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.

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