has a serious behavior problem, the service can reduce the officer’s rank. Everyone behaved wonderfully well, all the time.
My father’s last tour of duty was at the University of Illinois, teaching R.O.T.C. The University of Illinois has a very fine high school, which is used as laboratory school by the U. of I. Department of Education. When I attended University High, the main focus of the instructional laboratory work was in mathematics. I had five years of mathematics in four years of high school.
The opportunity presented by such fine mathematical instruction was lost on me. I enjoy theoretical mathematics but couldn’t bring myself to endure the shear boredom found in practice problems. It is difficult to proceed in mathematics if you don’t do your homework. English class, specifically the English Literature we studied at University High, was another matter.
Looking back at my high school English class, I realize that it was in our literature discussions that I learned how to do systems analysis. The literature discussions were the standard fair you find in any class on literature. The students all read a book or story and then there is a discussion in which the students try to create a metaphor that explains all the philosophical, theological, sociological … (pick your heavyweight content container) presented in the story. Usually the teacher/professor referees.
The thing that was different about my English Literature class was that it was held at University High. The students at University High had to achieve a certain score on an I.Q. test to be admitted. My contemporaries didn’t do sex, drugs and rock and roll as is found in most public high schools. One of the ways we entertained ourselves was to strive to have the most outrageous explanatory metaphor of whatever story we were currently studying. Woe to the student who presented a metaphor that didn’t fit
or cover all the facts. Whenever a student presented a metaphorical explanation, all the other students would immediately and furiously strive to think of a fact not covered – to destroy the metaphoric explanation. In short, literary criticism at University High was a blood sport.
I went to college and got a degree in English Literature. I thought I was going to be an ordained minister. For many reasons, that didn’t work out. It took a long time for me to realize that this was the wrong path. My spiritual director says that anyone who has a deep spiritual connection will find immense frustration in the ordained ministry. He’s undoubtedly right.
The reason I thought the ordained ministry was for me is that I had a mystical experience in the middle of my sophomore year of college. I had been brought up a Christian fundamentalist. I went to a college that was supposed to be a ‘liberal’ Christian fundamentalist college. I’ve since come to understand that liberal and fundamentalist don’t go together very well. I had gone to the ‘liberal’ Christian fundamentalist college looking for the ultimate reality of fundamentalist belief. What I found is that philosophy that separates everything into black and white categories and then labels those categories as true and false. I had encountered this philosophy before but had never seriously considered that it could possibly be the fundamentalist final answer for all life’s serious questions.
I felt like I had been lied to, like I’d been lied to about God. Some of the anger I felt was pointed internally. I had been very happy in the fundamentalist community of believers without ever seriously investigating what they believed. Most of the anger was directed outward, toward fundamentalists in general and toward the reality of God itself, a reality that I was beginning to doubt.
I had made a friend of one of my classmates. My friend, Jim, was a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. He meditated regularly and studied Hindu scriptures. He had been to California to study with Swami Prabhabananda. As I looked with new eyes at the people around me, Jim was the only person who seemed to have a different answer to the God question. I went to see Jim and demanded that he teach me how to mediate. Jim didn’t want to be a religious teacher of any type. Jim would normally do his best to dodge such a request, but I guess he could see I was desperate. Jim just told me two things about meditation – how to sit and how to breathe.
My first experience of meditation was very difficult. I pretty much demanded that God show up or else. What I got was an experience of The Abyss. As those things go, The Abyss is a representation of ultimate reality – but it’s a very unpleasant reality to intimately experience. My meditation produced the results that I was looking for, but my efforts to integrate this new reality into my life were very difficult. I persevered. I read Hindu scriptures. I read Christian mystics. And, I stepped sideways, ninety degrees from the spiritual path that I had been walking. This wasn’t a simple intellectual assent to the reality I found. I did my best to move all of me—body, mind and spirit—to that new reality.
I did what Jim called Raja Yoga for about six months. At that time I switched to Hatha Yoga because I couldn’t stand to reach out and touch The Abyss any longer. Hatha Yoga let me do Yoga without meditating – this was a ruse that I used to insulate myself from The Abyss. The truth is that within every Hatha Yoga pose there is a ‘world navel’ reality. The world navel leads to the ultimate reality. I would say ‘yes’ to the world navel and ignore the rest of what was going on. After about a year of Hatha Yoga, I added meditation back into my yoga practice and had several profoundly peaceful mystical experiences. I’ve been meditating ever since.
I have remained a Christian. That may sound strange with all the serious work I did in Hinduism. My Christian journey is another part of the ninety degree departure from where I was previously. The weekend after I first meditated, I went to the local Episcopal church. I wanted a church that had sacraments. That requirement left me with the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox church and the Episcopal church. I needed room to explore the new spiritual dimension of my life. The Roman church has a history of sending professed mystics to monastic communities where they live a cloistered life. The Eastern Orthodox church is more flexible about mystical experiences but was culturally very different from anything I had known.