Confession is good for the soul, they say.
So, I confess that I had a lot of trouble connecting with Jesus when I was a kid. The stories that were told to me in Sunday School seemed like good stories, but sort of like the fairy tales I didn’t buy. Maybe it was because my mom was a biologist, but I had a natural scientific skepticism early on. I wanted to see what was real, not just hear stories about some fantasy land.
I distinctly remember my friend, David Montgomery, conducting an experiment in my class in 4th grade, using electrolysis to make oxygen from water, and making it “pop” with the introduction of a flame. Fascinating. I loved the explanation of how things work, and David’s bespeckled, nerd, “science guy” act was strangely appealing.
It was eight years later riding in his Opel GT to look at Emory University, a bastion of science that drew both of us like a moth to a flame, not produced by mystical electrolysis process. Emory was where the doctor who birthed me went to medical school. Dr. Henry Stedman gave me a stethoscope to prime my pump, as well as leading our Boy Scout Explorer group on medicine. Emory was the pre-med factory that I was destined to attend.
However, there was a problem. It was Emory that prompted the national headlines that proclaimed “God is Dead”, coming from the scholarship of Thomas Jefferson Jackson Altizer, an Emory theologian, who was simply popularizing centuries of philosophy questioning the relevance of God to the modern mind.
This led the women’s prayer group at my childhood South of God church to put me on their prayer list, which I many still be on. It prompted my friend, Danny Hall, who was a year ahead of me in attending Emory, where his mother taught in the Nursing School, to bring me a copy of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This book was THE standard Christian apologetic text put out by Campus Crusade for Christ, aimed at convincing skeptics like me. I remember reading the text, “kiver to kiver”, studying the points so that I would be ready for the attacks of godless teachers and their minions who aimed to steal my soul, such as it was.
It was funny that my first night at Emory, at a party hosted by my Resident Advisor, Robert Morris, a graduate of my high school in East Point, I got into a debate that eventually got around to God, which all things seemed to do. As I was busy holding up God’s good name, I remember listening to the guy who lived across the hall from me offer several questions that rattled my cage. It was one of those damnable “meta” moments as you are debating, when part of your brain recognizes the validity of the other’s position and truth. Kevin was circling in on some of the fallacies in my tautology, but I dare not admit them. It is curious that Kevin became my roommate for my next two years at the fraternity house.
As I have written here before, the “Big Bang” surprise for me came in that it was, in fact, Emory, the place where God died, that opened my mind up to the possibility of a God that did not object to me using the mind God gave me.
Jack Boozer, an Emory religion prof introduced me to the mystical tradition of faith, as he invited me to read the classic I-Thou, by Jewish mystic, Martin Buber. He also led me into the biological cathedral of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic scientist who saw God in the process of evolution. Boozer click-baited Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus that hooked me on biblical scholarship for life, and then paraded Paul Tillich’s theology to suggest that a thinking person could also be a person of faith. This innocuous course that I took as a proverbial “easy A” on my road to medical school, sidetracked me onto a trail and trial of which I was unaware.
Let me be clear: I had been given all the Bible stories that a South of God child should be in their evangelical training. I had been through the Sunday School process of hearing the stories, Old and New Testament. I had been trained in my Sword Drills, an ancient South of God practice of competition in finding a Bible verse faster than one’s neighbor. And I had been versed in the proper behavior of a South of God teenager, being respectful to elders and not swearing, drinking, or dancing. But, the whole faith thing sort of eluded me. I had not had the campfire soul-surrender moment that many of my peers had. Religion was compartmentalized, a Sunday thing, that had little to do with how I saw life. In fact, from my scientific perspective, I had adopted a wink-and-nod method of simply listening to the stories and not asking the embarrassing questions of my starched white-shirted teachers.
That all changed with two moments from the culture, not my church.
The first was the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. It placed the story of Jesus, one I was quite familiar with, within the rock genre with electric guitars and stratospheric vocals. I remember listening to the music, the lyrics that intrigued me by the existential question that were embedded. And the basic one for me was this: Did Jesus have a choice or was he a mere puppet in the hands of this Cosmic Puppeteer? Rather than a script that was being acted out by some type-cast Palestinians, this a drama that was open and full of pathos. For me, it was the beginning of my questioning and wondering.
But it was Broadway that opened up the proverbial Pandora’s box. It was a musical presentation of the story and text of the Gospel of Matthew. It was a skeleton cast of ten, and minimalist staging. The script came from the famed parables or teaching stories of Jesus by which he introduced the radical notion of the Kingdom of God. At it’s heart was a winsome presentation of how we human beings might learn a way of love, loving God and neighbor, a captivating idea which continues to marshall my attention.
These stories were well known by me, “old hat”, as they say, but the way in which they were acted out in the community of this cast broke their meaning like an egg cracked open, revealing an inner truth. It was like having scales removed from my eyes, something that was said to have happened to Paul many years before. All of a sudden, I had new eyes to see the world.
I was taken by Godspell, first on the Broadway stage, later by a production at the unlikely locale of my local South of God encampment, led by a creative music minister, Len Willingham. Putting together a cast of high schoolers, I watched, observed, and took notes and note. My brother, Mitch, had the part of Jeffrey, which made it even more up-close and personal.
A few years later, I pulled Godspell out of my bag of tricks, as I was serving as the youth minister at a large South of God church in Decatur. I adapted the script somewhat, using a chorus to support the ten actors, and borrowed a song from the movie, not in the original play. My creativity almost got my Baptist ass sued for copyright violation, necessitating a quick trip to New York City. I could tell you how my winsome personality resolved the mess, but then, I would have to kill you. Let that sleeping dog snooze as we had a tremendous presentation with some amazing kids, in a life-changing production for many kids, including me.
With me beginning my doctoral studies, what better way to syphon off energy than to produce a touring company of Godspell. And so, I put together an all star cast of twenty-somethings, with a killer band to provide back up. I called the troupe The Southern Rainbow Company, as it was truly a dream of mine, not unlike that of my patron saint, Kermit. We went into production at the beginning of the summer, and by the end of the sweat-stained rehearsals in Carreker Hall, all members of the cast were dating one another in a veritable love fest. By the end of the Fall, with a performance at White Hall on the Emory campus, not one member of the cast was still dating….so much for that love thing. It was an act of discipline to remain on stage “acting” like we cared for one another as opposed to wanting to kill particular members of the cast. Instead of the old theater admonition “break a leg”, we were climbing the heights of “break a commandment.” We did so, every night.
Nevertheless, it was this amazing musical that brought me to a deep appreciation of the depth of meaning of the Gospel, the drama of life, death, betrayal, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope….all the stuff of being a human, seen through the eye of faith. I was and am grateful for the experience that was one of the vectors that push/pulled me into the priesthood.
Perhaps no song was more powerful to me through time than the centerpiece song of Godspell, Day by Day. It is sung by the character, Robin, who offers this three-fold prayer, capturing the words of Richard of Chichester, a 13th century bishop and saint who famously prayed to:
See thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.
The song, which was the one hit to come out of the Broadway play and movie, Day by Day, became a kind of mantra for me in figuring out how to do this faith thing. It was simple, having actionable verbs, as well as profound implications.
What was incredibly odd was that when I had finished my doctoral course work, I began my clinical work at the St. Luke’s Training and Counseling Center. I was assigned an office recesses of this old Atlanta ecclesial edifice, but it was an office, MY office. There in that gray-walled room that opened onto an alleyway, I discovered a framed print over the coach where I would meet with people in therapy. That gold-framed piece had the prayer of Richard in scrolled letters, Day by Day, which I took as a moment of spiritual synchronicity, which is a far cry from my cynical scientific skepticism.
But that’s how it’s been, day by day. Friends of mine often say, “one day at a time”, and that’s true as well. Day by day.
Almost forty years later, I still begin my day with a re-minder as to my purpose, my reason for being. I try to center myself in that reality before I move out into the world of distraction and disruption, a world that is able to take my focus off my goal of being present. For me, the mantra of Day by Day, captures it. To see my purpose clearly, to love God and neighbor as much as humanly possible, and to align my Self with the Christ life in all that I do.
How do you do it? What tricks have you learned in keeping your focus, of spending yourself, investing your Self in the life you live? If you would, share it with me, either here on the site, or drop me a note at email@example.com . How have you negotiated your way through the disruptive pandemic and distracting tower of babble? What centers you? I would love to hear you strategy and tactics.
Blessings as you move through your life. Day by day.