My Personal Camelot

Thanksgiving marked the third anniversary of my writing this blog, South of God.

I have not missed a week of cranking out a column. As my old boss, Dr. Bill Lancaster used to quip, ” Sometimes I have something to say; sometimes I have to say something.” Bill was one of a handful of preachers I would actually go out of my way to hear. He was the pastor of Decatur First Baptist Church, a thriving suburban enclave east of Atlanta, if not Eden.

Decatur First Baptist served as a progressive front in the Baptists South of God. Bill not only allowed folks to think, he sometimes forced them to. He was quick to extend grace to people who might have been turned out of a “regular” Baptist congregation. Unfortunately, he was not able to call on that same grace when he went through a divorce, leaving the pastorate and his unique voice behind.

He had hired me as I was beginning my seminary work at Emory, having fled the narrowing straits of the Baptist seminary that I attended for a semester. The straight-jacket of literalism/fundamentalism chaffed my soul, so I left Louisville in the broad daylight headed back to Emory. Bill said I was “running FROM the Baptist Church” and hoped I would take the time to experience a progressive congregation that was smart, creative, and lived in grace. I am thankful that he gave me the time and space to find a place to run TO.

That place was the Episcopal Church where I experienced the sacramental symbol of God’s love and grace in the ritual of the Eucharist, what my South of God friends call the Lord’s Supper. I found that I needed that “experience” of grace every week, which is the case in the Catholic expressions of faith. It was the “pearl of great price” for which I was willing to give everything I had in terms of background, to have for my own. As I age, I find this is even more significant in my life of spirit.

The place I found it was St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta. My first exposure had been in college with Tom Bowers, a pie-faced communicator who talked about Jesus like he was our next door neighbor, that is, he made Jesus real for me.

Later, I returned to Luke’s as a part of the Training and Counseling Center, working mostly with street people, many who had been turned out of psychiatric hospitals. That was an incredible experience in and of itself, with the Rev. Palmer Temple serving as my clinical supervisor. But it was the whole staff and congregation that stole my heart. These folks were actually serious about changing the city, of serving ALL of God’s people, not just folks like us. I got in trouble once calling out the “homo” church in a sermon. I was not speaking of the then-current “hot topic” of homosexuality, but rather the damnable tendency of the church to gather around those who were just like them.

Luke’s had the ringmaster of the Rev. Dan Matthews who had the brass to surround himself with staff who were as smart or smarter than he was, a lesson I took with me. Ray Parkins, Gene Ruhle, Peter Gorday, and Palmer Temple formed an All Star team that I would take into battle, or a cocktail party, any day of the week. It was assisted by a utility infielder, Bill Bolling, who began the Atlanta Community Food Bank there, Mary Ann Kennedy who managed the money, and Doc Willis, my partner in crime at the daily soup kitchen.

I am the boy at the end of Camelot who listens to Arthur talk about that magical place that happened. The admonition was to go forth and witness that such a place is possible. And, by God, that’s a good description of my life, at every parish I served, some willing to follow the vision, some….not so much.

In writing this article, I went back to listen to Sir Richard Burton sing the haunting lyrics from the end of the musical, wistfully recalling that perfect place where even the weather cooperates. In the melancholy of remembrance, King Arthur tells that lad, Tom, to recount the story of Camelot, that “one brief shining moment”, penned by writer Alan Jay Lerner, not some CBS Sports basketball announcer. Arthur exhorts Tom:

“Each evening from December to December, before you drift to sleep upon your cot, think back on all the tales that you remember of Camelot. Ask every person if he’s heard the story, and tell it strong and clear if he has not, that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot. Camelot. Camelot. I know it gives a person pause, but in Camelot, Camelot, those are the legal laws. Where once it never rained till after sunset. By 8 am, the morning fog had flown. Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one bright shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

My phenomenal high school drama department tackled this musical, searing the lyrics in my brain and lodging them in my dreams, my imagination. Prior, in 1960, the musical spawned the dreams of a New Frontier here in our country and prompted the appellation of the young, bright Kennedy administration as a Camelot. It forms and funds part of my personal and collective mythology, the hope of such a land and people.

And so when I came into the ’80s with my experience of an idyllic community of faith, I made the unconscious connection of Camelot with Luke’s.

It seems meet and right so to do…..an Anglican phrase as to the proper place of service and worship… to give thanks for the gift in my life of St. Luke’s. It continues to this day to lean boldly into the future than God has for this congregation on the hallowed Peachtree Street. The mission lives on in the heart of Atlanta, but extends out through the disciples of the way of love, grace, and service that carry it into the world God loves.

My hope is that you have found your own personal Camelot, a community in which you find Spirit and a vocation to lean into life with verve. If you have not found such a place, don’t give up hope. Use this Advent season of expectation to scan the horizon for communities that might offer the opportunity to participate in something that is bigger than you, that extends your reach as a person. Those places aren’t easy to find, as you probably know. But the search is well worth your best time and energy.

Tell me about places that get it done for you, your Camelot. Or places you may be looking to see if they fit the bill.

May this Advent be a time of hopeful leaning for you. Blessings on your courageous act of leaning into the future!

4 thoughts on “My Personal Camelot

  1. How incredible that you were able to articulate my EXACT sentiment and devotion as a newcomer to The Episcopal Church(5 yrs now!). Although at 60 years old many would say I was “late to the party”, my former fundamentalist evangelical background was instrumental in my spiritual foundation. I think(besides memorizing Scripture), it pointed to the wonderful new world of intellect, tradition, and Grace that is what I consider the sweet spot of my lifelong faith journey. Christ Episcopal South and Christ Church Downtown (tyler damn Texas) never fail to bless!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David, my time at Emory overlapped yours, as did my time at St. Luke’s. I sang in the choir, Parker was my therapist, and Peter and I read Greek together. What a graced experience! Thanks for reminding me.
    My parish now is St. Clement’s here in St. Paul where I am blessed to be able to preach and serve at the altar.
    Blessings on you in this Advent season, and thanks.

    Like

    1. Bob, it was a special place. I was able to bring Peter on staff at the Cathedral when I was there. I stay in touch with Palmer who is living outside of Jasper in the north Georgia mountains.
      I am so glad you are able to participate at St. Clement’s. I hope your Advent is full of hope and expectation. Blessings, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

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