My Daughter’s Wedding

I am sitting at my desk on the morning of my daughter’s wedding, thinking and writing about this auspicious day.

The sun is not even peeking over my horizon to the east. I went to bed late, watching Seth Meyers, listening to a podcast on Cynthia Bourgealt, and trying to get to sleep. My soul woke me at at 5:30, prompting me to get my stuff together for the day.

It is a day that I knew was coming, even on the day my daughter entered the world at Piedmont hospital in Atlanta. I made a vow that I would not officiate at my parent’s funeral, and I kept it. I made a similar vow about not officiating at my daughter’s wedding, and I am breaking that in a few hours, because she asked.

God gave me a son to practice on for two years before trusting me with a daughter. Good call.

I always knew this day was coming, that my daughter would fall in love and make a new life away from her mother and me. It’s the contract you sign before you leave the hospital with a baby girl. I think I could claim “insanity through joy” which could nullify my signature, but it seems late on the day of the ceremony, so many plans made…..

Mary Glen and Michael will be married on the marshes of Glynn, here on St. Simon Island. Michael grew up here and loves this place, and my daughter has caught the bug of being enthralled by the coastal beauty of low country. So it’s fitting, meet and right, as we Episcopalians say, harkening back to our Anglican roots.

I will use the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer for the wedding. In the middle, I have to say something, as a sermon is prescribed. If you remember the advice that my boss Lancaster told me, I am hoping to rally this morning and not merely say something but have something to say.

I actually wrote an email to my two Trappist monk friends that are still alive to pray for me on this day, especially. Pray that I will stay centered. Pray that I will speak truth. And, for God’s sake, pray that I don’t embarrass my daughter.

Back in the day, when I was the Canon Pastor at the Cathedral of St. Philip, we would do three weddings a weekend: High Noon, for the drama; 4 PM for the cocktail crowd; and 8 PM for the white-tie Buckhead folks. When a priest did the wedding, one had the duty to show up for the rehearsal that Friday night, which pretty well took up your weekend.

I couldn’t believe the older priests would refer all their couples to me for weddings. I thought it must be due to my clinical training as a marriage and family therapist. Just how gracious were these old codgers referring all these couples to me, the youngest priest on the planet. And then, I figured out the gig. I wound up many weekends having three rehearsals Friday afternoon, spending my entire Saturday doing weddings. I had been “had” by these old goats.

Always ingenious, I would finish up my rehearsals, head up to Lake Lanier with my wife, take my sailboat out and anchor in a cove, cook out, and have a romantic evening on the lake, listening to Phil Collins and James Taylor. Up in the morning, sail for a few hours, drive in to Atlanta, shower, and let the weddings begin. That is the Galloway style of time management.

The years of doing high-dollar nuptials in that social setting sort of did me in on weddings. They became social occasions that begged the religious connection. I actually did a white-tie wedding with Howard Cosell, Barbara Walters, and most of ABC in attendance. I guess me pitching my idea for a priest-based sitcom was a bit gauche, but you got to try, as Lyle Lovett taught me. Hell, he got Julia Roberts for a while… gotta try!

When I left the Cathedral, just after my daughter, Mary Glen, was born, I was worn slap out with weddings. In Texas, where men are men, and cows are king, the weddings came at a more civilized pace and I got back to normal….as normal as I can get.

One wedding in particular is etched in my memory. It was for the daughter of two of my best friends, Betty and Guy Danielson. Betty wanted the ceremony to be on her horse farm, which is cool…I have loved horses all my life. In fact, in my early years, Urban “Terry” Holmes helped my to identify my Spirit Animal, which I discerned as a horse, specifically, a stallion. I later morphed into a bear, with a den one asks permission to enter, and now an owl, who sometimes gives a hoot.

Back to the wedding. It was to be in July at the hottest time of the year in Texas. Somehow, a cool front blew through, prompting me to begin my sermon with the observation that even God doesn’t mess with Betty Danielson. As I offered my superb theological comments, I noticed people laughing, not at the right places in my routine. I turned around to see two horses copulating behind me, which is a native American sign of blessing. Too bad the Danielson’s aren’t Cherokee, but Oklahomans.

With all those weddings to perform, and with the requirement of a sermon for each one, I began a serious collection of sermon stories, a raft of tales and platitudes that would send a blushing bride and anxious groom off into a blaze of glory down Peachtree Road. One time, I joked about wishing I could wave my arms in the sign of the cross, blessing the marriage, sending the happy couple off into their future bliss in white carriage drawn by white horses. And damned if, on that very day, there wasn’t a white coach with white horses waiting after the ceremony to take them into the sunset down Peachtree Road. That nearly did me in, as we say in the biz.

My favorite story to tell in the nuptial rite was about an old Baptist preacher I knew, Will Campbell. Will grew up in Mississippi but went and got educated at Yale. He returned to Mississippi and didn’t last too long in the traditional church. He was noted for his activism, particularly around racial reconciliation. But Will did it his own way. He not only served as a chaplain to the NAACP, but also served as the chaplain to the Ku Klux Klan. He would remind folks that God loved everybody…..even bigots! I am trying hard to remember that these days.

He was famous for his iconoclastic weddings. He would ceremoniously take out the official Marriage License from his black coat pocket, look at it, over the rims of his glasses, inspecting for authenticity, and then wildly sign his name on the dotted line as the officiant. Then he would hold the four-copy document high in the air, held by two fingers, and then drop it, letting the cheap government paper flutter unceremoniously to the ground. When the document hit Mother Earth, Will would solemnly announce: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s. Now, let’s get on with the wedding!

It was his prophetic way of reminding the observers, and most importantly, the couple, of the primacy of the vows that they are making with one another, and before God, and the community. The triadic, covenantal relationship took precedence and priority over any social manners or government sponsored contract! You could hardly miss his point.

Being a young priest, I did not have the brass to quixotically make the prophetic action. I merely told the story of this old Baptist preacher I once knew and let Will live and preach in the telling of the story. It would have to do until I was old enough to find his courage.

That’s probably how I am opening this immediate family ceremony on the marsh. We’ll see. I may melt into a puddle of daddy-of-the-bride tears. All I wanted was to be Steve Martin for the day and, instead, I turn into Karl Malden on the Waterfront.

So as the sun comes up this morning, I find myself centering, focusing, pausing. It will be okay. It will be fine, or as St. Julian of Norwich said, all will be well. Try telling that to a wedding planner or my wife!

Postscript to the wedding: It all went well. A cool breeze kept the skeeters and humidity at bay. Mary Glen and Michael were married, though no horses showed up. Rather, Reagan, my favorite Black Lab, graced the gathering, which will do fine for a sign. Michael’s mother, Kit, and her parents, Kappy and Paul, were there. My Nashville musician son, Thomas, served as the ring bearer for both, and my wife, Mary, fixed the train for our daughter to make her way down the trail to the marsh.

I did not shed a tear, nor did I fall, once again beating the family betting pool. I did tear up when I saw the taped toasts from Mary Glen’s college friends who shared the Barber St. house in Athens, where REM once lived. It was a lovely time, a holy time, that made me glad to find the freedom to break a vow, even when I am officiating while others make their vow of marriage.

Mazel tov, y’all !

Folks With Questions

Can I just admit, or confess, that my religious quest found its answer through the television?

Now, I’m not talking Tammy Fay and Jim, or Pat Robertson, or even Oral Roberts. But it was through the television medium, nonetheless.

I had been dissatisfied with the pat answers of my South of God church. My study of religion in college had only intensified my questioning, beginning with the scholarly search for the historical Jesus by the storied figure of Albert Schweitzer, a medical missionary doctor whose passion for Jesus led him headlong in a quest to get at the real person behind the biblical myth. As I have written, this sent me on my own peculiar journey through Jewish mysticism, Roman Catholic theological scholarship, Trappist monasticism, and even evangelical apologetics. My appetite was voracious but like Mick Jagger, I could not get satisfaction. And, I might add, I tried.

What’s weird is that it was on a Sunday morning after a fraternity party at the Sigma Chi house at Emory that I got a nudge. I had had several flagons of coffee for recovery, and ambled on downstairs to the TV room, a dark place in the basement, suitable for Saturday night sinners, or as Kris wrote, a Sunday morning coming down. I turned on the television, and begin flipping around. Sunday morning TV in those days, before cable, did not offer a lot of options. There were cartoons, church services, and public service programming. Not many options. Sparse.

Suddenly, I came across a round face, cherubic, I would say, of a man. I remember the camera was on a close up take, not revealing his liturgical garb. It took me a second but I soon recognized the language of a preacher, but unlike any preacher I had ever heard. He was talking about a person, a person I had heard about all my life, but in a way that seemed fresh. Rather, than telling me things that I needed to believe, he was asking questions about this person, and asking questions about my life.

Turns out, the person he was talking about was none other than Jesus, a person whose story I thought I knew. Growing up in the church sometimes inoculates you to the power and intensity of the story. This guy was talking about a Jesus that seemed more real to me than I had ever heard it. The preacher, the round faced dude was named Tom Bowers, the priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. The sermon was a part of what I came to know as the “folk mass”, where guitars provided lively music, the communion prayers seemed relatable rather than the rigid Lord’s Supper my church did, twice a year, whether we needed to or not. The spirit of the service seemed joyful. I do remember the other priest leading the worship, a Friar Tuck looking guy with an acoustic guitar, sang a song, “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog”, and asking me to help him drink his wine, which was not very appealing in the glow of the morning after,

I can’t explain it, but it grabbed my attention. So much so, that the next day, I called the
St. Luke’s office to set up an appointment with the Rev. Tom Bowers in order to ask him about my questions. Tom was so gracious in spirit, took me into his office, and fielded all my questions without an ounce of judgment. It was the beginning of my journey into the Episcopal Church, a place where my questions were not only tolerated, but encouraged. Turns out, curiosity is my super power.

What started with a chance encounter via television with an alternative way of Christian faith, led to my coming back there to the Folk Mass on many occasions. It eventually led to me coming with my new wife to join this very parish, and beginning my discernment process for priesthood. The cherubic Tom was gone to a high-octane parish in New York City, St. Bart’s, the same church featured in the movie, Arthur.

Now, Dan was the new rector, looking more like Neil Diamond when he was singing about Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. Dan has an electric energy, with his own winsome style of presenting this Jesus. And Dan surrounded himself with an all star cast of kick-ass priests: Parkins, Gorday, Ruhle, and Temple who skewed me into thinking all Episcopal parishes have stellar staffs. Wrong. Each one gave me a gift, a unique slant on this Jesus. Dan was the ringmaster, and he became my sponsoring priest as I moved on to ordination. It was my Camelot.

Luke’s became my paradigm for church. As a person of questions, it is understandable that I have a native affinity to people who also bring questions to the dance. It is not a surprise that my passion for those unchurched, those outside of the community of faith, has focused my energy.

It makes sense, then, that I have a certain drive to present a church that is open and inviting to those who have questions. When I arrived in Tyler, Texas, I was surprised to find that most people were “churched”, meaning, they were member of an organized church, most of them very traditional. I wanted to make a place for the people, like me, who were full of questions, searchers, questers. I did not see any other churches making a place for those types.

So we began to advertise. My good friend, Holly, explored ways to get us on television, producing ads that put forth a message that we were a church that was welcoming to questions. We worked hard to offer advertising at the traditional news hour that Christ Church was an inviting place to go to church. We actually bought advertising on the last show of Cheers, with me at the altar with a bar towel, saying, “The bad news is that Cheers is closing its doors. But the Good News is that there are churches here in Tyler who will be open this Sunday, and they not only know your name, but more importantly, they know that you are a child of God. Why not visit a church this Sunday?” I think the people in Tyler wondered who that crazy priest was at Christ Church. And I think, some of my members felt the same way!

The other tactic I used was to sponsor a weekly radio show every Sunday night from 9 PM until Midnight. I called the show “The Midnight Minister”, although my friend Trey Yarbrough kidded me by calling me The Prince of Darkness.

The format was simple. I would come on the air playing a variety of eclectic music, which was great fun for me. But I invited the listeners to call in and ask me a pastoral question about faith. It was LIVE radio, so you never knew what crazy questions might come in. I made it clear that I would NOT entertain doctrinal questions nor dogmatic debates during the show. I reassured them I would be happy to talk with any one at my office about any question, but I did not want to bog down the show, fighting over who was right and who was wrong about this or that doctrine, like infant baptism, virgin birth, or inerrancy of Scripture. I wanted the questions to be pastoral in nature, dealing with relationships, spirituality, and life decisions.

People honored my request, for the most part, bringing pressing questions of marriage, relationships, vocation, and purpose. Due to the late hour, we wound up with a lot of folks struggling with alcohol and addiction, and wound up guiding a number of folks to some resources that would assist them in getting a handle on their issue. I never did know what question might be coming my way, which was a blast for me and my brave staff. It sure made it hard to go to sleep after the show was over as my adrenaline level was pretty high. Monday mornings at the church house were rough.

This format offered a way that afforded the caller an anonymity that was not available in a local church. You could ask anything….and people did. For marital issues, to child raising, to dating, to addiction, to finding the meaning for one’s life. It was a great run for me and led a number of folks to come to Christ Church to find a spiritual home in which to grow.

I do need to mention my team. I had two guys who gave me some security in terms of helping me through some of the stickier situations, as well as talking me down after certain crazy shows. Keith Weber, my organist at Christ Church, is like a brother to me. We had gone through personal issues in both of our lives and had been the supportive “other” to one another in those ten years. Keith’s own struggles and battles brought rich experiential wisdom to the show.

The other member of my Midnight Zoo Crew was Paul Kyser. Paul was a producer at the radio station, KTBB, and had become a member of Christ Church. He was invaluable as he knew the practical issues of broadcasting as we sent our voices into the night ether of radio. But Paul’s wit was put to use as a sometime caller, Buck, from Buford, who would serve me up weighty questions in a comical way. Sometimes, we had way too much fun on the airwaves of East Texas, but it was always in service of our mission to use a non-church vehicle to reach out to those people searching for answers.

By the way, Keith is providing musical leadership in Houston, these days, having been nominated for a Grammy. And Paul is now Doctor Paul, a medical doctor in Longview, Texas. He no doubt brings his compassion and comedy to the clinical work that he does as an internist. These two continue their work in another venue, which leads to the question, “What the hell am I doing?”

I guess I am continuing to reach out in non-traditional ways to folks that are motivated by questions of faith. Why am I here? What is the best use of my time and energy in the life I have been given? What does it mean to be compassionate? How can I center myself amid all the distractions? What were the Falcons thinking?

What questions are you dragging along behind you? Old questions from your past, or fresh ones from current struggles, they are where we dive deep into this thing we call life. Care to share yours? I have found that community, in the context of relationship, is where I have found some of my answers. What questions press you? We are gifted with the capacity to question, reflect, think, and eventually, decide. What are you wrestling with? What comes to mind?

My prayer is you find the courage to lean into the question. You may leave with a limp from the encounter with reality, but you may get a blessing.

One True Sentence

I have been writing all my life. Most recently, I’ve been writing a blog every week, about to celebrate my second anniversary of South of God that I began on a Thanksgiving down on St. Simons Island. That’s around one hundred posts. And now, I reside on that island, and write. It’s a long way from the Southside of Atlanta.

I wrote a sports column in high school and college for a local newspaper, my dad called it the Suburban Disturber. It was fun to talk to coaches and make the weekly predictions during football season. Had I known that ESPN was on the horizon, I might have heard a calling from Chris Berman. I thank God that did not happen, unless I was fortunate enough to land with my mensch, Tony Kornheiser.

I wrote papers for professors throughout my academic training, enjoying the opportunity to weave deep research with my natural curiosity. I also took the advice of one of my history professors when he threw down the gauntlet for his students: “Teach me something”, he dared. I loved that challenge and threw down.

I started writing sermons when I was in seminary. It’s a odd genre, combining academics, rhetoric, and storytelling. Oddly, I was given Sunday evening services, not exactly “prime time”, in which to sharpen my sermon sword. Those poor people at Decatur First Baptist were so kind and loving with my youthful attempts at making sense of life. I pray for their souls daily.

Twenty years of weekly sermons installs a certain urgency and pressure. I always remembered my boss, Bill Lancaster, who helped me frame the task for the preacher: Sometimes I have something to say, sometimes I have to say something. By God, I know what the boy meant.

I actually got the opportunity to write free lance articles for an entertainment magazine in Texas, focusing on the variety of music in the region. Honestly, that was the most fun as I got to chase around the region, learning about bluegrass, Cajun, Zydeco, blues, conjunto, just to name a few cultural expressions of the human drive to make music. My favorite was going to Willie’s 4th of July party each year to interview a who’s who of country music, including the man himself. Any time on Willie’s bus is worth the price of admission. And it is true: the road goes on forever, and the party never ends.

Another assignment took me out of Texas. Going over to Eunice, Louisiana to interview Marc Savoy, the Cajun philosopher, was quite a challenge, as Marc does not countenance fools. When I asked about taking in some live Cajun music at Mulate’s in Lafayette, he groaned and said, “Galloway, you don’t need to listen to the ‘yuppified’ Cajun music. You need the real thing!” So he directed me to go down the highway, take a right at the blinking light, and keep going till I see the lights on the hill on the right. Driving into the darkness of rice fields in a bayou thunderstorm, I thought more than once that Marc might have sent this Atlanta city boy on a wild goose chase. That is, until I saw those lights, the lights of D.I.’s, an honest-to-God Cajun juke joint, confirmed by the pick-up trucks in the parking lot. What an experience to not only enjoy, but capture in an article.

The next day, I got to watch the parade of souls who come into Marc’s music store to play Cajun folk music, eat boudin, and drink Dixie beer. My favorite sight was watching these blue collar workers open up their red Craftsman tool boxes, pulling out an ancient fiddle. Marc would call each person by name as they entered the building, transforming them from a beaten-down factory worker into that noble role of musician who makes magic with music. You could watch their bowed backs straighten up to the calling, and see their gait quicken, leaving their back-breaking years behind. I spent the evening with Marc and his amazingly talented wife, Ann Savoy, who has recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. This was my personal briar patch, and I was smart enough to throw myself in.

In all my writing, I have had one mantra that has pounded in my head: Write one true sentence.

I don’t have the brass to identify who said that line and and where I first learned it. Those of you who know the source will no doubt know why I would shy from even mentioning the name. Like a true believer, I shy away from invoking the Holy Name. But it was offered as writing advice to those who, like me, fear the prospect of running dry. It hangs on the wall, over my computer screen, to remind me, and at times, late at night, to reassure me.

Telling the truth has been my aim, no matter where it leads. That was a vow my mentor, Carlyle Marney, made on the day of his ordination. I did the same, on the Feast of St. Mary, and have extended the commitment to my writing.

So it was interesting this past week when I wrote about my friend, William Wayne Justice, the former U. S. District Court judge in East Texas. I have always subscribed to the notion that feedback is the real Breakfast of Champions, not Wheaties. I had one reader respond with his own take on the fact there was no racism in Tyler. I could pretty well receive that for what it was worth, his opinion. I get it, that from his privileged perspective, there is no problem here. I reminded him of the differing opinions of the folks I had the privilege to listen to who felt the pain of systemic bias.

And, I had another person send a glowing note of praise for this particular piece of writing as my “masterpiece”. I puffed up, for a mere second, and then remembered a comment from someone offering the insight that said I was full of myself. What a roller coaster of emotions for a writer of any kind: an article, a sermon, or a song. That is the price of admission to express your inner thoughts, memories, and feelings publicly on paper. So be it.

Through years of presenting my ideas, thoughts, and opinions, I have become more and more impervious to the slings and arrows of criticism, coming to terms with the risky business of laying your self out there. Climbing into the high pulpit will either break you; lead you to start believing your press clipping, which is deadly as you construct an ego of superiority; or toughen you up to the awakening of one’s mixed reality of motivation. I have slowly learned not to take either the praise or the derision too seriously. I want to attend to the truth that critical comments have, in order to learn from my mistakes and mark the ways in which I got it right….this time.

But speaking the truth, as I see it, it is my joy these days. Nothing gives me a deeper joy that trying to scan the horizon of my existence and scramble to write that one true sentence. I know when I hit that right dominant chord and hear it ring through the darkness. It’s not a bad way to spend one’s time and energy.

One true sentence.

About life, and how short it seems as you live longer.

About love, and the illusions and depths.

About family, biological and chosen.

About discerning the difference between loneliness and solitude.

About God, transcendent and as close as your heartbeat.

About Death, cheating it while you can and embracing it when it comes.

About creativity, seriously playful and playfully serious.

About politics, after this past debate, I have no words.

So, I write, word upon word, sentence after sentence, enjoying the ride. I try to tell the truth from my perspective, with the hope that someone might enjoy the story, resonate with thought, grab a morsel of sustenance.

Yes, I abide in hope, even in such times that we find ourselves swamped in.

One true sentence. No fading of the meaning. No pulling the punch.

One true sentence.

That’s Not Fair

When I arrived in Tyler, Texas, as the new Rector of the downtown Episcopal Church, I was told that this East Texas town was made up of a lot of good people. And I found that was true. Really good people, good hearts, ready to be caring to their neighbors….strikingly so. Over the decade I served in Tyler, I grew to love the people and the place.

However, Tyler was a little late to the party of desegregation that swept our country with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that led to the intentional mixing of races in the educational process in our country. In fact, it was almost twenty years late. Civil rights, as it was known back in the day, which I now simply refer to as equal rights, found Tyler and East Texas to be strangely slow to even begin the dance. More about that later.

Along with the fact of the preponderance of “good” people, I was also told that there were no famous people in Tyler. Well, there was one famous person, Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose, who won the Heisman Trophy as he was the star running back for the University of Texas Longhorns. Unlike many Heisman winners, Earl went on into professional football and made a similar impact there with the Houston Oilers. But Earl no longer lives in Tyler, but Austin. I wound up getting to play golf one day in Austin with Earl, which began my long relationship with the only famous person from Tyler. I was surprised to find out that I was the first person to invite Earl to play at the country club there in Tyler. Folks sure turned out to see their folk hero…. a regular Texas Paul Bunyan. It’s good to be a Friend of Earl.

And there was one infamous person in Tyler, Judge William Wayne Justice. How’s that for a name for a Judge. He was a leading judicial figure in driving the difficult change in desegregation, and was the brunt of the social resistance to this change. People told me he was the most hated man in Tyler. Actually, a Texas publication extended that honor by claiming he was the most hated man in all of Texas. Texans are prone to exaggeration about most things, even hate. But as I listened to conversation at coffee tables and cocktail parties, I found that was not an exaggeration. And so, in my first Christmas Eve sermon, I began my address with that name: William Wayne Justice. I paused after saying it for a full minute, just to let the nervous energy build. Then, I said, “My sermon has nothing to do with William Wayne Justice, but I was told if I wanted to get the attention of a Tyler audience, all I had to do was to mention his name!” There was method in my madness, and the congregation just got served!

It was odd that I came to know this infamous Tyler personality soon thereafter. I had been involved with a movement to improve racial relations in Tyler. Long story short, it led to my house being broken into by the Klan in the middle of the night as a threat. I got a phone call from Judge Justice to offer protection for me and my family, along with an invitation to lunch. Judge Justice told me that he knew what it felt like to stand up for something right and just, and to be the target of hatred. I appreciated his taking time out of his busy work to reassure me, but I had no idea that this would be the beginning of a cherished relationship.

Judge Justice and I began to meet regularly for lunch, which initially centered on the reality of Tyler race relations, but eventually evolved into a conversation about his life and faith. He told me about his preacher calling him out from the pulpit after his desegregation ruling, resulting in his walking out of the church service, and vowing to never go back. He began to ask me questions about faith, about God, about the purpose of church. Treating the questions and my responses gingerly, he finally asked me if it might be okay for him to attend church with me. His question was: would it hurt your reputation if I showed up at your church? Would it cost you if I darkened the door of your church? So from mentioning his name to get folks’ attention, now the man was actually going to show up! Can you say miracle?

Judge Justice started by coming in late, sitting on the back row, to be unobtrusive. If he could have worn a disguise, I’m betting he would have, something Groucho-esque. His distinctive look,, gaunt frame was pretty recognizable. I was proud of my congregation not pointing their fingers at him. Hell, I was happy they didn’t throw him out.

Slowly, he began getting there early, moving up into the middle of the congregation. He attended the Confirmation class, learning about this strange history of the Anglican Church and the legacy of catholic worship, which was new to this former South of God Christian. He decided to join us at Christ Church, and was confirmed by the Episcopal Bishop of Texas, becoming a consistent member of the congregation that met there on the brick streets of Bois d’Arc in downtown Tyler, Christ Church.

In fact, Wayne became one of my most ardent “evangelists”, inviting his friends, and I believe requiring his clerks to come to church. As he told me, he had discovered a “good thing” and wanted to share it, naturally. with his friends. He said he loved my catch phrase: “In the Episcopal Church, you can come to church without checking your mind at the door.” He loved to think, to ask questions, and follow those questions to a conclusion, and then assent by the actions of his life. For me, he was a dream parishioner.

I tell all this to get to the dramatic scene of a church school class that I was teaching one Sunday morning. The class was for adults and was focusing on the difficult teachings of Jesus. This particular Sunday, I was teaching on the parable from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20, which happens to the the Gospel reading for the Episcopal Church this past Sunday.

It’s about a land owner who hires people to work in his vineyard. The owner hires folks to work at the beginning of the work day, then hires on more at noon, then more at three in the afternoon, and then, more at almost quitting time. And at the end of the day, the owner pays the workers the same wage that was agreed on in the initial contract. All the workers got equal pay, regardless to the length of time in the vineyard working.

As I was reading this parable story of Jesus, I could see Judge Justice squirming in his metal chair, the uncomfortable ones that God issued to all churches at the beginning of Creation. They are always gray, and hard, hard on the derriere of Episcopalians, and the butt of South of God folk. You know the ones. He was screwing his bottom into that chair, first to the left, then to the right. I could see, could sense his uncomfortableness with the story because he was sitting on the front row, right it front of me.

And then, he exploded, “That’s not fair!” he offered his U.S. District Court opinion. This brought a long silence in the classroom, until I sustained his objection, “Precisely.” We all enjoyed the move of the Spirit in that Texas morning gathering, and celebrated with the hearty laughter also associated with Texans.

I went on to explain the pedagogical point of Jesus to the people listening to him in the original setting. Jewish folk, who had been part of the Covenant from the very beginning. They were now being joined by the unwashed, the unclean, even the uncircumcised, and given equal rights in this Kingdom of God Jesus was proclaiming. There was a radical tone to this message that this young rabbi was bringing. And to make sure his students got the point, Jesus told this story.

Today, the radical notion of God’ grace remains difficult for us to get out minds and hearts around. In our own time of disorientation as to whose life has value, the story pricks at our own sensibility. There is a native sense of unfairness when we hear it. How can it be fair that the owner of the vineyard pays someone who works for a few minutes at the end of the work day the same wage as the one who has been working from the break of day? It offends us. It shakes us. Judge Justice stands in for the early workers, grumbling, murmuring, complaining to the vineyard owner.

And Jesus’ point seems to be to redirect out natural attention on the vineyard workers to the reality of the scenario, the vineyard owner. It is the prerogative of the owner to set the rules of the day, and set the terms of value. And the owner in the case of our reality is God, who decides to extend Grace to all, whether we like it or not.

That’s so offensive to many of us….most of us. In our logic, the one who works harder, checks off the most boxes, follows the most rules SHOULD be the one who gets the most reward. In the world you and I grew up in, that’s the way it SHOULD work. What was your SAT score, your GPA, your class ranking? That’s the way it worked when I was growing up. My dad and my school counselor “splained it all” to me. Like Joel Goodsen in Risky Business, who did some respectable work in high school. But Mr. Rutherford reminded him it was not quite up to Ivy League standards. But Joel had learned his lesson, through all his sixteen years, that sometimes you have to say, “What the hell?” I’m cleaning it up for you, but Joel knows the score. He realizes he’s not measuring up. He is one of those servants who came late to the work party, so he’s not getting into Princeton. And then…. the surprise ending is that he DOES get in, a moment of grace.

Jesus is seen and heard breaking the rules of logic, extending God’s love and regard to all people, regardless. REGARDLESS. A surprise ending in the cosmic story of our existence.

Let’s be honest. It offends us. It can get under our skin, this grace thing. How are people going to behave themselves if the rules of efficiency and fairness are ignored by some foolish owner who decides to change those very nature of the game?

My own sense is that this is at the very heart of our problem in religion. Religion is, by nature, a structure of rules made to keep the order. It’s the natural driver behind our native desire for order. But, the Gospel, literally the Good News, is that the Vineyard Owner, the Creator, God, loves us and cares for us REGARDLESS, without regard to how many rules we keep…..or break. It is mind-blowing. It was mind-blowing to those who first heard it from Jesus. It was mind-blowing to Judge William Wayne Justice and his trained sense of fairness. And my hunch is, it is mind-blowing to you. YOU.

I have to confess that the real perk of being a priest was watching the mind-blowing power of God’s Grace mess with folks. I got a front-row seat in the Transformation Circus. To get to watch Wayne, to listen to his wonderings, his protests, his amazement, and to see him embrace the radical reality of Grace. And then, as a old man, begin to live out of that discovery. It was a blessing which makes me smile as I remember it.

It was the same years ago with the letter writer, Paul, who was grabbed by this notion of Grace, even though he too had been trained in the very structures of legalism. His mind was blown, to the point that he found himself proclaiming that in this Christ-filled world, there is no male nor female, slave or free, Jew nor Greek.

How do you respond to Jesus’ story? “It’s not fair!” seems to be the natural response. But then, when you pause to play within Jesus’ pool of Grace, splashing the waters on those you know, and dipping your own broken soul in these healing waters, do you find yourself opening to a deeper Truth that the Lord of Life might be intimating? Can you catch a whiff of this amazing thing called Grace?

It’s not fair, but it true. And that’s terrible news for those who like laws, limits, clarity. We become swamped by our need for bring “right”, and in order. But it was good news for my friend, Wayne, who found a rare kind of freedom late in life. How is it for you? Time of your life?

Taking Care of Your Self

This weekend, I became acutely aware of the effects and drain of this pandemic on our community. I have been been in contact with many healthcare workers who have been on the front lines of the work of saving lives in emergency rooms and intensive care units. But sometimes, the sustained intensity of those moments blur the line of pain that we can see in the people around us.

My wake up call happened over the weekend. A young priest colleague in a town in Georgia took her life. By young, she was my daughter’s age on that dark night. I am not certain as to the details of what led to that decision, but my hunch is that the stress of living in this peculiar time is getting to us, and it got to her. I grieve for the pain that she must have been experiencing in that moment in which she could see no way through.

I listen weekly to the clergy I coach express their emotions around the difficulty in leading during a time for which they were not prepared. Having to become a producer of a broadcast, to preach without a congregation in front of you, to not have the human interaction that is the lifeblood of a congregation……all of this combines to make for a time of stress for clergy. They are attempting to give care to their parishioners, who have their own worries about their loved ones, their jobs, their particular disrupted lives.

We’ve been at this for over half a year, with the end not in sight. The normal uptick that occurs as we approach Fall is not there. The typical September start up and enthusiasm is a bit subdued, at best, dude. It’s weighing heavy on everyone, clergy and other caregivers, especially if they don’t tend to their own self-care. Any one of us can get into some serious trouble.

In my work with healthcare professionals, I predicted some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the severe work hours, the intensity, and the sheer number of deaths. That’s proving to be true, as well as a rise in domestic violence and abuse of substances. Even docs and nurses who served in war zones have told me that this is different, and more taxing. Not only are you dealing with death, but your own susceptibility of contracting the virus, added to the fear of infecting your family. I had two emergency room docs in New York City, badass combat docs, breakdown into tears in the middle of the worst of it. Refrigerated trucks parked in the adjacent lot that held the deceased bodies were a constant reminder of the devastation at hand. Hospitals are needing to take care of the caregivers in a responsive and creative way.

This is true for all caregivers. Priests, ministers, teachers, social workers, all types of people who are called to pour out themselves for others must be sure to “fill up” and not allow themselves to dry up.

This is, in fact, true for all people. We must take the time and energy to invest in our self care. My grandfather who was a cop, who did his work with a servant’s attitude, back before there was such an innovation called “community policing”, used to tell me a simple line of truth: “You can’t give what you ain’t got.” It rather homey, but true nonetheless. You are only able to give when you have been filled up by your own self care.

I spend a lot of my time teaching Emotional Intelligence, that is, the ability of a human being to be both self-aware of what’s going on inside of oneself as well as be empathetic with what’s going on inside of the people around. This takes a lot of energy, not only with being attentive to what emotions are being stirred up inside of oneself, but taking the time to tune into what emotions are perking in the other. Are they hurt? Are they angry? Do they need some attention, or do they want to be left alone? Anyone whose job demands that they take care of other people knows what this feels like. We call it empathy, that is, feeling WITH another human being in the messiness of life. It requires a great deal of energy and patience. Some of us come by it naturally (my mother schooled me), but the good news is that we can learn to become more tuned in, more sensitive as we tend to the other.

But along with the teaching of self awareness and empathy of Emotional Intelligence. we have to train people to take care of themselves: self care. Without it, we can burn out, we can experience “compassion fatigue” which can slowly invade our mind and turn our view of the world dark.

So, how do you tend to self care? One is by taking some time off, where you are filling yourself up, rather than spending your inner resources on others. For me, it used to be sailing on Thursday, single-handing my boat or taking a friend along. Either way, it was a renovating experience of life that fed my soul. It’s different for every person. It can be painting with watercolor or oils, reading classic books or trash, exercise or birding. It can be playing golf for those of us dogged victims condemned to an inexorable fate. Whatever. It’s what the ancients called Sabbath time, or as we make it more colloquial, “down time”. How do you take care of yourself?

Another way is by connecting with others. For me, when I was under pressure, some sort of a therapeutic relationship was helpful. Sometimes that was with a particular shrink, Freudian or Jungian, but human. Sometimes, I enjoyed the care and challenge of a group of colleagues, or just a group of fellow travelers. And sometime, it was my golf buddies who I could pal around with, cut up with. One of my favorites was a Texan, who had the perfect drawl. But if I was ever getting down, feeling sorry for myself, he would pipe in with the Texas folk wisdom that I love: “Oh David, don’t be so hard on yourself….that’s what we are here for!” That’s a sense of humor that keeps you grounded.

Frankly, listening to the people I coach, made up of leaders, clergy, and caregivers, I am noticing a low-grade depression. It’s different than I have experienced in the past. It feels a bit more like exhaustion, of being tired of the new way things are. The hoped for “quick end” is not in sight. There’s a little lack of the normal spirit I sense in my folks, maybe due to being worn down over the last half year.

I know what I am going to do this week in our coaching sessions. I am going to talk about it.

Our tendency is to not mention this kind of thing and just focus on the work we have to do, do some creative playful imagining, to make some action plans, and then get on with it. But not this week.

I am going to pause, take the temperature of the water we are sitting in to see if the heat is rising ever so imperceptibly, so that we might miss it. I’m going to take my time to see where people are, rather than just jump right in, which I can easily do in my typical push. We need to check on each other in this strange time of Covid, this election time of division, this tense time of race. We need to care for one another, and….to take care of our self.

How are you taking care of your self?

If you are feeling troubled, a bit listless, or sad, you might reach out to a friend by phone. Not as good as in person, but I’ve been surprised at how good a phone call can feel.

Or, reach out to a professional, someone who knows how to help you through the tough times, those times that are a part of being human.

If you are hurting, and worried about hurting yourself, get your sweet self to the local Emergency Room. Don’t let the rumination on bad times, tough times fool you into thinking there’s no way out of this predicament. There is. Take that step toward recovery. We’ve all been there in that dark night. Make your move toward healing.

Finally, if you don’t know where to turn, you can call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There are people there trained to get you the help you need. There are people who care about your well-being.

Check it out: how are you doing with your self care? What do you need to be doing to take care of your self in this crazy time? There are people ready to help. But, as I learned once again this weekend, it’s your move. Take care of your self out there.

Who Comes to Mind?

I was watching the rebroadcast of a PBS documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.

I remember Mr. Rogers, though it came a bit before my time. It hit my brother at just about the right season in his development so I do remember catching glimpses of it, “hey neighbor!!”, and probably making fun of it. Trips to the Magic Kingdom had a different connotation to me at that time. I remember Eddie Murphy’s famous take off of Mr. Rogers going to the “hood” which was hilarious, “thank you, boys and girls”. I recall being puzzled by the “land of make believe” and the rather simple characters that did not catch my attention. When I saw Fred Rogers slip into his comfortable sweater and shoes, it was a sign for me to head to my own room and listen to Santana, the Stones, or the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper was my King Friday.

Like most PBS specials, this was so well produced, dredging up footage from the early days of rather primitive production, but moving into deeper waters as to the motivation behind the man. Fred had intended to go to seminary but got short-stopped into the idea of producing a television show that was pitched toward young children.

The documentary looks at his growing up in a privileged background, but being susceptible to the taunts of his peers, as they referred to him as Fat Freddie. The piece does not deal with how he transformed into a more confident Fred, but does make a curious point that he slimmed down to a weight of 143, which he meticulously guarded throughout his life by swimming daily at the Athletic Club. Delving into numerological prompts. it is disclosed that the number represented the number of letters in the three most important words to Mr. Rogers: I Love You. Seemingly, his earlier taunting caused him to be particularly sensitive to issues of esteem in young children. Mr. Rogers was known specifically for offering the reassurance that “you’re special” to children that tuned into his daily show.

Examining the evolution of the show’s format as the years went by is fascinating. The practicality of funding is addressed as Fred Rogers spoke to Congress about his mission of providing self esteem to children who are listening. His balanced, yet passionate rationale for his show proved convincing, leading a previously skeptical Congressman to exclaim that Mr. Rogers’s testimony won the show five million dollars of funding. Oh, for the days when Congressional funding was more based in caring for our children and their development instead of showboating and blocking partisan maneuvering.

Having played in the waters of Piaget and the education of children, I was fascinated by the way Rogers took the perspective of the child and pitched his material to meet their specific cognitive capability and needs. His empathy for the unique position and vulnerability of a child is amazing as many educators forget that perspective as they deliver information. You sensed, as he interacted with all different types of children, that he really cared. It’s hard to fake that, as politicians know.

Eventually, he began to take on topics that less courageous folks would avoid. He shared a wading pool with the policeman who was black, to experientially address the issue of integration, an issue that was real to me as a child swimming at the Oakland City pool in Atlanta. I remember parents taking their children out of the pool in a hot hurry when blacks “invaded” the community pool. My grandfather, a cop, kept me in, without so much as a word. That is, until I asked him, which he explained in simple terms of us all being God’s children. Made sense then. Makes sense now.

Mr. Rogers plucked a dead fish from the aquarium, examining it and observing that it was not moving, becoming an opportunity to discuss death. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, he showed pictures of people crying, not hiding reality from these young children. He took the time and space to talk about sadness, of how it feels when bad things happen. When 9/11 occurred, PBS smartly trotted out Mr. Rogers to talk about how you deal with such terrible things.

I was struck by one piece of advice that he offered at times when one was scared. He encouraged children to look to the one’s who are providing help. Go there. Those people will see you through this bad time. It’s advice I have thought a lot about lately.

The documentary goes on to the conclusion of Mr. Rogers production and his struggle with aging and death. His wife tells touchingly of his asking her if he will be a sheep. This is an explicit reference to the scene in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, of The Final Judgment, where God separates the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous. “Will I be a sheep?” he queries, just as a little child might. And his wife responds that if she knew anyone who was a sheep, it would be him. It is a powerful, pure moment as the question of worth and esteem emerges for a final time for Freddie, and hopefully got answered.

The show is a tour de force, displaying the care and the careful way Fred Rogers sought to engage the children in our country. It concludes as the various players in the program are asked to bring to mind the one person who made them feel that they were of worth, or as I would frame it, one person who blessed you with the knowledge that you were loved.

The camera goes to most of the faces that had been talking throughout the documentary. It frames and focuses, pauses, and holds for silence. You can visually see the cogs and wheels turning in their cerebrum, searching for images of people who have conveyed that holy message of worth, of value, and esteem. You can imagine that, for many of them, it was Fred who came to mind. I wondered as the camera focused on Fred’s two sons, and who came to mind for them. For each person who was asked, a small knowing smile, and look of peace emerged as they remembered a sacred moment in time when that blessing was conferred.

Isn’t that the way it is? We are graced by encounters with people who bless us with conferring an affirmation of our down, deep goodness that can not be taken away. If we are fortunate, it may be our parents, but that’s messy territory that gets a bit confusing. Sometimes, it may be a teacher who saw something special in us and tried to nurture it. It might be someone from our particular neighborhood or community that decides to invest the time in getting to know us, and then gives us that sense of worth, of value. However it comes, it is blessing. It is sacred. It is gift.

Who was that person for you? Stop. Right now. Pause. Catch in your mind’s eye the person who gave you that gift, that existential blessing. savor that moment, that exquisite feeling. Who comes to mind that makes you smile?

Follow the Leader

For forty years, my Sunday mornings were spent at the church house. Teaching, preaching, celebrating, presiding, praying, greeting, dodging, and connecting.

Little did I know of the holy space and time called CBS Sunday Morning. It is such a fine show, giving the Lord God a run for the money on Sunday morning. If God was as “small” as some of our leaders, God would be unnerved by losing the Arbitron viewing ratings… is not a good thing to fall into the hands of a jealous God, I am told.

Obviously, God did not smite the hosts of this show. Charles Kuralt, Charles Osgood, and now Jane Pauley anchor the show that presents substantive pieces of journalism over the course of an hour and a half. I confess that, upon finding the freedom of schedule, it became my Sunday morning time of collecting my self at that pause between weeks. It was with a sense of religious commitment that I would turn my Smart TV on each Sunday at the divinely appointed hour.

That is, until the blessing/curse of the pandemic. I was curious as to how church might be done in such a time where social contact was not allowed. Through Zoom and Facebook, I was lured back into the fold of Sunday morning church, forsaking CBS for CCF, Christ Church Frederica.

I marvel at the creativity of Tom Purdy, the rector of the Episcopal parish on St. Simons Island, my new home. I think he digs the medium and secretly longs to be a television producer. I have been surprised by the effectiveness of the presentation, of how I feel connected with the congregation without the usual physicality of gathering in a specific place and time. As a sacramental person, I long for the connection through the blessed bread and wine, but this will do for the moment. I am a sucker for creativity.

Strangely, I now find myself “booked” every Sunday morning, watching Christ Church at 9:15, New Life Cathedral (a black Pentecostal church in Brooklyn NYC at 10, or St. Mark’s, Brunswick, and Holy Nativity Episcopal, also on the island, Simons not Long, at the traditional 11 o’clock hour. I am not missing Jane and crew, nor Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. And heavens to Betsy, whatever the hell that means, I find myself looking forward to it. What’s wrong with this picture?

This past Sunday, I was watching intently as the Celebrant was offering the Eucharistic Prayer, an ancient action from the days of gathering with the early church, under the persecution of Rome, not just some damn virus. I focused on the priest’s manual acts, the precise motions and actions of the hands of a sacramental actor, as he said these prayers. Priests, particularly those of us from a certain breed, spend hours studying the choreography of this sacred act. After reciting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (what we South of God folks call it), the celebrant typically elevates the bread and the wine, and holds it midair for an eternal moment. This week something holy happened for me in cyberspace.

As the Celebrant lifted the bread, my memory sent me back in time to my days at the Cathedral in Atlanta. I remembered standing to the side of my bishop, Judson Child, as he celebrated the Eucharist. At times, it was at the High Altar, and on other occasions, it was in the intimacy of the chapel. Each time, Jud would elevate the bread, or the chalice, and would quietly say this odd phrase: Dominus Meus, Deus Meus. It was uttered with a reverence that took my breath away. Luckily after four years of Latin in high school from Ms. Speer, I knew what he was saying, and knew he was not speaking in tongues. “My Lord, My God”.

Those of you familiar with Scripture will recognize these words coming from Thomas. It was after Thomas showed up late for Easter. The women at the tomb, the disciples gathered…. all experienced the Risen Christ on that pivotal third day. The first day, they witnessed Jesus suffer and die, executed as a criminal. The second day, they waited, not knowing, anxious as to what was next. And then, on the third day, they experienced the Risen Christ.

But not Thomas. For some reason, he was not there in the gathering room with the others. He comes in late, like us. We too are late to the party.

Thomas is tellingly disturbed by missing the action, and he in frustration blurts out that unless he can see and touch Jesus himself, he would not believe. And here, Thomas stands in for us….at least for me.

I have a deep affection for Thomas, I confess, as he is me. He embodies the need to experience the Christ for himself, not just hear about it in third person telling. He’s not a doubter, Doubting Thomas. He’s just late… I said, like us. Thomas the Tardy.

Thomas was my touch point when I was wrestling with what to do with this Jesus. I could easily sign on with his ethical teachings, radical as they are about loving one’s enemy. I enjoyed his teaching parables….I’m South of God, so I love a story. But this Resurrection thing…..that flies in the face of my scientific mindset and training. Like Thomas, I needed to experience it for myself, just not hear a report. Second hand will not do. I don’t just want you to tell me about the movie. I want to see it my own damn self.

Pause: I named my first-born Thomas. It was over-determined as my spiritual director, Tom Francis, my therapist, Tom Malone, and my primary source of learning, Thomas Merton, all led me to a love for the name. My brother-in-law, Tommy, thinks my son was named for him, so let’s keep this among ourselves. But more importantly to all of this, Thomas of Bible fame is my person in the story that I identify with. Back to the action.

When Jesus shows up again, to allow Thomas to experience the Risen Christ, his faithful exclamation explodes as he touches the very wounds: My Lord, my God! Dominus Meus, Deus Meus!

My own experience of the Risen Christ has occurred when I see, feel, even touch the connection with Christ that death can not erase. For me, that experiential moment came and comes when I gather with other persons around a table that we set in common. There the Spirit creates a transcendent and imminent connection that re-minds me of the Christ that is in me, and the Christ that is in my sister and brother, even in my enemy. My ordaining bishop, Judson, who was from the strange land of Jersey, experienced that connection and would proclaim with Thomas: My Lord, My God, when he celebrated the holy mysteries of the Eucharist. As I watched him, and marveled at his devotion, his commitment, his joy, I consciously and unconsciously decided to follow him. My own practice of being a priest, of being a person took note of his way of leaning into life.

So in this odd time of corona, watching a Zoom broadcast, I strangely touched the Christ again.

This peculiar moment of watching another priest, in another place, at another time put me in touch with this person, Judson, who was formative in my person. And in that moment, I was grateful to have such a leader to follow.

This begs the question: who are you following? From whom do you get your cues as to how to live your life? Is there someone presently who you look to? Are there voices from the past that whisper, or yell, in your ear as to what is important, what you need to pay attention to?

I have a host of those figures. My mentor, Marney, called them your “balcony” people. I prefer that term to Freud’s super ego. It’s the people who stand on the balcony of our lives and call to us to live out our best, to aspire to the highest goals, to live a life that is worthy. Who are your “balcony people”?

Marney also observed that we have “cellar people”, people who call up from the basement, reminding us of our failures, our shortcomings, cautioning us to not stretch, trading in that toxic commodity known as fear. These dark figures employ fear for the future, and shame from the past. Who are these “cellar folk” in your life?

The art of being a person seems to be orchestrating those various voices and attending to those who call you to your best self, while quieting those voices that want to pull you down.

For me, my daily rhythm of morning and evening prayer and meditation focuses my attention on the aspirational sounds of faithful living. And on Sunday, my Sabbath time, I am able to touch the reality that calls me to my best self, the Christ in me, even if only through a cyber prompt. I prefer the real thing, in the messiness and inconvenience of gathering with other persons. But even in this odd time of pandemic, of Zoom and Facebook, the reality breaks through on occasion, if I am present and paying attention.

And I gasp, Dominus meus, Deus Meus, following my leader as I lean into the future.

A Horse They Call Music

I have always been a sucker for a song. One gets in my head, and it rules my day.

My friend, Andy, calls them ear worms, songs that sneak in and won’t let you go.

I am infested. My hippocampus is chocked full of bubble gum songs of the 60s, protest anthems, rock and blues. My piano friend, Tom Greenbaum snuck in some Sinatra and show tunes, and Oscar Peterson claims a top spot on my hit list. And horn bands, Chicago and Tower of Power provide a music bed to my living of these days. My mother accused me of needing a theme song for the background of my life. She was right.

But there are some special songs, logged in with some association with signature times, halcyon days. The Allman Brothers transport me back to high school days, what the Boss called Glory Days. It feels mystical, magical as it happens to me. I am not in control. A song from Idlewild South comes on and it takes control of my soul. Later, it would be Eat A Peach, but in those early days, it was Idlewild that danced in my soul.

From the upbeat rhythm of Revival, to the sliding moves of Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, and the plaintive plea of Midnight Rider, the haunting melody of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, and the slinking tribute to the blues in Hoochie Coochie Man, this album formed the primal beat to my adolescent birth of a soul.

Formation takes time. I listened to that album over and over in the sanctum of my high school bedroom in the basement of my East Point suburban home. But more memorable, it was the constant presence in the red Datsun of my friend, Pat Whaley, as we took the half hour drive to Clayton Junior College the senior year of high school.

Pat, Tommy Elder, and I were enrolled in a Criminal Justice course, thanks to the innovative thinking of my amazing teacher, Mrs. Melvin. Amazing Melvin, breaking the rules to sponsor the learning and curiosity of her students. Oh, for a hundred of her breed. She negotiated  with Clayton Junior, Fulton County, and our local administration to get us a “pass” so that we could get this opportunity to learn, to taste the excitement of moving out into to the world a few months before we graduated from our parochial cocoon. Think Jack Black and the School of Rock gone legal. She had sponsored the moot court trials, took us to the My-Lai hearings at Ft. Mac (now Tyler Perry’s studio), and sprung me to go to see F. Lee Bailey try a civil rights case in Clayton County. Amazing Melvin.

Riding in Pat’s car, freshly equipped with an 8 track player in his glove compartment, we listened to a constant stream of the Allman Brothers tunes as we made our escape from the concrete prison of high school to the freedom of a junior college. It was our ticket, our chance, and we knew it and took it, with a smile, wind in our hair, Wayfarers on.

Pat, Tommy, and I talked about our dreams, about things that are important to teenagers, to adolescent boys with a fresh injection of hormones, experimenting in our exercise of freedom, longing to break out of our constraints. I don’t recall the specifics, just the spirit of expectation, of dare, of dreams, of “miles to go before we sleep”, our high school, Briarwood’s Frostian motto.

I do remember going into the college classroom, mingling with the law enforcement recruits who were required to take this class on legal matters. This was in the era of Viet Nam so there seemed to be some tension in the room, with those interested in how we enforce the law, and  those of us enamored with this novel view of civil rights. Plus, we cast a bit of a hippie dippy persona as opposed to the crew-cut dudes in the class. I am certain they were thrilled to have three smart ass high school seniors invade their kingdom.

But the thing was, one day, before class, we three started a conversation between us, waiting for class to begin. Pat started it, I believe, talking about an upcoming concert. Suddenly, Tommy, Pat, and I were talking Allman Brothers ALL the time. The police trainees overheard us and joined in. We were talking about the Brothers and their unique style, little did we know at the time, derived from the blues. We talked of seeing them play at Piedmont Park on the steps….for free. And for the excitement of the evolution of what was coming to be known as Southern rock. Music was the horse we rode across the walls that divided us. It was something. We talked about it as we drove back to the southside, in Pat’s red Datsun, with the Allman Brothers playing on the 8-track. Music connected the disparate across the divide. I think that was the first time I consciously recognized is power that music has.

I heard a story of jazz legend, Dave Brubeck, playing a show in Atlanta, that was segregated by race, employing a purple, velvet rope down the middle of the crowd……blacks separated from whites. But when the music started, the spirit of the groove provided the energy for that rope to drop, as the divide, artificially constructed, came down. The fear that drove such separation vanished in the night as the horse they called music once again jumped the barrier.

During my seminary and doctoral work, my roommate was my friend, Eddie Owen. Eddie had been a phenomenal all-around athlete as a kid growing up in Stockbridge. He wound up playing tennis for Georgia State, later becoming a teaching pro out in Stone Mountain. Post divorce, Eddie and I lived together in a large house with a bunch of broken down Baptist ministers, the fabled Menagerie Farm, where Lightfoot and Buffett played continuously, beer flowed, and depression tried to rule. Eddie and I escaped the Farm, moving to an apartment near my work at Emory.

Everyone knew Eddie could throw a football, and had a wicked backhand, but few were aware that he had a gift of a gorgeous tenor voice. I convinced him to try out for a part in a production I did of Godspell, and it was magic. It grabbed his soul, this live music thing, He started a small operation in Decatur during its amazing renewal, morphing into Eddie’s Attic, that became THE acoustic room in the Atlanta music scene. He was a believer, and a promoter of the power of live music, and my sense is, Eddie rode that horse called music, breaking down social barriers, making Decatur the special piece of Atlanta that it is. Now days, Eddie rides the horse out in Duluth at his new venue called the Foundry, where he pursues the mysterious power of live music.

In the middle of this pandemic, in the racially charged present, and the hype of political conventions and the wake of their talking points, I have gone to my private pasture to catch my favorite horse, and ride. I grab some Hiatt, some Lovett, a little Raitt, even some B. B.. And off I ride, looking for the magic, the freedom, the hope.

In the middle of all the political posturing by both parties, I have been thinking about things that unite us, rather than separate us. Surely, our hope for lives of meaning, of living in freedom, and pursuing our passions are common dimensions of our humanity that we share. Those who trade in fear and distrust will do their work to separate us, perhaps not with velvet ropes, but with strains of distrust, with screeches of fear.

I find myself wishing for that old horse of music that I have loved through my years, a horse that can jump barriers, ropes, class, even walls. I enter this time in our country’s common life with a song in my heart, and as the song says, a tear in my eye. That’s a song that St. Willie sings, the Red Headed Stranger, and it puts a catch in my throat and a smile on my face. I know we are united, in spite of all that would divide. I have bet my life on it.

I love the Allman Brothers, but clearly, I have some Texas hidden here in my heart. What horse are you riding these days, partner? My old saddle pals, Pat and Tommy, are gone, but memories linger, and the Midnight Rider rides on.

A Well-Worn Bible

In August of 1976, I left Atlanta to go to Louisville, Kentucky.

I was following the advice of developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, to take a “pause”.

I had graduated from college in the Spring, facing the reality that I did not know what I wanted to do with my one, wild and precious life, thanks Mary Oliver, who had not written that line at that point.

Emory College had done a hell of a job giving me a liberal arts education. I had been able to experience the breadth of human knowledge, cavorting with Shakespeare, physics, history of art, religion, political science, history, and economics. I had started school with the inclination toward medicine, psychiatry in particular. I had worked for a former Congressman, who turned my attention to law or politics. And a summer working with youth brought the suggestion from some that I consider the ministry.

Doctor, lawyer, tribal chief?

The Congressman, Jim Mackay, suggested that I spend this “gap” year working in the Carter campaign. He had introduced me to Governor Carter while sailing up on Lanier. Mackay said it would be great experience, but I, in my 20 year old wisdom, said that Carter was going nowhere fast. Why waste the year? The first of many bad decisions.

Having finished classes at the end of Fall, I worked as a bouncer at a club in Sandy Springs, my first of two times trying to keep order in that neck of the woods. The other would be when I was the Rector of Holy Innocents……pretty much the same job.

In Spring, I begged my way into the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Georgia Baptist Hospital. Here I would be serving as a chaplain on a neurological/orthopedic floor to folks who were in a life and death struggle, just the ticket for a 20 year old, baby-faced kid. I’m sure they were thrilled to see me walk in the room to comfort them in their hour of need.

My supervisor was rightly concerned at my presence. But his main concern was my interaction with the student nurses. As I interviewed for this position, he queried, pointing out his window toward the hospital, “Galloway, what is that?” Having just finished college, I was on my game and quickly responded, “That’s a hospital, sir.”

“Hell no. I’m talking about the building next to it. It’s a nursing school!” I was quiet, having learned an important lesson.

“Do you know what is in a nursing school?” he asked, and I retorted, “Student nurses?”

“Right. And do you know what I am going to do if I catch you messing around with those student nurses?” Again, a quick learner, I was silent.

“I am going to kick your ass!” I nodded.

“I am going to kick your ass hard!” He had given me the ground rules, something that I should have learned is critical, particularly in the life of institutions.

And so I was accepted into the program, I am sure, in an effort to up the revenue in the chaplaincy department. I was excited because it would give me a chance to see the inside operations of the hospital and interact with a few psychiatrists that provided training.

By the way, on my first day on the floor on 5 East, I saw a nurse that looked just like my favorite Charlie’s Angel, Kate Jackson, and I fell hard. I asked her out, and we began to date intensively…..I’m cleaning it up for the youngsters and my wife. The nurse and I became the talk of the hospital, which landed me in the dreaded supervisor’s office.

“Galloway, what did I tell you?” I quietly responded, “You told me not to mess with those student nurses.”

“And I hear you are dating one of them, causing quite a stir.”

“Sir, she is a floor nurse, and registered nurse, an RN. Not a student nurse!”

“Galloway, you damn literalist!” I later found out that he was involved in the psychological enterprise known as projection.

I finished up my clinical quarter before leaving for my time in Louisville. I planned to work in the psychiatric unit at Norton Children’s Hospital, while taking a few classes at the Southern Baptist seminary for grins. It would be a great year of assessing what I wanted to do with my life.

When I got to the seminary, I found that I needed a proper Bible, one that was one of the accepted translations. I had been reading out of an old Bible in King James, and a paraphrase version, the Living Bible which made it easy to read and understand in modern English. It had a green cover, tellingly soft. The New Testament scholars there referred to it lovingly as the Green Abortion, because of its loose translation of the original Hebrew and Greek.

The “proper” Bible was the Oxford Annotated Bible, although the more literalist version preferred was the New American Standard. You could tell a lot about the person by the Bible they were packing.

I made my way to the bookstore to purchase my “sword”, a Baptist term for God’s Word, aka Bible. This year, the color of the cover was black, which was appropriate to my mood. It was not just any ole black. It was shiny black, glowing like neon. As I would walk across campus, my Bible would glow, announcing to everyone: This Bible is brand spanking new. The Holder of this Bible has not studied it, has not marked, learned, or inwardly digested the Word of God. He clearly does not care. He probably dated student nurses, or nurses, at Georgia Baptist. Warning! A heathen is among you. Warning!

Now, everyone else had well worn Bibles, tattered, marked with highlighters, notes scribbled in holy tones. You could tell the players by the look of the Book!

I am embarrassed to admit that I succumbed to the peer pressure and began to rub, vigorously rub the cover of my new Oxford Bible on the side of my desk late at night. Other students probably have other sins to confess to about their nightly activity, but my secret sin was Bible-rubbing.

It took me nearly two weeks to knock the sheen off that bad boy, but I finally had me a Bible I could be proud of, that made people take notice at my obvious holiness.

I tell you this with a comic slant as I am reflecting on my profound attachment to the Bible here in these latter days. It is not about showing speed in looking up particular verses. It is not about quoting passages that confirm my bias. It is not even succumbing to the temptation of showing off my expertise in the original biblical language of Hebrew and Greek, though I will tell you of the three Greek words for love a the drop of a miter.

It is now more about the overall narrative of the Bible, about our common life that is on full display within the pages. It is about the drama of human existence that oozes from these pages, dusty or not, telling an old, old story of life. Within these pages, I find guidance as to what this life is all about. I witness the struggles of people in the past and gain insights into how to negotiate my own walk. And for me, I am afforded that stories and parables of Jesus, who tip the hand of God in terms of what was intended in Creation.

The good news for me is my Bible is now well-worn, not by artificial rubbing on the formica top of my desk, but by the consistent tending to its deep message of hope. The pattern I identified in last week’s article, the Paschal paradigm, of endings, transition, and new beginnings, is found throughout the text as a way of redemption, a way of moving through the changes in life.

I was fortunate to get the advice of a saint, Howard Thurman, who counseled me to breathe the Bible, not just read it. Drawing on the ancient tradition of lectio divina, he suggested that I “abide” in the words of Scripture, starting me off with Psalm 139, giving me a somatic connection to the Spirit of God in my very being. Over the course of a year, that Psalm spoke into my brokenness and gave me a word of hope that is carried deep in my heart to this day. I chose it to be read at my ordination as it re-minded me of my origin. And, if I have anything to do with it, it will be read as I return to the Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The Bible has become worn for me through prayer, not beating people over the head with it, nor trying to use it as a sales gimmick. I am surprised, happily so, that it is even more prominent in my daily life than in the years I was so busy being holy, smart, and productive. It is a light unto my path, especially in darkness.

How is the Bible for you? Do you fear it? Do you ignore it? Do you use it for your own devices to prove that you are right or more holy? Or is it your companion? Or is it, like Dr. Thurman advised me, a part of your being, the way you move and breathe?

A Pattern to Count On

When life feels like it’s exploding out or imploding in, what does one do?

An old colleague of mine got in touch with me during one of those times in his life recently. He needed to tell me about what was currently disturbing his comfortable reality. It happened to be the disruption of a job, but it could have been one of health, or of a marriage. Disruption comes in various forms, but it breaks apart our sense of control, or more accurately, our illusion of control. It calls the question, and announces that the way things have been are not going to see us through to the morrow.

You know how that feels, right?

Early on in life, it can be the break-up in a relationship that you thought was “true love”. Think again.

It can come in the disruption of a life plan that you thought would be your path into the sunset.

It can be the end of a marriage, where the relational ties that had been frayed, are unraveling for good.

A job loss can prompt a career change and initiate a frantic search.

Or it may come with a gentle but nagging sense of unease with the way things are.

And, thankfully, it can emerge with a persistent longing for a freedom from one’s self-imposed corral. An invitation to run free.

Disruption comes in many forms, sometimes like a bolt of lightening, sometimes as a slow, approaching reality on our horizon, and sometimes from behind, unexpected.

If you have lived a bit of this thing called life, you know the reality of which I am speaking.

In speaking with my friend who was telling me of his disruption, I was reminded of a pattern that I wrote about in my doctoral work many moons ago. It’s a pattern that I think is woven into reality. For those of you who pull back from attribution such patterns to a divine being, you can think of it as a natural process, creative, if you will, that is at work in the nature we share.

For those of us who sense a spiritual reality behind that nature, we can claim that the process has been embedded by our Creator. And those who might claim Jesus as embodying that process in his very incarnated being, we would point to his story as a poignant and dramatic demonstration of a Christ “way” of being that we all share, knowingly or not.

I had grown up in a Christian home in the South, South of God, obviously. I knew all the stories, the Bible ones as well as the local gossip, including who did what and who’s doing who. But the important pattern of which I want to speak avoided me, or I avoided it, as I was growing up. Church, for me, had been another pool of socialization, from Sunday School in gender assigned classes, to youth choir rehearsal mixers, to secret parties held at clueless parents’ homes. Another place to learn or to be socialized.

It wasn’t until I was in my doctoral work that I finally “got” the pattern, or it got me. Confessionally, it had been there all along. I just missed it. Had my mind on other things. But it was through an anthropologist that I finally got it, it clicked.

I’m talking about the book by William Bridges, Transitions. Bridges had lost his job and began to study his own process of going through the change imposed on him. As a phenomenologist, he used van Gennep’s esoteric study of initiation rites in various tribes of folks. As he reframed it, he said it was a three-fold pattern. Endings, Neutral Zones, and New Beginnings. It’s a framework, a heuristic device, for helping you to understand where you are on the map of change. I have used it leading retreats for people on a spiritual journey. I have suggested it as a means for understanding with the persons I saw as a therapist. I have reminded, or “minded” members of my congregation of this key hermeneutical insight in finding one’s way. And I am currently employing it with the people that I coach in leadership.

Endings. Neutral zone. New beginnings.

Endings: It about a major change or shift in one’s reality or life structure. It is sometimes chosen, as one goes to college, gets married, or moves. But often, it is imposed. It is a forced ending, as a loved one dies, a job goes away, or life subjects you to an alteration. Recognizing the ending for what it is and what it means seems to be difficult for many of us, as we long to hang on to “the way things were”. Marking the ending of “what was” becomes the key for a healthy transition. I love the comedic twist of the Texas adage: When your horse dies, dismount!

Neutral Zone: It is characterized by a sense of disorientation. One’s identity, bestowed by role, is often shredded, leaving one with a sense of confusion. The structures that provided the container of one’s life which maintains the status quo has been busted. Everything feels like it ‘s out of the bag, and up for grabs. Rather than the controllable order we crave, we experience disorder. While it may feel like a vague time of dislocation, the Neutral Zone may prompt a profound sense of anxiety where one does not know where one is, nor where one is going. This can last “a spell”, a clinical term my grandmother used. One generally is uncomfortable in such a place and may lead to a premature closure, just to get beyond this “unpleasantness” as we say South of God. My favorite quip here is: Let’s do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong! Such a precipitous move usually is not smart.

New Beginnings: It offers a new structure, the promise of stability in what felt like the vortex of the Kansas twister in the Wizard of Oz. It is characterized by the energy of the birth of the New, the promise of a fresh start. The danger here is making sure that it is truly “new” and not merely a variation on an old, familiar theme. One is tempted to move quickly out of the transition, forgetting to take the “lessons learned” along. These lessons are called “wisdom” and should be remembered and memorialized in an appropriate way. I have no favorite saying for this other than an old admonition I remember: Lean in!

I have used this three-fold pattern in my own life work as well as in my professional work. It provides a map for the road ahead as well as where you are.

Jim Fowler and I used this as our model when we were trying to redesign the ground-breaking work of Carlyle Marney at Interpreter’s House. He would gather ministers from a diversity of traditions at a retreat center in North Carolina. The first week was spent telling your story within a group of fellow travelers. Marney appropriately called it “throwing up”. He also quipped that all people had a story, and that a few knew how to tell it well. Most, not so much.

The second week was spent being introduced to some new way of thinking about the world. Marney would invite leading thinkers to come share what they had learned in order to prompt the imagination of the participants. He would also seed the clouds by dropping tidbits of Marneyisms into the crucible of this sacred time and space.

The third week was about planning how one was going to reenter the place from which one came. It was to be a courageous plan but steeped in practical actions that would make for a healthy reentry. People I have interviewed say the three weeks of Interpreter’s House was life-changing.

Fowler and I took the basic idea of a gathering place, but recognized that we did not have the “genius” of Marney’s being at our disposal. Rather than trying to manage the egos of thirty ministers in a single group, a task only the gargantuan persona of Marney could pull off, we placed them in groups of four. We condensed our program to a single week, and concentrated the time, using the small group to gain more “air time” for each participant. And we kept the work in tension between individual reflection that used journaling and the work one would do within the small group.

Initially, we though we would use Fowler’s Stages of Faith to unlock the mystery and messiness of each participant’s life. However, we found it unwieldy and a bit obtuse for casual consumption. We resorted to my use of Bridges’ accessible three-fold pattern. But we framed it in the Exodus narrative, of the Hebrew people ending their time of slavery in Egypt, of transitioning into a new freedom as they wandered in the wilderness, and finally, their entrance across the river into the Promised Land. It was the rich narrative that provided the backdrop for the Christian Easter experience of the Easter Vigil. We pointed to the three-fold pattern within the life of Jesus: Crucifixion-Holy SaturdayResurrection as the Paschal paradigm. This proved to be a powerful way for our participants to reflect upon their own lives, where they were currently, and how they got there.

The format proved fruitful and was eventually published and used within the Methodist tribe, not only for clergy but for laity as well. I still use it when working with the clergy I am coaching as it gives a good map for the journey, helping persons to see their way through the dark.

Is the pattern suggestive for you? Are you at an Ending, painful, promising, or both?

Does it feel like you are wandering, in the wilderness or the desert? Do you feel like you are going in circles, or caught in a fog?

Or are you entering a new time of life, a new chapter that might be both exciting and scary? How are you making this new beginning in this odd time of pandemic?

I am hoping this pattern that I am pointing out is helpful as you reflect on where you are as well as where you are going. It’s an ancient pattern that puts words to our common experience, and allows us to talk together about our journey.

It might be worth taking some time to reflect and record your insights. Maybe even share it with someone you trust. Or better yet, share it with someone who has no agenda or investment in your life to help you dig a little deeper.

Where are you in your journey, your unique story?