I was in no mood for bad news, but this is 2020, so what did I expect?
I purposely have stopped watching the news right before bed, trying to calm myself down before sleep. But like a lot of things these days, my well-laid plans went awry.
I flipped onto Brian Williams on his hour-long newscast at the 11 o’clock hour, and heard his voice break. He was announcing truly breaking news, that my hero, John Lewis, has died.
It should not have come as a shock. He had been very public with his battle with pancreatic cancer. I had not been able to talk to John in a month of Sundays, but it was hard for me to imagine anything taking him down. Some of my friends kept me informed, but I guess I was hoping against hope, as we used to say. Maybe this hero of mine could beat it, like he did the racist charge he met on the Pettus bridge in Selma.
I had many long conversations with John, dating back to my college days working for Jim Mackay, a Congressman from Decatur, Georgia. John was not as loquacious as many others in the movement, but you had the sense that his words were forged deep in the heart, not just grandstanding. He was not the silver-tongued devil that I usually admired. His words were of iron, forged under pressure.
He reminded me of a bulldog, facially pugnacious, embodying a persistence that I coveted for my own damn self. He had an amazing sense of humor in the moment, which is top of the list for me in a quality of leadership. Out and among his people, he was quick with a comment, making easy connections with his constituency. He was the very incarnation of a servant leader, laying down his life, like the One he followed.
We were in a march together in Cumming, Georgia in1987, as he was ones of the stars among the constellation of leaders who gathered to lead us into downtown to protest the Klan presence in the county and the restriction of blacks living in the countt. One of the things I remember is as we marched, the counter-demonstrators began to shout, “We hate you. We hate you.” It seemed as if the spirit of Martin King’s Beloved Community was resurrected as we responded organically, “We love you. We love you.” How’s that for non-violence. It was a paradigmatic moment for me, as comments and bottles were thrown at us, and yet we responded non-violently. We marched from the expressway to the square where various folks delivered speeches.
With unexpected numbers of people showing up, we were delayed for three hours, so we got to the square late. I had to officiate at a wedding back at the Cathedral that evening so I had to leave the protection of the National Guard, and make my way back alone to my car. Luckily, I did not look conspicuous in my clergy black shirt and white clerical collar. Not much. There were pick up trucks o’plenty cruising up and down the highway, flying the Confederate Stars and Bars, and making insinuations about the lineage of my mama. I think I broke a land speed record for walking, making it back to my car. By the way, I made it to the wedding on time, but my hair had a rather Clint Eastwood wind-blown look. Go ahead, make my day.
With the news of his death, I remembered an old clip of John in his office, “clowning” as we used to say to Pharrell’s bopping song, Happy. Instinctively, I searched and found it, as John busted a move in front of a staff member’s camera, as the groove moved him. His smile, as he “broke it down”, proclaiming that “this is MY song!” was infectious. Every person I have shown this to responds exactly the same way, “He’s so cute!”
And he was, until he was staring you down in a confrontation over something that mattered. His famous line was to “make good trouble”, and he did, from his famous freedom rides on the buses in the Sixties, to his “sit-in” around gun violence on the floor of Congress. John was ready to “engage”,, my favorite word, when he saw injustice, and his courage was inspiring to me and many others.
On this night, ambushed by the news, I needed to see the image of an alive John, clowning, enjoying life as I had seen him do in his district so many times. I needed the resilient spirit of John as I face the days, weeks, months ahead. As I watched him dance, a smile busted out on my tear-filled face. I was happy, to see a person in full. What a gift he gave to us by making good trouble.
This prompted me to think about being happy, about a joy that emanates from the soul, not just some cheap laugh line. I saw, I witnessed that joy in John many times through the years.
I began to reflect on where I find my joy. How is that for you? Where do you find your joy, your “happy”?
I remember earlier in life, my joy centered on accomplishments, something I did, completed. It involved my ego, getting something done, scoring, spiking the ball in the end zone. It ties into the first part of life where we are looking to master certain skills, to do something well. But now, as psychoanalyst Erik Erikson suggests, in later life, joy shifts to being. He said that we humans do a life review, to see if there is a thread of meaning that forms a cohesive strand through one’s life. If there is such meaning, one is blessed with a sense of hope. Conversely, if not, there resides an underlying sense of despair. How is it for you? Where are you finding joy in your current landscape?
Since moving to the island, I have been thinking a lot about this notion of joy, of review.
I am fortunate that my daughter, Mary Glen, lives here, having moved to St. Simons since graduating from the University of Georgia. She has found a young man that she loves, Michael, and they were planning to be married on the marshes of Glynn back in May. She and my wife had carefully planned the event, the ceremony, the reception, the food and drink, and most importantly, the soul band. It was sure to be one hell of a party. “Happy” may have been on my dance card for that night.
All of that is up in the air, thanks to COVID. Nothing like a pandemic to straighten up your moral compass of taking into consideration the lives of others and how a gathering could wreak havoc among those you love. A fairly tale, and an island one at that, interrupted.
What it has helped me to see is that the most important thing is the love that my daughter has found. No matter where the wedding takes place, on a luxurious marsh setting, in a stately historic church, or in an Elvis chapel in Vegas, the important thing is that my little girl, my daughter has found love. For a parent, things get real simple, even when it’s complicated. You want your child to be happy. The smiles I see on their faces, when they, Mary Glen and Michael, look at each other, is my joy.
Quickly shift to the Nashville skyline. My son, Thomas, came to visit from Nashville, after playing his first gig in a pandemic while. He played outside at the City Winery, and said people seemed hungry to hear live music. I think I know exactly what he means. I have enjoyed watching my son fall in love with music, a siren I have heard myself.
He tells me he first fell in love with music on the occcasion of me teaching at the seminary in Austin, Texas. We would go to Stubb’s for a Gospel Brunch on Sunday morning, featuring Mexican fare, make your own Bloody Marys, and get the essence of live music, listening to Gospel music from black choirs. The spirit would get a moving in that cantina, with a truly mixed audience, not legislated by law but mandated by music. That’s where it happened, where Thomas experienced the power and spirit of music.
He first took drum lessons from a session player in Texas named Nardo. When we moved back to Atlanta, he formed his first band, rehearsing in our basement, with him playing drums and doing the vocals, Don Henley style, who was from East Texas. I still remember the thrill of hearing him play and sing The Weight, just like Levon. Sweet.
Later, the band moved to Athens, working the famous bars there, while going to college on the side. After touring, he decided to go to Nashville and pursue his songwriting, while he played in a couple of project bands.
To say that I am proud of him is an understatement. The courage to climb onto a stage to sing the songs that you mined from your heart and soul is a special kind of commitment. When I see him on stage, playing his guitar, looking over at his band mate, and a smile of joy breaks out on his face, returned by his mate…..that is the same kind of joy I feel when I look at my daughter who is in love.
It’s what I have come to call a parent’s psychic pay. You work hard, spending time and money, investing in your child’s future, and the payoff is to see them happy. My psychic pay. I am a wealthy man these days.
So, when I reflect on John, on my kids, on my life, it all comes down to two things: relationship and a passion for one’s life that brings meaning.
I have come to know that this sense of relationship is not limited to marriage but can exist between friends you choose and family that you learn to love. The relationality between people embody the deeper spiritual connection that exists between all things in heaven and on earth. Here, I know I am moving into the Mystic, as Van the Man sang, but it’s really about our basic sense of connection. Relationality is about the essential connectedness that links us spiritually to all that is past, all that is future, but grounded in the present moment, the eternal Now.
John Lewis knew this connection. He heard it articulated in Martin’s image of the beloved community, a hope and a dream in which to invest your very being, your life. The yield is the fruit of joy, a joy that comingles the essence of relationality and the passion of one’s life.
For me, that’s where I get my joy, my “happy”. In the rich relationships through time, and the participation in a mission that is larger than me. That’s my song. That is my “Happy”.