My Path to Mindfulness

I have been a meditator for over forty years, which matches the length of time the Hebrews spent wandering in the wilderness. My journey was not as momentous but feels somewhat similar in terms of searching for a Promised Land. Forty years later, the Hebrews made it but I am still searching. But allow me to tell you my story of searching in the hopes it might be helpful.

My journey began rather inauspiciously as I was looking for a way to maximize my productivity as a student in college. Having hit Emory with not the best study skills, I had to burn the late night oil in terms of getting through all my assignments. Out of frustration, my fraternity brother, Ken Leetz, and I went to a Transcendental Meditation class held in a business office across from Lenox Square. I remember a brief introduction to the meditation method of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the same dude that the Beatles consulted in India. For Ken and me, it meant a morning of introduction, followed by a private session in which a secret mantra was given to us individually, supposedly matched to our personal psyche.

It was a two syllable mantra that one would recite mentally as one focused on breathing out, then breathing in. Immediately, I found it relaxing, hoping it would assist my focus on school work and allowing me to get by on less sleep. I employed this method for the rest of my college career and found it effective in assisting my concentration.

Later, I was introduced to a very similar method of breathing, but this time from within the Catholic tradition of Centering Prayer. It is an ancient practice going back to early Christian monasticism but recovered by some Trappist monks outside of Boston, namely Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating. I was fortunate to meet and study with both of these spiritual leaders but had my own spiritual guide in the Georgia-based Trappist monk, Tom Francis. Tom was patient with my fickle devotion to the practice, gently and patiently encouraging me. The practice is almost identical to TM, but substituted a Christian based word for the two syllable mantra, using a word like Jesus.

Centering Prayer has continued to be the foundation of my meditation practice. I have experimented with other forms, finding them helpful, and at time alluring, but I have tended to dance with the one that brought me.

For a time, I was enamored by the Hescyhasm tradition of the Jesus Prayer. This uses a longer formulary of a set of words: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Again, the focus is on the breath, and the words come to have an almost hypnotic effect. The words repeated over and over, timed with the breathing, centers one’s focus and calms the mind.

Similarly, I was fortunate to come across the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with its rich heritage of meditation. I was taught by Dr. Lobsang Tenzin of the Drepung Loseling Center, which is associated with Emory and links to His Holiness the Dalai Lama….so I have that going for me….which is nice!

Seriously, the variety of imagery and meticulous mantras make for a veritable Disneyland of meditation which allow for an adventure of exploration of the psyche. I am deeply grateful for the monks of  Drepung who received my spiritual quest with such loving and accepting embrace. I learned much from them that I continue to employ forms and practices in my meditation.

Dr. Tenzin has developed a more secular form of meditation, Cognitive Based Compassion Meditation, that is being taught in a variety of settings, including elementary and high schools. Notably, it is being offered as an elective in the Emory Medical School to assist training physicians find a relaxation method for use in the midst of the stressful and urgent medical world.

While there are all kinds of meditation that are being offered, both from Western and Eastern traditions, the simple meditation of mindfulness is providing a simple and accessible way to calm and center one’s self in the middle of a regular life that is buffeted by stress and distraction.

I have taught seminary students, clergy, physicians, nurses, and business people a simple method of mindfulness that is quick to learn, easy to use, and brings about the calm and centeredness that is desired.

The key is just beginning. Simply beginning. Start. Now.

There will never be a better time to begin than today, now.

I recommend people start simply, for a short period of time, five minutes. For some people, they like to begin the day with a time of mindfulness. Some prefer a time at mid-morning, some at lunch. Every one finds the time that best fits their personal rhythm. My suggestion is to not do it late at night as it tends to awaken one’s senses, making it hard to go to sleep.

Start with taking three deep breaths, simply breathing in deeply, followed with a full exhalation. I suggest that people do a quick body scan, looking for sources of tension and seeking to relax that part of the body. Then, focus on your breathing, in and out, breathing normally, centering your self in the present moment. Thoughts may arise,in fact, it’s entirely normal to have distractions enter the mind. Simply return to the focus on the breath. You will find that the focus will increase through practice. You may find using the words, “in”, “out”, gives you something to focus on, Or you may use any two syllable word to help you focus, keeping distractions at bay.

Try this simple method to center. You may want to increase the time as you get more comfortable with the method. The folks that have used this simple method have found it relaxing, bringing them a sense of centeredness. After awhile, you may want to try some other methods but the key is just starting.

If you want, let me know of your efforts, your questions, I would be happy to respond as you try on this practice of mindfulness. And I would value hearing of your experience of this mindfulness practice that I refer to as Centering.

Be patient, and be kind to your self. This is really way of investing time and energy in your self.

You are worth it.

A Commitment to Learn, to Pay Attention

I love to learn. Curiosity has made learning a constant state in my life, looking for opportunities to expand the shoreline of my knowledge.

However, seeing so many possibilities of learning new things and deepening my knowledge threatens to overwhelm me, to swamp me. In this new season of life, I am attempting to exercise some discernment in what and how I spend my time and energy. In the past, the limitation of time seemed to provide a natural boundary to my pursuits but as my schedule is now more a matter of choice, I am wanting to be more mindful in the  use of my time.

I feel driven by an inner spirit to be continuous in my learning. I think I got that natively  from my mother who never seemed to stop learning. I loved that about her. I marveled at her passion to keep learning, even as she logged miles and years.  She finally put her artistic talent to use late in life, exploring her natural gift of drawing two dimensional representations of biological cell life into three dimensional painting. My dad, a model of partnership, built her a studio that became her haven, where she produced some fine pieces but more importantly, she discovered new means of expression. I hope to follow her path of discovery. She decided to commit more time to that pursuit once she was freed from all the distractions that crowded her life, namely, us. She finally paid attention to some of the deep desires within her soul.

Mary Oliver talks of paying attention as the first step of devotion. I have found that many people suffer from continuous distraction, and find if difficult to pay attention. Moving from one center of attention to another in rapid succession seems to be the fate of the modern day person, surrounded by electronic devices and messages that are never-ending. With all these distractions, how in the world can one pay attention and even approach the realm of devotion?

Focus is the word that I have found helpful in terms of honing in my attention on a specific topic. In my spiritual life, I have been given the word “center” as an effective tool to center my spirit in abiding in the present moment. Some people focus on an object, or in the movement of the breath, breathing in, breathing out. Often when I am leading groups, I now begin with a centering exercise of asking people to become “really present” by focusing on their breathing for just a few minutes. That simple act seems to bring a peace, a focus, that was not there when we first gathered.

This centering invites people to pay attention, to an object, an idea, a presence. And that can lead into deeper waters. This centering or mindfulness allows us to focus on where we want to make a deep dive, no longer content to play in the shallow end of the pool.

This mindset has been called continuous learning and I’ve been been committed to it all my life. I have committed to learning new things as well as deepening my learning in specific areas. Questions and curiosity seem to call me.

I have mentioned in a previous blog entry about my love of questions. Now, this makes life in fundamentalist religious system of thinking problematic. The “question” is where I find the juice of life, seeking to find a depth of understanding on the far side of complexity. Not all folks are comfortable in that process or pursuit. But, I do know that about myself. It’s one of the reasons I found the Episcopal Church inviting as I found it a place where I did not have to check my questions at the door. My questions were welcomed. I found a place to be, a home for my soul.

My curiosity is one of the favorite things I enjoy about myself. I have always been curious about why things happen the way they do. That is why I have loved science and the study of how things work. particularly the biological systems that we take for granted. My mother’s love of biology was passed on to me. I have found my curiosity invoked by the new science of the brain and how that mysterious part of our body functions as it makes connections, as well as it can get in the way, blocking a way forward.

My big question has always been around the psychology of faith. Why do some people believe and others do not? How does faith function in the lives of people? How does intuition work and what causes dreams and hunches to happen? These days, I am once again listening to the stories of others and the way they are making sense of their lives. Coaching others, looking in from the sidelines, observing and encouraging, is the gift of my work these days.

I have always been captured by people growing into fullness. I once spent a lot of time, years, listening to people’s stories, as they sought to make sense out of things that happened to them, as well as make decisions as to how to spend their life energy. What I have discovered, again and again, is that we form narratives that string together the events of our lives into a necklace of stories that we wear as our identity. Like the curious grad student who transformed assigned research into a chance to listen to the mystery and messiness of human beings, I have recovered my passion for listening intently to these stories.

If listening to stories is my passion, my particular way of attending deeply is through the written word. I am fascinated by writing, how people put together stories and plots into a meaningful narrative. I am lured by a story that weaves characters together in an interchange of relationships. Seduced by the blood, sweat, and tears that formed the soil of my South, I have explored my faves, Flannery, Eudora, and Pat, but now try to dip my toe into a wider landscape that calls to my curiosity.

Finding my own voice in writing down the bones of a story somehow mimics the path of my mother. Taking what could be seen as simple two dimensional reporting, the art of writing a story uses alchemical magic to transform the structure of words into a living, breathing, dying body of narrative. I have a lot of work to do in honing this craft, but writing this simple blog has given me a pool to play within without drowning. I appreciate your willingness to read, to come alongside the storyteller I am hoping to become.

So like Mary Oliver offers, I am trying to pay attention. I am paying attention  to my own story, as circuitous as it may be. I am paying attention to the story of others, as I enter into that sacred space in which people trust me to hear of their meandering, their dreams, and fears. And I am paying attention to the larger narrative  that we all find ourselves within, a cosmic drama that recounts journey as rich as an exodus, a death as real as a bloody end, a pause that is a pregnant moment of waiting, and a new life that emerges resplendent, even with a limp.

Paying attention is the beginning.

A Pause for the Cause

When I get feedback from my writing, it feels good.

I love it when people find something to chew on, something to make them think. And, when my story resonates with something that has happened with them, or something they are currently going through, it is soul satisfying.

Even when someone brings critique to my point of view, it’s good to feel like I have been engaged in that human encounter of minds.

Or, even when my favorite people, English teachers, who taught me to love literature, to not use too many commas, or clauses, or split infinitives (doing this on purpose), point out  my grammatical miscues……. I love it. I am glad they are reading my little blog, South of God.

During my Thanksgiving pause down on the island, I reflected on a certain rhythm in my life, a habit of writing a column a week, and a sermon every week. It was part of my weekly schedule. And J was trained, like a seal, to like the deadline feel for writing that forced me to produce. I learned early on how uncomfortable it was to go into a Saturday with no sermon, so I learned to carve out blocks of time for study, reflection, creative noodling, and writing. It was my life.

When I began this crazy life of ministry, I made a vow to God and myself that I would never enter the sacred space of a pulpit unprepared. It would be a sin to do such a thing, to waste people’s valuable time. I generally began my preparation two weeks in advance on any sermon, a righteous practice taught to me by my preaching professor, Dr. Joe Roberts, pastor of the historic Ebeneezer Baptist Church. Joe had trained with the great pulpiteers at Princeton and brought a rigor to sermon preparation. He pressed this value deep into my soul, so I was always prepared.

The problem was that I sometimes was trying to do the impossible pull things together in a way that could make sense of the scriptural lessons assigned for the day with what was going on in the life of my parish and in the life of my people. There’s the rub!

As my first boss, Dr. Bill Lancaster, was fond of saying, “Sometimes I have something to say, some times I just have to say something!”.

Truth is, sometimes I delivered at a high level and other times, I did not. But it was never because I did not put the time in to research, to be creative, and to craft. Sometimes it just didn’t work. I learned to block out time for this process, which is not always easy when  you are essentially on-call all the time.

For my writing then and now, it meant blocking out time for this work. I confess that I traded on college, seminary, and doctoral work to provide a rich trove of material for the first ten years of my work. But midway, I realized my well was running dry and so I began a habit of a sabbatical day each week, to fill my tank, or sharpen my saw, as Covey called it. I guarded that time with my life because I knew that my spiritual and intellectual life depended on it.

But I found that the same was true for my Self, that part of me that was my core of being, beyond the paid hired gun, religious professional, who did the bidding for others. How to nurture my Self?

The answer for me was to make the time for a pause.

In the middle of a full-tilt sprint or in the steady pace of a marathon project, I needed to carve out some time in my schedule to stop, slow down, pause so that I can pay attention to what is going on. As St. Ferris of Buehler said to his disciples: You got to take time to look around, or you might miss your life. Truer words!

For me, the image of a “pause” is effective in re-minding me of my need to take the time to tend to my Self.

I want to be a self-aware person, so I need to pause to look inside, to see whats going on in my psyche. I want to develop ways to review what has happened in my past that has contributed to who I am today. That means looking in the rear-view mirror to get a sense of all the happenings and relationships that have formed me.

I have found that a journal works for me, by that I mean, blank pages and a pen, to write down some of the things that come to mind. I try to write down the raw experience as fresh as I can, and then expand my reflections on the meaning of the moment. I have come to value the richness of experience, even the painful parts, where I am invited to dive deeply into the mystery that connect us all.

But this self awareness needs to move beyond the self-centered musing and include the connections I have with the community. David Brooks has renewed my passion for this in helping me to name four areas of commitment that define my character: vocation, marriage, faith, and community. I keep a section of my journal dedicated to these four to re-mind me every time I take a pause..

My sense of vocation has changed as I have gotten older in that the scope has broadened. Seeing my work in terms of church has grown to define my parish beyond the parochial ghetto limits, to include healthcare,, business, and the public square. My parishioners include those who seek God within the bounds of the church, but with a special eye trained for those who are the seekers, who are searching. They have always been my secret love, the people I want to help find a connection and resonance in the bigger picture. Coaching leaders and persons seeking to develop and grow is my new parish.

The crucible of marriage is the place where I have learned the most about intimacy. As my teacher, Tom Malone, taught me, the task is learning how to be your self in full, while sharing that with an other, without bending that self out of shape. I have been fortunate to find my partner, sitting across the balcony in a Decatur church thirty-nine years ago. How could I know that she would shape my life so profoundly  when I took the risk to ask her to join me for a drink at the Lullwater? My first real date with her was in my green Jeep as we shared the secrets hidden in both of our families of origin, within the ragtop Tent of Meeting.  We have poured ourselves out, raising two children, encouraging them to follow their passion. We have worked our way through the valleys, and enjoyed the high points along the way. It is in my marriage that I have learned more about how to be in relationship with other people. That’s what the marriage rite intends, that you would learn about life and love in this particular and peculiar relationship, and then reach out to others.

I pause to think about my faith a good bit. You simply can’t say, I gave at the office, and shut the door. Soul searching for what one values ultimately, how to spend the limited time and energy you have been given, and how to break out from the lines that limit who counts…..this is the real work of the Spirit. I have found odd partners in this quest: Trappist monks who quiet me, Tibetan Buddhists who press for practical compassion, Evangelicals who call out commitment, a rabbi who reminds me of the covenant of relationship, professors who demand rigor, a bishop who trained me to look deeply into symbol, a consultant who taught me about change, and an owl on the Appalachian Trail at twilight that taught me to pause, to ponder, to reflect.

Finally, one is embedded in the context of community, like it or not. I have tried, throughout my life to be engaged in the work of the community with the hope that we can form a better place for all people. My original community passion was for racial equality in the South where I was raised and claim as my own. My grandfather was my incarnational teacher, embodying the way to treat all people fairly, and with respect. There are no better ways to learn those lessons than experiencing it in flesh and blood, and Atlanta Police Officer Glen Pollard was my Yoda, schooling me in the way of the Jedi. I have since extended his teachings to gender, religion, sexual orientation, and any other adjective you might mention to modify or  denigrate the worth of a human being.

With all this on my agenda, you might wonder how I have any time to DO anything of substance. It’s funny. As I have gotten better and better at taking  my pause for the cause, I am using my time more effectively. I am choosing more wisely how to spend the minutes, the hours, and the days that I have left to me on this earth. I am still learning to take a pause for the cause, especially in times when busyness threatens to overwhelm me with urgency.

How have you found ways to take a pause? Is it something you need to work on? And how do you plan to do that? It sometimes feels overwhelming when you first face your busyness. But if you are beginning a new habit, a new discipline, start with a small step. What about taking a five minute pause at the beginning of the day? A pause when a break in your work comes? A pause at the end of the day to reflect? If you interested in learning on methods of taking a pause, let me know. I have resources and I would be happy to talk with you about it.

Do you need to take a pause for the cause? A pause can make a world of difference.

Transformation: From Walter to Doc

I met Doc during my first week of clinical training at the Training and Counseling Center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta.  I had been “encouraged” to get my feet wet in a clinical setting rather than basking in the safety of the academy,  As my professor put it rightly, I was theoretically top-heavy.

So, from the rarefied air of the Center for Faith Development at Emory, I found myself in the mornings at a soup kitchen serving the homeless of Atlanta. It was a daily operation of serving sandwiches prepared daily by volunteers, served with gallons of coffee. This all happened in the Parish Hall of venerable St. Luke’s Episcopal, home of some of the wealthiest and most tony citizens of Atlanta. The soup kitchen’s daily operation changed the feel and the smell of the aristocratic church, wearing on facilities, tying up the space, and leaving a tell-tale urine smell for Sunday morning. I was to work with the street people in a pioneering model of delivering family therapy to an indigent population, while assisting with the volunteers in making sense of their experience. A rich mix of possibilities of ground-breaking work and potential disaster.

Into that environment, I blew in, looking for experience. The first person I met was a small, little man, looking more like Gandhi than an Atlanta businessman. He wore a plaid shirt that I am sure came from L.L. Bean or Land’s End, on top of a pair of khakis from the Buckhead Men’s Shop, no doubt. He had a stuttering walk, as his eyes blinked constantly, as if he was clearing his mind, every few seconds. Bald as a monk with tonsure, but tanned from his daily labor in his garden and weekend trips to Hilton Head, he cut a curious figure. Doc seemed a bit out of place, from my initial assessment, but I found that he was the juice that made the place go.

His real name was Walter, Walter Willis. He had been a co-owner of the preeminent jewelry store for Old Atlanta, named for his brother/partner, Charles Willis. He had catered to the wealthy of the city, showing his inimitable Southern hospitality to all his customers. That passion for service now was transferred to his new customers, the street people of Atlanta. Doc’s style of giving respect and showing care to the pilgrims who came through our line was the most important thing I learned there in this down-and- dirty world of people living inbetween.

I’m not sure what made the change come for Doc. Casually, he once told me he had gotten his fill of making money and spending money, and decided to use his time and energy for more important things. I never had the nerve to apply my clinical and psychological lens to his life, to try to  figure out what the hell happened to transform this man into the closest thing to a saint I had seen. I just saw, and marveled at the way he treated people and gave them respect. It was like I was afforded a chance to  see the Christ in flesh, a rare thing for a guy like me. To observe a changed man, transformed by life and spirit, and I got a chance to see the fruit of his labors in the dingy context of a soup kitchen.

At that very soup kitchen, we developed a logistical problem as our numbers rapidly increased with a downturn in the economy and the simultaneous release of patients from psychiatric hospitals due to rule changes on involuntary custody. We simply had to change the way we worked in order to feed the people who needed food. And so, we came up with the idea of two shifts, two times for people to be fed and served. This meant we would have to complete one shift, move those who had been served out to make room for a new group. The volunteers,  who were appropriately went by the appellation, the “church ladies”,  referred to the shift idea as two “seatings”, which I found both ironic and funny.

With the change, Doc and I became a team, out of  necessity. He was the heart, and I, the enforcer. I had worked as a glorified bouncer my last year of college at the hottest night club in town,  so I knew how to move people where I wanted, or needed them to be. Doc would get their attention, reminding them of our joy in serving them, reminding them of God’s love for them, reminding them that we hope they will come back tomorrow. But then, as sweetly as a Southern-cultured person could, Doc would tell them it was time to go. There were other people who needed to be served. Then, it was my turn. Move ’em out. How to do this without it seeming like I was herding humans? Doc would help, with his soft voice, but I had to move them out so we could serve more waiting people. It was a trick we worked on and did pretty well with our version of good cop-bad cop.

I have thought a lot of those days as I reflect on my time in the church. Clearly, St. Luke’s became the model of what I church could and should be. It was my Camelot, as I watched literally change the city with its message of grace and programs of compassion. I’ve carried the spirit of that place with me throughout my career as a priest.

There at the St. Luke’s soup kitchen, I listened, over the sacrament of peanut butter sandwiches and coffee, to the stories of men and women who wound up on the streets of Atlanta. Some came, fresh out of the service, carrying physical and psychological wounds. Some came, trying to get out of the bottle where they have been trapped. A man who was at the top of his game who woke up and decided to break out of his platinum shackles. A middle aged woman who had her fill of putting up with spousal abuse. A woman turned out after years in a psychiatric hospital with no place to go. And the children, who followed their parent, like a puppy who follows his mama, into the streets. I saw all types and conditions, as we say. My images and prejudices were pretty shot to hell by the time I finished up my work in that soup kitchen.

But the encounter that had the most effect was that of Doc. A man who had found a second  act, a new way of being in the world. Doc wound up being  a friend for life, serving on the committee of discernment that decided if I had the particular and peculiar constellation of gifts that would be a good “fit” for me serving as a priest. His imprimatur on my life, my gifts, was one of the most important confirmations I’ve received. I chose Doc as one of the lay people who would “present” me at my formal ordination. I wound up being with him as his priest when he died at Piedmont Hospital, and assisted in his funeral there at St. Luke’s. That Doc, he was a world changer.

I took Doc with me, in my memory and my soul. I wonder about how people make that transformation, how they negotiate the passage from one way of being to another. It’s been one of my perennial questions that I push around during my life. How does transformation happen?

There are a variety of models, all with a piece of the truth.

Jung popularized the notion of mid-life crisis, of a profound shift that occurs in a human when they awaken to the reality that the time they have left to live is less than what they have lived. When Jung was thinking and writing, it happened around the age of forty, the infamous mid-life crisis, where one’s mortality spins you off in a crazy pursuit of what you always wanted to do, but were afraid to tackle or risk.

Bob Buford popularized this concept for the evangelical Christian community in his book, Half Time, baptizing the craziness into a more noble tonality. Bob suggested that for many it’s a move from mastery to meaning. One spends the first half of life mastering one’s vocational skill resulting in success. But then, as normal success wears a bit thread-bare, one moves to other pursuits that are more noble, and brings significance to one’s  legacy. I like that, and I have seen countless good folk follow that pattern.

Recently, David Brooks has written about similar transformation process in his  book, The Second Mountain. Following the old two-phase image, the first mountain for a person to climb is that of the “normal” goals that our culture pushes, that of success, to be well thought of, to experience personal happiness. Brooks makes a powerful point that our current culture drives the preeminence of this first mountain, focusing on an individualistic pursuit of happiness. The problem occurs when the person arrives at the top of the first mountain of achievement and finds it unsatisfying, as if something essential is missing. In that moment, some people decide to change course, relocating their course to another mountain. Brooks calls this the Second Mountain. a journey whose focus is on service to the common good, not the self. He says there’s a shift in motivation, from self-centered to other-centered.

Brooks gives several observations as to how people move from the First to the Second mountain. One is a basic shift in awareness after one has achieved success and recognizes some emptiness there, an experiential living into the lyric,  “I can’t get no satisfaction!” For others, it comes when one falls off the first mountain through failure, when something happens to their success or reputation that disrupts the normal. For others, it comes through an unanticipated intrusion of suffering that brings with it a existential question of the meaning of one’s life.

The truth is some continue on with the individualistic,self-based projects right up until their final breath, content to go with the flow. And some who fall off the mountain by failure or suffering, falling off the First mountain into the valley, remain there broken. Brooks focuses on the folks that are “made” by going “down in the valley” and emerge with a new vision, a new point of view on  life. His claim, which is personified in his own journey that he winsomely recounts, is that this second mountain moves one beyond a shallow happiness to a deeper joy.

Brooks goes on to talk about a journey into the “wilderness”, a process that follows the contours of transformation that I have talked about previously in my blog as following a three-fold pattern that is built into human experience. I encourage you to dig into this book as it is rich in observations and wisdom. I will be revisiting this in future weeks.

This is what happened to Doc. I don’t know the particulars, but I do know that the life of the confirmed bachelor, bon vivant lifestyle proved to be less than satisfying, moving Doc to his ascent of the Second Mountain. It is here, serving and living with the street people of Atlanta, that Doc found joy. He once told me it was his Heaven, those moments in that smelly gathering space of humanity.

Where are you on the journey? Does the two mountain image work for you in naming where you are in your journey? It does for me. I have been captured by this image of moving into a new way to give of myself to a bigger reality than my own empire of self. Part of it is a natural evolution of consciousness or awareness of my self, the life I bought into, the mountain I was climbing. And, some of it comes as a result of failure, of falling, of losing my way which forces you to question how you are doing life, what price you have paid unknowingly, what compromises you made. For whatever reason, I find myself on the Second Mountain, climbing again but in a different way.

I am thankful that I had a Doc to show me the way, a pioneer who led the way.

I have often reflected that my method of life was a native wisdom to get myself next to the best of the breed in order to learn how to do something well. When I wanted to be a scholar, I put myself with the best scholars of my time. When I wanted to be a therapist, I hung out with the best therapists in the community. When I wanted to learn to pray, I connected with the spiritual giants of our time. Learn from the best.

Unknowingly, gracefully, I wound up with a man of the Second Mountain, who showed me a way of being in the second act of life that was full of service  and joy. Thanks Doc.

That’s My Story

Everyone has a story.

In fact, when someone asks you who you are, and they are willing to give you the time, you will move quickly from telling them where you are from, what you do for a living, to telling them your story. We all have a story. Some folks tell their story exceptionally well, while others struggle for a cohesive plot line for their narrative. What’s your story?

Frankly, I love listening to stories. I’ve always loved stories, telling them, writing them, and listening to them.

I grew up listening to my grandfather’s friends on the Atlanta police force tell their stories of the street. My favorite was my grandfather getting off work, going to his Chevy coupe parked around the corner, finding a young man trying to “hot wire” his car. It must have irritated my granddad, because he arrested this man, taking him back to the station, only to find out that he was on the infamous FBI’s most wanted list. My grandfather wound up in the newspaper as a hero, posed with his police Harley, looking like John Wayne, capturing a dangerous criminal. How does it go: when the truth becomes legend, print the legend! My granddad and pals used to laugh about that, as my grandfather practiced the Andy Griffeth style of policing, never firing a shot in his entire career.

My grandmother told me her stories of growing up in Texas, the rich black earth, and the monstrous thunderstorms. She told my that her mother died in childbirth, her father sensing something was wrong while he was plowing, running from the field to find his wife in labor. While my grandmother lived near Waco,  I found the same true in East Texas where I lived for ten years. I wish we could have compared notes on those mammoth storms.

While I was on sojourn in Texas, I  listened to the senior members at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas tell me about their epic stories of World War II, in prison camps and on the beaches of Normandy. I was fortunate to pastor some of The Greatest Generation, walking with them as they carried their compadres to the graveyard, telling stories along the way.

And I especially loved listening to Texas musicians tell stories about being on the road, particular bars, circumstances that would cause you to whistle. It sometimes made me wish I had chosen that life, but I left that for my son.

I cherish the weekend I spent in Eunice, Louisiana listening to the stories of Marc Savoy, the Cajun philosopher, who builds accordions and plays a mean one himself. I enjoyed being with Marc and his amazing wife, Ann, as they gathered their community on a Saturday morning for a music jam. These blue collar workers were magically transformed into musicians when they walked in the door, their stooped shoulders straightening as they were greeted by Marc’s call of their name. They fed their bellies and souls with boudin and Dixie beer, at 9:00 in the morning as they cut loose with the tunes and stories.  Cajun stories are full of bombast, exaggeration, that makes  them right at home in the South.

Did I mention I love stories? It’s the basic stuff of being a human, stringing together events and moments in a meaningful string, forming a narrative.

A story tells where you have been, things that have happened to you along the way. Some things, you highlight, and then some parts of the story, you deliberately choose to leave out. And some parts of the past, you simply forget, sometimes because they are just too painful. You may not recognize it, but you are an editor of your story and how you tell it.

A story also takes into account the present. where all these events have led you to…the NOW, or as mystic Howard Thurman, taught me, the Present Moment. It’s always intriguing to me to attend to how people describe their current state of being. What emotions are in play in the moment, and how doe they inform the way the story is being told.

Always in the background of each life story is an anticipated future, where this whole shooting match is headed. Is it heroic story that is in process, or is it a tragic tale that reveals a fatal flaw that has yet to bring down the house of cards? Is there a propelling sense of hope that pulls the teller on into the next frame, or has something put the action on hold with a  kind of freeze frame that stops the motion?

My joy is listening to people compose and tell me their stories. I listen intently for themes, a thread of meaning that links seemingly disparate events into a flow. I pay close attention to pauses, and hesitations, as one weaves the fabric of their story. I have noticed that many people seem to be led by a master narrative, a story that they repeat as if they are playing a role in which they have been cast. And others seem lost, wandering looking for that lost thread of meaning.

For me, my mother gave me the name David, which set me on the road to look for any Goliaths that need slaying. It’s led me into some life-long dramas that were heroic, as well as pretty crazy. Some Goliaths need  to have their asses kicked while others should just be left along. That lesson came later than sooner, but came, nonetheless. I still get my Davidic  bravado pricked every now and then, but I seem to be able to choose more and more the battles I take on, which some one once told me was the essence of wisdom.

A pastor friend of mine told me about his sermon last week, on Easter Sunday. Bravely transparent, he recounted his own story of being at a significant low in his life, where “you had to look up to see the bottom”, as he phrased it. As a pastor, he suffered a complete breakdown, forced to surrender, to rely on his family and friends to keep him going. He was at the end of his rope. But he leaned into the future, with some assistance from a nun who was his spiritual director, and a therapist. He was able to get through that “dark night of the soul” and get on with his story.

He made a comeback, going to serve his current parish in a powerfully pastoral way that perhaps he couldn’t have before his fall. It struck me that he WAS the resurrection that morning as he preached, up from the grave, he had arisen, with a hope and a message, and  more importantly, a way of being.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many lives he may have saved last Easter morning. How many people sitting in those hard pews were at the end of their rope? How many young people who have yet to hit bottom, but will remember the story of their pastor who did, and yet lived to tell about it? How many folk who had have the very life kicked out of them and found a line of hope to pull them up? My bet is that Easter may have happened in a big way in a little town in “by God” Missouri.

When you leave a parish, it’s funny. You hear from the people you served, and they tell you stories, stories you may not even remember. Things you said, little things you did, actions that made a difference in people’s live that you simply had no idea. Sometimes the story is told in a note, a letter, sometimes in a call, or hug. It’s the psychic pay for a pastor.

Everyone has a story. Why not take the time to jot some notes about yours? Your high mountain top experiences, your down in the valley lows? Your lower than low bottoms, and your miraculous resurrections?

Story hold our lives together in narrative form. What’s your story? Find a way to tell it, either in written form or spoken to an other. What is your story?

Fire in the Cathedral

I am writing the morning after the horrific fire that threatened the very structure of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In the aftermath, I have been listening to the various talking heads making their observations about this stunning moment along with the cultural implications. “It will be rebuilt” seems to be the headline.

My mind has gone to another fire. It was a fire that I witnessed many moons ago, in a place not so far away.

It was Conyers, a sleepy town, a short hour east of Atlanta. The setting was a Trappist monastery, constructed by the monks in a design that was based on a abbey in France.

We were gathered in darkness, in the middle of a grain field, in the chill of the deep night. It was the end of Holy Saturday, the day of “inbetween”, when Jesus was said to have descended into Hell, to break the bonds of death, and to set free those were captive.

The day before, we had followed Jesus to the Cross, to witness his ignoble crucifixion on the hard wood of the cross, after being betrayed and abandoned by friends. He went to the Cross, after having been turned over by religious leaders due to fears around his assault on their traditions and authority. Led to the Cross, he was condemned to death by the Roman government authority, the Empire of that time, because of the fear of another political uprising. “Crucify him” was the chant of the mob on this day. Sounds like some chants I’ve heard recently. And we were there, we participated.

Good Friday is the instant replay of this event, as the Church trots out the old, old story of Jesus’ death, his last words, and even breathing his last frail human breath, “It is finished…”. In certain traditions, the Cross is brought in with the corpus of a beaten, bloodied Jesus which is put before us “to survey” as the hymn goes. Some traditions offer the experiential moment of coming forward and kissing the feet of the corpus of Jesus. Others offer a bare black cross to symbolize the moment of abandonment, desperation, and futility. Good Friday ironically drags us to the foot of the Cross and leaves us there. This is high drama.

And so, we have languished and suffered with the Crucified Lord for a day. The “inbetween” day of Holy Saturday is a time that we don’t really know what to do with it.

But on this night, after sundown, we gather. Gathered in the chill of the night, our souls shivering with the undeniable truth of our own mortality, we come, not knowing what for and what awaits us.

The Church, the ekklesia, the Greek for “a people called out”, meets together, for what else can we do. Like the Parisians gathered, unplanned, unscheduled on the Seine, in the fading glow of the Cathedral, with the smell of old wood burning in the nostrils, we gather.

This is the night that the Church has learned to announce the most improbable Truth in the face of the undeniable reality of Death. On that particular night that I am remembering, the Abbot of the monastery lights the “new fire” of Easter, using flint, a loose bundle of dry straw, and a prayer. The fire is lit and  used to light the Paschal Candle, an enormous candle that will be carried through the field, up the hill to the darkened church building.

Arriving at the front of the church building, the Abbot raps three times on the huge massive oak doors with his crozier, his staff, Slowly, slowly, the doors creak open, revealing a darkness that I can still remember. I remember thinking of the dark mine that Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing about when I was a boy, dark as a dungeon. That singular light made its way into the church, pausing, as the leader chanted the ancient words, The Light of Christ, at which point the people responded, Thanks be to God.

The Paschal Candle was carried in slowly,  its singular flame issuing forth an amazing radiance, breaking into the overwhelming darkness. An experiential procession moves into the heart of darkness, as we, the trembling faithful, followed in faith.

In the middle of the church, the procession paused, as again the affirmation was sounded, The Light of Christ, and again with the response, Thanks be to God. The light and shadows played tag as the flickering candle threatened to go out, in spite of high liturgical planning.

Finally, the procession reached the front of the church, as the leader turned to face the following crowd. And this time, with a more triumphant tone, fueled by the journey and relief at arrival, the leader acclaimed, The Light of Christ, and again the response, Thanks be to God.

As the Paschal Candle was placed carefully into the brass holder, attendants lit candles from the lone flame and began to move among to people, sharing this light with their neighbors. Slowly, the cavernous darkness progressively is illumined by the communal collection of candle power.

All of us filled that space with our flickering candles of faith, as we listened to the ancient chant, the Exultet, recounting the  cosmic drama of God’s love, overcoming death. We heard the biblical story of God’s original Incarnation in Creation, pausing as the
Creator assesses the work:  TOV, it is good, Then follows other Hebrew stories of God’s faithfulness, recounting that presence through the past, even to this moment.

This culminates with the reading of one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection. We hear the story once again, passed on from the original witnesses, the women, passed on to the disciples who had their own experience of the Risen Christ. These stories were passed on to others, and finally written down in four different accounts that were continually recounted among the faithful, and read, even in this particular gathering.

As the reading of the Gospel account is concluded, there is silence. A deafening silence, an open space of time, hung suspended between despair and hope.

And then there is Light. Just like that first morning of Creation, a brightness breaks over us. Originally it was the Creator, but on this night, it’s a hidden bespeckled brother monk, throwing the main switch at the aging fuse box, definitely a potential flaw in the human design. But, thanks be to God, and the Southern Company, it worked.

Flooding that very space, the full effect of light breaks into the darkness, blinding us in its brightness. The leader exclaims the words we had been waiting for: Alleluia, Christ is Risen! and we respond, The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.

Looking into the faces of my companions and those other people gathered, our eyes were dancing with surprise, shining with hope, with a joy, with a deep connection with something much bigger than we were at the beginning of the night.

Now, let me confess. I had been going to church since I left my mother’s womb. I was even on the cradle roll, placed in the nursery at a Baptist church, hanging out with another baby, Tommy, who would become my friend later in a youth group. I went to church on Easter Sunday with my family, listening to the strains of “He Arose” which Baptists sing obligatorily each Easter. Once, I even rolled out of bed to attend the Easter Sunrise Service. Have mercy!

But I never had the experience I had on that night at Easter Vigil in the unlikely place of a Trappist monastery. I experienced a joy that I had only heard  others talk about. And let me be clear, this might not be your cup of tea. You may love the blast of a horn section enabled hymn,  a bombastic Widor voluntary on a pipe organ, or the simple phrasing of a heart-felt praise song. Or your jam might be that of an oratorical pyrotechnic flurry, rhapsodically proclaiming the power of the Almighty. Whatever brings you light and good news is a good thing regardless of how.  But my sense is, we all experience a darkness at times. We suddenly grasp our mortality, or rather, we are grabbed by it. We need to find a source for our hope and our faith that will see us through our particular dark night.

For me, it was the new fire of Easter lit in the darkness of night, set in the smelling ripeness of a freshly mowed cow pasture on the Trappist monastery grounds. That’s how I roll.

Some years later, I was designated to carry that new fire into the Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta, the first Easter after my ordination. I was honored to join those in the line of folks who have chanted the ancient verse, The Light of Christ, and carry it into the dark, foreboding tomb of the Cathedral of St. Philip, set on a hill in Buckhead.

Fire in the Cathedral has a very specific meaning to me.

Fire in the Cathedral for me conveys a hope that I needed and has a positive vibe.

Fire in the Cathedral is a experience that I look forward to every Spring as the Earth awakens and rebirth begins.

But an uncontrolled fire in the Cathedral in Paris brings despair, a deep sense of loss. Perhaps it ignites our deepest fear of chaos, of randomness that threatens our sense of meaning. And yet, even as the fire was burning, destroying, charring, the faithful gathered, carrying their stories and singing their songs, leaning into the night with hope.

Those pilgrims, gathered in their dark night, have the temerity to proclaim that Christ is Risen, the bold notion that the Christ  reigns over death, that Christ brings hope where despair threatens. Alleluia indeed!

The Light of Christ. Thanks be to God.

What Color is Your Bible?

When you grow up in the South, you are required to have a relationship with the Bible. You may tote it, you  may thump it, you may quote it, you may hate it, or you may run from it. But it’s like fluoride in the water….it’s just there, the Bible in the South.

For me, I got my first Bible that I remember being purchased for me by my grandparents at Sears in West End, which kind of fits. West End was where my pediatrician officed, Dr. Redd. It’s where I went to my first music store, Jacksons, renting my first saxophone. And West End was  where I first tasted the heavenly manna of Krispy Kreme Donuts. Sears was like Mecca for West End, the center of all that is. You would get clothes for school, Cub Scout uniforms, hardware, and stuff I had no business knowing about at that age. But, turns out you could also score a Bible.

My first Bible was, the Children’s Bible. It had a picture on the cover of Jesus sitting, gathering all the children unto him. I guess that was to make the point that he was accessible to all, even dumb kids like me, limited in my pondering ability. It was a King James Version, and it had color illustrations throughout the text.

This Children’s Bible proved to be my first experience of editing the Bible to fit the way I saw life, or wanted to see life. The pictures were of Adam and Eve, getting the hell out of Dodge. There was Moses on Sinai, holding the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. I remember him not looking happy.  Noah and the Ark with the  rainbow, giving a little good news-bad news drama.  And there was David taking on Goliath, which proved to be predictive for me and my identity.

But the picture that caught my eye, that bothered me,  was of Jesus with a whip of ropes, running the sellers out of the Temple. He looked angry and determined, and the sellers had a definite look of fear as they ran, clearing the space. Now, this simply did not fit my Southern way of niceness and politeness, especially in church, so I simply decided to excise this sketchy picture of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ out of  my Bible. I tore it out and put it in the desk drawer, hiding his anger safely away. This was the first of many edits I would make growing up, trying to make Jesus more palatable to my Southern taste and sensibility. It would not be the last. I  learned that Christian trick early on. If it doesn’t fit, take it out. Not as poetic as “if it don’t fit, you must acquit” but it worked just the same.

My second Bible was a black leather one, moving up into the big leagues. It was a Revised Standard Version, Red Letter Edition, meaning the words that Jesus spoke were special, marked for emphasis. I mean, even a kid gets that differentiation, and I guess I still sort of give honor to that instinct.

Of course, we carried our Bible to church and Sunday School because I was in the Southern Baptist Church, where you got points for bringing your Bible, studying your lesson, being on time, going to church, and of course, bringing that offering. There was an actual scorecard on the offering envelope. I was a “100 percenter” and would add “visitations” just to get extra credit. Southern Baptists will know what I’m talking about.

I carried that Bible with me until I arrived in the Youth department where our minds moved to other concerns. The Bible got left behind, and my focus was on trying to trip up these poor mortals that had volunteered to teach us. As a budding scientist, I took it as my duty to bring every question of historicity, evolution, and philosophy to the class session. With my mom as a biology teacher, I peculiarly enjoyed pressing the sexual issues that were in the stories and texts. I remember deciding to ask Mr. Griswold about the practice of circumcision, pretending ignorance. That probe sent him into stuttering apoplexy for the remainder of the class session. You can see how I was a singular joy. My Bible told me that even my Lord was precocious at twelve, so shouldn’t I follow his lead?

My next Bible was called The Living Bible which was said to be more accessible, easier to comprehend than the ponderous King James. It was green and did read more flowingly. That was because it was a paraphrase, meaning someone took the Hebrew and Greek and put it into present-day language, sans thous and ye verilys. For that reason, serious students of the Bible often referred to the Living Bible as the Green Abortion….always said in love and Christian charity, you understand. They were looking for the actual words of Jesus, as if that was even possible. But the Big Green did deliver the feel of the story which was not bad at the time.

When I was hitting late high school, my dear friend Danny cautioned me about the secular world that might lead me astray, particularly at the godless Emory that I planned to attend. So Danny encouraged me to gird my loins, and my mind. He gave me a book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell that came right out of Campus Crusade with the Four Spiritual Laws. This was getting serious, with my soul dangling over the very fires of Hell. This demanded not only a verdict but a Bible text that was true to the original text, and hopefully as close to the lips of Jesus as I could get. The Bible of choice among my fundamentalist friends was the New American Standard which took pains to make a literal translation with no funny stuff going on. It was blue, I remember thinking, true blue.

Now, that was the Bible I used through college until I wound up crazily at  the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky with all the preacher boys training to be pastors. You can look back on a past blog entry to read as to how I made my circuitous route to Southern, trying on a medical career by  working in a psychiatric hospital while taking classes at the Baptist seminary. One of my classes was New Testament as well as taking New Testament Greek, requiring the acquisition of a burgundy, plastic covered Greek text, issued by the American Bible Society. This was the “real deal”, which I was jazzed to translate for my own self. But in addition to that, I needed a scholarly version for Dr. Peter Rhea Jones’ class in New Testament.

The text of choice was an Oxford Edition of the Revised Standard Version. This is a big book with varying color covers offered each year. My year, the book was black. Not any black, but a dark, deep, almost Neon Black, that seemed to scream “I AM NEW!”. The person carrying this Black Bible is probably a heathen, a pagan, an interloper. It was easy to spot me  coming with my shiny black Bible at a hundred yards.

You see, the preacher boys had been at this game for a while. Their Bibles were broken in with hours of Bible study, highlighter lined in three or four colors, The sides of their Bibles looked worn by serious prayer and devotion while mine betrayed me at every turn. It even seemed to creak as I opened it, with sound effects to emphasize that I had not come from a Baptist Bible school. I did not have an imposter “feel”. I was one! And even my very own Bible would not play along and keep my secret.

So on my first night of seminary, before classes started, I took that brand spanking new Oxford Bible out of its glossy dust jacket and begin to rub it  on my desk in my single room in Sampey Hall. Jim Rightmeyer who lived next door must have wondered what I was doing, with the sounds emanating from my room as I was frantically breaking in my Bible. taking off the sheen of its virgin cover. Jim and I later shared late nights after studies, watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, drinking smuggled Strohs beers that were strictly verbotten in this holy space. But on that first night, Jim must have wondered.

I did not last long, only one semester, before transferring back to Emory , not sure where I would enroll. But I was hooked on the Greek New Testament, and Dr. Jones opened up the world of serious New Testament scholarship from an ecclesial perspective. And I met  Professor Glenn Hinson who introduced me to his discipline of early Church history.  It was a good time of learning. But as my high school motto, penned by Robert Frost, urge, I had miles to go before I sleep.

That was just another leg of rhe journey. That black Oxford  Bible, became worn and ragged by legitimate means. It was the one I used throughout my career, even into  the Episcopal Church. The black cover sort of ended up going well with my black priest shirt, although that would fade with wear as well..That old black Bible still touches my memory, centers my present, and helps me to lean into the future.