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.

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