Faith Development versus Christian Education

One of the greatest gifts I received was coming back to Emory from my sojourn working in a psychiatric hospital in Louisville and having the blessing of finding a mentor.

His name was James Fowler, Jim, who had been stolen away from Harvard by our dean, and then president, Jim Laney. Fowler’s genius had intuited his theory of faith development through listening to stories told around the “campfire” by ministers who were in retreat mode at a gathering hosted by Carlyle Marney. From that experience, Fowler applied the structural developmental theory of Piaget and Kohlberg and extended it into the human phenomena of faith, that is, how we construct a world of meaning out of our lives.

I latched onto Jim and he onto me. We were both too young for a mentoring relationship. He was looking for a son to carry on the family business, and I was looking for a daddy, something I figured out in two years of psychoanalysis. We would disappoint one another profoundly, but reconcile over long neck beers at the Country Tavern in Kilgore, Texas. We transcended teacher/student relationship and forged a friendship as we went into the end of his life.

Recently, I was on a Roman Catholic website and saw the course description of a parish, entitled Faith Development, as opposed to the way most churches denote the activity, Christian Education. It was a moment of insight, nothing new for me, but a re-minder of a truth Jim taught me long ago.

Christian education typically revolves around the task of transferring knowledge to a recipient. The image of opening up the head of a person, pouring in information from a cereal box full of knowledge is what comes to mind. You learn about the Bible, Old and New Testament, Church History, Theology, and the traditions of liturgy, in some churches. There’s nothing wrong with this knowledge transfer as it builds up your familiarity with the tradition of the religion in which you find yourself. But….., there’s a big “but”.

BUT, the more important piece is the training of how to BE. How do you “faith it” in the world? In faith development, we thought of faith as a verb. How do you live your life in alignment with the world view your community of faith is founded upon and exercising? How do you make this thing real in the moments of your life? Where do you learn to live your life in faith? How might one, in reality, develop that faith?

When I took a sabbatical from the Christian religion and explored the spiritual genius of the Tibetan Buddhists, I was surprised to find their teaching and instruction advanced in terms of the pragmatics in how one lives life. They have their well developed theories and concepts about how the world is structured, how we are intended to live and flourish in it, but the main gig is how do you “live it” in the world. As the Dalai Lama is fond to say, compassion is my religion. How do I treat others?

I can’t help but think that in the world we live in today, especially in this country, we are in need of some of those basic lessons on how we treat one another with compassion. Rather than framing our world in adversarial terms, where there are only winners and losers, a world bifurcated into a duality of right and wrong, it might be time to spend some time studying how we treat one another with respect and dignity, in a word, compassion. Rather than voting people off our island, we might discover ways of inclusion and embrace. Radical idea?…..it didn’t used to be.

And where do we go to develop that faith?

Politics? Come on now. There is no more public square where dialogue is promoted, nor even allowed. Truth telling has been outlawed in certain camps.

Education? It is defined by the task of differentiation in the halls I grew up in.

Media, electronic, social, and print? It may be the most divided and isolated arena we have.

Religion? It has become all about who agrees with my biases and prejudices, not seeking the Truth. And perhaps it’s the last place to learn about how to be compassionate.

Is there any way to change this? On this particular morning, I am not feeling all that optimistic. The democracy that I was taught and trained in is in tattered pieces, flying at half mast. We barely made it through the past election, with an insurrection that was promulgated by disinformation, made virulent with social media. Our country was attacked, violently, and our democratic process threatened. And the best we can do is talk about The Big Lie, when treason is at its heart. Lies have become our way of life, shame has left the building with Elvis.

We may be at the end of our time, after all, democracy is an experiment in our world history, a great one, but an experiment. Authoritarianism has been the option that folks who get tired of the messiness of democracy default to. CONTROL had become the coin of the realm. If you listen carefully, you can hear the drumbeat of “order” brought by a “strong man” pulsing on the horizon, whereas Spirit seems the ghost of a distant time. Loyalty to party seems to trump any commitment to Truth, and yes, I know what I did. And when that happens, where you gonna turn? Who you gonna call….ghostbusters? The cynicism of Bill Murray’s character seems to be emerging in me.

Is it possible for us to use this hellacious time to learn to be compassionate? We literally seem to be living in two separate universes, where truth is up for grabs. I have grown weary with the reminder that everyone can have their own opinion….but you can not have your own facts. In our country, the facts are twisted and turned to “fit” the argument being forwarded. In such a landscape, it is hard to see how we move beyond the split we seem to be wedged between.

My friend and fellow priest, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, has pushed the notion of creative interchange that exists in this Creation. It is our ability, our vocation, to interact with one another in order to produce creative ideas that will better our common life. The creative interchange process is based on the differences we bring to the dance, and in engaging with one another, we come away with a better grasp of the reality we are in.

There’s just one thing, one problem. The creative interchange process is predicated by the trust we have in one another. My observation is that we are fresh out of that, and bananas. To take it a step further, and more plainly, we have a heaping helping full of mistrust, looking for, expecting bad things from what we deem as “the other side”.

Is there anything to be done? A wave of hope crashed onto my brain to remind me of my first principle: never give up. (Thanks, Coach Valvano!)

I was reminded a a Buddhist image of the bodhisattva, a person who has achieved enlightenment, and is committed to being compassionate to others. In that tradition, the gateway to becoming more compassionate toward others is to begin with the practical focus on generosity. By practicing the attitude of gratitude for the giftedness of life, it is believed that it will transform the lens through which one sees the world.

As opposed to the lens of scarcity, in which one grabs what you can, seeing the world as a competitive field in which the endgame is “winner take all”, one takes the radical stance that the field is a shared space, where we all share in the abundance, freedom, and energy. This practice trains one to see the world with a different slant, a perspective that fills one’s soul, not blocks others by contempt.

The person of Jesus is viewed by Christians as an icon to that way of being in the world. Jesus becomes a way to see into this radical notion of the Kingdom of God, where all persons have dignity and worth due to the immutable reality of being a child of God. Worth comes with the territory as part of being a human, not something that is earned by wealth, power, or position. Jesus shows us what living our of such a radical notion looks like in flesh and blood.

While the traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions vary in the words they use and the stories they tell, the common denominator is that of compassion. Learning to practice that compassion begins in the maternal relationship, as the mother natively sees the child as their focus of attention, moving one’s attention from self concern to the “other”, in this case, one’s child. It’s the native, biological connection that drives this ability to transcend separation, to see the self in the other who has literally emerged from one’s own body. But that is not necessarily the end of such connective capacity.

This “mother’s love” is the primary human model of care and love, but can be extended to those beyond one’s natural family, to the “other” who shares space with you, in the neighborhood, at one’s business, or in the community. With practice, one is called to extend this unconditional regard to ALL people. But let’s start where we are.

Who are the people in your inner circle? Write down their names on a sheet of paper. Then, write down some notes as to their current situation in life. What are their current challenges? Can you imagine you way into seeing what their hopes and dreams are? Allow your mind, heart, and soul to reflect on each person, bringing into one’s mind the image of their face. What images, feelings emerge? And now, write down how you might extend compassion to this particular person in the near future. And then, commit to that action.

By practicing compassion with those in your inner circle, you are intentionally exercising that compassion muscle, literally training it for the work ahead.

The Buddhist practice then asks you to extend this focus to neutral beings, those with whom you interact on a daily basis in a social exchange. When I was practicing this method, I focused on the owner of the dry cleaning shop that I would see at least twice a week. I imagined his life, how his day goes, what his concerns might be, Am I 100% accurate in my assessment? Clearly not. But I am a hell of a lot closer to having compassion for him as a fellow human being than I was before my practice of focus. I found myself treating him differently, seeing him as a human, not just a utilitarian part of my day. A lot to ask? I don’t thing so, but that’s your call.

The heavy life is the next request. One is asked to bring to mind one’s enemy. Now, for me, this part is not hard. Several names leap into my consciousness. The trick is to do the perspective-taking of this “other” that is in opposition to you. What are the internal feelings, drives, wants, fears that makes them the way they are? What’s behind their words? Can you imagine what their world is like and why they do what they do? This is hard work, but the necessary work we are going to need to do if we want to move beyond the demonization and the contempt that exists in our current world. Again, the ball is in your court as to your willingness to do this hard work of compassion.

I want to try to exercise my faith by learning to practice the art of compassion with people who differ with my view of the world. I admit that my patience wears thin at times but I am committed to keep trying, so that we might find ways to engage that is respectful and compassionate. It’s a tall order, but the alternative is literally a dead end.

Our current world holds the other in contempt, cuts them out of the herd. What is your answer?

That Old SOB Can Shoot

Part of my spiritual discipline these days is sitting out back of my home here on St. Simons Island which is set in a nature preserve, just over from the Mackay River.

There, I am treated to an extravaganza of birds. I have two chickadees nesting in the church birdhouse my daughter gave me for Christmas, that my new son-in-law installed.

There are a pair of cardinals that hang at my bird feeder, gorgeous birds that make me think of my mother, who taught biology at Fulton High School, the Cardinals their team name. She had a particular affection for those birds and I like to think her spirit is visiting me in the moment. Certainly her memory does.

There are numerous other birds that come visiting me daily. Wrens, finches, sparrows,, a brown thrasher, and a red-bellied woodpecker. A hawk actually surprised me by landing of the top of a feeder hook, and asked me what time it was. Hummingbirds are a special gift as their flight pattern amazes. Part of my developing Franciscan spirituality has prompted my close attention to their habits and eccentricities, and to receive the gift of their presence reminding me of my connection to God’s Creation.

Today, my attention was snagged by two doves that have made the pine straw patch their home. They will land, with a steep vertical descent, and then proceed to walk around with their odd Chuck Berry strut, making their way around the patch, though I am not hearing any lyrics of Johnny B. Good. With any sudden movement within their presence, they take off with a mighty stroke of their wings. No wonder the church has used the image of a dove to personify the movement of the Spirit, coming and going quickly, and as it will.

When I see a dove, several images come to mind.

One is of a trip my friend, Wayne Brown, and I made to find and purchase a Labrador retriever puppy, driving from Tyler, Texas to outside Memphis, Tennessee. There was a breeder there who specialized in the English stock of Labs, with more laid back demeanors and the traditional blocky heads that I prefer. Notably, I wanted to see how the breeder handled his dogs, humanely or not. We wound up not being impressed with the man or the dogs, which meant it was a hell of a long way to travel for disappointment, but better to find out up front.

Wayne came from a Texas family tied to pointing dogs. His father had bred national champions, two winding up the Bird Dog “Hall of Fame”, Texas Squire and Texas Fight. The hall is located in Grand Junction, Tennessee where the national championship is held each year on the famed Ames Plantation. Wayne and I rented a cabin once we arrived and sat on a deck overlooking a pastoral hillside. Two bucks treated us to an loud antler fight around dusk. as we partook of Dixie dew, otherwise known as bourbon. Wayne also introduced me to a Texas treat of cream cheese covered with a Jamaican sauce named PickaPeppa. It will set you free! It was a good evening of friendship, stories, and nature.

On the way there and back, Wayne and I quizzed each other as to the birds we saw. Our biggest dispute came over identification of doves. Wayne had claimed that several birds on telephone wires were doves, to which I had to correct him that they were, in fact, common pigeons. We spent untold hours kidding each other about our ornithological expertise….even to this day. So when I see these doves, I am prompted to call Wayne or send him a picture by text, just trying to help this poor Texas boy out. And I get a peculiar hankering for PickaPeppa.

But the strongest memory of doves come from the Southern tradition of dove hunts. The opening day of dove season is always around Labor Day, meaning that the heat and humidity of summer was still in full bloom. “Sweat” is a word that springs to my mind whenever someone mentions “opening day” of dove season.

Typically, this event signals the end of summer and the momentous move toward hunting season in the South. In my world, we would gather with over a hundred people, men mostly, at some hunting preserve. In my case, it was Burnt Pine Plantation, located outside of Madison, Georgia, not far from the quaint spot in the road known as Social Circle. Bay, the camp cook, would render some of the best Southern cooking for this itchy group of bird hunters. After a leisurely meal, we would be taken to the field to positions that are assigned in a drawing.

The social time prior to the hunt was a major piece of the gig. I was usually hosted by my good friend from the Cathedral, John Miner. John often would invite a few other folks to the festivities, sometimes his clients and other times friends. It was always a treat to be with a group of compatible fellows. Rob Townes was often a part of our posse, a good seminary friend of mine who decided to get honest and just out right raise money from people. The 50-cent word he uses is “development” but it’s all about the money. And Pat Renn, a financial planner, would come, often with hunting outfits that were straight from the Orvis catalog, looking like a field-dressed Brooks Brothers model. We had us what they call in Texas “a time”.

One time in particular, John and I were at the opening day festivities by ourselves. John had suffered a stroke and although he recovered mostly, he had lost some of his peripheral vision. He was concerned that he would be unable to pick up the rapidly darting dove, follow them with his shotgun, and make the shot. As long as I had known John, he had been a remarkable shot as we tackled quail, pheasant, and turkey. I could sense his anxiety at being in the field for the first time after his stroke and wondering if he could still function. He had an uneasy look on his face that was new to my old friend.

The draw put us in spots near one another in the field so that I could see him and keep an eye on him. The action was fast and furious, as the dove began to fly, screaming across the field, beginning from a line of trees to our left. The birds were flying quickly across the field to our right, John being in the first position from where they were coming.

There were a raft of other hunters strewn on down the field. The problem for those guys was that John picked up on the birds so quickly with deadly aim, so much so that the birds never made it past John, leaving these young hunters never even getting a shot. You could tell that they were frustrated and wondering if this was going to be a bad day for their hunting dreams.

Fortunately for them, John got his limit of birds quickly which meant he would “retire” from the dove field, going back to the club house for some adult libations. As John gathered up his birds and begin to walk to the van to take us back, I overheard one of the young hunters exclaim, “Man, that old son of a bitch can shoot!” His friend agreed, using a rather derogatory phrase aimed at this elder marksman.

When John and I got back to the clubhouse, I was able to tell the story in front of the crowd, with John listening and grinning. I don’t think I had ever seen John smile as wide as that day. He smiled all the way back to Atlanta, and had that same grin when I saw him at the 8 AM Eucharist the next morning at the Cathedral. He made a point to remind me of the appellation that young man had conferred upon him….again with a grin.

It’s odd that the dove in my backyard were the prompters of memories from so long ago. The cooing birds no longer need fear me from hunting them, other than with my Canon camera or my phone sneaking a peep. They have transformed into a symbol, linking me to a memory and relationships that filled my life with a sense of abundance and connection. Wayne and John are two of the connections that I made that were clearly worth the price I paid.

As I am doing my Eriksonian life review work, I find myself remembering those relationships that form a broad mix of memories from my past. In last week’s article, I mentioned a number of palettes on which the colors of my life were blended and found expression in my experience through the various locales that formed my moveable playground. I have been impressed with the blessings of so many remarkable people who have been so generous with their love and energy. Names like John Miner flood my mind when I count those blessings of people I have been fortunate enough to meet along the long trail of my life.

Here’s an idea, not novel or ingenuous, but timely. As we are just a few weeks from summer, why not make a list of those folks in your life story that have made a difference. Then, during the lull of the summer, make a time to place a strategic phone call to check in and tell them how much they meant to you. It’s an easy task, and yields so much benefit to the person that you call. And, as the Dalai Lama talks about in his teachings, it becomes a case of being “intelligently selfish”. I love his ironic twist:

“If you like to be selfish, you should do it in an intelligent way, The stupid way to be selfish is seeking happiness for ourselves alone, The Intelligent way to be selfish is to work for the the welfare of others.” By being compassionate to others, you are, in fact, receiving a sense of well-being and making meaningful connections with other human beings who share this planet. So by calling up others, and thanking them for their contribution to your life, you not only make them feel good, but you are receiving a benefit yourself.

Think about how you might exercise compassion in this next week, in the next day, in the next hour. Do something good for someone, and then pause and check out how it makes you feel. There is a dynamic that occurs with compassion and I am betting you will receive an internal gift by your action.

That’s what happened when I told my friend, John, about what these good ol’ boys said. That’s what happened when I made a few calls to old friends this week. They felt good about my recognition of their gift to my life. But I got a good feeling for this human interaction as well.

I think that is what they call a “win-win”. “Intelligent selfishness”. Compassion. Or just good old care, being a friend.

It’s Just the Price I Pay

If I have learned anything, it is that there is a price to everything.

I used to measure that cost in terms of money. What does it cost me? Can I afford it?

Later, becoming more aware of a limited amount of the energy that I have within, I measured it in terms of how much energy something consumed. Is this worth the expenditure of energy?

And now as I age, and more aware of the limit of the time I have, I am finding myself deciding whether something is worth my time.

Bottom line, everything has a price: money, energy, or time.

How do you count the cost? What is the most important factor in determining the price you are willing to pay?

Recently, I have been reflective on the price I am paying on some specific things, namely on the things I care about, that I am pouring myself out for.

I have differentiated three areas in which to focus: person, parent, and passion.

As a parent, it is perhaps the most easily discerned as I see this as my primary responsibility that I have taken on. And, as a human being living in the world, my passions are those projects or causes that I have chosen to invest my time and energy in.

Let me turn in this week’s article with Person.

Relationship is that thing one invests in as you go through life. There are the “given” relationships that come with the territory, such a parents and other relatives. These relationships, by nature, are not chosen. Sometimes, you can’t believe how blessed you are in the relatives that you gifted with at birth. And, sometimes…..not so much.

I want to focus this week on the personal relationships that are chosen, starting back in the neighborhoods you grow up in, in schools where you begin life and figure out who you are, businesses that you interact with while doing life, institutions in which we live, move, and have our being. I have particularly been reviewing the relationships I had in my early life, of playing sandlot ball, afternoons on the golf course, riding bikes in the woods, lazy days at the pool.

I am shocked at how many deep, vibrant memories that swirl when I take time to remember. Last week, I was thinking back on my days in an elective class in urban geography at Briarwood High School in East Point, Georgia… my home town, found strangely, not east, but in South Atlanta. I could not remember the first name of the teacher, Mr. Cason, so I did the current American thing: I googled him. It took me down the rabbit hole into the cyber cavern of data. To my surprise, I came across a site that listed about a decade of students, faculty, and staff from my high school. I found the information I sought: his name was “Bob” Cason. But there was so much more. Senior pictures for five classes prior to my graduation, and probably ten classes beyond.

The site contained the “senior” pictures, collated for a reunion site for Briarwood, my high school that no longer exists except in our hearts and minds. The photo images prompted memories of people that had receded in my mind. As I perused the photos, smiles seem to resurrect as I would remember important exchanges that had formed my thinking and being. And yet, the years had put distance to the relationships that simply faded the value in my “now”. I have kept up with a few, in fact, taking pains to do so. But most are lost in a blur.

And there are pictures of the faculty, the teachers and coaches that made such an important impact on me. There were those specific teachers who seemed to invest time and energy in me as a developing person. Marie Day, the librarian who introduced me to her godfather, Dr. Benjamin Mays, and opened up the whole hall of African American scholarship and literature. Miss Plant (Audrey), in the office, who was from the central casting of Designing Women, who authorized my late passes to Padgett’s class, and was quick to pass along the latest gossip….those wacky teachers! Becky Hinkle, who captured my adolescent hormonal attention, with her enthusiasm for literature and her Katherine Ross looks. And Phil Hood, whose coolness made it okay to be smart and inquisitive. When I review my list of teachers and their fossilized photos, I am filled with gratitude for the investment that they placed in me.

At the same time I am struck by the notation on my class pictures of the red-lettered “Deceased”. I have noted the flood of friends who died between our graduation day (held in the infamous Municipal Auditorium that housed Live Atlanta Wrestling, iconic rock concerts that tuned my ear, the Atlanta Symphony, and evangelistic crusades) and the end of my freshman year in college. Automobile accidents, overdoses, depression are hard on transitioning adolescents into young adulthood. The impact of those deaths that initial year in college was profound, leaving me with an existential grasp of the sophomoric motto “Carpe Diem!” Retrospectively, that’s what I did, which proved to be exhausting, and led to my own post script of running on empty.

Those were the cards I was dealt, which seems meager when I listen to friends who went to Viet Nam, or grew up in poverty. But effect me it did. said Yoda.

I wound up investing energy in my college relationships, particularly those in my fraternity. Living with guys for four years tends to either forge strong bonds of friendship OR learning how to keep folks you dislike at a comfortable distance, even before a virus pandemic. I did both.

I lived at the Sigma Chi house for three years, connecting with some amazing people who had a broad variety of talents and interests. These guys came from all over the country, from Shaker Heights, Ohio to Koziusko, Mississippi…..explaining the names connected to those locales respectively, Greenbaum and Peeler.

And I have worked hard to maintain those relationships, convening a gathering each year in the first weekend in December at the fabled Manuel’s Tavern, the home of my Adjunct Political Science professor, Manuel Maloof. It was there that I met many of the movers and shakers of Atlanta, and many of the leaders of the remnant of the civil rights movement. The fact that there is a reserved parking space for clergy fills me with a bit of pride.

I have been blessed to have good friends wherever I have lived.

In Decatur, while I was learning my chops and figuring out this thing called “love”, I had an amazing group of folks who were trying to make sense out of being South of God, and yet wanting to find a faith of freedom and joy….live it every day! was our motto. My cadre of youth leaders set the pace with how I would come to define community in my future. And my group of roommates at Menagerie Farms on Medlock taught me many lessons that can not be recorded. Wendell, Russell, Eddie, Malcolm, and Bill were quite the menagerie, not to mention Brandy, my English Cocker, and Mr. Poe, the ghost of the former owner of the house.

At the Cathedral, there was a whole cast of characters that I shared my life with, beginning the day with prayer, gathering around the sacred coffee urn, meeting in untold numbers of meetings coordinating our common life, conversations with Judson, amazing evenings at the Cowart’s playhouse, and late afternoon debriefs at Gary and Vern’s penthouse roof garden. It was a magical time of Anglican formation, Southern style.

And, Tyler, Texas. Probably provided me the best male friends I have ever had. My fivesome golf group that played every Thursday, was a tribe that provided the kind of community that is hard to find these days. The parish itself both gave me relationships that affirmed the goodness of humankind and broke my heart. And in the wide community, I learned so much from my quixotic partners who joined me in tilting at the windmills of a traditional town that was struggling to become a city.

Coming back to Atlanta, I found a group of teachers who cared deeply for the children and adolescents they were charged to educate. They embodied the caring spirit and DNA that my friend, Elliott Galloway, installed in the school’s beginning. Providing leadership as the school stepped up to the upper-tier of prep schools in Atlanta made a difficult setting worth the journey. And I was blessed with a number of loyal, creative co-workers who tried to stretch the sense of stewardship to include both the parish and the school.

My latest group was a collection of engineers, consultants, physicians, and nurses who I worked with across the United States in the work on process improvement in healthcare, trying to make the care more compassionate and the work more efficient. It’s been exciting to journey to spend time in new locales such as Los Angeles, Montana, Iowa, Michigan, Winston Salem, and Chicago…to name a few. Urban, academic, and rural settings provide diverse cultures, ways and means of getting things done, and caring for people.

And now, I am on an island in low country Georgia. My friend, Pat Conroy, wrote rhapsodically about the seductive quality of low country life. COVID has slowed my entrance and investment, but the future is promising. I have been attending two different parishes here, thanks to Zoom. Christ Church, a historic parish dating back to the origins of the Wesley brothers and the English colony in Georgia, has been a long-time haunt of my time spent here in the Golden Isles. But, I have discovered another parish, St. Athanasius, located in downtown Brunswick, with a rich heritage of community and service. An embarrassment of riches, I might say.

Brunswick intrigues me as I explore my new city. The bifurcation of blacks and whites, rich and poor, raise old familiar questions. And the present, pressing issue of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery here in Glynn County freshens the winds of racism and privilege, and begs me to engage once again. I am looking forward to building relationships of trust that will allow for the kind of dialogue that is deepening and life-affirming.

Just tonight, I went for dinner with an old friend, Mark Jones. We were introduced a long time ago, his father a Methodist bishop, but his talent was an artist, and playing drums for my band and my productions of Godspell. Mark is also one of the funniest people of the planet. We actually once took twin girls on a double date to a college formal. And we both wound up marrying Druid Hills girls. I don’t think I have ever had a better friend, as he is loyal to a fault in having his friend’s back. He reminds me why the price I have paid for relationship with persons is worth it. We were in each other’s weddings, and have made a point of staying close. He has given me care when I needed it, and I have returned the favor. He has been a gift.

It’s timely that tonight, over a meal, a sacred gathering, we celebrated our connection through time. As I mentioned, I lost a number of my early relationships to death, which tinges each relationship with a note of reality. Every time we invest in a relationship, we are making a connection that promises, if but for a moment in time, to move us beyond our isolation and loneliness. The relationship is symbol, sacrament, to a deeper reality of connection, a holy, spiritual bond. And yet, the connection is interrupted by space, time, and finally by death. It’s the real price that one pays.

A line in French poetry that I learned long ago goes like this: Partir, c’est mourir un peu. In East Pointian translation: to part is to die a little. It’s the price we pay in the connection, knowing that it will end eventually. We invest our time, energy, and treasure And yet, in my retrospective view from this mirror of my investments of connection, it was worth the price of admission. It’s just the price I am willing to pay. How about for you?

Urban Geography, Spiritual Geography

As a senior in high school, I took a class in urban geography with Mr. Cason.

Frankly, it was an excuse to ride around the city in our cars, go to one of the first Chik-Fil-As on the planet, and goof off. That’s what I thought….that was “the deal”, as we would say.

But what happened during that one quarter made a huge impact on me.

I was paired with a fellow senior, Bron Rutkowski. Bron looked like what “Bron” sounded like.

He was a football player from Central Casting, who transferred to Briarwood in East Point from somewhere North….I want to say New Jersey, but I’d be guessing. Bron was incredibly bright, but he was cut from a different piece of cloth. I once found Bron banging his head against the locked locker room door right after we lost a squeaker football game, the last game of the season. Bron was smart enough to leave his helmet on as he was head-banging, so you have to give him that.

Bron wound up going to Rutgers for college, and played ball for the Scarlet Knights. Can you imagine being a sportscaster, getting to say “Tackle by Bron Rutkoski”? Me either.

My other memory of Bron was our sharing a picture in the annual as one of the Senior Superlatives, whatever the hell that meant. In the picture, I was seated next to Margaret Taylor, my long-time friend from Mt. Olive Elementary. She had done a superb job playing Mother Superior in our high school production, Sound of Music. Margaret is one of those childhood friends that you wish you had kept up with through life. I am fortunate to have a few of those.

Also in the picture was Tommy Elder. Legend has it that Tommy and I were both in the nursery together at Oakland City Baptist Church. Our mothers were close friends. Tommy had blond hair and mine, black. He and I would room together in seventh grade on the Safety Patrol trip to Washington D.C. where we ran into some fast women 7th graders from High Point, North Carolina. Discretion dictates that I’ll have to leave the details out. Funny, in chasing down some of this information, I was reminded that Tommy and my senior pictures were side-by-side in the annual. An odd connection that we maintained throughout our lives. He died of cancer a while back. His mother died early with cancer as well which prompted his deep questioning of the nature of this universe. I valued our conversations of depth and his pressing the envelope for answers.

And Bron rounded out the quartet, as we had our pictures taken in the furniture department at Rich’s at Greenbriar. I was in my Fall Muse’s suit that I put on my mom’s charge account…..I was a dangerous man in those days with a charge card at Muse’s……Hickey Freeman was my go-to blazer.

Bron and I took it upon ourselves to do our urban geography project to explore the changing demographics in south Atlanta. There had already begun to be some blacks moving into the Cascade Road area, which was a little north of our stomping ground. Bron and I were bright enough/stupid enough to do some interviewing in the neighborhood on Cascade. What I recall was that there was around 10% of the homes being owned by blacks, in a neighborhood that had been completely white, probably from the time Gen. Sherman drove through on his March to the Sea.

We brilliantly noted that there were a growing number of For Sale signs on the streets. That, my friends, is called “observational skills”, otherwise known as “stating the obvious”.

Bron and I, being naively innocent, decided to knock on doors and interview neighbors who had For Sale signs in their yards in order to ascertain their rationale for selling their homes. What people said can not be written here verbatim, but it expressed a sentiment that was captured in the sociological phrase “white flight”.

This was in the Fall of 1971, and there had begun a migration of white home owners out of South Atlanta to a locale further south, into Fayetteville and Peachtree City. Bron and I scientifically, for high school seniors, determined and projected that the introduction of black families into the white neighborhoods would result in the white families leaving the southside en masse. Bron and I were incredibly brilliant….or did I say that already.

And it happened pretty much as we called it. My neighborhood emptied out pretty quickly, although my folks and Danny Hall’s folks stayed until retirement. Even my white South of God church wound up selling the land and building to a black congregation as the membership dwindled as members moved south.

This whole experience got me thinking about demographics, and trends, and urban areas, and change. It’s amazing to find that high school actually made me think about the world in which I lived. From that point on, I paid attention to the population movements, how and why they changed. I was sensitive, that is, I was mindful of how we live and don’t live together as people.

I had been struck early on in my life by the quote attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: “The 11:00 hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in this country.” The truth of this floored me, as I had a rather innocent view of how my faith had been presented to me. We are all God’s children, I remember the Sunday school line went. But I noticed that we sure as hell did not live together, eat together, and surely not worship together. In fact, my pastor was removed from his position due to his public stances on race, attempting to open up our church to blacks moving into the neighborhood. Some of the deacons weren’t too keen on that. So they made him a Rhodes Scholar, telling him to “hit the road, scholar!” I should have learned the lesson about the nature of church then. Guess I didn’t turn out to be all that brilliant, huh?

In college, I became more sophisticated in my analysis, studying Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and notably its effect on Southern politics. I paid particular attention to the Civil Rights movement, and was amazed by the non-violence that seemed to follow the teachings of Jesus, the one I had been told that I should follow and emulate: “Be like Jesus!”, they told me. Why then were some of the Christians that I knew getting so angry and upset by the folks who were calling for rights for all people? To go to school, to vote, to live where they wanted? To be treated with dignity and respect seemed to be a bridge too far.

In seminary, I worked in my contextual ed. classes in the projects, working with black kids who had a tough way to grow up. In my first job in the Episcopal church, I worked with street people, finding them remarkably resilient, but who found it difficult to gain leverage in order to make it out of poverty. Later, I moved to Texas, behind the Pine Curtain, and found a lot of the same attitudes around race, and a divide in terms of where folks lived. And the old insight as to the 11:00 o’clock hour was true there too.

Truth is, that hasn’t changed all that much. While blacks have gained rights, we still are separated in many ways. An old black woman in Tyler, Texas, Miss Velma Mosely, asked me a question privately, not wanting to embarrass me publicly, as I was working hard to make progress in race relations in East Texas. She asked straight up: Dr. Galloway, how many blacks have you had to your house to share a meal? And my answer was embarrassing to my soul. She was talking about my home, and she was right. But my mind also contemplated my house of worship, and the altar/table there. My spiritual geography needed some work.

The issue of race that Bron and I sniffed out innocently some fifty years ago is still in play. This past year, with the shocking images of a knee on a neck of a black man by a white cop brought it into sharp focus again. It sparked a series of protests and marching in the streets of my city and across this country. And we still don’t seem to know how to talk about it, to enter into real dialogue, to learn from one another. We have a long way to go in this country, don’t you think?

This week, we got a verdict that signals police that they can not be careless in how they treat human beings. Cameras are recording these days and you just might wind up on Candid Camera, for all the world to see. Maybe if it’s too heavy a lift for our heart, our phone cameras may drive the change. It may have served notice that will make people think twice next time, but we’ll see. I just felt sad for this particular man, George Floyd, and his family. But there are many more.

Blaming, and feeling guilty doesn’t seem to be enough. We have to think this through. My grandfather who was an Atlanta cop on a black beat was a huge proponent of training. He was called on to be a psychologist, a social worker, a school counselor, an enforcer, and a servant leader….but he was a rare breed who loved people, and who took his faith seriously, particularly as an officer of the law. He was an advocate for training, as was his partner, Chief Herbert Jenkins, who led the way in progressive community policing.

To train our police better, to add persons who can respond mindfully to the myriad of issues that our public servants face on the street. To not allow bad cops to just move on to another jurisdiction, which happens all the time with no national registry. All this troubles me, but I am hoping this past year has taught us something. I am hopeful.

But what troubles me the most is what I find still true in my world. That 11:00 remains the most segregated time in our country. Maybe that’s just the way it is, the way it has been, the way it will always be. I remember that phrase from a Broadway musical, Purlie, as the old white plantation owner, the Captain, tries to ‘splain things to his innocent grandson. The way it HAS to be, the Captain says.

Race remains the number one issue that we still have to work out. Underneath it all, slavery is the original sin of our country, and we, being “good” people, had to come up with a rationale, a theology even, to support our decision to go along with it. You HAVE to buy into white supremacy in order to make your soul go along with the deal. Most folks I know won’t say that publicly, because it’s natively offensive. But, my soul is troubled that the church, us folks who say we believe in a God of love, the Creator of ALL, we just don’t seem to get it, do we? Why do you think that is?

I am now living in a county where Ahmaud Arbery was shot down while he was jogging through a neighborhood, a neighborhood not unlike the one I grew up in, an area just like the one Bron and I studied. But I am no longer innocent, nor am I naive. I know better.

That trial looms in the near future. And I have been moved to see clergy and laity of various races and traditions call for justice, to stand up for the rights of ALL people. But, I still see that 11:00 hour, with marked divisions that make me pause. I pause to think: what can I do? How can I be the change that I want to see happen? This is no academic question, no sociological query. It’s about my very soul.

When I drive around my neighborhood, on my little island, through the streets of Brunswick, in the county of Glynn, what is my way of living out the love I say I want to have for my neighbor? What, in the world, does love look like? I know it’s not simple, but Miss Velma’s question still stings about my spiritual geography. Where and who do you sit down with at the table? I am not liking my answer.

Around the Table

My early years were spent living with my grandparents. My mother had moved home following a divorce, and was teaching biology at the local high school in south Atlanta, Fulton High. The fact I was around testified to her knowing something about human biology.

As she taught, I stayed at 1388 Oakland Drive with both grandparents, my grandfather having recently retired from the Atlanta Police Force. He had been Sherriff in a western Georgia county, but resigned, not wanting to arrest his brother-in-law for moonshining.

And so he came to Atlanta, working a downtown beat and riding a cop bike, a Harley, that he loved. He was the Georgia version of John Wayne, with a bit less bravado and a hell of a lot of compassion that I hope I got a dose of. He would put Mr. Dial, the next door drunk, to bed most every Saturday night, after he had tried to tame his World War memories from inside a bourbon bottle. Mr. Dial just couldn’t quite make it home, passing out on the front lawn, and on a good night, his front porch. My granddad would pick him up, put him in his bed, and never say a judging word. “He’s got a lot of hurt in him”, my granddad would offer his home-grown clinical diagnosis.

On Sunday morning, Granddad and I would have coffee…yeah, coffee, Maxwell House, good to the last drop.. Sausage and biscuit was the treat. But we had to be quiet not to wake up my grandmother. She could be hell to pay, a noted Bible teacher who could pull out a Bible verse quicker and more deadly than a Smith & Wesson .38. Then, we would retire to his den, before there were “man caves”, to watch Gospel Jubilee on WSB television, featuring the Florida Boys and the Happy Goodmans. It’s where Iearned to love harmony, and a bit of showmanship.

At the end credits of Jubilee, we would get in his white Chevy to drive to Oakland City Baptist Church. Granddad took me with him to the “old men’s class” known as the Friendship Class.

Make note: Baptists South of God name their Sunday School classes. And I noted that the names give a clue to the nature of the gathering of human beings therein. This “old mens” class was called the Friendship Class, and that was accurate. There was a men’s class at Decatur First called the “Alert Class”, which is where my father-in-law, Dr. Bill Grimes, attended and sometimes taught. I always wondered what they were “alert” to, perhaps meanderings of our pastor from the straight and narrow. And there was the Pilgrims class, a middle aged group of adults who prided themselves in following Truth wherever it led. I remember teaching them one Sunday about contemplative prayer, introducing Thomas Merton to this group of progressive Baptists. They were “pilgrims” in the best sense of the word. I recently taught, via Zoom, a class in a Presbyterian church in Austin called the Lively Class, and they were, engaged and inquisitive, living up to their billing.

The Friendship Class was just that, comprised of Mr. Barrentine, Mr. Sellers, Mr. Boseman, to name just a few retired old men that were my grandfather’s friends. I was gifted by this group of men, who adopted me as their own. While I did not have a biological father in my house, I had an ample group of men who stood-in as my paternal presence, loving on me in a way that only a Baptist Church knows how to do.

This was in the mid-Fifties, a time in the world, particularly the South of God world, that divorce was frowned upon. It clearly meant someone was headed to Hell, usually a man, a rounder. The fact that the “boys” of the Friendship Class looked past any moral judgment and loved on me was my innocent primary experience of grace in the context of Church.

On my third birthday, my mother asked me what I wanted for my party. My answer, which she reported later, was that I said matter-of-factly, that I wanted to invite “The Boys”, referring to the Friendship Class. And so that is what happened on June 30, 1957, a gathering of the boys. There was the picnic table, the redwood type. There was a birthday cake in the middle of the table, along with a punchbowl. A photograph shows me in the arms of my granddad, surround by twenty something old men, circled around the table.

Now, I don’t know what sense you make out of this but for me, it was a prefigurement of what Church would come to mean to me. A place of grace that looks beyond cultural norms and prescriptions, a gathering of folks around a table to sense a spiritual presence, there with bread in the form of a sweet cake and wine in the form of Baptist punch. It’s just not surprise what this would mean for me, a proleptic experience of the heavenly banquet of God’s love, made real for this young boy in the love of a group of retirees.

I have continued to find that in a variety of settings, some deeply religious, and some profundly secular, though the demarcation has seemed to blur, blame it on aging eyesight or growing wisdom, moving beyond binary simplicity.

A circle of folks, around a fire on the beach at Folly Beach.

A circle of brothers in a fraternity chapter room on Fraternity Row at Emory.

At a table of co-workers at Churchill Arms in Buckhead at the end of the week.

At a table of mavericks at a bar named for Hemingway.

At the quintessential Texas roadhouse, the Broken Spoke, with convivial, dancing Episcopalians.

Around the altar at the Trappist Monastery in Conyers with seriously playful monks and under the altar in the crypt as we celebrated Christmas Eve with spirited Monk Punch and alternative Baptist Punch without the punch.

A virtual circle on a Zoom call on Sunday morning from St. Athanasius in Brunswick.

Seven moments of connection.

Seven moments of communion.

Where are the places where you get that sense of connection with something larger? Dare I ask, where do you get a moment of connection with a reality that is transcendent, something bigger than your self?

I would love to hear from you, either in the questions here or in a note to my email at drdavidgalloway@msn.com.

In my new island home, I have recently found a table, where post-vax, I gathered with an old clergy friend for lunch. What was to go an hour, became three, with this meeting place feeling incredibly Holy, in spite of touristas sipping boat drinks. I am hoping this is a sign of new gatherings, new transcendent events to add to my collection. I’ve got a good feeling about this, y’all. Blessings.

Day by Day

Confession is good for the soul, they say.

So, I confess that I had a lot of trouble connecting with Jesus when I was a kid. The stories that were told to me in Sunday School seemed like good stories, but sort of like the fairy tales I didn’t buy. Maybe it was because my mom was a biologist, but I had a natural scientific skepticism early on. I wanted to see what was real, not just hear stories about some fantasy land.

I distinctly remember my friend, David Montgomery, conducting an experiment in my class in 4th grade, using electrolysis to make oxygen from water, and making it “pop” with the introduction of a flame. Fascinating. I loved the explanation of how things work, and David’s bespeckled, nerd, “science guy” act was strangely appealing.

It was eight years later riding in his Opel GT to look at Emory University, a bastion of science that drew both of us like a moth to a flame, not produced by mystical electrolysis process. Emory was where the doctor who birthed me went to medical school. Dr. Henry Stedman gave me a stethoscope to prime my pump, as well as leading our Boy Scout Explorer group on medicine. Emory was the pre-med factory that I was destined to attend.

However, there was a problem. It was Emory that prompted the national headlines that proclaimed “God is Dead”, coming from the scholarship of Thomas Jefferson Jackson Altizer, an Emory theologian, who was simply popularizing centuries of philosophy questioning the relevance of God to the modern mind.

This led the women’s prayer group at my childhood South of God church to put me on their prayer list, which I many still be on. It prompted my friend, Danny Hall, who was a year ahead of me in attending Emory, where his mother taught in the Nursing School, to bring me a copy of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This book was THE standard Christian apologetic text put out by Campus Crusade for Christ, aimed at convincing skeptics like me. I remember reading the text, “kiver to kiver”, studying the points so that I would be ready for the attacks of godless teachers and their minions who aimed to steal my soul, such as it was.

It was funny that my first night at Emory, at a party hosted by my Resident Advisor, Robert Morris, a graduate of my high school in East Point, I got into a debate that eventually got around to God, which all things seemed to do. As I was busy holding up God’s good name, I remember listening to the guy who lived across the hall from me offer several questions that rattled my cage. It was one of those damnable “meta” moments as you are debating, when part of your brain recognizes the validity of the other’s position and truth. Kevin was circling in on some of the fallacies in my tautology, but I dare not admit them. It is curious that Kevin became my roommate for my next two years at the fraternity house.

As I have written here before, the “Big Bang” surprise for me came in that it was, in fact, Emory, the place where God died, that opened my mind up to the possibility of a God that did not object to me using the mind God gave me.

Jack Boozer, an Emory religion prof introduced me to the mystical tradition of faith, as he invited me to read the classic I-Thou, by Jewish mystic, Martin Buber. He also led me into the biological cathedral of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic scientist who saw God in the process of evolution. Boozer click-baited Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus that hooked me on biblical scholarship for life, and then paraded Paul Tillich’s theology to suggest that a thinking person could also be a person of faith. This innocuous course that I took as a proverbial “easy A” on my road to medical school, sidetracked me onto a trail and trial of which I was unaware.

Let me be clear: I had been given all the Bible stories that a South of God child should be in their evangelical training. I had been through the Sunday School process of hearing the stories, Old and New Testament. I had been trained in my Sword Drills, an ancient South of God practice of competition in finding a Bible verse faster than one’s neighbor. And I had been versed in the proper behavior of a South of God teenager, being respectful to elders and not swearing, drinking, or dancing. But, the whole faith thing sort of eluded me. I had not had the campfire soul-surrender moment that many of my peers had. Religion was compartmentalized, a Sunday thing, that had little to do with how I saw life. In fact, from my scientific perspective, I had adopted a wink-and-nod method of simply listening to the stories and not asking the embarrassing questions of my starched white-shirted teachers.

That all changed with two moments from the culture, not my church.

The first was the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. It placed the story of Jesus, one I was quite familiar with, within the rock genre with electric guitars and stratospheric vocals. I remember listening to the music, the lyrics that intrigued me by the existential question that were embedded. And the basic one for me was this: Did Jesus have a choice or was he a mere puppet in the hands of this Cosmic Puppeteer? Rather than a script that was being acted out by some type-cast Palestinians, this a drama that was open and full of pathos. For me, it was the beginning of my questioning and wondering.

But it was Broadway that opened up the proverbial Pandora’s box. It was a musical presentation of the story and text of the Gospel of Matthew. It was a skeleton cast of ten, and minimalist staging. The script came from the famed parables or teaching stories of Jesus by which he introduced the radical notion of the Kingdom of God. At it’s heart was a winsome presentation of how we human beings might learn a way of love, loving God and neighbor, a captivating idea which continues to marshall my attention.

These stories were well known by me, “old hat”, as they say, but the way in which they were acted out in the community of this cast broke their meaning like an egg cracked open, revealing an inner truth. It was like having scales removed from my eyes, something that was said to have happened to Paul many years before. All of a sudden, I had new eyes to see the world.

I was taken by Godspell, first on the Broadway stage, later by a production at the unlikely locale of my local South of God encampment, led by a creative music minister, Len Willingham. Putting together a cast of high schoolers, I watched, observed, and took notes and note. My brother, Mitch, had the part of Jeffrey, which made it even more up-close and personal.

A few years later, I pulled Godspell out of my bag of tricks, as I was serving as the youth minister at a large South of God church in Decatur. I adapted the script somewhat, using a chorus to support the ten actors, and borrowed a song from the movie, not in the original play. My creativity almost got my Baptist ass sued for copyright violation, necessitating a quick trip to New York City. I could tell you how my winsome personality resolved the mess, but then, I would have to kill you. Let that sleeping dog snooze as we had a tremendous presentation with some amazing kids, in a life-changing production for many kids, including me.

With me beginning my doctoral studies, what better way to syphon off energy than to produce a touring company of Godspell. And so, I put together an all star cast of twenty-somethings, with a killer band to provide back up. I called the troupe The Southern Rainbow Company, as it was truly a dream of mine, not unlike that of my patron saint, Kermit. We went into production at the beginning of the summer, and by the end of the sweat-stained rehearsals in Carreker Hall, all members of the cast were dating one another in a veritable love fest. By the end of the Fall, with a performance at White Hall on the Emory campus, not one member of the cast was still dating….so much for that love thing. It was an act of discipline to remain on stage “acting” like we cared for one another as opposed to wanting to kill particular members of the cast. Instead of the old theater admonition “break a leg”, we were climbing the heights of “break a commandment.” We did so, every night.

Nevertheless, it was this amazing musical that brought me to a deep appreciation of the depth of meaning of the Gospel, the drama of life, death, betrayal, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope….all the stuff of being a human, seen through the eye of faith. I was and am grateful for the experience that was one of the vectors that push/pulled me into the priesthood.

Perhaps no song was more powerful to me through time than the centerpiece song of Godspell, Day by Day. It is sung by the character, Robin, who offers this three-fold prayer, capturing the words of Richard of Chichester, a 13th century bishop and saint who famously prayed to:

See thee more clearly,

Love thee more dearly,

Follow thee more nearly,

Day by day.

The song, which was the one hit to come out of the Broadway play and movie, Day by Day, became a kind of mantra for me in figuring out how to do this faith thing. It was simple, having actionable verbs, as well as profound implications.

What was incredibly odd was that when I had finished my doctoral course work, I began my clinical work at the St. Luke’s Training and Counseling Center. I was assigned an office recesses of this old Atlanta ecclesial edifice, but it was an office, MY office. There in that gray-walled room that opened onto an alleyway, I discovered a framed print over the coach where I would meet with people in therapy. That gold-framed piece had the prayer of Richard in scrolled letters, Day by Day, which I took as a moment of spiritual synchronicity, which is a far cry from my cynical scientific skepticism.

But that’s how it’s been, day by day. Friends of mine often say, “one day at a time”, and that’s true as well. Day by day.

Almost forty years later, I still begin my day with a re-minder as to my purpose, my reason for being. I try to center myself in that reality before I move out into the world of distraction and disruption, a world that is able to take my focus off my goal of being present. For me, the mantra of Day by Day, captures it. To see my purpose clearly, to love God and neighbor as much as humanly possible, and to align my Self with the Christ life in all that I do.

How do you do it? What tricks have you learned in keeping your focus, of spending yourself, investing your Self in the life you live? If you would, share it with me, either here on the site, or drop me a note at drdavidgalloway@msn.com . How have you negotiated your way through the disruptive pandemic and distracting tower of babble? What centers you? I would love to hear you strategy and tactics.

Blessings as you move through your life. Day by day.

A Week That Is Holy, A Way That is True

Within the Christian community, this is Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, remembering the actions of Jesus in Jerusalem, his Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

Within the Jewish community, it is Passover, Pesach, eight days of remembering the epic journey of Exodus as the Hebrews journey from slavery in Egypt to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

The week is set aside in both communities, the literal meaning of “holy”. Something special is happening. Of course, the Hebrew story of the Exodus precedes the experience of the Crucifixion/Resurrection story of Christ, but both have the same focus on transformation. The Exodus/Passover was clearly in the mind of the early church interpreting the events of Jesus’ life.

For Christians, the week traces the final week of Jesus’ life, beginning with the triumphal parade into Jerusalem. It continues with the remembering of special moments in that week, marking them as special, for they accentuate the passing through death by Jesus, becoming the central theme of the faith narrative: that Jesus took on the fullness of human life, including death, and showed us a way through.

The week has several notable moments that stand out.

There is Maundy Thursday, referring to the mandate to love and serve one another. Jesus ritualized this by a pregnant moment of washing his disciples feet, embodying the mode of servanthood that he calls his followers to continue. It is curious to me that the “foot washing” got second billing in Christian practice through history. Wonder why?

It is also the ritualization of the Lord’s supper, the blessing of the bread and wine as symbols of our connection to Jesus, to be remembered after he is gone. This has found various expression in Christian tradition, but tended to be central in the community’s gathering.

On Good Friday, the three hours of Jesus hanging on the Cross, suffering, and his death is remembered in a powerful liturgy, recalling his final words from that Cross.

Holy Saturday is an odd day, as we wait with Jesus in the tomb. Tradition has it that Jesus went to Hades to release the captives from death.

And Easter morning marks the resurrection of Jesus, overcoming the bonds of death, appearing to the women of his group and later, to his disciples who had fled in fear.

This is the central meaning of this Cross event. The narrative is the retelling of Jesus’ passing through death and coming out on the other side. It follows the Exodus pattern of the Hebrew people leaving the slavery of Egypt, passing through the wilderness, and then entering the Promised Land. It is a three-fold pattern that is part of our human existence, what I have called the Paschal Paradigm.

The Paschal Paradigm states that the character of life is a process, repeated throughout our life. We experience many endings, or deaths, within the course of our life. When that ending occurs, it begins a time of transition which is marked by a disorientation. The way we lived life before is up for grabs. The familiar roles are no longer true for us. And that time, literally feels like death, something has been stopped cold.

We enter into this time of transition, not knowing what is to come. It can feel like the wilderness, even a desert, dry without relief. The paradigm presses us to move through this tough time with an eye of hope on the horizon for the new that is to come.

This is more than a mere history lesson, a ritualistic observance. It is, rather, a way of being, of leaning into our lives with a faith that does not deny suffering, loss, or death. Rather, there is the call for trust and faith, confidence in a connection that will survive the reality of death.

The same is true of Passover. Jews remember the journey of faith that began in slavery in Egypt. The Hebrews are released from bondage but head off to an imagined Promised Land. Their slavery ended, which would feel like good news, but they found themselves in transit, cut off from the security of what had been, even if it meant being slaves. At least then, they would recall, they knew where their next meal was coming from, and so now in the desert, many began to wonder as to the wisdom in leaving what was familiar. Some began to “murmur”, a phenomena any pastor knows of from his/her beloved flock. “Murmur” means complaining, wishing we could be back in captivity, what was familiar, even if it was slavery. Tradition says it was forty years for the Hebrews in the wilderness. Forty years is a Hebrew idiom meaning “a long damn time.”

Jews, looking retrospectively, remember God’s faithfulness even in the wilderness and God’s deliverance of God’s people to a new freedom, across the Jordan in the Promised Land. Passover is a remembrance of this historical fact, but more, it is a recalling of a way of life, a way of faith, as God delivers us through the variety of changes in our life. It’s this history that gives them a sense of reliance on God, though the exact “how” may be unclear.

This Paschal image gives us a lens through which to view our lives. We can recognize endings when they occur. It can be the ending of a time of life, such as school, when one must now move into a more adult way of being. Or if can be the ending of a career, perhaps retirement, where things are no longer as they used to be. Some endings come in the life of an organization as leadership changes, and the culture is altered. The ending might be in a relationship where there is a tear or a disruption in roles. Or, it may come at the very moment of death, where the landscape changes for those connected but left behind. Things are not as they were before. There is an ending that needs to be acknowledge, recognized.

It has been my observation that endings are difficult for most folks to admit. There is a hope that things will remain the same, that status quo should be maintained. The disruptions are ignored, hoping the situation is not changing significantly. This denial is most always problematic as reality relentlessly presses the change that is in play. Naming the ending, or death, is a way to move on to the process of transition.

Transition seems to not be easy for us. We want to move quickly from what was to the next thing. Taking one’s time to process the loss, living in the “in between”, can be helpful in finding one’s way into the new state. While one probably does not want to take forty years of wandering, it is good to take a break and allow for this time when things are a bit fluid. My colleague, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, refers to this as a threshold moment, a pregnant space which offers the possibility and danger of creative change. This gives us time to weigh some options, seriously playing with what might be our next step or phase.

The tendency is to move to quickly, as we are uncomfortable with not knowing, of feeling “at sea”. For many people I have worked with in such a process, there is a push that may lead to a premature closure in order to resolve the issue. At times, I would use the phrase, “I want to do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong!” to line out that tendency to press for closure. Most times, this is an unforced error.

After a time of living in the time of transition, an option will emerge, a new possibility that may not have occurred to you if not for the ending that happened. Many times, one will come to see, only in the rear-view mirror of reflection, that the ending was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. That certainly is not guaranteed as endings can be incredibly disruptive to plans, imagined futures, bringing about pain and suffering that is real. However, most folks find some silver linings in those dark clouds of loss.

So this pattern of endings, transitions, and new beginnings are intimated in our cosmic dramas of the Exodus, and of the Christ paradigm. But I am suggesting that it is a pattern that is part of our very existence. Seeing those parts of a process, naming it as we go through it, can be incredibly helpful, yield fruit, and assist us in negotiating our way through the passage.

Think for a second. What are the the major transitions, the moments of change that you have experienced? Did it follow the Paschal Paradigm in terms of phases? How did you consciously decide to move through the process? What did you learn/have beaten into you along the way?

Name some of the endings you have experienced: some that were expected, predictable, and some that seemed to come out of nowhere. How did you respond to endings, deaths that happened?

What about transition times, those in between times when certainty and clarity eluded your grasp? How did you make your way through the wilderness? What blessing or blessings did you wrestle out of the encounter with the ambiguity of not knowing?

And what of the new beginnings? How many new beginnings can you name, new chapters in your life, some chosen, some imposed? How did you show resilience in finding a new way?

And where are you NOW? Where are you in this paradigm as we come to the end of Passover, and the Sunday of Easter? It’s been a hell of a year for most of us. A lot of endings, a lot of death. Transitions seem to be the order of the day as we adjust to the disruptive reality of a pandemic. Are there new beginnings on the horizon?

Could this Springtime of new birth in Creation signal a new beginning for you? Where are you as you move through this time in our common time, and in your particular and peculiar journey? I would love to hear from you, either here on my blog or writing me privately at my email address drdavidgalloway@msn.com .

Blessings as you move through this pregnant season.

Not THAT Part!

When I was midway into my tenure as the Rector of Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, I had a moment that was revelatory to me. By revelatory, I mean a moment in time that was pregnant with meaning, filled full. Such moments allow the Divine Presence to shine through the ordinary to give you a glimpse of something deeper, something transcendent. By revelation, like the title of a short story by Flannery O’Conner, it’s when Truth comes so close that you can not deny it, or at least, not easily Revelation confronts you.

For me, that has happened mostly in nature, me being a Druid in temperament. Being at the beach watching a sunrise or sunset: being deep in the Spring woods of Georgia with red buds and dogwoods blooming; driving through Big Sky country. These moments in nature break into my mundane consciousness with a re-minder of my connection to this thing we call life and the deep meaning within.

Other times, it happens for me in moments of silence, at a regular visit to a Trappist monastery; during a retreat at a hermitage in the wilderness of South Texas; or in my prayer space in my home, where I can be quiet, center myself in solitude. It has happened for me in a moment of focused reading, in which the words on the page plunge me deep into a linkage with the All. Poetry, in particular, does this for me, but it can be a good character developed, or a twist of plot where I feel connected with the flow of existence.

Journaling, which I have been doing since college, sometimes feels as mundane as writing down a shopping list. But other times, my own words and thoughts prompt a deep dive into the Reality that we all share.

Sometimes it is in a moment, specifically as I sat in front of the tabernacle in the church of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. A radiance overwhelmed me coming from the gold tabernacle where the Holy Sacrament is kept in residence between services. This particular night, it was around two in the morning, in a darkened church as I sat the the side of the altar. Those times are rare for me, but when they come, the Holy is present to me in a way that surpasses my descriptive powers.

How do you experience that presence, the deep sense of connection to all that is? How do you slip the surly bonds of duality, thoughts that divide us into good and bad, and encounter the unity of being? I know that worship is intended for such an experience, being in a place set aside, and performing traditional acts that are supposed to connect us to God. Maybe it’s just me, but that time often feels more structured, more predictable than I have found the Holy to be. But, maybe it’s because I have served as an architect or engineer of such experience in public worship for a long time.

A curious place I have found such revelatory moment has been in relationships among humans. Sometimes, it has been in moments of deep friendship through time, as the old times are remembered, and it is as if they are present in the now, anamnesis, they call it. Other times, for me, it has been in the one-on-one in a moment of intimacy, where both feel a deeper presence and bond that connects. That clearly can happen in the intimacy of sexuality, but can also happen with friends tied together by bonds of covenant that transcend the mere social convention.

But before I go getting all gooey with sentiment, let me tell you how it, that is, revelation happened for me in a most unlikely place. A bar.

Not just any bar, but the sacred place known as the Men’s Grill. This hallowed space of which I am speaking is located at Willowbrook Country Club in Tyler, Texas. No women, other than the wait staff, were allowed in the Holy of Holies, where male golfers would retire after an exhausting round of golf, to sip libations, and set the world right. It was understood that no woman, wives in particular, were allowed, reminding me of my childhood treehouse where girls, who had cooties, don’t you know, were verbotten. Same concept, much nicer digs, and much more expensive, but same gig. Dig?

In Texas, we would famously play golf in groups of five, known as a fivesome. In the normal world, golfers play in groups of four, a foursome, as it is called in Scotland, America, and all parts of the civilized world…even Alabama. But in Texas, a Republic unto itself, we played in fivesomes. Shall I bring up the proverbial adage: because everything is bigger in Texas. And I will not allow myself to make a too easy response to the brag, because I don’t shoot duck on the water, a Georgia quip.

There had been a summer thunderstorm which sent all the golfers off the course to the Men’s Grill to wait out the shower, enjoying the chance for a drink and munchies. I was with my regular group of guys: Dan, Ted, Jimmy, and Keith, four of the best human beings that I have known. My deep friendship with these four make my other relationships pale in comparison. Seriously, I wept on the day after playing my last round with these guys, as I headed my wagon, a Suburban (the national car/truck of Texas) back to Georgia. Two are them are now dead, leaving just we three musketeers that still maintain our friendship across a thousand miles and political terrain.

On this particular day, the grill was hopping, the wait staff trying to keep up the demand for beers and other liquid refreshment. It had gone on for some time, a spell, in Southern lingo, which is where Tyler is.

There was a din of noise, with people telling stories, as golfers do, unrepressed laughter, and jokes abound. That’s when he walked in.

Let’s call him Huey, because that was his name. He is big in physical size and personality. As he enters a room, he likes to dominate the room. He is LOUD. You know the type. He came in bellowing, like that bull in the lower forty, whose work is never done.

He was letting everyone know that his church, of the South of God persuasion, was looking for he new pastor. His volume level, the rock band 11, and his wildly waving arms, turned the attention of the room onto him, which is as he planned. It must be how he gets his kicks. In any case, he was ranting on about how ministers, these days, are watering down the Gospel, tickling the ears of their flock so that they would be loved and adored. He went on….and on…and on. You get my drift?

Huey said, “I want a pastor who will preach the Whole Gospel, not pussyfoot around with poetry, and such. Just preach the Word of God, plain and simple, not holding back, not watering down the strong words of Jesus. I want a minister who is a Man of God, who will tell us, straight up, how to live our lives with righteousness. Just let us see Jesus, tell us what Jesus commands us to do, and let the chips fall where they may!”

By now, Huey’s high blood pressure had kicked in, reddening his face with a crimson hue that preacher’s faces take on when they are pressing to the final point in a sermon, or finally getting to the “ask” of a love offering, or contribution to the “building fund”. He was hooping and a hollering so much that the room came to a silenced halt.

Then, he seemed be scanning the room, like a spiritual radar, straining to find his target. He narrowed his beady eyes on me. And, just like that, he focused on the “licensed” preacher in the room, putting my young ass on the spot. “Isn’t that right, Preacher?” I hate it when people call me “Preacher”. I mean, I got my doctorate so people wouldn’t call me “Preacher” or “Brother”. So now you know how to get under my skin. My bad.

“Isn’t that right, Preacher? I want a man who preach the Word of God, straight up, no holding back. The whole truth of God unvarnished, pure T-total Truth!”

As he concluded, the room was silent. He seemed to be asking me for a response, and I felt the eyes around me turn to me. I took a sip of my whiskey, a long one, and then looked straight into Huey’s eyes and said:

“You mean the part about selling all you have and giving it to the poor?”

It was as if the room was in freeze-frame for that moment in space and time, with my question piercing the balloon of his soliloquy. And then, in an involuntary moment of truth, Huey could not help himself and he told his God’s honest truth:

“Well, not THAT part.”

The term “pregnant pause” gets tossed about a good bit, but that moment WAS the quintessential pregnant pause.

And then, simultaneously, everyone in the Men’s Grill broke into laughter, for the Preacher had called his hand, and Huey had not a card left in his deck. Busted.

The moment of revelation for me was listening to Huey spout the directives of Jesus with such vigor and his admonition to those around him to “get right” with Jesus and his particular “take” on his message. And when I mentioned one particular teaching of Jesus that ran counter to his culture’s (Tyler, or Texas, or American, or Western, or First World) values, he wasn’t quite on board.

And while I joined in the laughter at Huey, the truth is at the same time true for all of us. We pick and choose among the buffet line offerings of Jesus’ teachings. Often we cling and shout those that affirm and confirm our prejudices and biases, while turning away from those that are challenging to our position, particularly those that might ask us to change.

That is clearly true of me. I remember the first time I read, really read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. I learned in seminary that this is a kind of “best of Jesus”, a collection of his greatest hits in terms of his teachings. If someone told you that you could attend a sermon by Jesus, my hunch is you would get in line. And in many ways, that’s what the famed Sermon on the Mount is. It is overwhelming to really listen to these teachings of what Jesus says about the nature of good and godly living. My hunch is that you probably wouldn’t call that rabbi to be the pastor of your church.

Further, the radical nature of Jesus’ message was made real for me in the Broadway musical, Godspell. The words are uttered by the actor playing Jesus, many coming from the portion of Matthew’s Gospel I am pointing to. The power of the play is that these platitudes are transposed into the actual way we are called to treat one another, forgiving one another, loving one another, reconciling with one another, and, God help me, praying for my enemies. As the member of the cast that plays Jesus delivers the words attributed as Jesus’ teaching, you find yourself responding, “Oh, Jesus. You have to be kidding!” He was not. This Kingdom of God stuff was a radical notion to treating ALL people with dignity and respect….even those that don’t look like you or think like you.

In the bar, on that stormy Texas afternoon, my revelation was not the hypocrisy of one bellowing holier-than-thou Christian admonitions and platitudes. I’ve seen and heard that all my life. And on occasion, I confess, I’ve been that person.

No, the revelation was how selective we can be in picking and choosing the parts of the teachings we will grab in order to confirm our bias, while dismissing those that run counter to our taste and comfort. I had never seen it so clearly present, as if it were a play, scripted to make that very point. On that day, in a bar in Texas, for me, at least, the lightening flashed…..and the thunder rolled.

We are entering the profoundly dramatic time known as Holy Week, a week when Christians across the world recount the days, the final hours, the minutes, the very seconds of Jesus’ final week leading to his killing by the political and religious leaders. It begins with Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry of Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem, and it ends with the faith moment of Easter, as Jesus can not be contained by Death, the Resurrection which we celebrate with bell ringing, trumpets blaring, and voices joyfully raised.

But between the celebrative parade and the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, there’s this thing call The Passion. Jesus who gathers his friends in an intimate circle for a final meal. Jesus, who experiences the pain of betrayal by one who was a friend. Jesus, turned over to the authorities for disposal. Jesus, who was scourged for insurrection, nailed upon a cross, sentenced to death by a leader and a mob. Jesus, who hung in the sun, thirsty for justice, drained of life energy flowing from his wounds, feeling abandoned, even by God. Jesus, giving up his Spirit. Dead. Jesus.

Once again, we come to the week we call Holy, between the joyful entry and the celebration party of victory on Easter Sunday.

And truth is, we’d rather skip that week. Looking for a comfortable Cosmic Win by our hero, just fast-forward to the end, to that great getting-up morning of Easter. We just love happy endings, don’t we?

But what about the rest of the story, the Passion. And we say, in a moment of honesty uttered by St. Huey of Tyler, “Not THAT part,” But deep inside, we know we can’t avoid the reality, we can’t ignore the pain of life, for Jesus did not bootleg his way around the suffering of the Cross. He went through it, to demonstrate to us how to do our moment in the sun of life. THAT part, that some of us know better after this year of pandemic, is part of the equation of human existence that Jesus embraced. And truth be told, it makes Easter Sunday a true celebration, not just a hollow bell ringing.

THAT part is not to be avoided, but strangely embraced, and celebrated in a true Easter faith. Blessings.

Puzzling: To Die Is To Live?

When I was the Canon Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, I was pestered by a persistent widow.

Well, not exactly.

A woman of the parish, Millie, kept bugging me to start a group for cancer patients. I continued to put her off, telling her that my schedule was slammed, which was true. I was trying to get on top of a 5000 member parish and had my hands full. Millie, a cancer patient, was like the persistent widow who continued to tug on the sleeve of Jesus, trying to get the attention of Jesus. I thought of this biblical image at the time, and preferred it to the squeaky wheel that proverbially gets the grease. She kept tugging on my sleeve, asking if we could start a new pastoral care group, focused on people facing a diagnosis of cancer.

I finally gave in, threw her a bone, that we would advertise a gathering on Wednesday night after the weekly supper, and see who shows up. I made no promises, just a meeting to measure the interest. To my surprise, and I will not lie to you by saying it was pleasant, about one-hundred twenty folks showed up and filled the room.

I may be slow, but I am not a fool. I took this as a cue to start a group that met every Wednesday night. We would check in with people to see how things were going. This created a loving, open community that had an amazing capacity to care for one another, as people had recently received a diagnosis, undergoing a series of treatments or surgeries, and the aftermath of recovery. I was struck by the palpable sense of love that existed in the group from day one, although it would grow through time.

Additionally, Dr. Matt Burrell, a noted oncologist who was a Cathedral member, would assist in the leadership, providing medical information on the various cancers and the treatments that were being employed. More importantly, Matt brought his healing spirit to the room, genuinely leaning into the relationship with cancer patients who were looking for knowledge but enhanced by the human touch of care, his compassion.

One other note is worth the time. We used a text, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, written by a surgeon, Bernie Siegal, who had discovered the role of the mind in working along with the medical technology. We would spend twenty minutes in a guided meditation to encourage people to imagine the drugs or radiation entering the body to fight the cancer. There’s a lot of science and technique in Bernie’s book that I don’t have time to unearth here, but suffice it to say that the mind-body connection is something we are still discovering new insights which assist in the process of healing. This was early in that discovery period, which some, including my scientific bias, found a bit far-out. However, my other bias, pragmatism, won the day. It was working. I would always refer people who told me of a recent cancer diagnosis to this work to encourage a good mental attitude as one fought the invading cancer.

This group would meet every Wednesday, regardless on what holiday it happened to be. It was still going when I loaded up my wagon for a sojourn to Texas.

What I wanted to lift up was my discovery among those cancer patients. I experienced a real transformation happening for many of these folks as their brush with mortality gave them a new appreciation for life. I had the opportunity to observe this as they interacted in the group, but I was able to confirm it in my individual interviews with people. The common phenomena was a shift out of what was sort of a routine day of getting up, doing what you do, going to bed, and then doing it all over again the next day. It was as if one was living by default, with no openings for a fresh breeze to blow in one’s life. After this experience, most people I talked with experienced life as precious, and found a new vigor with which to lean into the days they had, particularly the present moment, the Now.

My experience with this support group left me with a profound question: Can one get the same effect without having to acquire the diagnosis of cancer? Does it take the jarring of a death notice to shake one out of a deep sleep of routine living? I had witnessed the power that disruption brought about by cancer, and there was no doubt as to its effect.

I must pause to note that it did not work for everyone. I also watched as some people received the diagnosis as an authoritative death notice, and they responded by folding up their tents, waiting to die, resigned to their fate. At that time in my life as a quixotic crusader, I had little understanding of such resignation. Why not fight? You got to fight, right! You never give up, spoken by Coach Jimmy V. was permanently etched on my soul. Nowadays, after tilting after a few windmills and losing, I think I understand how people, beaten down through life, might see the diagnosis differently, as an exclamation point of a tragic life. I understand it better now, but I still don’t buy it for me.

I have recently taken a dive into the deep waters of Marcel Proust, speaking of a slow death. His ungodly novel, In Search of Lost Time, is seven volumes long and filled with lengthy descriptions of moments of life. In my mind, Proust is the anti-Hemingway. I had only dabbled in the shallow waters of reading his work here and there, but now, I am seeking to read the behemoth from “cover to cover” as Baptists South of God called the faithful reading of Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, reverently pausing on the red letters of Jesus. Red letters?, you ask. Just what the hell Bible you been reading? I’m talking about the Bible, written by the Almighty on the day He rested, placing the words of his son, Jesus, in the appropriate red of his blood.

Now, you are awake.

So, in the wake of the pandemic, I put the Bible down, momentarily mind you, to dive into the ocean of Proust. Proust addressed the lushness of life, the present moment, the observation of the now. His description is unlike anything I have ever read, bathing, luxuriating in the richness of our experience of life. He hovers over and dives into life in a way that reminds me of my hummingbirds returning to the island, magically pausing midair, only to skillfully dart in deeply to taste nectar, to ingest the energy needed to move on to the next moment, to sustain life.

I came across a quote from Proust that teases at this insight I am hovering over this day. “I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it- our life- hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delay them incessantly. But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again!”

And Proust continues with the twist, “(But) The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of the normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this morning.”

Maybe now you understand why I am willing to dive deeply for Proustian pearls.

How is life for you these days? Has the existential threat of the pandemic raised your awareness of the preciousness of life? I keep listening to people who talk of renewed value of the human touch, to gather with family, to join with friends, either in celebration or pain. The pandemic has provided the disruption of our normal, our routine, the lulling of our consciousness. The cataclysm come. Has it given you a new sense of vigor, that Kennedy-esque word I grew up with? Are you ready to dance like Zorba in celebration of life? Or are you just hoping to get back to “normal”, the way it used to be, the way it’s always been? Or as St. Bruce of Hornsby says, “that’s just the way it is.”

It’s a question worth your time.

Monks, in their cells of solitude, would remind themselves daily in their spiritual exercises that they were mortal: Remember your death!

Christians begin these forty days of Lent, mirroring the temptations of Jesus in the desert, by placing ashes of dust on their foreheads, literally re-minding themselves that they “are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I am reminded of Nikos Kazantsakis, the author of Zorba, who also wrote of The Last Temptation of Christ… the final temptation which was to avoid his passion and opt for the normal life.

How does this question land with you today, this exquisite moment of human existence?

I am sure glad Millie came my way. And I am thankful to my fellow travelers, some that I knew deeply, that reminded me of a simple truth: Life is Gift. And as a old South of God rabbi once taught me walking on Folly Beach, You have to live it every day! Indeed.

Blessings fellow travelers. Brave journey.

Check Your Lens!

Last week, I wrote about how you are able to take the perspective of the “other”. The shorthand, poetic phrase that has found its way into song lyrics and classic books, namely Joe South and Atticus Finch, is “walk a mile in my shoes” and “climb into his skin and walk around in it”. That promises to give you a glimpse, an insight into the world of the other person. Your chance of taking them seriously as a real person, rather than as an object or a part of a transaction, increases exponentially if you do this work….and it is work.

Now, let’s turn our attention to another piece of the work of self-awareness.

I am talking about the world view we have, the lens by which we see the world.

As we come to the world as persons, we bring our biases along with us. Some folks seem to get defensive if you suggest that they are biased. Truth is, we all are….it goes with the territory of being a human. What makes a difference is whether or not you are aware of your biases so that you can guard against being blindsided by them and can keep them in front of you.

I have identified four biases that form our perspective. Our image of God, our image of the world, our image of self, and out image of the Other. All of these images begin to be formed from the moment of our birth and come from our experience of the world. Some content is “fed” to us by those who raise us, the people we interact with at the beginning of our formation. They, too, were formed and they are unconsciously passing on their values and ways of seeing the world. This is not a sinister enterprise, again, it’s just the way it is.

Even as an infant and child, we are surrounded by the culture in which we are embedded, receiving messages about what the world is like, the values that are important, how we should behave, and even more, how we should not. We are receptive, and learn not only the language but the nuances. If you doubt me, I present the classically South of God phrase that contains multiple meanings: Bless your heart. Taking a look at these images can give you clues as to these lenses that we all have, images that determine what we see when we encounter the world, and what we don’t see. These images form our bias.

Let’s begin with the image of God. I recently taught a class on faith development to a congregation in Austin, Texas, thanks to the technology of Zoom. I asked them to think back to their “Image of God” when they were children. They were good sports in playing ball with their “cyber teacher”, taking their time to remember back to their childhood, and how they imagined God to be. Many, who had grown up in South of God churches, saw God as a judge up in the sky, a kind of large parent figure who was looking down, from “up there” in heaven, to catch you doing something wrong. One person imaged a large Jurassic “eye in the sky” looking at us, with an eye out for our screw ups. Another person who grew up in the Roman church got his image from his parents’ coffee table book of the Michelangelo image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, of God reaching out to touch the hand of man. I would have loved to have gone more deeply with him as to how this powerful image “felt”, but I missed that opportunity. It was a rich exchange with a lively group of folks….that’s what they call their class, the Lively Class…..truth in advertising.

It was a gift to me to be given the opportunity to interview people about such things during my years as a researcher at the Center for Faith Development. I was able to listen to their childhood images of God, how that changed in adolescence, and how they are currenting “seeing” God…..or not. The insight in all this conversation is that our images change, they develop, alter, or if I can use the dreaded “C” word, CHANGE.

Just for grins, how has your image of God changed? How are you thinking about God these days? How do you conceptualize God in this time of COVID? What sense do you make out of the way God is or is not present in the world? Is God active in the world, and if so, how? These questions tend to surface our image of how we see God and how our lives are affected by our image.

This image of God affects our image of the way we see our existence. The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, notes the power of the image we have of the world, of our human existence:

“We would do well to get in touch with our own operative worldview. It is there anyway, so we might as well know what this highly influential window on reality is. It’s what really motivates us. Our de facto worldview determines what catches our attention and what we don’t notice at all. It’s largely unconscious and yet it drives us to do this and not that. It is surely important to become conscious of such a primary lens or we will never know what we don’t see and why we see other things out of perspective.” from Richard Rohr’s A Gospel Lens

Along with our “image of God”, we have this image of the world, the way that it is, or more colloquially “the lay of the land.” Erik Erikson noted that our view of the world begins with our primary caretaker, often times our mother. Is the world trustworthy? Will the world respond to my needs and give me what I long for, beginning with food and nurture, and then extending into regard, belonging, and significance. This process of formation continues to be supported or amended by the experience of the child in the world. But, this process is ongoing. A lot of my time as a priest and therapist had to do with the work of helping people integrate new experience into their world view so that it all makes sense. Sometimes that was as easy as blessing the change as “good”, but other times it involved some heavy lifting with deep transformation.

My office was packed after 9/11 as the images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, on OUR shores. It rocked the world of people who, to point, felt relatively safe and secure. The vulnerability did not “fit” people’s way of seeing the world. Some framed the disruption in terms of their image of God, namely, “where was God?”, begging the theodicy question of why do bad things happen if God is good. Many people were asking more basic questions of trust: is the world a safe place to live? Are we safe? Those of us who now routinely take off our shoes for inspection when entering an airport can see the result of those deep questions that alter our images of the way the world is?

What is your image of the world? How do you see the nature of life? Is there a purpose to our lives here on Earth? To what end are you spending your life and being spent? Are there values inherent in our life? What are your non-negotiables? How do you see this world that we share?

I once had an improv character that I used in my college days, skewering the ubiquitous television evangelist that harangued the airwaves. My character was named the Rev. Billy Sol Angel, an amalgam of Ernest Angley, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson, although the accent was clearly that of my beloved Billy Graham. A favorite line I would eventually get to in my riff was: I just love it when young people come to me and ask, “Billy….what’s it all about?”. And after a proper pause (comedy is all about timing) my character would offer in a Carolina South of God accent, “I don’t know.”.

Truth, it was a question I was furiously asking myself in the vortex of the relativism that most colleges students encounter as they bump up against a panoply of systems of truth that challenge the one you had inherited from your home team. It was pointing to the process of coming to an adult ownership of what you believe about the life you are living.

That question, my existential query, sent me headlong in to a search to figure it out both in my academic inquiry and in my experiential learning, what in the world is going on. I’m still working on it. How about you? What do you tell yourself about the nature of reality? How does the way you are investing your time and energy testify to what is important to you, what is crucial? And how has that changed in the last twelve months as we have lived in the threat of pandemic?

Earlier in my writings, I have explored the image that we have of our self. These images, positive and negative, are deep within and both support and ambush at times. But it’s beneficial if we know what they are. Just who are you when you are not being a role that you play on the world stage? Who are you behind the mask, the persona that you present to the world? My mentor, Carlyle Marney, used to piercingly probe, “Who are you when you are not a minister, a pastor, a priest?” Right to the heart of the matter, what lies beneath the surface. Who are you, really?

And last week, I talked some of our image of the other. How do you see other human beings that share this living space with you. Are they objects that are to be used, utilized to get what you need to be done? Are they mere actors in the transactions that you are making, or are they people that have their own dreams and goal, anxieties and fears? How do you treat them, with respect and dignity, or a inconveniences to be managed? I have learned that the way people treat others reveal a great deal about a person. I found out early, being a hired hand of sorts, just how seriously does a person’s regard for you as a human being go. I observe, especially in a service situation, like that of a restaurant, how people treat one another. How is that for you?

Four lenses. Image of God, image of the world, image of self, image of the other. How are your lenses helping you to see what is really going on in the world? How are your lenses blurring or filtering your vision as to what is really going on? It’s a worthy endeavor, though at times, painful, to take a look at the lenses through which you see your world. I invite you to join me in the uniquely human work of self-reflection by examining those lenses we all have, our biases.

I heard somebody say recently that when they take a long, hard look at the world, they feel disillusioned. I thought about it for awhile and then realized the depth of what was being said. If you are “disillusioned”, it suggests you lost your illusion, that is, you had been operating out of an illusion, and now you see reality. It’s curious to me. Why is that not a good thing, to be rid of a false sense of the way things are? To be liberated from the illusions that have kept you from the truth. With that understanding in tow, I long to be disillusioned!

Cleaning your lenses may disillusion you, and thus, open your eyes to the world, your Self, your neighbor, and maybe even God. I think that it is worth our attention. Blessings.