Walk A Mile In Their Shoes

Probably the first thing I remember of my learning in church was to “love your neighbor!”

Here’s the way “the deal” was presented to me as a child: God loved you, SO, you should love others.

Has an easy logic, right? If God gifted you with God’s Love, then in response, you should love others.

That drumbeat followed my journey throughout my tour as a South of God Christian. It continued as I made my way through the magic of childhood, into the time when I faced the Copernican revolution of realizing other people were looking at me, assessing me, judging me. It’s commonly referred to as adolescence. It is experientially known as “hell”.

That perspective is complicated and compounded by the fact that hormones are rising, let’s be honest, surging through your rapidly developing body. Feeling those initial feelings of attraction to an “other”,. wondering what she thought about you, was the attraction shared, and hearing from other “others” known as your peer group as to “what the score was”, “does she like me?”…..all these things are swirling in the mind of an adolescent. And the church responds with a simple beat: Love one another….but not too much and not in the way your sinful mind is suggesting.

Later, we move into young adulthood as we make our way onto the playing field of life. We are told to be competitive, it’s the American Way. If you do it well, you will be rewarded monetarily and in other intangibles such as fame, respect, even envy. And still the beat goes on: Love your neighbor, but only after you make your quota, finish your project, complete the deal….then, love your neighbor. And, oh by the way, give 10% to the church.

Somewhere along the way, someone will mention that this dude, Jesus, said in a sermon on some mountain, that you should add your enemy to your love list. Now, this first landed home to me in the unlikely place of a Broadway stage with the musical play, Godspell. But it made the tough reality of the call to love and the real possibility of that happening plain and clear. I am certain that my pastors covered that in their erudite sermons, but I was probably looking at Terri or Phyllis at the time, planning my next move. I did mention adolescence, right?

Loving your neighbor is not a problem when they are attractive, interesting, or presenting a side utilitarian benefit. It makes logical sense, but now, you are going beyond logic. My enemy? You have to be kidding. What’s the punchline…and it turns out the back-slapping punchline is, you should pray for those who persecute you!

Wow.

This continues throughout one’s life. If you happen to be a follower of the Christ Way, you are constantly in tension with what this rabbi from Nazareth said, on a mountain, or embodied “on a hill far away”, the ultimate love, laying down your very life. The church is strong on telling you that are you to love your neighbor. It’s very symbol is advertisement for the cost, but most wear it as an accessory. Didn’t Madonna wear one for a time? And what about Flava Flav? Nah, that was a clock, another symbol of our culture, yeah, boyeeeeee!

Right.

The problem I found was at least three-fold. One, there was infighting within the church itself as people jockeyed for power, fighting to the death over certain issues. But the jealous, self-promotion seemed to run counter to this basic marching order in this group claiming to follow Jesus.

Secondly, there seemed to be a problem in defining the boundaries of who my neighbor was. It turned out, my neighbor was often the one who looks like me, thinks like me, acts likes me. My experience was that the circle of who counts was drawn pretty tightly, which defined who was our “real” neighbor. Others might be paid off by a check to some organization who will do the loving for us, to assuage our fleeting guilt.

But thirdly, and this is what strikes me the most currently, the church does not teach us HOW to love the neighbor. Just HOW does one transform one’s tendency to focus on self, to center on one’s own agenda. We do a pretty good job at teaching about this love, tracking scriptural references, even cross-referencing until the proverbial cows or prodigal son comes home, But HOW do we do it?

Maybe the instruction manual got lost. Maybe Peter put it in that drawer where all whatchamacallits go to die. Now, some will say the Bible is the instruction manual, but as a serious student of that book, I beg to differ. The WHERE we are to head, the direction, seems clear: Love, Kingdom of God, Beloved Community all seem pretty well-defined. The directions seem to be a little thin. The “S” at the end of the word “direction” makes for an important gap, between what we are to do and how we are to do it. The “S” turns out to be your ass, which you are left holding.

This left me looking for a way, a training, as to how I can deal with this “love” thing. It was fascinating to me that the Broadway play I mentioned, Godspell, spends most of its time showing how that love gets done within the community of ten people on the stage. To point, I’ve never seen a better demonstration of what this love looks like, with the possible exception of Tom Key and Harry Chapin’s Cotton Patch Gospel that transposes the Gospel love into a Souther idiom, but that may be too close to home for some of my South of God readers. How do I love the neighbor who is in my neighborhood? How do I love the neighbor who does not share my beliefs, my values, my agenda? That’s a project worth tackling, but that’s just the start. It’s complicated, as they say.

How do I love those that have betrayed me? How do I forgive those who have wronged me? How do I love the folks who have tried to hurt me, who let their own interests drive them to betray my trust? These are the deep cuts that are hard to heal. At one point in my life, I found myself faced with this question existentially. Was I going to be sentenced to a life of anger, bitterness, or even retribution. My soul longed for NO, refusing to give away my own agency, and my soul’s call. But, my ego, formed in my culture, said Payback is the Way, best served cold.

You can say it was luck. You can say it was fortune. You can ascribe it to my constant curiosity that tends to take me to some exotic places. Or, you might suggest, in a whisper, it was God’s spirit leading me. In any case, I wound up in a Tibetan Buddhist meditation session at Drepung Loseling in Atlanta, the North American center of the school of Buddhism sponsored by none other than the Dalai Lama. It is affiliated with Emory which gave me a natural curiosity and connection.

I had been meditating since college, tasting the effect of Transcendental Meditation, made popular by the Beatles. A cast of Trappist monks transformed that practice with the baptizing of my TM into an ancient monastic tradition of Centering Prayer. I had used that method throughout my priesthood for some thirty years, to center me when I was buffeted by critics and lured by pitch men. It was my “center”.

On that fateful day of wandering into this Tibetan center, I found a clear linkage to what Buddhists refer to as shamatha, which is a method of quieting the “monkey mind” by sitting, and using a variety of methods to still the self, to experience a calm, a focus. On my initial visit, that meditation felt like “coming home”, a journey to a place that felt familiar, and how refreshing to just “be” and not be in charge. On top of that, I experienced a community that was characterized by compassion, a value that is at the center of what the Dalai Lama teaches. The kicker was, he was also training folks how to do that. That got my attention.

Through time, hanging out at the Center, and getting serious about the teaching of Buddhism, I came across a practice known as Compassion Meditation. It began with the normal practice of most meditation, taking deep breaths in order to center oneself, beoming really present in the now moment. I had this down, in fact, as my practice through the years helped me to become pretty good at taming my infamous “monkey mind” that leaps from tree to tree, idea to insight. There was not a rabbit or squirrel that my mind could not follow whatever hole they might dart down. My basic spiritual work was focusing my mind, to slow it down, and simply be in the moment.

But a new piece was added in Compassion Meditation. I was asked to bring into my mind a person who I cared for deeply. I brought my wife, Mary, to my mind. I was asked to dive deeply into her life, what the circumstances were, the current presses on her life, the challenges, the issues. It wasn’t hard because I loved her, I knew of her life as a teacher with dyslexic kids at the amazing Schenck School. I had heard her speak of her love of her kids, her valuing the colleagues who shared her passion of mainstreaming these children who have a unique issue of learning to negotiate. I knew of her love for our two kids, trying to figure out how to best care for these diverse young adults. I knew of her spiritual hunger, her life-long friends from Druid Hills, her mountainous issue of having to live with my craziness. This exercise put me in mind of her life, and asked me to take her perspective in my mind. A good thing, but not that difficult, beginning with the easiest target, going for a “quick win”, by design I would learn. But this was just the start.

Then, the meditation leader would ask us to focus on a neutral being, that is, a person that you had no strong emotional connection, but a person who you come into contact on a regular basis. I had a face come to my mind immediately. It was my drycleaner who worked just up the hill from my townhouse. I would encounter him almost every other day or so. He was business-like taking my business suits, my blazer, my shirts, giving me the infamous “ticket”, listing what items I had brought and when I could expect to pick them up. It was a business transaction that would be repeated over and over.

Through time, I would notice a golf club behind his counter and would find him training his swing in the parking lot. I ran into him a few times at the local muni course, which changed our relational connection. And yet he was not a friend, but remained a neutral being. I put the energy into imagining his family, what his day was like, his challenges, where he found joy in his long day of receiving dirty laundry. This exercise led me to see him as a human, not a mere element of transaction, making me take him more seriously as a person. How might this change the way my next encounter would go with him? In my time of using this method, I have brought many other so-called neutral beings into my meditation, bringing me into a deeper perspective-taking of these persons who share my life space. I enjoyed it, in fact. And it has produced good fruit in my interactions with others with whom I share this life space.

But the kicker in this whole “compassion meditation” gig is that after holding one’s loved one, followed by a neutral being, one is now invited to bring to mind an “enemy”. I was first surprised with that suggestion after I had been so loving to my loved one, and so curious with my neutral being, but Enemy?

At that particular time in my life, two people leapt into my consciousness, two enemies that I felt had done me wrong, betrayed my trust, which was at the top “sin” in my book. Dutifully following the instructions, I decided to focus on one, rather than going with my instincts of a double-barrel. I began to imagine this person’s life, his life situation, particular issues that he had to deal with. I called to mind what I knew of his background, and particularly what I knew was his lack of experience. This hard work was continued in sessions for about a month, with the result being a deeper appreciation of the unique position of this person, with my attempt to understand his perspective. Through months of work, I experienced a breakthrough as I realized that this person did not have the personal capacity to have done anything other than what he did.

It was surprising how this process freed my mind, heart, and soul from focusing my energy and anger on this person. In my own language world, I “got off that hook”, freeing my energy for other worthy efforts. Plus, I think it brought me to a more complete comprehension of this person, who I had limited by my definition into a category. I actually had the occasion to invest the time and energy to go to engage this person, seeking resolution. Are we best friends? No, but a transformation occurred for which I am thankful. I have used this technique to engage my mind in perspective-taking that disturbs my categorization which robs a person of the deeper humanity. In honesty, I have to admit this past election cycle, particularly the aftermath, has tested the metal of this technique, but I am trying.

I share this story to illustrate the practical technique of putting the “love your neighbor” and “pray for your persecutor” into action. I think we as people of faith need to be open to learn from one another as to how be compassionate people who can exist with one another, even when we disagree, or hold conflicting positions. That seems to be in short supply these days.

I would present to you an invitation to try this on in the remainder of Lent. IF, and I know it’s a big “if” (since my readers are all holy folks, loving of God and neighbor, righteous folk)….but if you have somebody who bothers you, you might try this Buddhist technique on for size. Dedicate ten to twenty minutes to do some of the righteous perspective-taking that might just free your mind to consider the humanity of the one that is getting under your skin, making you mad, or even inhabiting a group or party which you hold in contempt. Hell, for some of you, I bet it might be me! How’s that for preemptive perspective-taking?

Try this on and see if it doesn’t work. I’m a pragmatist at heart. Let me know how this works out for you, a practical way to take the perspective of your neighbor. Just might free up your soul to love your neighbor….even your enemy. God knew I needed it. God knows, we need it. Blessings.

Thinking of Thomas

Thomas is my son, my first-born of two children, now adults. I joke that God gave me a son first to practice on before getting a girl. There’s more truth to that than I can say.

Mary Glen, my daughter was fortunate to follow in the wake of Thomas, observing and learning how to manage us as parents. She is a clone of her mother physically, but she got my sick sense of humor. Your welcome.

We spent a lot of energy around Mary Glen’s wedding in 2020, planning initially for May, cancelling due to the pandemic, planning in a different way, and making it happen safely in October on the marshes of Glynn. She and Michael had an immediate family wedding that was what I wish I could have pulled off for my own. A reception line in a Baptist basement is not my preference. Thomas flew in from Nashville to support his sister and new brother-in-law, and was such a great help to me, personally, acting as the Father-of-the-Bride as well as a priest. Steve Martin, I was not.

Thomas is on my mind because he called me today to tell me that he tested positive of COVID. He had been lucky for so long. Living in Nashville as a singer/songwriter, he has had more exposure than most, but he has been careful. I pray for him every day, but praying with a little more juice tonight.

I’ve had him on my “idea” list for writing this blog for some time. I think I wrote one of my first articles on him as a little boy when he asked me to take him on a walk out back in our garden in Tyler, Texas. We had a pool there, and Mary and I were scared to death that our kids would fall in, so we always accompanied them. But this particular time, I was writing and Thomas interrupted and asked if I would take him out there. I asked him why he wanted to go. He replied, with a child-like purity that stunned me “I want to see what God is up to.” You see, at that time, he was taking this God thing much more seriously than me.

When I was teaching in Austin at the Episcopal seminary, sometimes my family would accompany me for the weekend. It gave me a chance to introduce them to the magic of Austin, as well as this odd thing called “traffic”. On those rare visits, we would make a point to go to the amazing Gospel Brunch at Stubb’s.

It was amazing. Beginning with Mexican fare for brunch, especially my favorite, migas, it was a feast indeed.. It featured a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar, with all kinds of exotic accompaniments. It was a hell of a way to evangelize, in my opinion. Food, drink, in a fabulous setting of a Texas barbecue bar. Heaven on Earth. I don’t know how many souls were saved but I know mine was resurrected a few times.

At around noon, there was always a Gospel group, usually a black church choir came and laid it on us. If you couldn’t find you some joy there, you were, as we say in Texas. SOL. Honestly, I hope you took the chance to see the unbelievable job that Henry Lewis (Skip) Gates produced on PBS as he did a historical tour of the black church in this country. Can I get an Amen? It touched me in so many ways, both reminding me of how the black church has been the lifeboat that helped folk get through the tough times of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights, and the continued institutional racism still existent in this country. While we are honoring the history of black Americans in this month of February. the black church deserves to take a bow.

The Gospel group would sing, sometimes coming out into the restaurant to help us get happy, and it wasn’t even Happy Hour. It was soulful, reminding us of how faith sustains us in sorrow. It was joyful, as we remembered just how good our God has been. It was hopeful, as we looked for a light on the horizon to see us through a dark night. It was CHURCH, y’all.

Now, I know how much I enjoyed it, but I was not sure how my kids were taking it all in. Their eyes were big, as they had never seen or heard this kind of music in the Episcopal church. I had grown up with a bit of it, going to all-day country singings, and Gospel tent meetings with my grandfather.

Later I got my joy on by hanging out in the coolest interracial church on the planet in southwest Dekalb County with the Paulks and the Gospel Harvester Church when I could shake free from the high church of the Cathedral. There I could get down with Don and Clariece, Bishop Paulk, and Cameo star Anthony Lockett. Word up! Almost made me check my birreta for a Kangol. but I stayed with my Anglican tribe. But, my kids had flat missed that good ole Gospel ship. It was a fine time for me, getting a day off from preaching in my parish and hearing about how the church was too hot or cold. But I did not know how my kids were taking it.

So it surprised me when Thomas and I were talking about his strategy on his plans for his music career. He volunteered that it was at Stubbs where he first felt a sense of Spirit that existed in this community as the live and lively music brought us together. He said watching the musicians and their passion grabbed him in a new way, and he began to think about doing that himself, in his own way. So his career of writing music, performing in bars, festivals, and shows began in a Gospel brunch at Stubb’s. Praise the Lord, and pass the migas.

He then told me something that moved me deeply. He said that he had watched me lead the congregation in worship, creating Spirit in those gatherings. In a sort of apologia for his vocational choice, he offered his insight as to how he saw his music as doing the same thing, only in a different space, in a different way. I would have kissed him if it would not have embarrassed him. What a gift to his dear old broken-down priest of a father.

It wasn’t exactly a Brick-Big Daddy moment in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Nor a reconciliation moment with Tom Wingo with his shrimper father in Prince of Tides. Nor a Great Santini moment of pathos. But it will have to do.

I love my son so much. I loved watching him bravely take the stage the first time at his high school, the toughest audience I could imagine. I was so proud to see him break into the music scene in Athens as a singer/songwriter, fronting one of the most popular bands in town. I marveled as he managed to hold together a group through college and beyond. Living on the road, my friend, is never easy, playing one night stands with the band looking at your backside, mixing up some lyrics from Merle and Waylon. I wondered what it was like to see people in a crowd mouthe words to songs that you wrote. And to be able to be there to see him open for Bon Jovi at Phillips Arena in Atlanta….that was beyond my wildest imagination.

But music is a tough gig. As I told Thomas early on, there are three things that will come along and kill a band:

One, drugs and alcohol, but that’s true in most professions. Including priesthood.

Two, drama in the band among the members, anxious for the spotlight. Come to think of it, that’s true in ministry too. I know something about that, and could tell you a story that follows the lines of Macbeth or Hamlet, take your pick.

And three, Yoko shows up. Nuff said.

All three happened to my favorite band, Mama’s Love. But Thomas kept on, going to Nashville to write songs and sing, with a variety of projects that have been good. It’s a particularly tough business these days with COVID having dried up most live performances and touring.

Thomas has hung in like a trooper, finding new friends, along with playing and writing partners who have the courage and commitment to keep on keeping on. At it’s best, it’s a crap shoot, but he’s doing what is in his heart and soul to do. Mary and I both committed to encouraging our kids to follow their dreams and passion and, by God, they have.

I guess you can tell, I’m kinda proud of the boy. My aim and my hope is that I have let him know that, not only in words, but in actions.

This first Sunday in Lent. the Gospel lesson told of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan by John. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the sun is shining on him, illuminating the drops of water on his brown skin. And the Gospel writer records that a voice from God sounded, This is my Son in whom I am well-pleased.

The Good News in this season of Lent is that we have the audacity to believe that is true for each one of God’s children. God loves us, and wants the best for us. We seem to have a hard time wrapping our soul’s around that truth. Our culture tells us, promises us that we will find worth in success, money, fame, how many followers we have on Instagram, or some other external measures. In Lent, we try to get clean and clear about the fact that our real worth and value is not up for grabs. It comes with the territory of being a child of God.

Thomas is entering the “wilderness” of COVID. Maybe you have been there. I am hoping he and you are abiding in the awareness of your worth and value, which is not up for grabs or debate.

Others of us have been waiting for over a year in this pandemic, anxious as to what the future holds for our family, our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves. The long haul drains us of our energy and threatens our sense of hope.

We dare not deny the sobering reality of the death of a half a million people in this country who were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers who are no longer with us on this journey. It would be a mistake to deny the suffering that has entered our world that reminds us of the precariousness nature of life. Those people who have died were all children of God, and yet they were not exempt for the ravages of this disease, nor are we. Denial and avoidance is only whistling through the graveyard, wishing reality would go away. It won’t.

Politicization of this pandemic has only distracted us from the real challenge that is before us in being smart and aggressive in battling this disease, rather than each other. And to lean into this threat with the faith that our worth and value is secure, regardless.

My prayer as we live through this unique season of Lent 2021, with the shadow of COVID looming large, is that it focuses our thoughts and wakes us up to some deeper awareness of our deep connection to God and to our neighbors, near and far, who are sharing the journey with us.

Perhaps we can wrestle a blessing from this awful pandemic, and rediscover our call to care for one another. That is my hope. That is my prayer. Blessings.

Revelation from a Texas Cowboy

Jimmy Owen was the only real cowboy in my parish. I came to Texas with thoughts of prairies, rolling sagebrush, and cattle, with a little oil on the side. However most of my parishioners were bankers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses and other white collar sorts. But there was one honest-to-God cowboy, Jimmy Owen.

Jimmy was a cattleman in the best Texas tradition. He was, in fact, the president at one time of the Texas Cattleman’s Association, a sign I’ve seen on ranches across Texas. Jimmy had heard that I was a horseman, and invited me to come to his ranch to ride. He put me on a cutting horse, which is one of the more athletic horses in the stable. They are trained to “cut” quickly from side to side, in order to pen in cattle, and cut them out from the herd for various procedures, mostly medical. I had heard of cutting horses, seen them perform, but never ridden one. As the horse was showing me his skill, he cut so quickly to the right, leaving me mid-air, like one of those cartoon characters that hang for 2-3 seconds before plummeting into the canyon. That would be me. Jimmy laughed pretty hard as I lay crumpled in the Texas dirt of the ring.

Jimmy is the star of my story that I want to share with you today. He was an early favorite of mine, reminding me of my grandfather, both in his physical build, the way he carried himself, and his speech patterns. I loved Jimmy and walked with him through battle with brain cancer and his death. I loved him, in spite of his conspiracy to put me on his quickest cutting horse.

After my third year in Tyler at Christ Church, we noticed a number of changes in the lay of the land. I decided to be explicit about those changes with the Vestry, the board of lay people that are the ruling body of the parish. There are usually 10 to 20 members on a Vestry, depending on the size of the parish and the bylaws. They pass the budget yearly, monitor it, and provide some direction for the programing. In small parishes, Vestry members are assigned to various ministries and provide some direct oversight with those committees. In some parishes, they serve as de facto staff members. In larger parishes with staff members, the Vestry has more of a strategic position and serve as fiduciary overseers of the budget and expenditures. It’s the medium sized parish that sometimes gets this confused, particularly when a small parish is experiencing the “high class problem” of growing, as Vestry member need to relinquish their “hands on” management of the day-to-day work. This confusion of roll can result in conflict.

At Christ Church, Tyler, the Vestry was clearly in the second function. In light of that, I decided to review strategically the direction of the parish and the changes that had occurred since my arrival as the Rector.

I began the meeting by asking the Vestry to list the positive things that have occurred in the past three years. I had two easels with newsprint in order to record their answers. The positives were easy, as they recounted the number of educational opportunities, the increase in excellent staff members, the careful precision of our worship planning, the excellence of our music, along with a number of other specific positive notes. I was feeling good about the quick and enthusiastic responses, and the various positive notes that I recorded in green.

I then moved to the other easel and invited them to share some negative things that they perceived. Being more Southern than Texas, they were reserved in their willingness to be negative. Such a thing is just not done in polite company. You only said negative, catty things in the parking lot, not in the library in a formal meeting. After some chiding, Jimmy decided to blaze the trail into the negative territory. He did it in his distinctive Texas drawl.

“David, I’ve been a member of Christ Church for a long time,” he said, looking around the room for approval of this fact, which nodding heads affirmed, vetting him as having the street cred to comment authoritatively.

“For a long time, I could sit in my pew and look at the doors at the back and the front, watching people as they came in the church house. I knew almost everybody. I knew who they were connected to, their family, their grandparents, hell, even some great grandparents. This is a big family. We knew each other and we cared for each other.” The continuing of nodding heads gave him the encouragement he needed. He was clearly articulating the spirit of Christ Church which was a tight community of connection.

“But….” There’s always a “but”. Sometimes, there’s a BIG “but”. This was one of those “big but” times.

“But….nowadays, I don’t know half the people coming through those doors. I don’t know where they are from, what they do, and who they are.” And to add a little East Texas humor, “And, I sure as hell don’t know their grandmother!”

Laughter, and then he got down to business, as they say.

“I liked it better when I knew everybody. I don’t like seeing all these strangers coming in, people I don’t know, people who don’t look like they belong here. They dress differently, they just don’t seem to fit.” And Jimmy was spot on in his description.

Our efforts to reach out to a broad swath of Tyler with use of media, television, radio, and print had positioned Christ Church as invitatory, open to new people to come and join us. We also had initiated a well-planned and resourced small group ministry that formed intentional communities that reached out to friends of our members who were unchurched in an effort to meet their needs for community and spirituality. As result of this two-fold strategy, the composition of our congregation was clearly changing demographically and rapidly.

There were “new” people, that is, people who were not biologically connected. But, there were also “different” people that did not fit the description given of Christ Church by the former Bishop of Texas as I considered becoming the Rector. When I asked the bishop his “impression” of Christ Church, he mater-of-factly declared, in not a negative tone, “It’s the country club at prayer. The rector is chaplain to the country club” Now, in time, I learned that was NOT true, but it did capture a piece of the truth, enough that was troubling to me.

That image of a “club” based on social connection, not commitment was problematic. That’s why I pushed the notion of “growth” which was new to Christ Church. It was a goal prescribed by Jesus as he called us to spread the Good News of Christ. But, it was also a practical goal that was necessary, given the economics of running a top quality program in the face of declining oil and gas prices, and the aging of the major givers. So, it was actually not hard to sell the Vestry on the idea, the goal of growth. They had bought in on paper, but now, the bill was coming due.

“I no longer know the people who are worshipping with me. I used to know most everybody. Now, I don’t.”

And after a pause, filled with silence, Jimmy added, “And, I don’t much like it.” he said matter of factly.

The room was still. I was wondering what I should say. How should I approach this call of the question. And then, I began to speak, without really any premeditation, other than a few years of prayer about this topic, which was sort of new to me as well. I had been familiar with my individual prayer, devotion and meditation around my personal spiritual growth. But only since coming to Tyler had my prayer expanded, not only to my parish, but now I prayed for my city.

‘”Well, I guess it depends if we want you to be comfortable, or if we want to do what Jesus told us to do.”

What followed was the best example of what is known as a “pregnant pause”. It seemed to last for hours but was, in fact, only a few seconds. I remember being caught by a feeling of “where did that come from?” with a simultaneous thought that I had stepped over the proverbial line. I recall that some people who had been looking at me intently, suddenly were averting their eyes. Not a good sign.

Then, almost like a rumble of thunder that follows lightning, Jimmy said, ” I get it.” and he did.

It was one of those exceedingly rare moments in parish ministry when revelation occurs. It can not be programmed, diagramed, put on a PowerPoint slide. It is tantalizingly out of our attempt at control. It just happens. Like God’s Spirit, that is described in the book of Acts, it comes and goes where it will. This simply drives program-oriented ministers crazy. It bedevils Christian education experts, although I know one who relishes it when it happens in a flash. It is simply beyond our control.

That moment became a moment of paradigm shift within the leadership group of the parish. It would take longer for other people to “get it”, and some never did, languishing for the good ole days, “the way we were”. That however is the work of leadership in the parish. Sowing the seeds, doing the homework, planning the structures, but it comes down finally to the Spirit that resides in community.

At one time in my life, that was not good news. I wanted to design, plan, and execute with predictable results. That’s how I was trained, how I was wired in my family of origin. But living in the parish world knocked that right out of me. While I was able to apply my method to organizing and accomplishing the pastoral care of the 5000 communicants of the Cathedral parish, this East Texas parish taught me just what I couldn’t do on my own, in my cleverness. Parishes, and their resistance to change, to leave comfort for a mission that will entail suffering, can and did bring me to my knees, physically and metaphorically.

I love telling this story to the priests and ministers that I coach. It’s one moment of a win, but there are many more of my sitting, head in my hands, tears streaming, wondering why it did not work out. That’s the challenge. To lead people who want to do right….just not right now (props to Gillian Welsh). It’s the challenging work of leading a group of people who want to serve a mission that is daunting, if you have any sense to recognize the challenge. And it has become my privilege to overhear the struggle of ministers, priests, and bishops who are trying to lean into this art and science of leadership. This story tips the hand to the reality of the situation: you are dependent on a Spirit that is not controlled by you.

As I get older, I seem to notice a transformation of my mind, spirit, and soul, that is more comfortable with that truth. It does not mean that I will lose my passion for analysis and planning, but that I am more able to let go, and let what happens, happen. So, to close on this surgery of an experience, is it the hard work of human intention OR is it the seemingly capricious, uncontrollable movement of the Spirit?

And the answer is YES.

Do your homework AND trust the Spirit for the outcome.

Blessings in this season of Lent.

The Breakfast of Champions: Self-Awareness

The beginning of a new year often prompts the roll out of Resolutions, goals to achieve in this immediate future that will bring about a positive change in our lives. The often go unheeded after a week or two as our habitual behavior overwhelms our good intentions. In fact, February has been called the month where resolutions do to die! Sound familiar?


Those of us in the faith tradition often have other means to promote transformation in our lives. Christians have a notable season known as Lent, a period of forty days prior to Easter, to get serious about our amendment of life. Initiated by the one-two punch of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, we party hard on Fat Tuesday with a knowing bow to the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday.


On that Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortal nature by the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on our forehead. It is indeed an “imposition” as we don’t like to be reminded of our inevitable death. We spend a lot of time, energy, and money attempting to deny that very fact as we age. But on this peculiar day, we line up to be reminded that we are merely passing through, going from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And the point is not to wallow in the mortality we find ourselves in when we wake up to that reality, but to wake up as well to the preciousness of this limited time we have on this field called life.


Ash Wednesday wakes us up to this fact and call, literally rubbing it in, as the ashes are pressed into our foreheads to re-mind us. The point of this liturgy is to “turn us around”, turn us toward the good, away from what hinders our process toward our goal. And the goal as a Christian is to put on the Christ life as our own.

I pause to note that pastors are scurrying to figure out how to “deliver” the ashes in a safe way in this time of Covid. Amused by the variety of methods proposed, including “showering the people you love with love” sprinkling the ashes without the touch; using a LONG Q tip, the kind that was my mother’s weapon of choice “mopping my throat” (scary); ‘pick-up plastic bags with ashes to be self-imposed at home; surgical gloves to provide a barrier for the priest’s thumb; all seem odd but can convey and communicate, at a soul level that transcends the awkward means, the spiritual message of mortality.


I have remembered people “giving up” things for Lent, like sweets, or alcohol in order to better ourselves, longing for the forty days to pass quickly so we can get back, return to our bad habits. Ideally, Ash Wednesday which extends into Lent is a discipline by which we engage in self-examination so that we can amend our life in the particular ways that are getting in our way of a good life.


This “moment” in the Christian year is actually a concentration, a focus on an aspect of how it is to live a faithful life of self-awareness, a habit that we need to employ throughout the year. Self-awareness is that discipline of taking the time to pause, reflect, and plan our lives that will assist us in achieving the life we desire. In our busyness, both in our work and our social interactions, we become distracted and fall easily into a default mode of routine. Lent re-minds us of the critical nature of self-awareness as goal of our life.


One of the practices that encourage such self-awareness is known as journaling. This discipline requires an engagement of reflection that has a three-fold shape: Pause, Reflect, and Write. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s as easy as pulling up a piece of the room to pause, to write down what going on in your life, taking the time to reflect on that life, your feelings as to what’s going on in your heart, and even sidle up to that soul of yours to check on your deep emotions and desires.


If you want to make it a bit more complicated, you can google “bullet journal” and find a good method of cross-referencing your entries through time. Note to insurrectionists and militia: bullet does not refer to ammo.


If you are up for a deep dive, you might look up a man we brought to the Center for Faith Development, Ira Progoff, who brings a Jungian depth to a method he calls the Intensive Journal. It has definite OCD tendencies for my taste, but I have used it effectively in critical times of decisions, opening access to dreams and the power of imagination.


Like most of life, it matters little what method you use. Just start. Begin.


Begin with a profound PAUSE. Ash Wednesday might be just the time to begin. This year, it begins on February 17th. You can access a liturgy through Zoom at any liturgical church such as the Episcopal near you. You could go to the website of Christ Church here on St. Simons Island at http://www.ccfssi.org and find the times and the links to the service. Don’t worry if you are not familiar with the ritual. Just show up. Of all the liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer, this is the one that does it on its own. I’ll give you the proverbial money-back guarantee. Just show up.


I think forty days later, the number of years the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness, the time designated for observing Lent, you just may find the wake up call you were looking for:

* A new way of reflecting on the past that got you where you are.

* A more clear sense of where you are in the present moment.

*An adjusted sense of direction as to where you are headed.


Why not give it a chance? Increasing your self-awareness, the real Breakfast of Champions.


All you have to lose is your illusions about this life you live, and who you are. Blessings.

The Ride of the Peachtree Cowboys….

The death of a person floods the fields of one’s mind with memories, some good, some painful, some jarring. But fortunately for me, I find I have a tendency to focus on the good.

James White died last week in Austin, Texas. He was the lovable owner of the infamous Broken Spoke, a honky-tonk bar set in the urban landscape of the Capitol city of Texas. He and his wife, Annetta, played host to local Texans looking for a time travel trip back to the good “old days” of the proverbial Texas roadhouse, with Lone Star beer, country music with a Texas twang, and two-step dancing on dance floor.

Several friends of mine who had gone to the University of Texas (Hook ’em) decided to introduce me to the pleasures of a Texas roadhouse, even though Patrick Swayze or Sam Elliott were nowhere in sight.

There is a front area that has a place to sit and eat, separate from the long dance hall with an incredibly low ceiling. James was leaning against the bar, his leather vest on and cowboy hat in place, a picture that repeated itself almost every time I visited The Spoke.

On this particular night on my initiation into life at The Broken Spoke, James turned to greet my two Longhorn friends, looked at me, and his face lit up, surprisingly.

“Peachtree Cowboys! What year was that, again?”

I could not believe it. It had been fifteen years since I had been associated with a group, The Peachtree Cowboys. Originally, the Peachtree Cowboys had been a bluegrass band with two hot pickers along with a fiddle player. Everyone knows that Bluegrass is the royal highway to making lots of money in the music business…..NOT.

After they had slowed down their mercurial rise in the charts, they basically disappeared, known to only a few aficionados in the Atlanta area. They had experienced a death that is the fate of most bands.

But it was the strange time of the rise of The Urban Cowboy, and it had led two of the former members to resurrect the legend. They recruited a seminary friend of mine who was a decent country vocalist. This friend, Jerry, knew of my musical background so he asked if I could fill-in as the drummer at a local festival they had booked. Being an idiot, I said “yes”, knowing that anybody can play drums, especially a 4-4 time, or waltz, which comprises about 97.5% of all country songs.

So, I borrowed Jeff Durham’s crystal clear set of Ludwig drums, dragged them up to North Georgia for a festival to play with a band that I had not rehearsed with……I had unfortunately done that many times.

It was, as I imagined, a pretty easy gig. A basic 4-4 beat, along with the waltz time for the lovers on the dance floor. I did not know most of the songs, but could fake my way through going light on the high-hat and snare, with no flourishes, throwing in crash cymbal at the conclusion of the song. The Peachtree Cowboys were all about featuring the virtuoso talent of these bluegrass refugees. My mission was to merely stay out of the way, to lay down a basic beat.

And I did so, with one major flaw. I was unfamiliar with Good Hearted Woman in Love with a Good-Timing Man, so I was surprised when the song shifted into a double-time near the end. I recovered quickly enough and did not screw the pooch, as they say.

After the gig, we were breaking down and the two old guys both came up to me and told me that I was the best drummer they had ever heard. It did not take me a New York minute or a East Point second to realize that they dug me not getting in their way. Everything is contextual.

We wound up playing a number of other festivals and a few clubs where there was some definite boot-scootin’ and a neon moon. I went so far as to buying a black set of Gretsch drums at Pro Percussion, later to be put to better use by my young son, Thomas, under the tutelage musician of Ken “Nardo” Murray, a Texas session drummer for Dolly Parton. But eventually, the urban cowboy fad faded, leaving the Peachtree Cowboys as a forgotten but treasured memory of my circuitous journey.

That why it surprised to to hear the reference by James White. I mean, I don’t even think my mama remembered my short tenure with the Cowboys. But James had quite a memory, particularly of people, face and bands, hopefully not miss-cast drummers. I am thankful he was nice enough to not mention my remarkable performance of Good-Hearted Woman.

The Broken Spoke became my Austin “go-to” when I was visiting in what I consider the greatest city on the planet. Midway through my sojourn in Texas, I was hired as an adjunct professor to teach the faith development theory that I had worked on with Jim Fowler at Emory. It was the wonderful Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest that brought me in to teach this specialized subject of the psychology of religion. They gave me an apartment on campus so that I could drive my K-5 Blazer down from East Texas to the hill country to teach.

After my first evening of teaching on a Thursday night, I took off for The Spoke considering it a reward for my long drive and my compressed class. I still had on my black clerical suit and clergy shirt, but I took off my white clerical collar in the parking lot….no need to scare the horses.

After being greeted by James. I took a seat at a table on the left, ordered a draft beer. The band that night was Chris Wall and Reckless Kelly. I had heard of Chris and his infamous Texas juke box classic, I Like My Women Just a Little on the Trashy Side. Chris is a superb performer who surrounds himself with talented musicians. I was enjoying the new songs to my ear, one in particular, Give Me Half of What Killed Elvis, typical of his clever and wonderfully dark sense of humor. It was a good night to be in Texas. Having recently found the grave of my great grandmother McBrayer buried outside of Mart, Texas, near Waco, I had the blessing of feeling and claiming my roots as a Texan. Such is my remarkable gift of rationalizing.

As the band took its regular break, Chris came off stage and moseyed, not walked or sashayed, to my table. He looked me over carefully, a lonely solitary man, dressed in black.

Chris quipped, “You’re either a priest or Johnny Cash.” Perfect.

“Well, I’m not Johnny Cash.” was my brilliant reply.

Chris sat down, and we began a twenty-five year relationship that included his visit to Tyler, my family’s attendance at The Spoke for his birthday party, and my officiating at his wedding in Austin. We still talk on occasion, reviewing the craziness of this country, the emerging music career of my son, Thomas, and our love of literature. Chris and I shared a love of James and his enterprise of The Spoke, and now we share the grief of another of our friends moving on across death’s deep river.

James White is memorable for many reasons. Building an honest to God roadhouse on the outskirts of Austin was a worthy endeavor. But protecting and promoting the Texas tradition, even when yuppified folks like me to to invade and domesticate the spirit of a gathering place, that is a hero’s quest. James lived his life well, focused on this “one thing” as Covey and Curley admonish. I’m glad to have known him, been graced by his friendship, and prompted in my memory to celebrate his personal vision for The Broken Spoke.

What is the vision that drives your life? It could be a family, a love, a passion? If your in the hill country of Texas, it might be a honky tonk. It matters less as to what it is than how much you are invested it its development.

Individual friends remind us, upon reflection, particularly at the end of a particular and peculiar life, just what their vision, or mission, was. In the case of James, it’s easy to identify his “one thing” and a smile comes to my face, maybe even a grin. As a priest, I have been forced to offer summaries of peoples’ lives when they die, which may have formed my habit of such activity, of trying to discern the “one thing”.

I would suggest that it’s a good thing to reflect on such questions “this side” of the grave. What would people who observed your life say was your vision, your mission? What are you devoted to? Is that satisfying to you, give you a good feeling of centered being? And if it is, keep on keeping on. But if not, and I am assuming by you reading this you are on “this side” of life, you can change course. You have the distinctive human capacity to change course, alter the direction, re-center your focus.

Sometimes, one needs some help in seeing reality, seeing oneself. A therapist, a coach, a spiritual director, or a good friend who can tell you the truth….all can be good companions on the journey to self-awareness and change, even transformation.

Think of people in your life who embody a certain vision or spirit. What do they do that makes it easy to distinguish what drives their life? What “lane” have they chosen to spend their energy and time on?

And then, apply the question to yourself. Where are you being “spent”? And, are you pleased with the answer? If not, why not make a decision to change course? If not a drastic course change, how about a commitment to invest more time and energy in a particular project in this next period of time. Sharing that commitment, that decision with someone who will hold you accountable can be just the leverage you need. Or, it might be a smart move to find a trained professional who will assist you in this life change and can be just the ticket. What do want to do with this life you have been given? How will you be a good steward of this rich gift called a life?

James White died, leaving a legacy of joy, community, and celebration. What will be your legacy? asked the former Peachtree Cowboy.

Did You Get The Lesson?

“Everyone gets the experience. Some will get the lesson.”

This is one of my favorite quotes. I first heard it spoken by my friend and colleague, Mike Murray, who I brought in as the lead trainer in a leadership academy that I began in in East Texas. I had arrived in Tyler, Texas at the beginning of the Nineties. The community needed to diversify its leadership pool beyond the long established families of this city. A number of us made application to the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation for funds to begin a number of initiatives that would broaden the scope of leadership, including arts, healthcare, economics, and race relations. To our surprise, we were the recipients of a grant aimed at mid-sized cities. Like the dog who caught the car that he chased, now what?

My piece of the work was the founding of the New East Texas Leadership Foundation. I conceptualized its beginning as a kind of MBA of leadership in communities. We were attempting to link two disparate communities, Longview and Tyler, who in the past lived in competition with one another. With differing demographics and cultures, we hoped to embrace a more regional identity that would enhance both cities, and present a unified image to world.

We sponsored a nine month program, notably following the human gestation period, with a monthly meeting, lasting all day on Saturday, quite an investment for our participants. It was intentionally a diverse group of Hispanic, black, and white folks from a variety of constituencies. Our promise to our participants was to assist them in clarifying their personal vision and mission, and then help them in pursuing it within our community. We intentionally designed the program to introduce them to some of the disciplines that inform the practice of leadership. The phrase that emerged in my mind was the aim of “developing the capacity” of citizens to make a difference in their communities.

I brought Mike Murray in to help me design the nine months. I had heard of Mike when I was on my way out of Atlanta. Dr. Charlie Palmgren, a noted expert in the dynamics of change in organizations, had helped me to try to manage the major change of leadership at the Cathedral of St. Philip, as a new leader arrived, replacing a long-time Dean. Charlie helped me to conceptualize the process of change and prepare for the challenging transition. Charlie’s framework was so helpful in seeing a messy transition through to completion.

As I was departing to begin my own change process, assuming the leadership of a Diocese of Texas parish, Charlie mentioned the name of a colleague who lived in the Dallas area, Mike Murray. What a surprise, indeed a fortunate gift, that the leader of my first training at an interfaith organization in Tyler, was Mike. It began a thirty year relationship that still blesses me.

As Mike and I conceived of the nine month process, the training would involve learning about the nature of leadership, specifically servant leadership. We would address the nature of collaboration, communication, designing change initiatives, project management, creativity, and even a lick of time management. Additionally, we brought in some world class trainers to add some specialized teaching.

One was Ernie Cortes, the famed community organizer in Texas, also of international renown, to teach the principles and methods of the Industrial Areas Foundation. The key notion here was that every person has power that can be used, and multiplied by collective action.

Another was John Scherer, a lauded expert in the work of leadership. John brought the insight and inspiration of the power of being present, of showing up in the fullness of one’s passion. John’s work of developing the inner life of the leader continues to inform my work, as well as the persons in the wake of his influence.

Harrison Owen brought a method of bringing forth Spirit from within the community by creating an Open Space in order to evoke innovation. I later used his method to lead planning processes in a variety of parishes. Most significantly, we used this method to gather the Diocese of Texas as it began a new day of mission, sponsoring a new spirit of engagement. We gathered the members of the diocese in Houston with an open invitation to all to join us in a planning process. I remember the “old guard” who predicted that this radical notion of engagement would crash and burn. Just the opposite occurred as people from throughout the Diocese of Texas came up with a host of new initiatives that would drive our work for years.

After our initial flush of success in Texas, I was asked to employ this methodology of bringing together the bishops of the Episcopal Church, which we did with a gathering in St. Louis. In fact, we were able to bring Harrison back in to use his Open Space Technology to gather the City of Tyler to initiate new projects that would better the community for ALL people.

With these amazing contributors, the Leadership Foundation had an embarrassment of riches in terms of input. But the key ingredient was the willingness of these seasoned leaders to learn new material, to open themselves to learning a new trick of the trade in leadership. It’s the proverbial reverse of the adage “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” We learned that you can IF the person is willing to take on the beginner’s mind, that is, looking at the world with fresh eyes. We were incredibly blessed to have eager learners, willing to engage the process, leaning into the material out of a deep desire to lead well and effectively, producing results.

The main “take away” for me was the role that self-awareness plays in effective leadership. Is the person aware of what motivates him/her to do the work? Are they willing to wrestle with the mixed motives that are a part of any leader’s soul? Are you open to investing the time and energy in tracking your emotions and reactions to things that have happened in your past? Are you ready to explore the internal images of how you think the world is, and how you should be in it? Might you be willing to examine the narrative or “story” that you have brought with you from your family that guides how you see yourself? And finally, are you brave enough to come clean as to the “self” that you present to the world to get what you want and need?

All of these pieces form the whole “self” that you bring to leadership and to the life you live. By examining your “self”, you are in a better position to not be blindsided by internal forces that are hidden under the surface of your personality. The real surprise is that, not only is this real “self” hidden from others, but that it is often hidden from YOU. Self-awareness allows you to focus your energy and passion in a way that does not get siphoned off by side hustles that are a part of your personality.

I would note that Self-Awareness is one of the central dimensions of Emotional Intelligence, a way of engaging in leadership that is the most effective way I know of making a difference in the organization that you are serving. I am currently serving on the board of an organization founded by the legendary Roy Oswald, a congregational development guru, that is attempting to promote and equip the church with the insights and challenges of Emotional Intelligence.

And now, a word from our sponsor.

There is a new seminar beginning soon that teaches the basics of Emotional Intelligence and the super-power of self-awareness. It uses the venue of Zoom, so it is incredibly convenient. You don’t have to travel, rent a hotel room. You just call in from your place and connect with some excellent teaching and learn about your “self” in a community of other good souls. It’s called the Discovery Series, offered by EQ-HR on four Mondays, beginning on Feb. 8th. To explore this outstanding introduction to the insights of Emotional Intelligence on the work of leadership, notably Self Awareness’ role, go to http://www.eqhr.org . It’s a great opportunity to discover some new things about your “self” as well as how to live and work with others.

To restate my point, everyone gets the experience, but only those that take the time and put in the energy are able to get the lesson.

Experience is not the best teacher….EXAMINED and DIGESTED experience is. Take time to PAUSE in order to reflect, and process what’s been going on in your busy world.

The experience just happens, the lessons are waiting for the student to come and learn from it.

Again, everyone gets the experience. Some will get the lesson.

Tent of Meeting

It’s odd. It makes me wonder.

Some people would say it’s coincidence, “serendipity” we used to say. When I was trained in Jungian theory, we began to use the word, “synchronicity”.

Or maybe it’s the Spirit. I am slow to ascribe such causation, but I know it does happen, here and there.

I had been writing about the “tent of meeting” over the weekend. I was referring to the image that my mentor, Carlyle Marney, had used to describe the gathering of ministers at his retreat called Interpreter’s House. I’ve written about this particular work of Marney’s before. It was a three week program for ministers who needed to be “fixed” or “retread”, or just needed a proverbial kick in the ass.

These ministers and priests would “come aside for awhile”, to a magical place on a mountain lake in Western North Carolina….not a bad respite from the grind of the parish. The first week, they would share their stories in front of a fieldstone fireplace. Marney called it “throwing up”, telling the tales of how tough it was out in the church house. The second week introduced some new concept, some insight that would shake the foundations of these road warriors to get them to imagine perhaps a possibility of something fresh in their ministry. The third week was spent planning on how to re-enter the parish, how to move the ball down the field. Marney built this field of play in the middle of nowhere, and like they say in the carnival business, the people would come.

Marney described the whole gathering as reminiscent of the Hebrew practice of Moses, pitching a tent outside of the normal camp, described in Exodus 33. This distance from the warp and woof of the normal life in community provided a break in order to get perspective, to clear one’s head in order to listen to the Spirit, to God, for direction. This is an image that has been suggestive as to how church should be.

Marney took it a step farther. He said that the tent of meeting, or church, was a place, a gathering where we could take our image of what it means “to Christ it in the world”, and submit it to one another for correction. What a grand idea for what church could be, a place where we could trust one another long enough to offer up our precious images of what life should be for amendment, or corroboration, or musing.

Just where might you have experienced such a place in church?

Most of my church experience has been more a place where we covenant for comfort. A place we meet with folks like us, a place where we easily “fit” in. We go to have our prejudices confirmed. We want our convictions applauded, lauded is even better. We have worked hard to get our act together, to form our concept of what is worthwhile, what is of value. Why should we submit our precious images to others? Who could possibly know better than me about “me”? And there is the rub……it’s called pride.

Marney’s answer was that we would only submit them because what we were about was worth it. We cared enough about the results that we would risk it. We would engage one another, push and pull against one another because we had a conviction that this every engagement would yield more clarity and distinction. Has that ever been in your mind when you went to church, when you sat your self (I’m cleaning it up) in a pew? I kind of doubt it.

It’s more a dome of protection than a tent of meeting, a place of discovery,

If we do dare to enter the tent of meeting, don’t you find it more adversarial than engaging? It’s more like boxing, where you enter the ring in a protective stance. You hold up your two fists in a defensive posture, moving from side to side, back and forth, waiting, just waiting for an opening where you can strike your opponent, to knock him/her out. That’s the feel of boxing, actually keeping your distance until your opponent lets their guard down. Then, you opportunistically strike to knock your opponent down. And as he/she sprawls below on the canvas, you lord your advantage over him/her, as sign of your domination. Where have I heard that recently? But that’s the game……

How different it is to wrestle. An engagement, but one marked by closeness rather that the posture of distance. The match itself begins with the two persons touching one another. There is close body contact, where you can sense the force of the other, respond the push, react to the pull. You can see the sweat of the other, you’re that close. You can smell their body, their anger, their fear. You are definitely engaged. It’s back and forth, rarely letting go of the other. When there is separation, one quickly reengages, grappling to regain contact. While there may be a winner in the match, there is no doubt that there was an engagement for both.

I would suggest that wrestling is a healthier and more productive way for us to engage. The engagement I have felt in recent years feels more like a boxing match, defensive, guarded, looking for a knockout punch. How different would it feel to wrestle, to engage, because what we are wrestling about is worth it? Could we truly engage “the other” as a worthy counter-force rather than an “other” that we fear, keeping our distance, looking to dominate?

So I began by saying “it was odd”.

What’s odd is that on Tuesday of this week, I received a letter from an old priest friend of mine. He was writing about the events of the last few weeks and was encouraging us to follow the example of Moses in having a “tent of meeting”. This guy is a Franciscan friar, of the Roman Catholic strain. He is one of the best teachers of Christianity that I know. I came to be familiar with him back in the late 70s when he was putting out cassette tapes of his teachings. Father Anthony at the monastery in Conyers hipped me to this guy, and I’ve been listening to him in one form or another for years. So how weird is it to get this note after I’ve been wrestling with the concept all weekend?

Cue the Twilight Zone theme. Rod Serling appears and says, with his head tilted to the left, “Submitted for your approval.” Funny, that phrase became a “go to” for those of us who attempted to imitate him, although he only used it in three episodes of the show.

A tent of meeting. Is it possible for Church to become this kind of gathering? In the light of recent events in our country, can we engage one another in a more civil way that respects the “other” rather than going for a knock out, or a put down? Is it possible to respect the dignity of the person we are engaging, submitting to push-pull of engagement, to wrestle because the understanding is worth it? Rather than bringing contempt to the engagement, an opportunity to prove how “right” we are, and just how “wrong” the other is, could we enter the “tent of meeting”?

In all honesty, I do not know. I do know that I hope for such a community, a tent of meeting. And that’s a start. How about you?

A “tent of meeting” pitched in our current desert. Now, THAT would be odd. But I am finding myself hopeful. A Tent of Meeting that is movable, built to bring us together, not just for comfort, but to engage, because what we are doing is worth it. Or as an enthusiastic, mystical Terrance Mann reassures a doubtful Ray, whose vision built a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield, in the movie Field of Dreams, “It’s definitely worth it.”

That’s my “take away” from my synchronic moment this week of renewal. My enthusiastic, mystical Franciscan friend was telling me: It’s definitely worth it.

And it is.

In The “On Deck” Batting Circle Behind Hammerin’ Henry

The national observance of Martin Luther King is coming around again. I am so pleased that our country has chosen to honor the life and ministry of one of my fellow Atlantan as he offered an image of “the Beloved Community” as an aspirational goal. God knows, and I mean “God Knows” that after last Wednesday’s attempted insurrection in the sacred halls of our Capitol, we need an image to carry us forward through this despicable time of lawless violence.

In my office, immediately over my computer monitor, there is a black and white photograph of Martin, standing at this desk, with a picture of Gandhi by his side, reminding him, and now me, of the principles of non-violence. It’s hard when fire hoses, barking dogs, or screaming conspiracists are in your face to remain calm and non-reactive without falling victim to the natural response of returning the violence. But that is what Gandhi taught, that’s what Martin taught and trained his followers, as he tried to lead them toward the beloved community.

That was years ago, and today we face another battle for the soul of America. It’s one more battle that join the line of attempts to destroy our nation: from succession over slavery, the push back on Reconstruction, to the institution of Jim Crow laws, to the rise of the Klan marching down Pennsylvania Ave in 1925., to the McCarthy era in the 50’s, to the rebellion against the Brown vs. Board of Education judicial decision…..this insurrection falls in the long line of resistance to the dream that America be a country where ALL people have rights and privileges.

This right as a human to be treated with dignity and respect seems so obvious to me, but I had good raising, from parents and grandparents who taught me that people’s value and worth was not dependent on skin color, or their jobs, or the amount in their bank account, or how they chose, freely, to worship, or how they chose to connect sexually. Everyone had a right to be. It’s not up for grabs….it comes with the territory.

And while I am blessed to have been raised in that ethos, I also chose to be a part of a community that defines its very identity in that principle. In the Episcopal Church, we affirm in our baptismal covenant that we will respect the dignity of every human being. It goes with the territory of being a child of God, which is a birthright you have when you take your first breath, a birthright you can’t sell, even when you mindlessly follow conspiracy theories that just happen to fit your prejudices and anger. That’s why I have the picture of Martin in front of me most of the time: to remind me that the One I claim and intend to follow, who tells me that I have to love my enemies, for they are children of God, plain, but not so simple….but plain.

That’s why we observe this day…to REMEMBER Martin, not just the man who lived the vision out, even unto death, but the very principle of equality that he stood for and stands for, especially in times such as ours where so-called politically smart strategists advocate for suppressing the opportunity to vote.

And I get it, when the people, ALL the people vote, they lose. Then they cry “foul!”, the election was stolen, it was rigged. Because more people got to vote, they lost. It’s back to the old issue of “who counts?”. I only want people who look like me to vote, and count! I only think that those that agree with me should count. How can we limit the number of people who vote? What barriers can we place in the way? That’s not democracy by any stretch of Constitutional thinking.

So we have this day, Martin Luther King Day, prescribed to be celebrated on the third Monday of January. It’s coming up soon. I always found humor and irony that racists proudly take that day off. I imagine that they think it’s funny too. But we have gatherings across the United States to honor this man, to remember his legacy of civil rights for ALL people, and then, commit to leaning into his vision for such a democracy from sea to shining sea, from the “curvaceous slopes of California” even unto “the Stone Mountain of Georgia”…….let freedom ring!

I am usually at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sweet Auburn Avenue for the ecumenical service. This thing starts at 10 AM but goes on and on and on. For politicians who gather to be seen, the old religious goats like me who feel compelled, we are facing the proverbial Black Baptist schedule where everyone has a little something to say, that goes on and on and on. Did I mention this thing goes on and on and on. The true test of bladder capacity….note to self: no coffee in the morning.

At one point in my illustrious career, I was behind the Pine Curtain of Texas, in Tyler. It was the first, the FIRST observance of the MLK Day in that area. We would gather downtown on the Square, and march down Broadway, the main drag in Tyler, to the Roman Catholic cathedral where we would have an interfaith service. On the first march, there were literally SWAT teams positioned on the top of the buildings in response to threats we had received. My friend, Rabbi Art Flicker, once appeared in a film put together for my birthday, thanking me for teaching him how to march in an MLK Day march. Art deftly puts a bullseye target on his chest, and laughs a rabbinic laugh. It was not funny on that original day.

I had been asked to speak at this meeting, not because of my ordination as an Episcopal priest, not because I was the pastor of the downtown Episcopal parish, not because of my academic credentials. I was asked because I was from Atlanta, the home of MLK, and I knew “the Atlanta Way”, a way of cooperation and collaboration, at least that was what a couple of my black colleagues told me.

On this day, there were the usual officials who welcomed the gathering. There was a black Gospel choir that sang a spiritual, as I recall. Then, there was to be a prayer by one of the old black pastors, which was to lead up to my speech.

Well, it was an amazing prayer. No quick three sentences and an amen. No Episcopal or Roman Catholic constrained “collect” from ancient prayer books. No. This man really prayed. He “held forth” as we say in the trade. He was covering the waterfront of salvation history, beginning in Genesis, props to Abraham and Moses, bringing a smile to the Rabbi’s face, and then on to Jesus. The prayer hit all the marks going on for twelve minutes. And the crowd was with him, with an Amen here and a Praise the Lord there.

Listening to him “tearing it up”, in a good sense, I began to get nervous. W. C. Field always cautioned as to following a child or a dog. I was being taught an additional rule: don’t follow an brilliant charismatic pastor. But follow him I would have to do. When in crisis, I have learned to dive deep into my emotions to discover what is down there, and as I did, I became all too aware of the anxiety I was feeling.

As I walked to the pulpit of that elegant Cathedral, I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I wondered as to the shade of red my face was showing, highlighted against my black clerical shirt. And then, it came to me. How to deftly transition from this amazing preacher to my faithful but meager attempt at bringing to mind MLK and his spirit. It came completely without my thinking or planning, as if it were from the Spirit, if you believe in that spooky stuff.

“I feel today like Dennis Menke. (Pregnant pause) You know who Dennis Menke was, don’t you? (Pause again). Dennis Menke was the infielder, the shortstop that played for the Atlanta Braves. He always followed the immortal Henry Aaron at bat. So Dennis, would stand, taking practice swings, in the On Deck circle, waiting, watching Hank do his thing before it was his turn at bat. (pause) That is precisely how I felt, standing over there, watching The Rev pray, knowing I was going to have to follow him and his powerful prayer. “

People started to laugh, partly out of my self-deprecation but more out of my honestly telling about how I felt in my predicament. I went on to say that I knew I was not as eloquent as The Rev, just like Dennis Menke knew he was not the slugger Hank was. But like Dennis, I knew I had to do my best and deliver for the team. Transition made. Or as George W. might say, Mission Accomplished.

And so I delivered my speech on Martin King, on the beloved community. And I noted that we might not have the eloquence of this noble hero. That we might not have the learning and training of this man. That we might not have the confidence Martin had in the face of the challenge ahead. But, nonetheless, we had the opportunity, and the responsibility to lean into the work that is set before us in our own day. It is our calling, our vocation, to be people of the promise, the people of the beloved community to claim dignity and worth, not only for ourselves, but for our sisters and brothers.

That was my message on that chilly January day in Tyler, Texas. And it still is. It’s our time at bat. Let’s not shy away from the challenge of this moment. The fast ball of history is heading our way and it’s up to us to deliver, for those who came before us with a vision for this country, for those who share these precarious times that would rob us of our dignity, and for those who will come long after us.

It’s our turn at bat. Blessings.

Sunday Morning Coming Down

If there was ONE song I wish I could have written, it would be Sunday Morning Coming Down.

To me, it is the perfect song, with the best combination of pathos and humor, tragedy and comedy. It is so inexorably and sensate Southern as it oozes culture with it’s “cleanest dirty shirt”, the smell of chicken frying, and the sound of soulful songs sung. I know about all three, but it took a genius like Kris Kristofferson to write it into a poem/song. My envy is only outrun by my admiration. It is a perfect song.

Sunday morning.

My Sunday mornings have changed. Used to be, they were full, getting up early, shower, dressing, coffee on the way out, early church, more coffee, children and family church, teaching a class, getting to “big” church, shaking hands at the door, going home to collapse. That was my Sunday morning.

Actually, I would begin my Sunday morning with a “quiet time” of meditation, at least twenty minutes, followed by my Anglican duty of Morning Prayer, which through the years proved to “center” me for my hectic day, reminding me of why I was putting myself through this shotgun of activity.

I enjoyed the drive to the church house, listening to music that got me moving, maybe the above song, the Indigo Girls, Bruce, or Willie. My eclectic taste would sometimes spin me off-center. By the time, I reached the church, more coffee was consumed, and classical music like Ralph Vaughan Williams, Barber, or Handel would settle me down. Music is my drug of choice.

Getting ready for Sunday.

And then I would start. I would lean into the morning and not look up. Between keeping my sermon points straight, remembering the announcements, trying to be cheery after someone complained about the heat or the cooling system, and being garrulously social to folks who just wanted to touch and be touched, Sunday drained me of the juice that animated me. After shaking that last hand, I could leave for the sanctity of my bear’s den. Tip: always wait for an invitation into a bear’s den.

I am an enigma for most folks in that I play an extrovert on TV but I am natively an introvert. It literally sucks the life out of me to be in front and among people, but it was my job. My good friend and colleague, Gray Temple, once told me to inform your congregation as to your introverted nature, and then they will cut you some slack. I did. They did not. I did the best I could, but being a priest is an extrovert’s game, and I drew a tough hand. I did that work for over twenty-five years, some would say successfully, but it was a high price to pay. I paid it.

These days, Sundays mean I can spend most of the time in the cave. Did you get my tip?

Sunday mornings now!

I begin with coffee in a relaxed mode, still having my time of meditation, followed by my habitual and cherished Morning Prayer. But then. I am focused for three hours on the Zoom screen, watching worship from a variety of venues.

I begin with Christ Church here on my island of St. Simons. It starts at 9:15 with gorgeous music and images befitting the island it issues forth from. Kathleen Turner is a talented musician who has scrambled to deal with choirs that are separated by space, and sometimes time. It is remarkable the sound she is able to produce to support the liturgy.

Christ Church had been streaming the service for years before the pandemic so it had a leg up as the shift to cyber worship happened. The Rector, the Rev. Tom Purdy, is media savvy and I think he enjoys the process of production. He is assisted in the technology by Parish Administrator, Glenn Queener, who has a musician’s background, and it shows. They not only have high production values but they have shown remarkable creativity and humor which keeps me interested and expectant, which after all these years, is surprising.

I actually have fantasized about doing such a production myself, utilizing the brilliance of my former choirmaster, Keith Weber, producing an ecclesial Prairie Home Companion liturgy, but it was not to be. It is no small blessing in the coincidence that the capacity for Zoom was timed perfectly for this pandemic. Had this COVID sheltering happened in the 90’s, we would simply not have been able to have any semblance of a worship experience. It would have been a much more bleak midwinter! For that happy coincidence, we should give thanks.

After watching Christ Church, I shift to the worship from Brooklyn, New York. It’s the service from New Life Cathedral, a black Pentecostal church. I know the Executive Pastor there, and have been thrilled to see incredibly well-produced music and video that would rival most musical television shows I have seen. I confess that I love the lively music, which would be characterized in my Episcopal circles as “praise” music, which is to say, it has a distinctive beat that gets you moving. As Dick Clark, or better Don Cornelius would say, “You can dance to it!” I enjoy the spirited prayers led by one of the ministers and most times, the Archbishop of this group, Bishop Rochford, renders a spirited sermon that was assuring in such precarious times.

Finally at 11:15, I go to the Zoom worship of an Episcopal parish across the causeway in Brunswick, Georgia. This is a historic black Episcopal parish, also of the Diocese of Georgia, St. Athanasius. The Rector is a young black man from Augusta, freshly educated at the Episcopal seminary outside of D.C. in Virginia, the Rev. DeWayne Cope. Father Cope, as the parishioners call him, is a fine preacher and does a good job in leading the church, gathered on a Zoom page that resembles an extended Brady Bunch family or Hollywood Squares. I keep looking for Paul Lynde,

I have enjoyed listening in, eavesdropping, on their community kibbitz prior to the beginning of the liturgy. Lots of community information is shared along with a homey heaping of neighborly care. At precisely 11:15, Father Cope calls the church to quiet, to center, beginning the common prayer. It has been a mix of Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist, but each time it has been a powerful sense of community for me, even if via a monitor on my desk.

I have joked with Father Cope that it feels like it could be a production of Tyler Perry’s version of Madea Goes to COVID Church. It’s odd to see members in video squares, visually, and at times, vocally interacting with one another. But this proves to me that creative people can get it done with a will and a prayer.

Sunday mornings in my world are no longer “coming down”, as in the song, but coming “ON”, when the worship of God’s people gathered is transmitted through cyberspace to my bear’s den. I miss the touch, the handshakes, the hugs, the tactile human element. But, worship happens, and community gathers and connects. Miraculous?

Colleagues of mine in the “church biz” wonder if the convenience of not having to dress up, drive to a church, will put the gathering in person in jeopardy. I sure as hell would not take that bet. We humans need the intimacy of a gathering, much like ancients circled round a fire to ward off the threatening darkness. As they say, we’ll be back.

While we have learned some new tricks in terms of how to connect with people “bound” at home, which we should not forget, I am certain that people still long for that circle of humanity that reminds us of a presence that transcends our isolated selves. I did, have, and will take that bet.

See you on Sunday. Got to get to work on a new song: Sunday Morning Tuning In. Blessings, y’all!

Totem: A Connection Through Time

It sit’s on my desk.

I am currently perching it in the coffee cup from my grandfather, a cafe-style porcelin mug that would link me to my grandfather and our mornings together.

The object, my totem, is a pipe. A smoking pipe. It is made by Comoy.

It is a pipe that was the property of one of my mentors, Carlyle Marney. It was gifted to me by Marney’s wife, Elizabeth, one of the greatest, most meaningful gifts I have ever received.

I had travelled to Marney’s fabled house at Wolf Pen Mountain in western North Carolina. My boss at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University, Dr. Jim Fowler, had sent me on a mission to meet Mrs. Marney, the recently widowed wife of our mentor in common. In fact, Jim and I had planned on meeting with Marney at a Pastor’s Conference held yearly at Furman, hosted by professor L. D. Johnson. A heart attack took Marney out before he could depart on the journey, leaving us and others reeling is grief. Jim and I had planned on writing a book with Marney on his work at Interpreters House, an occasional retreat for ministers. After his death, our vision had morphed into what was now unformed. We simply did not know where to go with this project. Our grief blurred our minds, but first things first. Fowler wanted Elizabeth to meet me, and hopefully give me her blessing for whatever project emerged.

And so I took off from Druid Hills, a tony suburb where Emory is nestled, early one Thursday morning with a mist arising. It seemed fitting to be in my Jeep, a green CJ 5, with the top off. I made it to Marney’s home by late morning, fording a mountain creek just off the highway. The house was built onto a fore-standing apple barn, with the barn serving as Marney’s study. The house was a two-story wooden structure with a flurry of large windows that provided light to enter the living area in myriad lines, a testimony to Elizabeth’s artistic eye.

But my focus was on the study. As I said, it was an old apple barn, with rough-hewn timbers that retained the distinctive scent of ripe apples. It was an olfactory gift that I still retain in my memory, prompting a smile when I get a whiff these days. In the middle of the study was a round fieldstone fireplace, with a copper hood providing the escaping smoke. Bookshelves o’plenty is what I remember, filled with volumes of knowledge, wisdom and musings. I was struck with the various objects that seemed randomly placed, though I am sure had sure intent for Marney.

Elizabeth and I talked easily, me trying to avoid the feeling of auditioning, or trying to impress her, a mode that is learned and trained. My personal agenda was to be as honest as I could be, to indulge my curiosity as to how Marney did his work, and to literally lean into who she was as a person who shared this space with this larger-than-life figure.

To say we “hit it off” is an understatement. The time flew. Stories she would tell me of her beloved, this irascible maverick, would yield tears, and laughter, as she was fresh into this field of grief. Every so often, she would look off toward the door, as if expecting the old bird to come garrulously through the entry, bigger than life. She and I shared a love for the man, a quite different kind for each of us. Mine was for a man, I’ll use the word again advisedly, a maverick who had blazed a trail through the desert of South of God thinking. He offered fresh thinking about social issues, recapturing the demanding call of a Christian humanism, imagining a community of “priests at every elbow” where one would find the courage to submit one’s images of faithfulness for correction. Marney was a handful, sometimes loved, and sometimes not, noted in a tribute by his parishioners at Myers Park Baptist at the occasion of his death. He was not to be ignored, though many Southern Baptists, his tribe of origin, pushed him to the margins.

For me, Marney gave me a place to stand. He was literally a place-holder, allowing me the fainting hope that one could follow the Christ with conviction and yet not be sentenced to checking your brain at the door of the church house. Having fought hard to remain in the church, Marney gave the young “me” hope. Though his scholarship often eluded me in my youth, too high, he would say, and yet his presence in the circus tent of church gave me the hope that there might be a place for me.

Marney’s books have a place of tribute in my study, a library chapel. His work sits immediately by my desk, on a shelf that contains other contributors to my thinking: Fowler, Thurman, Merton, Gerkin, Ruhle, Temple, Miles, Conner, Scherer, to name a few.

When my conversation ended that morning, Elizabeth noted me eyeing Marney’s collection of tobacco pipes that he had on a shelf. I had, in fact, worked at the famous Royal Pipe and Cigar story in downtown Atlanta to bring in a little money, but also to learn from Mr. Andrews who knew tobacco better than any person I knew. I knew pipes, and smoked them on occasion, probably more for the stage presence than enjoyment.

Elizabeth told me to choose a pipe from the collection for my own. I demurred, saying that it was far too personal. She smiled and left the study for a moment, returning with a light blue cloth, like that of a baby’s diaper. She placed it on Marney’s desk, unfolding this bundle, revealing five pipes. She said there were his favorites, the five that were on his desk the day he died. She said she knew that Marney would want me to have one. Again, I resisted, but she insisted, telling me that it would give her pleasure, and assuring me that it would please Marney. Those were the magic words.

I looked carefully at the five, two very expensive Dunhills with distinctive white dots on the stems that identify them to those in the know. Two others were undistinguishable, but there was THE one. It was a Comoy, a quality pipe but not of the expense of a Dunhill. This Comoy has a bend, like one thinks of Sherlock Holmes, but understated. More importantly, I recognized it as the pipe I had seen Marney smoke and had been captured in a number of photographs. That was the pipe I longed for, a totem that would put me in the mind of Marney.

Elizabeth smiled when I pointed to it. She said it was his favorite. At least she said it, and I hope it was true, but she said she had hoped I would pick it, to carry it on into the future.

I felt like Indiana Jones who the Knight Templar blessed: You have chosen well. I had selected the Holy Grail of Marney , and now, it was time for my crusade, my journey.

I thanked her. She gave me the Southern hug a grandmother gives her favorite grand, and I departed the mountain for the flatland. I have put that pipe on my desk at the Cathedral, in my study at Christ Church, Tyler, and in my office at Holy Innocents. It is now on my desk here on the island. I am looking at it, holding it now.

I have put tobacco in it and smoked it, in certain moments of decision, seeking discernment from my spiritual mentor. I lit the pipe as a sacrament to a Spirit that must live inside the limits of structure. That was not only Marney’s dissertation, but his lesson of life that he passed on. It reminds me of the various vows I have made throughout my life, but none so crucial as to follow the Light of Truth, wherever it leads. A quixotic quest, to be sure, but the Knight Templar had it right: I chose well.

What totem treasures do you have around you, treasured symbols from your past, your story? As I have recently changed locales, I have found certain totems. particular books, grant me a sense of being at home. When you read of my Marney pipe, what similar object connects you to the past, and gives you the trust to lean bolding into the future? I invite you to pick that object up and hold it. Look at it. Speak a word or two to it (no one is looking, hopefully). What word does it say to you, encouraging or challenging? What is its message.

We are ending up a tough year that will be strangely known as 2020, once a designation of clear vision. Instead, this year has been one of misty vision, clouded by tears, fears, and separation. I urge you to take the time to review your year in the rearview mirror, as well as looking at the future horizon. What are your hopes and dreams? What are the goals that you have set for 2021? With hope, let us push off the dock for the open water of adventure. Blessings.