King for a Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero for the Atlanta community. We celebrate his birthday on the third Monday of January, even though his birthday is January 15th. We opt for convenience and consistency over accuracy. Cultural note to self.

It’s a high holy day in my hometown on Atlanta. Back in the day, it was command performance for me at Ebenezer Baptist Church on historic Auburn Avenue in the downtown area. I used to get a special kick out of the long service as ministers and politicians just can’t seem to help themselves. They go way on beyond the five minutes some meeting planner has written on the program agenda. You know, the Holy Spirit and all, just takes a’hold of you and won’t let you go. Or, at least it won’t sit your sweet self down. I’ve been afflicted myself with the disease, but only when I was a visiting preacher at some Holy Spirit filled church that would have been offended if I did not “go on”. In my Episcopal Church, the folks start looking at their watch at twelve minutes. Lunch may call Baptists, but brunch beckons Episcopalians.

In the King Day services, the preachers and politicians go on and on, causing distress in the bladders of the older ministers who are in the seats of honor at the front of the church. They start by wiggling, shifting the weight from one cheek to the other. The betting pool among the young ministers is significant as to which old lion will excuse himself first. i won a few of the betting pools. The key is watching who is getting their fill of coffee prior to the service.

Now, I am of age now that I would be someone to bet upon in a positive or negative way, but due to mobility, I am seated in the back or at home in front of the television. No problem.

Martin Luther King Day means that Federal and State offices are closed. No banks, No mail. I have appreciated that some organizations have tried to turn King Day into a day of giving, an intentional day of service that follows the example that Martin set with his life. It’s a good day for caring for those in need. I always tried to plant a tree, symbolic of caring for the generations to come, after I am long gone. It’s a sacrament of our connection if done with mindfulness.

Odd thing to me is that racists take a King Day holiday, rather than protesting by going to work. Another note to self.

I read an article posted on MLK Day recounting how hated King was back when he was active. I remember from my childhood the intense hate that would flow when Martin’s name was merely mentioned. I have told the story of being in a barber shop on Lee Street in South Atlanta. It is the same street that runs by the former Fort Mac where Tyler Perry has his new studio. The people in the barber shop were on a variety of rants about this black man whom they called a number of bad names. Rabble-rouser was the least offensive name used, as I remember. The N word was interspersed as if an article or conjunction. In my home, that word was capital N Never used, which meant that it was shocking to my young ears. Give me some time in the South and it would still trouble my soul but sound more familiar.

My grandfather, an Atlanta cop, got me up out of my seat in the barber’s chair, and we left that shop, never to return. His simple action of rebellion made an impression on me, a kid. It said to me that you stand up for what you believe. His stance was not fueled by a recent surge in civil rights but an old commitment that he had taught me, the value of all human life. His respect for King and his fight for equality came naturally out of his commitment to God’s Kingdom, and it put him at odds with some of his church friends. But that was a lesson he taught me then, and is still teaching me today, as racism finds odd bedfellows in the Christian ranks. I found it alive and well in East Texas when I pastored there in the belt buckle of the Bible South.

I remembered my first King Day March in downtown Tyler with a smattering of people. The police had been warned of violence and were positioned on the tops of the downtown buildings, rifles with scopes, as we made our way to the Roman cathedral for a King Day celebration where I was speaking.

A few years later, Rabbi Art Flicker sent a video for my fortieth birthday celebration in which he bestowed honor on my name as the man who taught him how to walk in an MLK Day march. He then held up a bulls eye target on his chest, and laughed. It’s funny, only in the rear view mirror.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was and is a deep cultural symbol for the best of what being a Christian means. He embodies the old adage of “walk your talk”. He put flesh and bones on cellophane concepts of love and being nice, polite. We have tried to tame him, to domesticate this tiger of Christian faith, and to some degree, our culture has succeeded. We have relegated him to a park, a busy street name, even a statue. The image is more of a person leading Kum ba yah rather than a pressing yell, scream, demand of equality. But for me, every MLK Day re-minds me of the deeper truth about the man and his dream.

Truth is, when I first started learning New Testament Greek, the typical path of pedagogy was to start, to throw you into the cottonpatch of “easy” Greek, that is, I John, or First John, or in current President speak One John, the winner John.

The Greek indeed is easy to translate. And the message seems clear. “If you say you love God but hate your brother, you are a liar.” Simple enough.

That seals the deal for me. It is what is at the heart of all Martin King taught. Clearly, he expanded it, filled it out, with the moral implications and philosophical sophistication. But this is it. Love is at the heart of it all. It finds form in justice. Paul Tillich explicated it in full and King used it in his doctoral dissertation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the gap between what we said in church on Sunday with how we lived Monday through Friday, and he had the courage to call us out. It remains a damning fact that the 11:00 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in our country.

He also saw the gap with what we aspired to in our Constitution, All Created Equal, with how certain folks were not given their civil rights or allowed to vote.

The context for his most famous I Have A Dream speech seems to be faded in the background. At the time he called for this gathering, America lived within a social caste system that would shock those fresh to the scene, and is even hard for those of us who lived through it to remember. Tweleve million of nineteen million black lived in the Jim Crow South where segregation laws maintained separate hotels, bathrooms, restaurants and infamously drinking fountains. I remember when the pool at Oakland City park in Atlanta was integrated and white folks stopped coming, except for me and my grandfather.

A decade after the historic Brown v. Board of Education that I read about in my first civics course with Miss Allen, school desegregation was on hold, where fewer than one-half of 1 percent of black children attending public schools with white children. These Southern states openly defied the court ruling. Some counties in the South barred blacks from voting. Violence was a ready means used to suppress voter registration. The lynching tree remains a powerful symbol of our past that haunts, though video of unwarranted violence of police on blacks claim current headlines and consciousness.

While signage announced separation in the South, segregation was a reality in the North as well. Neighborhoods keep the lines drawn by redlining by banks and real estate “agreements”. Business was also segregated, limiting black access to parts of the economy.

The beginning of a movement to right this culture of separation is usually noted to have begun with the Bus Boycotts in Montgomery n 1955, with Rosa Parks exercising her rights to sit anywhere on a municipal bus. At the age of 26, young Martin Luther King was elected the president of a group of ministers in that city to support this boycott. He had been a pastor there for about a year, bringing a notion that religion should function within to society to improve the common life rather than merely blessing the status quo. King brought with him a deep connection to the prophetic tradition that felt a call from God to “speak truth to power”. On that night, he began with these words: “As you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression”. While beginning in Montgomery, this young pastor would follow his vision all the way to Washington, DC. in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

There in the national Capitol, in front of the appropriate Lincoln Memorial, with crowds pressing, lining the Reflecting Pool, King followed a series of speakers, including a young John Lewis who electrified the crowd with pragmatic political demands, under-girded by his oratory. After Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson sang, it was time for King to speak.

King began with a pointing back in history to the man whose monument now provided shade but had begun liberation, Abraham Lincoln. King then rehearsed the foundational principles contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution., a promissory note of rights for all people. He continued with his prepared text, talking of democratic principles that flowed from the ethical presuppositions, recounting the atrocities, the trials and tribulations of being a black person in America.

It was in a pregnant pause of his speech that Mahalia Jackson, the singer, interjected a profound prompt: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

King left his prepared text and started to preach: I dream of a day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

And he punctuated the vision, the Dream, with a personal point, that one day, one fine day, his “four little children will live in a nation when they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

It is arguable as to what made the change in this country happen, to the extent that it did. Was it the legal mind and courage of Thurgood Marshall who battled using the courts? Or was it an unlikely Texan, Lyndon Johnson, whose political skills maneuvered the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress?

Or was it this man, the preacher man from my home town who touched the hearts of the people with a vision, with a dream? He literally gave up his life on the balcony of a Memphis motel, spilling his blood for a people and country he loved. And we give him a day, some of us, twenty-four hours to remember the man, this King for a day.

This year, I watched a cadre of high school and college age students from Atlanta present a dramatized presentation of Martin’s written words for a Birmingham jail. It was a diverse group by design, to symbolize the mixed culture we live within in this country. I was moved to tears by the youthful earnestness that reminded me of my own self in days and dust past. Martin’s words pressed again. And the most pressing were those that lamented those in the Church who remain silent, quiet in the face of injustice.

I find my tears dry, and that I resolve, again, to work for that dream he articulated so well. And I am thankful for this day, each year, comes round to call to heart and mind this dream for our land, a promise still awaiting fulfillment. These young people, black, white, brown, red, yellow incarnate King’s dream and gives me hope that it is still alive.

Kidnapping the Baby Jesus…

The manger scene. Mary and Joseph. The shepherds adoring with a few lambs on the side. A cow to lo, in tune please. A angel strategically perched. And a star. There must be a star, star light, star bright, announcing the cosmic news.

This is the typical manger scene. I grew up with one made of cardboard, two dimensional, but holy in my family. It was my job to put it together each year, placing an electric bulb behind the star to illumine the scene. My first directorial lesson: lighting is critical. With job promotions at Delta, my family progressed to an olive wood set from the monastery….more about the theatrical magic of olive wood later.

In my time (a phrase reserved for seasoned persons, aka old, aka older than God), I have come across all kinds of depictions of the Nativity. I have admired wooden manger scenes, carved by artisans of the Southern Highlands of my ancestors. I have seen plastic, life-size mangers, with the Disney-like figures glowing from an incandescent bulb within. And I’ve even witnessed a “live” manger at a local Methodist church, when it’s not raining. Wise men with umbrellas are disconcerting. Production budget did not include Gore-Tex.

I have always been tempted to cast the production with actors that would bring some gravitas to a scene that often becomes sweetly sentimental. Joe Pesci as the innkeeper was always my ace in the hole to bring some comedy relief. The angels would be the divine trio of Linda, Emmylou, and Dolly. Don’t judge me. Joseph would be Liam Neeson as he blends a masculine persona with softness, plus he has the connection with my Christmas guilty pleasure, Love Actually. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary would be Meryl……because she can do anything. Please. If Meryl can deliver in spades the Anti-Mary mother in Big Little Lies, the Immaculate Mary will be a piece of cake.

But you of sharp mind must be wondering why I have left out the main character: the Baby Jesus. He’s what all the fuss is about, angels on high, attending shepherds, and traversing Wise Men.

A couple of South of Godf articles ago, Put the Camera on the Bishop, made note of the traditional Baby Jesus that was front and center in the Cathedral of St. Philip’s television broadcast of the Christmas Eve service. As noted, the camera loved this Baby Jesus….he never saw a camera or a paint brush he didn’t love. But this Buckhead Baby Jesus had a problem…at least for me.

The plastic figure that was happily laying in the manger at the Cathedral in the toney part of Atlanta known reverently as Buckhead was blond haired, blue-eyed Baby Jesus, not looking like he had ever been in Palestine, much less from there. I swear they would have dressed the boy in Ralph Lauren Polo swaddling clothes if they could have made the deal. I did catch a whiff of the scent of Polo as I moved close to the manger. Him or Joseph…a simple carpenter or Son of God? When we went national with the live broadcast, all bets were off and our people were meeting with their people. I think they call it The Art of the Deal.

And so, the scene of the crime is a Saturday morning when the volunteer women of the Altar Guild of the Cathedral were getting out the Christmas decorations. For those of you not familiar with the Episcopal Church, the Altar Guild is a wonderful group of people who take care of the pragmatic work, readying the worship space for our common prayer. Altar guild members come in all sorts and conditions. Some are as sweet and kind as Mother Theresa, some are as bossy and demanding as Adolph himself. Heil. The Mel Brooks in me has always wanted to write a production number of purple draped Altar Guild members doing the Springtime for Hitler number, while decorating and preparing the high altar. Too much, I know.

I was just wandering through church when I saw him, the Buckhead Baby Jesus, the very star of stage and screen, unceremoniously resting in a cardboard box. I thought of the years of watching the Buckhead Baby Jesus reigning on the WSB telecast, how much I hated what it said about our hermeneutical bias on Jesus as a cute little cooing baby white boy from Piedmont Hospital or the Northside baby factory.

When you see your chance, take it!

I grabbed the Blond Buckhead Baby Jesus and took off down the eastern aisle of the nave, heading to my office, scared to death that someone would see the kidnapping in process. What excuse could I offer if I was caught or seen? What, this plastic Baby Jesus? I’ve never seen him before in my whole life? No excuse seemed to work so I just moved quickly past the Dean’s door to my own office suite.

I couldn’t believe I made it, undetected. It was almost TOO easy, like maybe God wanted…..no, I’ll not press my luck.

I took the Baby Jesus to my bathroom. Unknown to me before this encounter, the Buckhead Baby Jesus was hollow in the back, with a cavity where the plastic was molded. This hole proved convenient as I placed him on the clothes hook on the back of the door. Yeah, I know I’m going to Hell.

Way before Amber Alerts, the Buckhead Baby Jesus was reported missing by said Altar Guild who found him mysteriously gone from the Bekins box. Sunday morning was abuzz with the newflash: The Baby Jesus was missing.

Kidnapped, perhaps? What dark-hearted person could have stooped so low as to abscond…love the word…kidnap the Baby Jesus? The coffee hour was rocking with theories as I tried not to laugh.

The next day, at staff meeting, the Dean reported the news that had already broken: Elvis was Dead…..and the Buckhead Baby Jesus was missing. What were we to do?

I had to wait a few minutes, seventeen to be precise, before I offered up the insight that this might afford us the opportunity to choose a more suitable Baby Jesus that was not blond haired, blue eyed. Using my Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s concept of non-anxious presence, I kept calm and did not press my idea for a Generic Jesus. I did not want my creative insight to give away my sinister plan.

Generic Jesus, you quiz? I had come across an infant Jesus just about the right size that was carved from olive wood. Remember “olive wood”. This Baby Jesus was unpainted, no golden locks, no blue eyes. Just olive wood. He could be white, black, Hispanic, Asian or any ethnicity you needed him to be to relate to him. In my theological gymnastics, this olive wood Baby Jesus was the perfect projective Baby Jesus, allowing you to project whatever your background needed him to be. Truly incarnational….He became like us….or more to point: He became like ME!

Clearly. olive wood Baby Jesus could not be the box office hit of the Buckhead Baby Jesus who looked as if he could grow up to be an adult Ashley Wilkes, a Gone With the Wind, looking fellow, like your neighbor and fellow club member. So the camera would not be so fond of the olive wood non-descript Baby Jesus, but it offered the plus side of not cutting off over half the planet.

And so, after the buzz about the kidnapped Baby Jesus settled down, the olive wood Baby Jesus showed up mysteriously on the Dean’s desk with a typed note. The Dean liked the idea and long story short, the new olive wood figure took its place in the creche that Christmas Eve telecast.

Like I predicted, he did not get the attention of the cameraman and director as his predecessor, but it worked. It just meant more camera time for the sopranos, and who is going to complain?

Inquiring minds want to know what happened to the kidnapped Jesus. He resided in the bathroom of the Canon Pastor’s office for several years until the retirement of my supervisor, Herb Beadle. Somehow, at his retirement party with the Cathedral Canons in attendance, a mysterious package showed up. When Herb opened the package, a plastic blond haired blue eyed plastic Baby Jesus was staring up out of the box. Surely, a wise old priest like Herb, leaving the Cathedral, would find the perfect place for him.

And that’s the last time I saw the Buckhead Baby Jesus.

I am tempted to close with “lesson to be learned”. It’s part of my DNA, built in, like plastic to the Buckhead Baby Jesus. But let me trust you with the story. What do you take away from this story of intrigue, set in the Cathedral? Is it merely amusing to watch the ill-conceived plan of a young, foolish priest to kidnap a plastic figurine to satisfy his need for theological purity? Or is it a heroic tale of a valiant Prince of the Pulpit in a quixotic quest to save Christmas from the commercial Grinch? Or, it is simply Crazy Uncle Dave from the Southside once again proving how crazy he can be? The glory and burden on human interpretation emerges once again.

What is your take on this story? Are you focusing on the teller of the story, his motivations? Are you centering your thoughts on the baby Jesus, how he is presented? Are you identifying with this baby, or is God identifying with you?

At the very center of the first Gospel account of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark, there is an encounter of Jesus with Peter. I would note that the Gospel of Mark has no infancy narrative, no Nativity at all. Jesus just shows up with his pressing message of the Kingdom of God inbreaking. No more cooing, cute Baby Jesus, but a person in full, standing up.

Jesus turns to Peter, looks him square in the eyes, and asks the pregnant question: Who do you say that I am? What do you make of this story? And the question remains.

In Touch

When I was a young priest at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, I was blessed to have an old grizzled priest as a supervisor. He had served as a Navy chaplain but wound up as the director of a halfway house for drunks in Atlanta, St. Jude’s House. He said he learned a lot about life on the battlefield of war and on the battlefield of addiction. Both are hell, he would quip.

He was from Texas and had wonderful stories of life there that led me to a romantic view of the state. His stories of Del Rio, of rough and tumble living in the hard scrabble plains appealed to the romantic in me. I was still discovering my Texas roots and he was a good saddle pal on the journey. In his latter days, he joined the staff at the Cathedral and was cast in the role as the wizened old priest. His name was Herb Beadle.

With his down and dirty experience, he was my supervisor as I came on the staff as the lay pastoral assistant, working with the indigents who stopped by the Cathedral in their game of Peachtree pinball, going from church to church, seeking funds. It was a tough job of discernment, trying to determine who had a real need, who could be helped, and who was trying to con you. It was a good place for me to learn about the reality of the street, both good and bad. Perhaps that’s where I learned about “the gray”, the not black and white.

My job also entailed providing pastoral care specifically to the elders of the parish…..that’s a euphemistic term for old people…..like me, now. Old. Aged. Ancient. Experienced. Seasoned. Oh heIl…OLD.

I provided programming for the elders of the Cathedral in a gathering called The Prime Timers….again a euphemism, I got the job by answering honestly in an interview, in which I was asked by an elder professor, why in the world did I want such a low-paying job, given my credentials. My answer was truthful but beyond my wisdom at the time: I want to learn how to be an Episcopalian. These folks can teach me that.

I got the job, over many more stable and qualified folks. I heard later that it was this answer that turned the tide. Call me Deacon Blue.

Part of the joy of my work was tending to the people in the residential high rise behind the Cathedral known as the Cathedral Towers. It was one of the last cooperative projects between the government and church where funds and land were shared to create a space for elders to live in community. As it was just down the hill from the Cathedral, there were a majority of the residents of the Towers who were members of the Cathedral.

I was an immediate hit, beginning a wine and cheese gathering every Friday in the community room, just to get people together. Imagine a former Southern Baptist plowing the fields of salvation with the wedge of cheese and wine! If it was good enough for Jesus…..

When I arrived, the Towers had experienced a rash of suicides which I was not so subtly charged to address. In the past, I had used my doctoral work to get people to begin to talk about their life’s story. I did this with some creative writing, some journaling, and even some exercises that would be called mindfulness exercises today. I wanted them to talk with me, to reminisce.

This is the primary work of old age, said Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst who schooled me with his notions and images of human development. This is the same guy who came up with the term “identity crisis” for young adults. When he turned his attention to old age, he talked about the process of life review. According to Erikson, one gets to the end of life and does the work of reviewing the events of one’s life experience. If one can find a thread of meaning running through one’s life, there is a sense of integrity, your life literally “holds together”. That is good news. However, if there is no sense of integrative meaning, resulting in a kind of randomness, there emerges a sense of despair. This is one of the reasons, clinicians conjecture, for the rise in the rate of suicide among older population.

My therapeutic intervention was in small groups of people gathered to share stories. These gatherings spun off into individual sessions, often revealing the struggles of meaning and faith. One particular man revealed his past failed attempts at suicide. He joked “I can’t even be a success in killing myself!” He allowed me to intervene as his therapist. Truth was, the loss of his wife had been unprocessed, and with just a little work on my part, and stunning courage on his part to face his pain and grief, he took up his paralyzed life, rose up, and walked again, enjoying the life he had left on this planet. Being a single man in a building full of widowed women has it perks….

There are many stories like Don’s, some more dramatic, some tragic. But it was the stuff of life that I was blessed to share with these people, who did, in fact, teach me about being an Episcopalian, but more importantly, taught me about being a human, fully alive.

Back to Herb. One Friday, after a particularly hard day of work, dealing with folks looking for assistance, counseling with folks getting married, and leading groups of older folks getting a hold of their stories, I came to Herb’s office and literally poured myself into his captain’s chair situated in front of his desk.

I looked across the desk at Herb, who was leaning back in his green leather desk chair, a chair that I would later occupy.

I offered up a sentence that was more of a cry for help than it was declarative: Damnit, Herb. I’m depressed on my ass!

Herb replied without a noticeable pause: Ah, lad. Glad to see you are in touch with reality!

Perfect. Truth, unvarnished. No bull, nor horse, or any other excrement. Pure T Texas Truth.

Herb did not launch into a pep talk, a Hallmark card plate of platitudes, nor a coach’s half-time inspirational speech.

Life is hard, at times. It sucks, at times. It can seem unbearable, at times…until you do.

That was the gift my broken down, priest supervisor gave me on that late Friday afternoon.

I have that moment emblazoned in my memory, and I have remembered it, with a laugh and an acknowledging nod throughout my career. Life is a tough go. Let’s get real. As the old song expresses our deep wishes that life could be sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and everything that is wonderful. And it is, at times, a veritable wonderland. But, and there’s a “big butt” here, boys and girls, sometimes life is hard, really hard.

My experience of human beings is that we have a profound tendency to go binary in our thinking, in our processing of what in the world is going on. It’s appealing. It’s more simple. No fussing with complexity. Keep It Simple Stupid, KISS, the advice goes. Either/or, yes/no, black/ white thinking. The fifty-cent word is dichotomizing thinking. All good, all bad. In my mind, I see this image of Frankenstein, bellowing “good”, “bad”. “Fire bad” the green one would opine loudly, that is, until he wanted to barbecue.

And most of us, if we take a moment to reflect, to think about it, realize that life is “both”.

For me, in my moment of despair, Herb was there to re-mind me that life is bad at time, tough sledding, tough stuff, a cluster, FUBAR as my military trained colleague says. What’s your expression to describe how it feels when it all goes sour? Being in touch with reality is not a bad thing. It’s like my Scottish grandmother was known for calling a spade a bloody hoe. Sometimes, admitting how bad it is becomes the first step to recovering.

Truth is, it’s hard to hold two contrasting truths together at one time. We tend to focus on one side of the equation or the other. So how do you keep the balance? How do you keep both sides of the reality in view if you don’t have a Herb Beadle to collapse in front of?

For me, journaling helps. Sitting down, writing down my feelings, owning them, good and bad, happy and sad, joyful and angry, helps me to remember that life is full of both sides. I want to be in touch with reality. Not in denial as to the rough spots, and not forgetting the fantastic parts of merely being alive and aware. Abiding in silence grants me the time and space to “center” in the moment to feel the really good and the really bad. It what works for me. How about you? How do you maintain that balance, staying in touch with reality.

As an older person, I am clearly doing the work Erikson said was the particular work of old age, the work I used to help others do: life review. But this critical review is not the exclusive domain of the elders. It may come to a crescendo in later years but it’s work that we do all along the way. It’s part of life.

I find myself incredibly grateful for having had people like Herb Beadle in my life who taught me some important lessons on the lay of the land in this place we call life. And I am also thankful for the gift of being Herb Beadle for other travelers on the way, helping them to find that balance, assisting them in staying in touch with the wonder of this ride, this long strange trip.

The Perspective of a Spectator

With the eyes of a hawk, I watched the people enter this Episcopal church on an overcast day upon this island, the first Sunday after Christmas.

In the “biz”, we sometimes refer to these Sundays that follow major feast days such as Christmas and Easter as “Low Sundays”. Mostly, it’s descriptive as to the reduction in numbers. We clergy get sensitive to numbers, particularly after “packing the place” on the culturally conducive attendance dates. The attendance is boosted by the holiday car ads of St. Nick driving a Benz or the bunny who lays Cadbury Cream eggs. It’s called collateral marketing and it is a thing.

We clergy tend to be a sensitive sort, and so “Low” can refer to our spirit as well. Sometimes the sheer abundance of activity tends to deflate our balloon of spirit and we leave the major holidays “done”. Smart clergy sometimes leave town, and the conduct of the liturgy, “the work of the people”, to their assistants. Maybe that’s just me. My fellow clergy are probably more sanctified.

So, here I am, still energized by the Christmas Eve craziness, meeting my daughter’s new relatives in-laws, heading to my favorite liturgical spot on the planet, on what is typically a “low” Sunday, but not for me. Not this Sunday.

I have am rarely an observer like this, as I am either cast in the role as actor or director. It’s rather odd, looking on, with no nerves of performance, no blast of adrenaline. Just watching. Observing people in their comings and goings. Odd, that I do not really know these folks as of yet, so my projection and imaginings are as pure as they can get, at least for me….liturgical Rorschach.

I love the people, as they come through the door which is oddly at the side of the church building. The door is closed, so the people have to open it, like a package at Christmas, not knowing what is there: an empty church, a convention of Amway Diamond Distributors, or merely other sojourners ducking inside on their journey in the storm. Was it St. Augustine who opined that life was like a box of chocolates? Wrong saint.

Some enter with anticipation, looking up, to left and to the right. Some look bored, same ole thing, one more time. Some come looking for a place, a seat in which to sit, a pew in which to ride the magical, mystery tour of worship. Some are looking for a simple seat on the bus, to get on down the road.

One of the things I have learned through the years is that each person, no matter how plain or weathered, has a story. It may be that they do not know how to tell it well, but they have a story. It is a story that tells a narrative of how they wound up in this particular and peculiar place at this time. It’s not by mere chance. It may be pure whim this morning, but their presence here is over-determined by many factors that go back to the very eternal moment of their birth. They may not have a natal star, but they do have a story. So many things could have stopped them from being here in this moment.

The car that hydroplaned on the interstate, sliding their vehicle through the median into oncoming traffic.

The bar fight when someone pulled out a gun and shot randomly into the crowd.

The closed artery called the Widowmaker that shut down blood flow.

The drunk driver who crossed the line of sobriety and roadway.

The indigent visitor who pulled a gun on you in the office. Surprise, surprise!

The drug addict who tried to rob you to feed his ravenous habit.

The Klansman whose racism drove him to break into the home.

The angry parishioner who challenged you in the parking lot late in the night.

Wait. That’s just me and how the hell I got here. I’m the spectator, remember!

The truth is that everyone has their own story that could have been truncated by a variety of decisive moments of fate.

And yet you are here. Entering, Looking. Exploring, Deciding. Sitting, Being.

And I find myself watching, spectating, wondering, imagining.

A large man, ruddy-faced with a bushy white beard, like a Santa substitute from Central Casting, but too burly. Perhaps a retired ship’s captain who has found his port of rest.

A couple, old and bent, who enter holding hands in a non-posed way, smiling without words at one another.

A thin woman in grey, who looks like she’s missing someone, a widow perhaps. Her kneeling, her demonstrations of piety speak to deep spirit, still hungry for the Mystery. Or is it routine, something to count on?

A family enters, led by the mother hen, children and husband in tow, taking what I presume is their regular pew, that no one else dares to sit in.

A retirement-aged man, enters alone and sits in the middle of the pew, seemingly inviting someone, anyone, to join him. I did mention “projection”.

A young couple, in their twenties, enter giggling to one another, about the night before, that God might be blushing about, or a joke that only they know.

A preppy boy, with one side of his shirt tail out, who seems to feel out of place, wondering why he is here. But he is.

A twenty-something woman in a jean jacket who literally slides into the building and into the nearest pew she can find. A refugee perhaps, but from what?

A large bearded man, with slicked back hair, very PBS Scots-manor looking, with two red-headed daughters. Or one daughter and a very young wife….which is it? They take up a whole pew and a space in my imagination.

These are just a few of the “all sorts and conditions” of humans that have made their way to this spot in the woods on an island for a time appointed to worship a Creator God, a Spirit that joins us together in our common existence, our birth, our living of our days, and our death. And at a time I dared to call “low”. Not for them! This is life, ordinary, and sublime.

As we gather, I pause. I lean into the space, dragging behind my particular and peculiar story, like a U Haul trailer, and offer my prayer.

A spectator, no more. A participant. A player, perhaps.

What shall it be? The music begins, “Joy to the World”,and my soul begins to dance. Definitely, a player.

Definitely. I’m an excellent player.

Definitely, joy. Thanks, St. Forrest. Or was it Ray?

To Infinity…and Beyond!

The quixotic mantra of Buzz Lightyear is playfully inspiring and funny at the same time. Its represents our finest aspirations, at the same time, revealing our tendency to overreach.

It’s why I am employing it to title the last blog article of South of God this year. It was just over a year ago, in the glow of a Thanksgiving feast, I made a resolve to write a blog “once a week for the next year”. I did the necessary work of setting up the blog with WordPress, launching it into the darkness of cyberspace. A year later, I celebrate the fact that I, in fact, did it!

I know I work best under deadlines, immediate ones, that set boundaries on my illusion of infinite time. Sunday sermons were a perfect form for my work as they were coming, regardless. The structure, the pressure was a good way to squeeze out my thoughts and reflections. I don’t miss climbing into the pulpit, delivering a sermon in front of a congregation, shaking hands at the conclusion. I do miss the process, which I find myself coaching younger colleagues as they take on this bucking bronco called preaching. I find myself grateful for the time I “get” to spend writing South of God, as it has taken the place of such sport.

On this last week of the decade, I thought I would encourage you, as I do myself, to get ready for the new year: To infinity…and beyond…. but let’s do it week by week, day by day.

When I got the assignment from the Dean of the Cathedral to organize the pastoral care of 5000 people, give or take a thousand, I knew that I needed to get organized. I attended a productivity seminar sponsored by a calendar company, aligned with Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. I learned a bunch of principles of time management that have served me well. In fact, I wound up teaching the method to the young clergy of the Diocese of Texas that were moving from the rarefied air of the seminary into their first parish work, a tornadic change of pace that tends to overwhelm, even swamp the best of intentions.

The basic premise is to set goals and then to commit to blocks of time to advance progress towards those goals. Pretty simple, huh? They used a powerful example of taking a large Pyrex beaker, the kind you used in lab experiments, only larger. The teacher would then show a collection of rocks, asking the class to predict how many rocks could fit into the beaker. Let’s say “seven” to follow the Covey line, and they were placed in the beaker. Then comes the trick question: Is it full? Unsuspecting, we say “yes”.

The teacher takes out stone gravel, proceeds to pour into the remaining space. The question is asked again, “Is it full?”. Smart people, like me, are only fooled once. Ahead of the game, and with knowing confidence, I answer emphatically, NO!.

The teacher smiles, takes out a bag of sand, begins to pour it into the beaker, filling it to the brim. “Full?” I may have been born at night, but not last night. NO!

The teacher takes out a jug of water and begins to pour the liquid into the beaker, all the way to the top. Full? the rhetorical question posed, and at last, the slower students confidently state: that sucker is full! And they were finally correct, just like a broken clock.

I loved this example, a scientific parable, if you will. It has stayed with me for forty years, a long damn time.

There are lots of lessons to be inferred from this example, one being to think through your answer before blurting it out. But the point that is relevant to time management is that if you didn’t put in the big rocks first, you could not have fit them in. Lesson: start your week off by scheduling the “big rocks” or projects into your week so that they have a better chance of getting done.

I have refined that insight in a methodology that I have used to schedule my life over the years but the insight has remained the same: plan in blocks.

With that in mind, what are the big projects you want to tackle in this coming year?

I want to suggest you take some time to reflect and think about that before the new year kicks off. I always take a solitary day in which to reflect and then to write down my goals for the coming year. You might want to start out with a dedicated hour, a half of a day. Anything is better than nothing. And in the aftermath of Christmas, it might be in the first month of January before you get to it. But as I continue to champion in this blog, it is your gift to decide, the human distinctive, within limits, how you are going to spend your time and your energy.

Why not start this new year with a simple decision to decide to decide?

If you do, I would encourage you to begin with a look back over the past year, noting the accomplishments of the past year. This begins the planning process with a positive momentum. It also respects the fact that our new beginnings are tied to the endings of the past. This is the nature of reality. So take a moment to name where you have been by looking over the past year.

Then, begin to set the goals for the coming year. My style is to go free-form, just allowing the possible goals to surface as they will, in a kind of popcorn fashion. After a time of brain storming, begin to cluster similar projects together and clarify. I literally draw a map, clustering the ideas, the hopes, the dreams. I draw them, use colors and shapes to give me a picture of my coming year. That must be my mother coming through, the artist I have never been. Finally, channeling my analytic father, I narrow the list to eight to twelve projects for the coming year. Write them formally on a list that will stay in front of you in the year 2020.

However, you are not finished. After the list for the year, specify THREE projects for the coming quarter. My colleague and teacher, Robert Miles, who wrote Big Idea, Big Result, has studied the process of change, namely what makes for success and failure, and pushes for a limitation of only three initiatives for a person or an organization in order to focus and align the resources to be successful. The resistance to limit your view to three is massive. I have fought boards and staffs across the country on this simple point. You must FOCUS, align, on the most important three. I have seen this principle work over and over. I commend it for you consideration and experimentation. The operative word is “focus”.

So, here you are, at the end of a decade, about to begin another. I hope you will take the time and invest the energy in planning for this next year. Decide how you desire to be spent in the year ahead, in the quarter, in the week. These decisions come together to form a life. Where do you want to be in 2030? Time to get started. Now.

How many rocks do you think will fit in this container?

Put the Camera on the Bishop!

Thought I would share a quick, fun story from my past Christmas exploits.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I was a Jedi knight, otherwise known as a Canon in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. I was the youngest Canon by a long shot, most of my colleagues being just a bit older than God.

It was the tradition at the Cathedral to broadcast the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass on WSB-TV each year LIVE! LIVE means “live”, meaning anything that goes wrong remains wrong, no do-overs, no second takes. To say people got a little nervous was an understatement. I absolutely loved it.

We had this long Atlanta tradition partly because the station manager at WSB was a Cathedral communicant, Don Elliot Heald. Growing up in Atlanta, with WSB being the bastion of electronic journalism, Don Elliot Heald had saint-like status with me and my grandparents and parents. He would do editorials on the need for civil rights, a vision for a progressive South, and general good stuff that pushed the envelope for folks South of God.

When I first met Don Elliot Heald, it was when he came to hear me at the formidable Cathedral Forum, where I was presenting a book review on a book about Catholic mystic and monk, Thomas Merton. it was like me meeting a folk hero. Don was so gracious in his lavishing praise on my work that morning. Through the years, he completely lived up to his image, being one of the finest human beings I have known, on top of having a wicked sense of humor that I enjoyed and shared. Don had the ability to not take himself too seriously, and I am sure that helped in running his landmark television station. Some of my favorite memories of Don revolve around preparing for and producing the Christmas Eve telecast.

Every Christmas Eve, people across Atlanta would turn on WSB to catch the Midnight Mass from the Cathedral. I had done so at my Southern Baptist home, and finally went to see it live with my girlfriend in high school. Actually, it became nationally broadcast for many years, something Atlanta was proud of, joining the Pope in Rome and the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C..

My first time of participating in the live broadcast, I was asked to fulfill a special role. I was to process into the Cathedral, dressed in my heavy and stunning cloth-of-gold vestments, shed the duds, a la Elvis “Thank you very much!”, go out the back door, run down the side hill on Andrews Dr. off Peachtree, climb into Ted Turner’s production truck, normally used for Braves games, and assist the director of the television production. Got that? Piece of cake for the kid.

You see, the director was from the tribe of Southern Baptists, South of God, and had no clue what a Mass was or looked like. A Mass for this guy was something a surgeon removed. While he would be making sure the television signal was just right, it was my job to actually direct the shot by telling him what the important action was and what to anticipate. There was one stationary camera in the balcony, one on the side, behind a column, and two portable cameras, being carried by cameramen.

The director was the normal type, looking for the interesting shot to go out over the metropolitan Atlanta. He seemed to have a fancy for one particular woman in the choir, the stained glass of the nativity, and for the creche, a manger scene with a peculiarly white Baby Jesus. Jesus had golden hair and blue eyes, not Palestinian in the least. Every chance the director had in the beginning of the service, he had the cameramen put the camera of the girl, the glass, or blond Baby Jesus.

Watching the camera shots with more than a passing care for what was going out to Atlanta, I became a bit amused, actually kidding the director for his attraction to the one chorister, and that damn blond Jesus. There’s another story about me kidnapping the blond Baby Jesus, but that will have to wait for another day. Back to the service.

It has started as usual. Monica Kaufman, in her signature winsome smile, inviting the WSB TV viewers of the 11 o’clock news to join the Christmas Eve worship service at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip. As Episcopal parades on such high feast days tend to be longish, the live broadcast caught us in the middle of the opening hymn.

The opening processional was going well, with the brass instruments from the Atlanta Symphony playing their hearts out, the tympani being struck with majestic rhythm, the Robert Shaw singers intoning the sacred sounds, dressed in Elizabethan garb. It was a spectacle, a spiritual extravaganza, proper for the heralded birth of the long-awaited Messiah.

I could see on the monitor from the back stationary camera that the Bishop was coming to take his place at the center of the high altar where he would deliver his open acclamation to the crowd assembled and to the television audience.

And yet, the on-air shot was going back and forth between the choir, the trumpets, and the blond Baby Jesus. I knew what had to be done.

I said in a calm tone, trying to maintain my Zen cool, to the director, “Put the camera on the Bishop.”

The director said to the cameramen, “Put the camera on the Bishop.”

One of the cameramen on his headset replied, “Which one is the Bishop?”

Hearing his question, I pointed to the monitor from the stationary camera at the Bishop, “That’s the Bishop!”

The director fired off his precise direction to the cameraman, “Put the camera on the fat guy with the pointed hat”, describing the Bishop of Atlanta, The Rt. Rev. Judson Child, pretty damn well. And the cameraman did as told, just in time, as they say.

The shot came off without a glitch. Bishop Child offered the traditional Christmas acclamation, and the Grinch was foiled again. The Baby Jesus arrived just in time.

The clergy always gathered after the live television broadcast, out behind the Cathedral for a moment of Christmas cheer, usually involving some brown whiskey, maybe champagne, to celebrate our successful work. It was to become a tradition that was the favorite part of Christmas to me, the collective celebration of Christmas, stoked by the inimitable thrill of being on the air “live”, the appreciation of the comaraderie of a job well done, and the exquisite joy of the season. Nothing like it, before or since.

On that night, as I told Bishop Child of what had happened in the production truck, no one laughed harder than him. “The fat guy with the pointed hat!” he kept repeating. Judson knew and recognized the joy of the mystery of Incarnation as well as anyone I have known. I think of him on Christmas Eve, each year, and smile, and once again taste the joy of the Good News birthed in that night.

I wish you a grand time of joy as we pause in this celestial moment of darkness to dare offer a laugh and cut an eye for the Light that gives hope, and joy. Blessings.

Finding What Was Lost

Last week, I offered four questions that might prompt your reflection during this season of Advent, as time of expectation and hope.

One of the four prompts was to reach out to folks that might need a word.

Guess what? I took my own advice. I reached out to a number of folks who had been crucial parts of my development about forty years ago. By the way, you may have missed my insight into the deep meaning of “40”, forty, in the Hebrew tradition. Forty is a Hebrew idiom that means “a long damn time.” The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness, on their exodus from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land for forty, count em, forty years. That’s a lot of wandering. I should know.

Two of the three I reached out to were Fellows at the Center for Faith Development where I worked at Emory. Both were Dominican priests, Bob Perry and Paul Johnson. They were in the same seminary class so they know each other well, the kind of knowing that families and married couples have. They are both eighty-seven years of age, speaking of a long, damn, time.

Bob had done his doctoral work on the psychology of Carl Jung and the theology of Bernard Lonergan. When I first heard him tell me that, I thought to myself, ” What kind of masochist is this dude?” To take on one of these thinkers is a huge task, but two, and then try to integrate….. gargantuan. Bob always had a practical side and tried to make his scholarship helpful for regular folks. Because of this drive, he had become a proponent of journaling as a spiritual discipline. He introduced me to it as a spiritual exercise and invited Ira Progoff, famed founder of the Intensive Journal Workshop, to come to Emory. Bob formed a group that met weekly to work with the journaling methodology, my new wife and I being members of the group. Those of you who have followed South of God over the last year know of the importance of journaling in my life.

Like Columbo, I searched for clues and found Bob living in the God-forsaken Lubbock, Texas. Actually, Lubbock is one of the five places the McBrayer brothers of my ancestry wound up when they came to this country from Scotland. I was reminded of some lyrics to a song: happiness is Lubbock in my rearview mirror. Moses would add a verse about “Egypt”, I guess, but let’s leave the Lubbock jokes for the moment.

When I talked to Bob, he is still active, involved in some campus ministry and doing some work as an itinerant preacher, in the Dominican tradition. I specifically wanted to thank him for the importance his ministry had on my life in introducing me to the spiritual discipline of journaling. His life had made a profound difference in mine.

Paul was also important. He was always involved in campus ministry. It was his passion, and as he came to Emory as a Fellow, he continued that as he interacted in his normal pastoral manner. For me, he was a willing ear for my struggle to make sense of my Southern Baptist heritage and my new-found love of the larger and longer Catholic tradition. Having an understanding and listening ear when one is wrestling with spiritual issues is quite a gift, and Paul gave it to me graciously.

I found him in the Dominican house in Chicago, now struggling with reduced heart functionality and other health problems. He lives in a community of priests, which has a rich common life, but he is limited in his activities. He voice was still welcoming and affirming. I took the opportunity to tell him how much his pastoral presence meant to me, particularly when I was wrestling with what to do with my life. Paul gave me holy space in which to figure it out for myself. I will always be grateful.

The third person I found in my reconnaissance was Jeremy Miller, also a Dominican priest when I knew him. I had just departed Louisville to return to Emory to pick up on my studies. He was one of my first seminary professors, the only Roman Catholic one, in the predominantly Methodist seminary. He introduced me to John Henry Newman, who had been a noted Anglican priest and scholar, who eventually wound up as Roman Catholic priest, a Cardinal, and recently given saint status. Jeremy’s teaching brought a Catholic way of thinking to my life and introduced me to the pristine logic of Newman’s way of deciphering the development of doctrine. Jeremy’s erudition, and his sophistication of thought proved winsome, as he gave me a model of a human I could aspire to. On top of that, he had played basketball in college and was quite a worthy opponent on the Emory court.

In many ways, Jeremy taught me to think like a Catholic, which was broader in scope, qualitative in assessment as opposed to the more binary thinking of my past, that is, right or wrong, in or out. The Trappist monks assisted me in that development as well, as did many Episcopal priests, as well as a few maverick Baptists. But I specifically wanted to thank Jeremy for the role he had played in forming my way of thinking. By the way, I found him outside of Philly, retired from teaching in a Catholic college, married, with two grown sons.

So, this week, I reached out to three people, who happened to be Dominican priests, to thank them for their gifts. But I had a surprise coming.

My old saddle pal, Chris Wall, called me out of the blue, and gave me the gift of reaching out. Chris is a singer/songwriter in the best of that tradition. I met him when I was teaching at the Episcopal seminary in Austin, the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest. I had flown in from Tyler to teach my class that met in the evening. When the class finished around nine, I took off to enjoy the music scene of my favorite city on the planet.

I was still in my clericals, meaning my black suit, black clergy shirt and white collar. I went to the quintessential Texas honky tonk, the Broken Spoke, and entered the front bar, saying hello to the owner James White who my UT friend, Peter, had introduced me to long ago. I took off my collar, and sat down at a table with the drink that James had given me.

It was my first time to hear this band, fronted by Chris, and they were a typical hard-driving group that was easy on the ears. They were doing mostly original songs that Chris had written, lyrics that caught my attention. By the way, Chris is famous/infamous for writing the classic, I Like My Women Just a Little On the Trashy Side. It had been a favorite of mine and is legendary on honky tonk jukeboxes throughout the territory. Chris’ lyrics are both clever and close-to-the-bone, just the way I like it.

When the band took a break, Chris walked over to my table, looked at my black outfit and offered: Well, you are either a priest or Johnny Cash?

Friendship on.

We wound up talking that night and several other times that quarter. Chris actually came up to Tyler to visit me, and went with my family to see Michael Martin Murphy’s Cowboy’s Christmas at our local University of Texas university. Chris and I continued developing our relationship over the next few years. He honored that friendship by asking me to officiate at his wedding in Austin.

We stay in touch, with his recent move to Montana and my many changes. He has been dealing with some health issues, as have I, and we have compared notes along the way. He picked up on some signals from me that I was struggling a bit, so he took the time to give me a call. What treat for me to get a call from my friend from Austin, just checking in on his pal.

I told him of my struggles with the diminished mobility from my torn quad tendon. I am able to get around okay in my home and in my study, but times out in public rub my nose in the limitations I am dealing with. No more jumping around on the deck of my sailboat without worry of falling. No more dancing to the funky beat, even with the additional handicap of being a white boy. That’s when it smacks me aside the head and reminds me of just what I have lost.

Chris sat and listened to me talk this out, both my frustration and anger, as well as my gratitude at being alive and joy of my work. He gets it, like few do. He gets me, like few do. That is a gift indeed to have that person, or few persons who actually understand you in all your complexity, and simply let you be. Not try to fix you, or set you straight, just let you be. Chris gave me that gift in his call and his patient willingness to give me space in which to be. I am grateful, and give thanks for the people like, Bob, and Paul, and Jeremy, and Chris, and Wendell, and Phyllis, and Judy, and many others who are there for me.

There’s nothing like bad times to sort through your Rolodex of friends to find how who is really there for you, and who is not. It’s a tough lesson to learn but it is true. Those few loyal friends are the real gift. That’s why I try to be that good friend to others and provide that kind of support. Like the quote from Doc Holladay, “I don’t have that many friends.” I have learned to value the ones I have.

There are a few more weeks in Advent before Christmas. Take a look at the list of suggested questions from last week. But right now, think of someone you need to reach out to, that would make a difference with a call or a note. Who might that person be in your life, in this particular moment, and then do for them what Chris did for me? Reach out!

You don’t have to be a priest or Johnny Cash. Just a good friend.