Last week, I offered four questions that might prompt your reflection during this season of Advent, as time of expectation and hope.
One of the four prompts was to reach out to folks that might need a word.
Guess what? I took my own advice. I reached out to a number of folks who had been crucial parts of my development about forty years ago. By the way, you may have missed my insight into the deep meaning of “40”, forty, in the Hebrew tradition. Forty is a Hebrew idiom that means “a long damn time.” The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness, on their exodus from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land for forty, count em, forty years. That’s a lot of wandering. I should know.
Two of the three I reached out to were Fellows at the Center for Faith Development where I worked at Emory. Both were Dominican priests, Bob Perry and Paul Johnson. They were in the same seminary class so they know each other well, the kind of knowing that families and married couples have. They are both eighty-seven years of age, speaking of a long, damn, time.
Bob had done his doctoral work on the psychology of Carl Jung and the theology of Bernard Lonergan. When I first heard him tell me that, I thought to myself, ” What kind of masochist is this dude?” To take on one of these thinkers is a huge task, but two, and then try to integrate….. gargantuan. Bob always had a practical side and tried to make his scholarship helpful for regular folks. Because of this drive, he had become a proponent of journaling as a spiritual discipline. He introduced me to it as a spiritual exercise and invited Ira Progoff, famed founder of the Intensive Journal Workshop, to come to Emory. Bob formed a group that met weekly to work with the journaling methodology, my new wife and I being members of the group. Those of you who have followed South of God over the last year know of the importance of journaling in my life.
Like Columbo, I searched for clues and found Bob living in the God-forsaken Lubbock, Texas. Actually, Lubbock is one of the five places the McBrayer brothers of my ancestry wound up when they came to this country from Scotland. I was reminded of some lyrics to a song: happiness is Lubbock in my rearview mirror. Moses would add a verse about “Egypt”, I guess, but let’s leave the Lubbock jokes for the moment.
When I talked to Bob, he is still active, involved in some campus ministry and doing some work as an itinerant preacher, in the Dominican tradition. I specifically wanted to thank him for the importance his ministry had on my life in introducing me to the spiritual discipline of journaling. His life had made a profound difference in mine.
Paul was also important. He was always involved in campus ministry. It was his passion, and as he came to Emory as a Fellow, he continued that as he interacted in his normal pastoral manner. For me, he was a willing ear for my struggle to make sense of my Southern Baptist heritage and my new-found love of the larger and longer Catholic tradition. Having an understanding and listening ear when one is wrestling with spiritual issues is quite a gift, and Paul gave it to me graciously.
I found him in the Dominican house in Chicago, now struggling with reduced heart functionality and other health problems. He lives in a community of priests, which has a rich common life, but he is limited in his activities. He voice was still welcoming and affirming. I took the opportunity to tell him how much his pastoral presence meant to me, particularly when I was wrestling with what to do with my life. Paul gave me holy space in which to figure it out for myself. I will always be grateful.
The third person I found in my reconnaissance was Jeremy Miller, also a Dominican priest when I knew him. I had just departed Louisville to return to Emory to pick up on my studies. He was one of my first seminary professors, the only Roman Catholic one, in the predominantly Methodist seminary. He introduced me to John Henry Newman, who had been a noted Anglican priest and scholar, who eventually wound up as Roman Catholic priest, a Cardinal, and recently given saint status. Jeremy’s teaching brought a Catholic way of thinking to my life and introduced me to the pristine logic of Newman’s way of deciphering the development of doctrine. Jeremy’s erudition, and his sophistication of thought proved winsome, as he gave me a model of a human I could aspire to. On top of that, he had played basketball in college and was quite a worthy opponent on the Emory court.
In many ways, Jeremy taught me to think like a Catholic, which was broader in scope, qualitative in assessment as opposed to the more binary thinking of my past, that is, right or wrong, in or out. The Trappist monks assisted me in that development as well, as did many Episcopal priests, as well as a few maverick Baptists. But I specifically wanted to thank Jeremy for the role he had played in forming my way of thinking. By the way, I found him outside of Philly, retired from teaching in a Catholic college, married, with two grown sons.
So, this week, I reached out to three people, who happened to be Dominican priests, to thank them for their gifts. But I had a surprise coming.
My old saddle pal, Chris Wall, called me out of the blue, and gave me the gift of reaching out. Chris is a singer/songwriter in the best of that tradition. I met him when I was teaching at the Episcopal seminary in Austin, the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest. I had flown in from Tyler to teach my class that met in the evening. When the class finished around nine, I took off to enjoy the music scene of my favorite city on the planet.
I was still in my clericals, meaning my black suit, black clergy shirt and white collar. I went to the quintessential Texas honky tonk, the Broken Spoke, and entered the front bar, saying hello to the owner James White who my UT friend, Peter, had introduced me to long ago. I took off my collar, and sat down at a table with the drink that James had given me.
It was my first time to hear this band, fronted by Chris, and they were a typical hard-driving group that was easy on the ears. They were doing mostly original songs that Chris had written, lyrics that caught my attention. By the way, Chris is famous/infamous for writing the classic, I Like My Women Just a Little On the Trashy Side. It had been a favorite of mine and is legendary on honky tonk jukeboxes throughout the territory. Chris’ lyrics are both clever and close-to-the-bone, just the way I like it.
When the band took a break, Chris walked over to my table, looked at my black outfit and offered: Well, you are either a priest or Johnny Cash?
We wound up talking that night and several other times that quarter. Chris actually came up to Tyler to visit me, and went with my family to see Michael Martin Murphy’s Cowboy’s Christmas at our local University of Texas university. Chris and I continued developing our relationship over the next few years. He honored that friendship by asking me to officiate at his wedding in Austin.
We stay in touch, with his recent move to Montana and my many changes. He has been dealing with some health issues, as have I, and we have compared notes along the way. He picked up on some signals from me that I was struggling a bit, so he took the time to give me a call. What treat for me to get a call from my friend from Austin, just checking in on his pal.
I told him of my struggles with the diminished mobility from my torn quad tendon. I am able to get around okay in my home and in my study, but times out in public rub my nose in the limitations I am dealing with. No more jumping around on the deck of my sailboat without worry of falling. No more dancing to the funky beat, even with the additional handicap of being a white boy. That’s when it smacks me aside the head and reminds me of just what I have lost.
Chris sat and listened to me talk this out, both my frustration and anger, as well as my gratitude at being alive and joy of my work. He gets it, like few do. He gets me, like few do. That is a gift indeed to have that person, or few persons who actually understand you in all your complexity, and simply let you be. Not try to fix you, or set you straight, just let you be. Chris gave me that gift in his call and his patient willingness to give me space in which to be. I am grateful, and give thanks for the people like, Bob, and Paul, and Jeremy, and Chris, and Wendell, and Phyllis, and Judy, and many others who are there for me.
There’s nothing like bad times to sort through your Rolodex of friends to find how who is really there for you, and who is not. It’s a tough lesson to learn but it is true. Those few loyal friends are the real gift. That’s why I try to be that good friend to others and provide that kind of support. Like the quote from Doc Holladay, “I don’t have that many friends.” I have learned to value the ones I have.
There are a few more weeks in Advent before Christmas. Take a look at the list of suggested questions from last week. But right now, think of someone you need to reach out to, that would make a difference with a call or a note. Who might that person be in your life, in this particular moment, and then do for them what Chris did for me? Reach out!
You don’t have to be a priest or Johnny Cash. Just a good friend.