Ledell, A Man in Full

When I was the pastor of a downtown parish in Tyler, Texas, I found that there were two critical jobs at the parish. Neither were my responsibility, except hiring them.

The first is the receptionist. She/he sets the tone for the entire parish, welcoming people into the church building with a spirit of hospitality. OR, acting like a fire-breathing dragon that looms, threatening people who might dare to come inside. Luckily, I have had some superb people in that role that make people feel at home from the moment they walk in the building. A welcoming smile and a word of welcome are gold in this kingdom. You can’t put a price on the value of that first face the person sees. If your sign outside says “WELCOME” and yet the reception is cold, guess what?

The second, equally important person is the janitor. This is the person who is responsible for seeing that the building in clean, that it is in order, that it is set up in a proper way. This person has to be willing to be flexible and responsive when needs change. The skills match that of an ambassador, working with foreign heads of state, or in the church’s case, leaders of women’s and men’s groups. It’s not an easy job.

In the Episcopal church, we call the janitor a “sexton”, which I sort of dig. It has a kind of English spin, a Downton Abbey, feel. To me, it better captures the role: the sexton.

At Christ Church in Tyler, following the exit of a long-time sexton, we went looking to find just the right man, or woman to fill this critical role. We were fortunate to find a man who had been laid off by a large company who had all the skills we needed, and then some.

His name was Ledell and he reminded me immediately of New Orleans soul singer, Aaron Neville whose first hit, Tell It Like It Is, characterized my new sexton’s style of communication. In a word, he was “built”, with a muscular physique which would have been more at home on a linebacker on a pro football field. As it turns out, Ledell was tenacious in his work-out regimen, going to the Y every day. He also was a bit of a physical health evangelist, getting me and other staff members to join him in his gym routine. He was a drill sergeant as he ordered our routine of cardio and lifting weights. I’ve been around the weight room most of my life and have had no one more rigorous in his demands than Ledell. He was an animal. A monster…friendly, smiling, but a monster. And, he would tell it like it is!

Through our years together, I came to view him as a friend, if not a brother from another mother. He and I would talk about life and share meals. Some of my best memories are of going with him to the annual East Texas State Fair. We must have appeared to be the original Odd Couple: me, a white bearded dude in black clericals, and Ledell, a goatee-sporting black man in his work uniform. What a pair. We would go in his truck, hit the midway, observing the menagerie of God’s creatures, animal and human, on display, feasting on outrageously fried fair food. It would cost me the next day with a punishing work-out. Pass me the Lipitor.

Ledell had a gift for working on automobile engines and often rescued me with his handiness, tending to my Chevy K-5 Blazer. I came to admire his wisdom, his resourcefulness, and his faithfulness. He was a single father of two children, and made sure he was in their lives to form them. He was to me, a man in full, as Tom Wolfe once wrote. I admired him greatly.

Near the end of my time in Tyler, Target decided to put a distribution center out on I-20 and was looking for a custodial manager. I got the word that Ledell had been courted for this position as his reputation has gone viral. The coconut telegraph told me that he had gone out to look at the opportunity. I wanted him to take the job if it would bring him some pay increase that would be important to his life. But, I didn’t want him to go. I valued him as a co-worker and as a friend.

One morning, having coffee in our library, Ledell walked in. Typically, I began by kidding him about his being courted by Target, angling around in order to ask him about his intentions. He looked at me in the way he would when my lifting weights was waning in enthusiasm. He asked me to follow him.

He took me down the hall and then into our gorgeous church building. The stained glass in the morning light puts on a light show that would rival Disney. As we stood there in that sacred space, he began to talk to me.

“I was out of a job when I came looking here. You listened to me as a man and took me seriously. You gave me a job that was a good one. It gave me what I needed for my family. It was the kind of work I enjoyed and that I am good at. I like the people here and enjoy messing with you. But the most important thing is that I have a job that lets me take care of God’s house. Look at this. This is my job keeping God’s house looking good. Man, I can’t imagine a better thing to do with my life. I love working for God.”

I had been in the God business for a long time. You would never have been able to hear me wax as poetic as Ledell, describing the work I did for the Almighty. I guess I could have, should have been embarrassed by his godly description of his work, topping my more professional way of framing my career. But instead, I was inspired, called to do better in the way of thinking of my vocation.

Ledell is one fortunate guy. He would quickly retort, claiming more accurately that he was blessed. And he is.

To have the work you do have a heavenly purpose, that is the trick. To know that your work makes a difference is one of the greatest things a human can possess. It’s the old notion of work being a holy endeavor, whatever it is. It is an unstated goal for most of us. To make that connection between what you do with a purpose larger than yourself. Work like that provides an energy and a satisfaction that is prized. It is a state of the soul that I find missing in many folks that I talk to.

Business analysts tell us that most workers have anything but that feeling about their work. It was stunning to me to find that most workers are not engaged, wish they were doing something else. They are mailing it in, giving the minimum effort, with a small investment of energy. The real surprise to me was to find this rampant in healthcare, a most noble endeavor of saving lives. I’ve spent the last ten years listening to healthcare workers, nurses, physicians, and administrators, who have been been overwhelmed with bureaucracy, losing the original spark that sent them in pursuit of this career in medicine.

This is not only true in healthcare, but in just about every industry. Teachers who burn out, lawyers who hate their work, business persons who just get by, priests who are looking at pension time, folks who mail it in. Workers seem to struggle to make the connection to the purpose that Ledell natively lives and breathes.

I often have people coming to me to ask me help in recovering that spark. They are at the end of their rope, sometimes showing clear signs of depression, sometime self-medicating to relieve their pain or boredom. They are considering just chunking their current work and doing something else, go into another field that they fantasize will deliver them.

Sometimes, that decision to make a change is a good one, a necessary one. But I have found that often reframing the work that people do, are engaged in, is all that is needed. In Tyler, I developed a method of helping folks assess where they are currently, think about options of change that would address their needs for a more satisfying career, and then get creative as to how they could make that happen in their lives.

The good news is for many people, the answer was not found by ditching a career, but finding a new way to frame what it is they are doing. Sometimes it means letting go of some limiting beliefs about the way to do their work. One healthcare executive I worked with thought that he had to be “the biggest sumbitch in the valley” to get people to do their work. The effect was that he was disliked, even worse, disrespected. Once he figured out that he didn’t have to be mean, his true nature came to fore and the opinions of his employees changed, evidenced by his 360 assessment by those who worked for him. He came to not only enjoy his work but increased his productivity, not to mention the attitude of his employees.

For others, it means refocusing one’s work, letting go of of certain parts, and redirecting energy in new ways that bring satisfaction. It has particularly exciting to me to work with folks who are seeking to connect their work with service to the community or common good. It’s what David Brooks has called the Second Mountain, an endeavor that brings meaning and significance to one’s life.

This entails a process of coaching, with an initial assessment as to where one currently is, as well as becoming more clear as to where one wants to go. The process moves one to a decision, some planning culminating in an action plan, some encouragement and accountability as to making the change happen. It’s a process that I have enjoyed, helping people move through into a more satisfying life.

Ledell found his Second Mountain, as he would say, he was blessed by God. Most of us are not that fortunate. Sometimes we have to decide to make a move and address the sense of emptiness and lack of meaning in our lives. How is the state of your life? Are you happy with the life you are living, or do you need to make a change, small or large? I’d be happy to help you think through this or point you in some fresh directions. Feel free to contact me.

I am glad I was fortunate to come across a person like Ledell. That encounter changed my life. I was educated by some of the finest minds, trained by some geniuses, had my head shrunk by some world-class therapists, but it was Ledell that spoke into my life in a way that made a real difference.

Ledell…. a man in full. And my friend. Come to think of it, like Ledell, I am blessed.

Pause

I hit a significant mark this week, my sixty-fifth birthday. Or as my friend said lovingly, I’m just a little older than God.

I never really thought I would live this long, but here I am. Surprise, surprise, as Gomer might say. The old quip, attributed to Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, concludes that if he knew he was going to live this long, he would have taken better care of himself. True Deadheads wonder about that, both if he said it, and if he would have, Jerry being Jerry.

Growing up, my high school seemed to have a curse, where a good number of kids died tragically. In fact, my class had five people die in the year after our graduation from the weathered Municipal Auditorium of Atlanta. Built in 1909, it was the site of a pre-inaugural event for President William Henry Taft, where barbecued possum was the special fare served. Later that year, it hosted the first Atlanta Music Festival. After that, it was the home of the Atlanta Symphony as well as Live Atlanta Wrestling where the Odd Couple of Robert Shaw and Freddie Blassie held court. What an auspicious place for the Class of 1972 of Briarwood High to begin its sojourn into life.

One close friend didn’t even make it through the summer, the victim of a car crash, a car that I had been a passenger in throughout my senior year. Going to a glut of funerals early on has a profound effect. It’s not on the order of PTSD formed in combat, but it made an impact on me. Certain wags have opined that it screwed me up enough to set my course to seminary. Who knows?

I have written about it, spoken about it, even preached about it. I used it to speak to graduating seniors at the high school whose board I chaired when I was asked to give them a send off. I processed it with my own shrink and then used it as a reference point with persons who have come to me for therapy and coaching.

What sense do you make out of the close up death of others? How do you carry that into your future? How do you bear the weight of such things as you live your life?

The sense I made was that life was precious. That it is fleeting, can be gone in an instant. Rather than making me fearful, it gave me a rather adventurous lean into life as I wanted to grab as much as I could, while I could. In an earlier blog, I mentioned my high school motto on a make-shift crest: “Promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep!”, a rather Sixties view of life, spun out and on by the tragic death of my Presidential hero, John Kennedy, and later my classmates.

All of this personal experience was embedded in a collective time when good men were being cut down, at home and abroad. In ’68, when I began high school, two idealists espousing brotherhood, were slain. Robert Kennedy felt like a far-away heroic figure, smart, committed, cut down on the far coast.

Martin King was from my neck of the woods. I had heard old men and young, spit his name with derision. The pregnant moment of my young psyche was cast when my grandfather, an Atlanta cop, got up out of the barber’s chair on Lee Street, and took me with him, as the crowd in the shop were using the N word and other nasty references. Kids learn a hell of a lot more by watching adults’ behavior than the Sunday School lessons they mouthed, especially when they belie the very words of love by living hatefully. Death felt real and present for me as a young man.

It’s funny that I would interpret the events of life the way I did. Rather than fearful, cautious, and timid, it all seemed like a time to jump in and enjoy the gift. Any time I had was just that, a gift. Why were friends of mine denied that right while I was free as the breeze on a Southern evening? That question pressed me over and over, especially in moments of joyful bliss which caused me to reflect in afterglow. Sunrises, sunsets, long reaches under sail, treks on the trail…..all gave rise to pauses.

It occurred to me when I was serving as a priest that my outlook was hewn, forged, beat into a sense of celebration. When things fell apart, when bad things happened to good people, when tragedy broke through, it was a reminder of how out of control things really are. We live in the illusion that we have some control over our life, when the reality is that we do not. Those moments of crisis merely break through the convention of control and remind us that we are not in charge. Rather than resenting the capriciousness of life, or whatever God you image, I find myself grateful for the time I have, the opportunities set before me. Rather than obsess on the chances of dire straits ahead, I choose to focus on the moment that is present.

An old high school friend of mine, Ron Harwell, and I were discussing it recently. We recalled the many times in high school and college that we tempted fate, sometimes by our recklessness, sometimes courting danger, and at times, like my saint, Dr. John, just the right place at the wrong time. And other times, fate came looking for us. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

It’s an odd thing to become reflective. I’ve always had an inclination and good eye in looking back, remembering things that happened. It puzzles me why I remember certain things and forget others. Peculiar are the minute details that have stuck in my memory, while others recede. When I get to talk with old friends, it’s such a treat to splash around in those stories.

My point in today’s blog is to point out a simple practice that I have adopted and want to encourage you to explore. It comes out of my practice of mindfulness but is even more simple. I find that the busy people I work with are SO busy, so filled up with time commitments, that the suggestion of a time period of twenty to thirty minutes is unthinkable. In the urgent setting of a hospital, a moment of free time is rare and fleeting. When I frame the situation as “overwhelmed”, heads nod. And yet they instinctively know that they need a break. So let’s begin small.

I have been suggesting a simple word, PAUSE. Rather than dive into a meditation protocol or a mindfulness strategy, let’s start small and build our capacity for quiet. for reflection. Just prompt yourself to PAUSE. I have been encouraging people to pause in the morning, to pause before the next appointment, to pause before the next patient, to pause before a phone call. However it works for you: Pause.

What happens when you pause? There are several things you can choose to do in this time. One is to do a bit of what I’ve been doing in the article, namely, reflecting. Pausing can focus your reflection on this particular time in your life, or, to think of times from the past. When I am engaging in reflection, I find it helpful to couple it with the discipline of journaling, recording the thoughts, memories that come to mind. This can be fruitful to come back to, to assess, to look and see if there are particular rhythms to your day, ebb and flow of emotions.

But another use of the pause is to clear one’s mind of all thought. This becomes a true exercise of freedom. I recommend beginning with three deep breaths. Some folks find it helpful to close one’s eyes. Some find a quick body scan to be helpful. Some have developed a word to recite, to remember, to charge their brain or spirit.

I have become incredibly pragmatic about this, losing any doctrinaire approach to the art of centering. Whatever works is the right place to start, to begin to realize the power and gift of stillness and presence. Try to still your “thinker”, your constantly intrusive thoughts. This takes practice, perhaps the quintessential understatement of our times. Once you get your practice going, you can tweak it as you go.

For me, I have set aside a schedule of times to pause, following my beloved Trappists who set aside seven times for prayer during the day to regulate and form their common life. I use three regular times in my schedule. Keep it simple. In addition, I have typically been playful by adding a random feed of owl photos on Facebook, with a one word admonition of “Pause”, hopefully prompting me and other people to take a simple moment to take a brief break. I experience this as playful, even surprising gifts of interruption of my grind.

This is not the time or place to trot out the scientific research that links health with various practices of mindfulness. It’s clear that it is beneficial in our time of busyness and urgency, to find ways to “pause”.

How do you make this happen currently? I asked that question on a Facebook post and got a number of responses. Some noted that they simply nap if they get a break. If that works for you, if that is what your body needs, good for you. Pausing for silence does a number of things beyond simply resting, but if your body prompts a nap, that’s the way to go.

Some noted using a breathing app that regulates breathing, calming one’s thinking. Some find that a time in nature soothes the soul, which is also true for me, but not as accessible in most of my day’s work. Some mentioned driving as relaxing…I am assuming that is not on I-285 in Atlanta traffic. And a few noted the curative power of beer. Whatever floats your boat, or soul.

If you need some simple directions, feel free to contact me for some suggestions. The main thing is to start doing something, anything, some moment of mindfulness in your day. I’d be happy to encourage you in your beginnings.

I’ve been doing this work and living with this discipline for some time. It is a gift you can give to yourself, even if you’re an old man on Medicare. As my old neighborhood friend, Elgin Wells, used to announce to the crowd before his band, Extravaganza, took a set break: It’s time to take a pause for the cause. Indeed.

Pause.

Take Another Little Bit of My Heart

South of Broad is the last novel my friend, Pat Conroy, wrote. He gave me a copy long before he died, but I am just getting around to reading it. I’ve tried to be honest with myself about why I waited. More accurately, why I put it off.

I knew this would be the last time I  would hear his masterful storytelling, overhear his quick wit, his description of the pathos of my South, unveil the dysfunction of family life. Family is a contact sport, Pat would opine…..and live.

Falling in love with Pat’s early writing, I had followed his career through many twists and turns. Conrack was a movie, turning Pat’s book The River Is Wide, into a cinematic journey to a low country out island and introduced me to his love of things low country. The Great Santini chronicled his troubled relationship with his fighter pilot father. I always seemed to have seen the movies before I read his books.

That was up until I met him. It was while he was writing Lords of Discipline, a book about his days at the Citadel, that I came to know Pat. A friend of mine had been his roommate in school and worried as to how he would be portrayed in the book. Pat and I schemed as to how to drive this button-downed executive to distraction with his anxiety. We brought our plot to a conclusion at a lunch at the old Fish Market at Lenox Square. Epic, just like one of Pat’s story lines.

I was a friend of Pat while he was writing Prince of Tides which meant we were frequenting Atlanta parties with his father as a wing man, the Great Santini. He proved to be one of the most charming people I have ever known, belying the abusive portrayal of the man by Robert Duvall. Truth was, Santini was both, combining light and shadow, as do most of us.

It was a heady time for me, running with some of the literary figures of Atlanta, serving as the Master of Ceremonies of the Townsend Award thanks to Jim’s widow who drafted me for the job.  At the time, I was knee-deep into the novel by Anne Rivers Siddons who was exposing the drama of my home turf in Peachtree Road. I lifted several characters for sermonic illustrations as I remember. That crew of writers was a fun group to play with in the sandbox.

I lost touch with Pat as he moved to Fripp Island and then on to his final home, Beaufort. He seemed to have found some peace there, and was enjoying life with his wife, Cassandra, also a writer. I got word from a friend that he had cancer. It didn’t take long for that beast to take him down. Before he took his final trip across the River, he wrote some powerful reflections on reading and writing in his book My Reading Life. He penned a requiem for his father in Death of Santini, which was a no-holds-barred look at his family’s drama, and his love of them. But, I enjoyed his notes on cooking, a true love of his. His recount of a cooking class with famed Nathalie Dupree is worth the trip through the book. I have the audio version of his book, which he narrates. I love hearing his voice.

Reading South of Broad was like having him in the room with me. He has such a way of capturing the colloquial phrases, the comedic way in which Southerners regale and accost one another. He paints characters with a depth that makes me covet his superpowers, and his deft construction of plot leaves me shaking my head as he moves through the narrative. Always, there’s the whisper of darkness that pervades the Southern soul that O’Conner and Percy intimated to me in my early reading.

While I was barely into the text, I realized why I had avoided the book. I was feeling a deep grief. It was a heart-breaking grief that pains one with the realization that you will never see this person again. Pat was gone. This force of nature that I had come to enjoy his companionship had left this world. The reality of death was all too real as his voice, his presence had been curtailed. This last book was crazily my way of holding on to him. Rationally, I know I can reread all of Pat’s books but it’s not the same. The surprise, the twists, the phrases. So I held back

And now that I had entered the book,  I felt it even more. It seemed as if Pat was with me, cohabiting my study. Once again, Pat was guilty of overwriting, a practice we talked about many times. Never to be accused of sparseness, Pat made football games into epic battles, full of comedy and tragedy, And his plots sometimes begged the question of reality. Finding a down-and-out street person on the trolley of San Francisco, who just happened to be  the hero of a football game from the protagonist’s past, who also turns out to be a key component to the resolution of the plot is the kind of stuff that Pat would do. It’s a tendency in most of his novels, a habit that I can laugh at and forgive. It felt familiar when I found it throughout South of Broad, providing a romantic overtone to the way Pat saw things. But it feels familiar, and makes my departed friend seem closer than he is….which would be much to Pat’s liking.

South of Broad is a good story, well told, over-told perhaps, but worth the time. I am glad I unconsciously timed the moment to pick it up off my downstairs bookshelf. I did  not know the significance of the date, June 16th, when I undertook this long delayed reading. Surprised by the coincidence, I paused and reflected on the magical moment once I awoke to the synchronicity at play. June 16th, Bloomsday, is a day celebrated by fans of James Joyce’s epic Ulysses, which revolves around Leo Bloom and one day in his life in Dublin. This day becomes the starting point for Pat’s story and weaves throughout the novel. It ends on the same day, June 16, 1990, with the hero, Leo, offering a view of human existence, “born to nakedness and tenderness and nightmare in the eggshell fragility of mortality and flesh.” Classic Conroy.

And the hero concludes with an observation that is incarnated throughout the plot:”the immense, unanswerable powers of fate, how one day can shift the course of ten thousand lives. Fate can catapult them into lives they were  never meant to lead until they stumbled into that one immortal day.”

Of course,  this fate is a double-edge sword, thrusting one into a positive trajectory unimagined or it can trip one up into an unrelenting  fall that seems to never end.

I began my blog, South of God, with a series of musings around this very thought. What about the twists of fate that come to form our life stories? But what about the other side of the coin, the decisions we make in that wake of the force of fate that will define or deflect the effects of that twist?

I noted in my own narrative the consequence of a girl talking in the back of my home room, resulting in her being moved to sit beside me. Our conversations over the next year transformed my sense of self. Her blessing gave me wings.

Or the chance selection of a course my freshman year in college that forged the course of my study for eleven years.

How about the crazy decision to drag my tired ass to church on a Sunday morning, only to see a vision across the balcony from me, a person who would share my life?

And I can go on, as you, by now, know. That’s not to even begin to plough the field of fate, like when my mother went out on a blind date with my dad. It’s all there, filled with multiple choice options that twist the contours of our life, leaving us with the question of “What if?” and the affirmation, “Thank God.”.

While Pat’s point is to affirm the role of fate and to pronounce that anything can happen on Bloomsday. it is a much broader, South or not,  interplay of fate and human agency in our everyday world. It was fate that led me to pick up Pat’s book on June 16th this year, a book that I had purposely avoided. But it is my decision to follow that rabbit down the hole into the Southern landscape of  low country and Charleston. I could have tossed it in with the pile collecting by my desk. But, no. I decided to take it to my chair to read.

The grief I was hoping to avoid was waiting for me, not pulling the punch of pain. It was joined by the memories of others I have lost recently, boyhood friends, and the closing act of parents that were of the Greatest Generation. The grief I feel is correlated to the amount of love I had for each person who exits, stage left or right.

As my age advances, now bearing a freshly minted Medicare card this month, the quantity of my moments of grief will naturally increase. But my prayer is that the quality of my grieving may increase as well, as I embrace the reality of the gift of the relationships I have been fortunate to experience, the inevitable loss, as well as the concomitant love that I have been given and give.

Visiting my friend, Pat, on Bloomsday, reminded me of that. Anything can happen. Yes, anything.

 

 

 

Decide…Killing Off, Murderous Options

My future was wide open!

These are the words I quoted from a Tom Petty song in last week’s blog to capture my feeling of my youth. the future and all the possibilities that were waiting for me  just ahead.

A person who read the article asked me about facing the variety of “forks in the road” and what do you do with that. What happens to the “road, or roads, not chosen.”.  It reminded me that some options, submerge, only to reappear at a later time, another harvest, while some simply fade awayl

Her question prompted me to think again about that divergent road. It brought to heart and mind  the American poet, Robert Frost.

Robert Frost captured it poetically for me in The Road Not Taken, talking of two roads diverging, and the inherent choice. Frost talks of decision, of deciding to take “the one less traveled by” which according to him, made all the difference. The decision you make will bring about a difference. This was an early discovery of truth for me, and I vowed to carry it on down the road.

Earlier in life, I had been captured as a boy by Frost on a cold January day, reading his poetry at the inauguration of President Kennedy.  Frost’s white shock of hair contrasted the copper crop on top of our new President’s crown. His poem there, The Gift Outright, spoke of the hope, courage and daring that characterized the time in which I grew up, a verve that seems so far away now. I later dove more deeply into Frost, thanks to my English teacher and our high school’s motto, “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep” which I oddly took seriously.

Thinking back on Frost, it prompts me to remember a moment in my career when my therapist called my existential hand. It was early in the morning. I had a 7 AM appointment with the best psychiatrist in Atlanta, at least that’s what I thought, and was the word on the street.

He looked at me through his old Irish eyes, probably a bit hungover from a long night and some Irish whiskey. His morning joust at my soul, “Someday David, you have to stop being a promising young man, and you have to deliver.”

Damn.

Exactly.

I had been blessed with a variety of talents that made it hard to choose just one. I had collected a passel of people who wanted me to take up their projects and follow them. My collection of daddy figures had a lot to do with my crazy family background but nevertheless, he pointed out a real issue for me. I wanted to do it all. I’ve called it the “Jethro Bodine” complex, who told his Uncle Jed, with earnest sincerity, that he wanted to either be a brain surgeon or a soda jerk. Keeping options open is the name of the tune.

A Texas friend, Mike Murray, helped me to conceptualize it one day. He told me to think about the word, “cide”. It means literally, to kill.

Homicide. Suicide. Herbicide. Pesticide. The “cide” implies something is about to die.

And then there is de-cide. Decide means that an idea, an option is going to have to die. You are killing off options. A serial killer of ideas. A multiple murderer of options. How’s that for creativity, sports fans?

That was real for me. It felt heinous. Perverse, even. Certainly, it was a concept that was limiting to my “wide open”.

Making relational/love decisions meant deciding to dive into one person, while leaving other possibilities behind. Marriage was a profound moment to de-cide.

Choosing a profession meant deciding to do “this”, and not “that”, or “these”. The promising young man wanted to do it all. My therapist was  literally calling the question.

I absolutely love brainstorming sessions, where any idea or possibility can gain life, can breathe with possibility. Like Dr. Frankenstein, I love to bring life to inanimate ideas and concepts.

But there comes a time in a creative process when the plug has to be pulled on some ideas, allowing them to die, while the focus turns to one. Euthanasia or the death penalty, it had to be done.

My colleague and teacher, Robert Miles, developed a creative process at the Harvard Business School which was imported down South to Emory,  intended to breathe spirit into beleaguered organizations. It begins with the space wide open, looking for possibilities. But then, comes a time. a time to decide.

For Bob’s methodology, it forces a choice of three options, or growth initiatives. As a practitioner of this method, the hardest work I do is leading organizations and leaders to choose just three. Like me, they want to do it all. They rightly see that there are other things that need to get done in order for the organization to thrive. But Bob’s genius is in the deciding. What three are MOST important? The process of deciding is serious business. You can lose your livelihood, or your life.

I don’t know how many times I have worked with executive teams, or with a person, trying to hone in on three things on which to focus. One day stands out. I had spent a full day with an executive team of a large metropolitan hospital, reviewing their mission, noting the gaps in their performance that begged for correction, and then beginning the planning for the future.

The morning was easy.  We reviewed the past of the organization, clarified the vision, mission, and core values. We identified the specific opportunities and dangers that lay ahead, trying to be honest in assessment and in anticipation.

Then we moved into “open space” as we dreamed and imagined what the possibilities are for the future. That’s when creative juices flow, energy surges, and imagination fires. This is when “the popcorn pops”. By now, you have discerned that it is my favorite time.  But in the afternoon, we were called to transition from the world of possibility to the realm of the real.

We had worked all afternoon on choosing the top three initiatives to focus on in the next year. They call it strategic planning which means deciding what you are going to do, but more importantly, what you are NOT going to do. What three things could we center our energy on to make a difference for our future? This action narrows the focus, aligns the limited energy and time to take care of the critical needs of the organization. It’s one of the most important things that leaders do, and it’s one of the most exciting things I get to do as a consultant.

We finally had our three. I was feeling good, accomplishing the goal for the day.. I was beginning to pack my briefcase to depart for a six o’clock flight back to Atlanta.  The whiteboard behind me on the end of the conference room showed the fruit of our labor for the day, a proud product of creativity and strategic decision-making. Three initiatives that would guide this organization for the next year; three initiatives that would be passed on to the middle management team; three initiatives that would be cascaded down through the organization, not unlike the chocolate from the top of the fountain at a God-forsaken buffet that I know that is anything but Golden. Corral, definitely.

As I was zipping up the bag, the CEO of the hospital interrupted: Can we add just one more thing to the list?

Now, I love hearing Dylan sing, One More Coffee Before I Go. But I hate hearing this question of adding another option after we have invested the afternoon focusing the group. This question grabs me deep down in my soul and shakes me. It betrays the fact that this leader didn’t get it. And if he doesn’t get it, I know, in my organizational heart, that  his team, and his hospital will not get it. This moment laid bare both that I had not finished my work of leading this leader and team, and reminded me of how resistant we are to the work of focus.

I put down my briefcase, took off my corporate-issued blazer,  sat down and got ready for my come-to-Jesus sermon on change, and to miss my flight. Oh, the sins of resistance to change. They will lead you straight lickety-split to Hell. Here we go, boys and girls.

Deciding is hard work, fraught with wondering  if there is a way to avoid the bloody mess of decision. It’s true for humans in our life decisions. It’s true for businesses and organizations. And it’s true for countries and cultures. We have to decide. Aware of options, exercising our freedom, we decide.

I am thrown back to the Poet who reminds us of the consequences of choice. There, on a snowy evening or in the summer sand, options are before us. What do we choose to do? What do we choose not to do? What ideas get life, and which do we slay?

Decisions face us constantly.. Where to eat? What to buy? What to watch? As Lyle Lovett framed it perfectly: after much thought and deliberation, make mine a CHEESE burger.

But every so often, a deciding moment comes along in which we viscerally sense the importance and significance of our decision. And indeed, it will make all the difference. The glory and burden of deciding.

What decisions are you facing? What decisions are you avoiding? Those moment that are defining may need careful review before the killing of options commence. How do you decide? I spend a good bit of time helping people think through those moments and to make thoughtful, mindful decisions. Give those moment the time and energy they need so that your de-ciding will be wise. It will make all the difference in the world.

Who the Hell is Calling Now?

Confession: I don’t buy into the popular notion of one being called into ministry.

Early on, I had a child-like, infantile notion that a proper call would be a thunderclap, lightening bolt kind of thing, a Cecil B. DeMille, Hollywood-swinging kind of production. That’s what my tribe had told me. But my scientific worldview broke me of that myth pretty soon out of the gate. In fact, if my memory serves me, my biologist mother lectured me on the science of evolution as I was her captive audience on the warming table after my birth.

My true belief came to fore when the inquisition of what I truly believed was pressed one fine Kenucky Spring day on the week following the Derby.

I was interviewing at the Southern Baptist seminary when the question  of call came to a punctiliar moment.  Travelling to Louisville to explore the prospect of me moving there to take some grad courses, while trying on work in a psychiatric hospital, my future was wide open, as Tom Petty would later sing.

The afternoon found me sitting with a noted scholar who had been chatting with my home pastor about his past days as a professor at said seminary. Suddenly, the academic dean turned to me, looked over his black-rimmed scholarly glasses and inquired, as curious minds must, “When did you first experience the call of God to the ordained ministry?”

Okay. I admit. It’s a fast ball on the outside corner of the plate, begging to be hit. And so, I took my best swing, a swing for the fence, as my brother would say.

“Well, Dr. Songer, I guess it was when the bird shit on on shoulder coming out of church.”

My pastor, Dr. Estill Jones, started laughing so hard that he came of his chair. He knew me too well, and, more importantly, knew my mother who had passed on the perverse McBrayer sense of humor that could not pass up an opportunity to call a spade a bloody hoe. My bet is Estill anticipated some kind of fireworks in the room, and just wanted to be there to watch it happen, like people who gawk at an accident or watch bloopers.

Dr. Songer, on the other hand, found absolutely no humor in my response. He began a lecture that would go on for some time, about the seriousness of ministry, the mission of the  seminary to spread the Gospel, and the pursuit of highest standards of education. I had clearly misread my audience.  I should have learned then, both about my impertinence and the Southern Baptists’, at least in that time and place, lack of a sense of humor.

Those of you who follow my blog  know that my path to priesthood was circuitous, at best. I was taking up Erik Erikson’s notion of a “pause” , a moratorium, more precisely, to weigh one’s options. Law school, med school, politics, or as Jethro Bodine framed the question: brain surgeon or soda jerk? Not to be redundant, my future was wide open.

I simply was wanting to try on the options of a continued course of study in theology while I also worked at a local psychiatric hospital to see what fit me best: crazy church people, or certified crazy folks. Those of you who have read my story know that I made the wrong decision.

The notion of a dramatic call that seemed to be in the mind of my religious home team just didn’t make sense to me. And yeah, I know about burning bushes. I  had seen fiery azaleas in the springtime Appalachian woods, but there were no voices. And, I’ve heard about the road to Damascus, but my revelation was on  Highwaty A1A, and there was an herbal assist involved. No blindness, though my grandmother had warned me of long-term effects.

Dramatic calling to ministry? I’m like Will Campbell who when he asked his grandfather  if he believed in infant baptism responded, “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve even seen one!” I’ve had friends of mine tell me about theirs. I’ve read about some in spiritual autobiographies, and listened to some in clinical psychiatric reports.

But for me, I didn’t buy that. Never did, never will…..probably.

But I am thankful to the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta that moved me beyond spooky calls and got me thinking about vocation. Now technically, and linguistically, vocation does refer to a calling. But certainly not what and how my friend Dr. Songer conceptualized.

Rather, vocation or calling was a “fit” between the gifts one has with the demands of a particular piece of work. Buechner said it was where one’s gifts matched up with the needs of the world. I have come to say it this way: it is where my particular and peculiar constellation of gifts fit the particular and peculiar requirements of a job. And usually, in my thinking, it also correlates with the particular and peculiar needs of a time, or a community. I’m talking about context. And that context can change, as can one’s call. I get all pragmatic when I think about vocation.

The Diocese gave me a nine month process, parallel to human gestation, to ponder that question. It provided a group of peers that were trying on the same soul-piercing question. It offered a series of settings that would test your way of dealing with structure, creativity, and being with others. It even let you try on the holy mantle of feeding the people of God in the sacred moment of communion. “How did that feel?” they would ask. “Was it comfortable?”, and if you said “yes”, they would know you were trouble.

And they provided two supervisors, one an experienced priest, and one, a talented lay person who was schooled in the art of human relationship. My priest was Frank Allan, later to become the bishop of Atlanta. It was as if he had read my mail. He knew my gifts as well as my vulnerabilities, my deepest needs. He intuited the tensions within my soul, my struggles. My therapist knew us both and said we were similar in personas, but what the hell did he know.

Frank died a week ago which prompted my thinking about all this. I sure appreciated his investment in me, my development as a priest, and the encouragement to see if there was a “fit” between me and the demands of being a priest. I am most grateful for his intent.

By the way, let me pause for a side trip for a story about Frank. I had become the Canon Pastor at the Cathedral when he was elected Bishop. On the occasion of his celebrating his first Eucharist (holy communion for you, Dr. Songer), he was nervous about his ability to sing the words that  begin the prayer. It was our habit at the Cathedral to sing, or as we would say, chant, the opening lines. Frank insisted he was not up to it, so he would be the celebrant and have me standing beside him at the altar, chanting those few lines. Having read each others’ mail, I kidded him by saying it was my first Charlie McCarthy Mass (ancient reference to a ventriloquist act), I suggested he drink from the chalice while I chanted the words. Needless to say, it was the last such occasion!

Back to the vocational testing. Frank was joined by Caroline Westerhoff as one of the supervisors. She was always terse, to the point, with a good sense of humor.
Caroline had a rapid-fire, quick wit, Joan Rivers kind of persona that both intrigued and scared me a bit.

She gave me an image of engagement, as opposed to a term I had been used to, confrontation. She reminded me that confrontation had a negative connotation while engagement meant being in interchange with another because what we were talking about was important. We entered into engagement because it  made a difference. I took that insight, that gift,  with me  on the road.

In another moment, she made another observation that has haunted me. She said that she could easily see me as a prophet, as the prophet stands on the edge of the community and calls into the church to change, to transform. I liked that, relished it in fact, because my heroes had always been prophets (along with cowboys), notably Dr. King. But then she added that she had a harder time seeing me as a priest, for a priest stands in the middle of the community and gathers them together. That insight caught me up short….it sounded true.

Now, I know it’s not a binary thing, not an either/or. Priest/prophet go together if one is to be effective. And clearly, some people are gifted in one area more than others. I knew in that moment that she had told me a truth about myself, that was neither good, nor bad, but true. The decision was then up to me as to how I might hear and respond to God’s call.

Her truth telling was so important to me that  I asked her to preach at my ordination as a deacon. It was important for me to hear and recognize her truth told to me, that I was a prophet, I had to hear that, and own that. And, I had to hear the other side so that I would work just a little harder on being a priest,  a person that gathers and blesses.

My reason for telling you all this was first, to give thanks for Frank and his ministry. And along with that, to recognize and give thanks for his teammate, Caroline and her wisdom that she shared. I wanted to give thanks for the Diocese of Atlanta and the process it provided, instead of a bird bombing me from above.

But most of all, I wanted to remind you that vocation isn’t some spooky thing, some “woo woo” mysterious mojo as my friend Drayton would say. It’s for everyone. Everyone has a calling, a vocation. We have a life in which we can direct our energies, make decisions as to how our lives will be spent. By following our particular and peculiar constellation of gifts, we serve others, bringing forth fruit from our labors, and granting us a deep experience of joy that blows mere happiness away..
This vocation, this calling “thing”, is for all people, not reserved for priests or ministers. I have been lucky to come across some Atticuses called to law, some Marcus Welbys who are called to serve family’s health, some teachers, some public servants, some chefs, some parents, who have calls, true vocations. I even know a man, a friend, who is a janitor at a church, who tells me he is called to keep God’s House in order…..and I know he’s right on the money. This is a noble thing, this calling, this vocation. Noble.

What is your vocation, your calling? And don’t hand me a smart ass remark about some damn bird!

Grace at the Urinal

I recently wrote about one of my favorite people, Doc Willis, and our work together with the homeless folks of Atlanta through the ministry of the soup kitchen at St. Luke’s Episcopal. As I said, Doc managed the operation and I was basically the “bouncer”, moving people in, and more of a challenge, out.

On one particularly cold day in February, we had cleared the Parish Hall from our feeding, getting the room ready for the next event.

After a good bit of coffee throughout the morning, my bladder was screaming at me for attention. Not unlike the pharmaceutical commercial imagery of a bladder leading a person the the bathroom for relief, my bladder beckoned. Fortunately, there was a bathroom near the back of the hall providing a quick path to relief.

As I entered the bathroom, I saw a straggler from the prior feeding, standing along the wall in the corner where there was a line of urinals. I made my  way to the urinal next to this man, quickly unzipped my pants, and prepared to relieve myself.

Now, here I am. Standing next to a street person. Me, a doctoral student at Emory, standing alongside this street person, participating in an activity that all humans must do, urinating. You have to understand the fullness of the situation for me in this moment, and I’m not referring to my bladder.

It was an incarnational masterpiece. Me, a white Southern male, standing with a poor black street person, standing in solidarity as we participated in our common humanity here in the fluorescent lighting of this public bathroom. It was beautiful….get my drift?

He had on a red stocking hat, wrapped in Michelin tire man jacket, with army pants and boots. And me, in my Oxford cloth, buttoned-down collar, light blue shirt, with the company-issued khaki pants, Bass penny loafers. You get the picture?

As we stood there  urinating, my mind soared with images of the incarnational ministry I  had been schooled in. Being “with the people”, alongside, side-by-side. It was perfect. Resplendent solidarity.

And then I noticed something. There was no urinal where he was urinating. He was urinating on the wall. The smell of alcohol broke into my idyllic vision of solidarity as it clued me in that he might not be aware of where he was. He simply needed to urinate, and so he was.

For those of you who do not frequent men’s restroom, which is half of the population, the urinals are usually in a row, separated by metal partitions that provide some privacy for each user. It’s also true that men approach the urinal situation with the intent of keeping the eyes forward, not allowing one’s gaze to wander to the side, to the other person. There’s a kind of “horse blinder” effect that is an accepted code among men. No looking to the side at one’s neighbor’s business, so to speak.

And so, as I was urinating, the stream of urine flowing, I found myself thinking. Here I was, working hard serving the poor, having grown up in a great family, having attended the right schools, meeting the right people, and now urinating in the right place!

And this guy, who I did not know his story, found his home of the streets of Atlanta. I’m not sure what cultural boxes he checked, but my prejudice led me to believe he had not gone to the right schools, nor knew the right people. I really didn’t know but my bias led me to my conclusion. What I did know was that he was not urinating in the RIGHT place, in fact, there was no urinal. He was pissing on the wall.

That’s when an epiphany occurred for me. a breakthrough of Truth. Here I was doing all the right things, making the right moves, even urinating in the right place. And this guy, down and out on the streets, not even able to urinate in the designated place. And the Truth broke through: God loved this man just as much as God loved me. This moment broke through my cultural training that taught me that to earn love and acceptance in my world, you had to do good, however that is defined. Love is a conditioned response, dependent on how you were doing.

The radical Christ notion is that God loves us all the same, whether or not we color within the lines or not. even urinating in the proper place or not. No matter how many good deeds, right actions, appropriate urinals we hit…..God loves us. God accepts us.

I knew that. I had been taught that all my life. Ministers had preached to me about this, as they addressed the discrimination along racial lines in my home South. Scholars had written about the lofty notion of God’s love and grace, encouraging my young mind to accept the reality that I am accepted. I got all that in my head, but the way life was trotted out to me did not square with this Gospel notion. You were what you did, you were rewarded for doing good, and punished for doing bad. This was in conflict with the words I had heard coming from Jesus, who I said I was trying to follow in my own life.

On this cold February day, at High Noon, just for dramatic effect, in a  public bathroom, increasingly smelling of urine, I experientially learned a lesson that had dodged my sensibility to point: God loves all of Creation equally. You can not increase it by doing good, nor decrease it by your failure.

Truth is, I would have to learn that over and over again. I find that I suffer from a spiritual amnesia, which means I sometimes forget what I know and have to be re-minded. That is why I found the weekly experience of Holy Eucharist (holy communion in everyday language) such a powerful, transformational action.

At the moment of communion, I am reminded of God’s love for me, specifically, particularly, peculiarly me, ME, as the priest presses the bread into my trembling hand, But as I watch others receive the chalice of blessed wine, it also reminds me that we are all in this together. We are essentially, eternally connected. This simple practice resuscitates the dialectical tension of individuality and community alive and kicking in my soul.

It took a gritty soup kitchen, a urine perfumed bathroom to provide the learning ground for my experience and acceptance of God’s overwhelming love.

Grace at the urinal.

And that leaves me grateful.

 

Write It Down, Mark My Words

I began this blog six months ago, sitting at this particular desk on St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia. I have tried to tell some stories, point to my experience and sense of the movement of Spirit, and play seriously with a variety of spiritual disciplines. I am back on “island time” over Memorial Day, remembering those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. I took some serious time to reflect, and give thanks. I hope you found your own way to observe this day.

Days like this raise questions of ultimate value. To what or whom are you giving your life?

Last week, I spoke of my journey toward a practice of mindfulness, a meditation practice that works for me and keeps my spirit lively and centered, a balance difficult to maintain. I received many notes, thanking me for re-minding them of the need for quiet time and focus. Several folks asked for some more specific guidance, which I am happy to give.

Today, briefly, I want to call to mind another spiritual practice which is as easy as 123.

One, sit down somewhere. It can be a desk, a library stall, a coffee shop table, on a deck….wherever you can get some space to focus.

Two, begin to write. Jot down random thoughts, orderly lists, streams of consciousness, memories that come, dreams you remember. Put pen or pencil to paper and begin to write down whatever.

Three, gather, keep your writing together. Whether it is in a binder, a folder, or leather folio, find a safe place to keep it where only YOU will see it. This gives you something that is harder and harder to find…privacy. PRIVACY!

You may choose to share it to someone special, someone you trust. You may write a song out of your musings. Or you might publish it. But, the key is: you should bathe in the freedom of the act of self disclosure, being transparent to the depths of your soul if you dare.

I used to kid my friend, John Claypool, a famous preacher who developed a style of preaching known as “confessional preaching” in which the preacher bears his/her soul in front of a congregation. John stumbled, or fell, into the method as a result of the death of his young daughter. As a young pastor, he felt obliged to “tell the truth” of how he wrestled with God around that untimely death. As he told me, he had no choice. It changed his way of viewing the preaching moment, of sharing the depth of his spiritual struggles. What a price to pay for authenticity.

At the time, it was so refreshing to hear a preacher who was “honest to God” and to others who would overhear his conversation with the Almighty. Through time, and out of some need for self-protection, John had developed a knack of letting people into his soul just enough to entice them to lean into his words, but hold them at a safe distance. It was a magic trick that many tried to imitate, most fumbled, and some crashed and burned. People want to hear authenticity but no spiritual strip tease, please.

Most of us don’t have a pulpit, or stand-up comedy club to exhibit our struggles, which is probably a good thing. My kids think some people, ahem, use social media to reveal their deep thoughts, feelings, and struggles…..but that’s for another time.

Here, I am urging you to take away the censorship that holds one back. We all have them, some have censors that are loud and threatening, some whispering prudential caution. Some call it an “inner critic” that questions your motivation, your right to have those feelings. Some have “inner parents”, introjects of authority figures who caution one to be careful, don’t show the cards in your hand, keep your cards close to your chest! We all have those censors that would warn us to be proper, fit in, stay safe!

My voice is urging you to let it rip, writing down whatever is on your heart, mind, and/or spirit. The payoff is not only writing it down in the very act itself, but reading it later, to see where you were, what you were feeling at that time in your life.

You can write what’s on your mind that day.

How are you feeling?

Write down your notes as you mentally scan your body. Where are you feeling pain, or tenseness?

If you were to name the “times of your life”,the important events, what would you choose to include? What would you exclude? And better yet, what would you highlight?

When people come to me for spiritual direction, I sometimes begin our work by asking the person to write down a series of chapter titles that would form the story of their life. I try to encourage them to use titles that capture the “feel” of that time, an image that conveys what was going on in that particular time of life. I have led this exercise with groups and individuals and are always awed by the richness of the chapter titles, the imagery and variety of both uniqueness and commonality.

Each chapter title can then be a starting point for journaling, writing down memories, hopes and fears that predominated that particular and peculiar time in life. You can approach it chronologically, or skip around. This is rich material. You are playing in the deep end of the pool of your soul. Move freely. This is for you!

After people play for a while, I invite them to give their story a title. What title would capture your unique sojourn in this world? When I first played with this creative exercise myself, my title provided me the temporary title of my life story, and now provides the title of my blog: South of God.

So, take a chance of breaking free from whatever moorings hold you. Silence your censors, quiet the intruding voices, still the space around your soul. Dare you enter this sacred space of Self?

Let me encourage you to simply write, or journal.

Sit. Write. Collect.

Like mindfulness and meditation, just start. Go easy.

From my island, just a bit south of God, enjoy the ride.

 

 

a