Will Spong was one of my best friends. He was a priest, a professor at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, a superb musician, a synthesizer of ideas, and a dreamer with the capacity to imagine an alternative future. He also had the gift of courage, a capacity I find seriously lacking in the current church, but that’s another column.
Will had the wild look of a Muppet puppeteer, not unlike Frank Oz. The old image from the band, War, in 1970 with the song “Spill the Wine”, that of a “long-haired, leaping gnome” came to mind often when I was with him. He had a rare capacity to be present to the other person, which is why he was a popular therapist and spiritual director in the Austin area.
He and I were thrown together when I was brought on the faculty at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest as an Adjunct Professor to bring my experience in faith development theory as well as my work in leadership. Will and I began to conspire immediately as to how we could fix this broken world.
I have to admit that Will took the lead early on in terms of shaping the world to our favor. It involved a parish in the Austin area, St. James. They were beginning their search for a new Rector. For you unwashed masses who do not know the thrill of the arcane nomenclature of the Anglican tradition, “Rector” is one of those words that you will find Episcopalians throwing around right regularly, making them feel superior to the uninitiated. It simply means pastor, actually the lead or senior pastor in a congregation. Guard that word, “rector”, with your life, and be careful how you pronounce it. Rectors are sensitive about such things, which is amusingly appropriate.
St. James was a parish in the middle of Austin. At the time it was predominantly black, with many professors from the small Texas university close by. That’s a joke, son, said Foghorn Leghorn. In the Episcopal Church, it was midsized and therefore, according to my bishop, not in the appropriate flight path for my career as an Episcopal priest. However, Will had big plans.
In his mind, I would come to St. James, bring him on as an assistant. We would both teach at the seminary, but begin a Clinical Pastoral Education center there at the church. Most CPE clinical training takes place in a hospital setting. It is the historical tradition, affording this student intense experiences of relating to a broad wash of people. It is a fine model, training many young ministers, including me. But, those of us in the world of theological training find that it was often difficult for CPE students to transfer the learnings from the clinical hospital setting to the work of the parish. When you think hard about it, you can see the issue at first glance. Will had the idea and dream of combining the two, building a program where the student has some exposure to the clinical setting of a hospital, but also in the daily ministry of a parish, hopefully making the connections more easily and integrated for long-term development.
Will actually envisioned us as a dynamic duo, he mentioned “Butch and Sundance”, which made me laugh, but I secretly loved it. I am not sure how he parsed the two in terms of who was who in that classic duo, I just wanted to be the one that wound up with Katharine Ross. For you careful readers, here she is again in my psychic archetypes. Noted.
To get the ball rolling, Will secured a difficult appointment for me to serve as the keynote speaker at Laity Lodge, a famous retreat center located on the Frio River in Texas, built by grocery magnate, Howard Butts…aka Piggly Wiggly. My hero and friend, John Claypool, had served in the capacity of keynote presenter a few times, before he became divorced, thus disqualifying him in this pool of shamanistic presenters. I actually stayed in Madeline L’Engles’ cabin, a famous Christian writer.
There were two churches in residence for this weekend conference, a Presbyterian church, and St James. You see that Will is always thinking, just like Butch. You can call it strategic…. or sneaky, your pick.
In evangelical circles, such well-known conference speakers are regarded as gunslingers, voices and brains to rent. Butch had brought his gunslinger, Sundance, to bring his trick pony, faith development, to dazzle the folks with psychological lingo, deftly comingled with theological terms, and critically, biblical words, dusted off for modern consumption. The Kid was just the man for the job. Reach, pardner!
Will had made sure that the main leaders of St. James would be on the retreat at Laity Lodge. So, it was up to me to bring the goods and fulfill the plans. I had done such retreat work for twenty years, so this was not my first rodeo. In fact, it was my most comfortable venue for my stand-up routine of faith, although the panache of Laity Lodge gave me a few moments of imposter’s syndrome, but I got over it after the flowery introduction of the director. I got the distinct idea he might have been trying to reassure himself as to my bona fides as he had risked inviting The Kid from Tyler by God Texas. At least, he convinced me.
I spent the time redefining the image of faith, suggesting the normal human developmental process of growing in faith, and then making the practical connection by employing my secret weapon, stories. It was a high moment in my career, made even sweeter by my time at table with these people from Austin. I was on a high as I made my drive back to East Texas in my K-5 Blazer.
Back at Christ Church in Tyler, I got a phone call from the Senior Warden, another Episcopal word which is the name for the Chairperson of the Board (Vestry) of St. James. He said they would like for me to allow them to place my name in the “search process” to become the Rector of St. James. I want you to pause for a minute and think of all the Episcopal nomenclature you are picking up. You’re welcome.
The Seach Committee showed up the next week at my very white parish in Tyler. They did not go unnoticed in the sea of white. I was proud of my ushers and parishioners for making them feel at home, but the questions from the Christ Church members were immediate. What are these folks from Austin doing here? Being from Austin was probably more disturbing to East Texas folks than the fact that they were black.
The readings for that Sunday liturgy were right in my sweet spot, with the Gospel of Mark, my sugar stick, right in front of me. I am normally proud of my sermonizing, as I put a lot of work into research and then, imagining a connection for folks to grab onto. But this particular Sunday, I was good. I was so good, I had to take notes on my own damn self. We had lunch afterward with the four committee members, with them asking questions about my theology and vision for what church might be. We concluded the day with a good feeling on both of our parts.
Monday night, I was home for dinner and had moved into the den. Our home phone rang, back in ancient times when we had landlines. I took the call at my desk, the one I am sitting at now as I write. It was the Search Committee on a conference call from Austin, led by the Senior Warden. After some typical pleasantries, the Senior Warden told me that they had voted and unanimously decided to call me as their next Rector. We needed to make arrangements for my family to go down to Austin, to worship in a Sunday morning service to get a feel for the place, but they were excited to extend the call to me.
I thanked them, told them how honored I was, and would talk with my wife, setting up a time to visit St. James. Then, I hung up the phone.
I wept. The tears may still be lingering on my desk. It had been a long time since I cried like this, from deep down in my soul. Not simple tears of joy, but of deep connection. For a white Southside boy from Atlanta, this was monumental. It was my Nobel prize, to be engaged, to be honest, and be accepted, valued, embraced. It was quite a moment for me, definitely on the highlight reel of my life.
Looking back on it, it is even more important in terms of how I lived my life, the decisions I have made. After visiting the parish, a talk with my bishop, I made one of the most unselfish decisions of my life by saying “no” to this opportunity. It definitely disappointed Butch and his plans for our ride into history.
It will require another column to explain why I did not accept this wonderful offer to go to my favorite city on the planet, Austin, partner with one of my heroes, and serve a faithful and courageous group of committed disciples. For one who could be criticized for being opportunistic on most occasions, this was perhaps my most difficult decision, one that in all candor, I regret.
As I do the elder work of life review, this is at the top of my list of regrets. In that review work, I see the amazing consequences of small decisions on the course of one’s life, but the effect of pivotal decisions is staggering if we dare look. But the psychic relief comes with the realization that this is just the way life is. As we used to joke in Texas, “You pays your money, you take your chances.” Texans are tricky when they philosophize, sounding simple in the deep waters of Truth. Maybe that’s why I miss Texas so. There has to be SOME reason!
By the way, this is an example of how I “fill out” one of my chapters that made the list on my “Chapters of My Life”. It’s an exercise in playfully describing a moment of experience in time, remembering specific pieces of life being “seriously playful and playfully serious”.
Watching the Olympics, I marvel at the motion and movement of these fragile humans, frozen in a mid-air leap and twist. Sometimes they “stick” the landing perfectly, sometimes they fall. But they are “all in”, having worked uncountable hours, minutes, seconds to gain their skill. Then, they fling themselves into that precarious moment we know as human experience, carrying inside those childlike souls who somatically know the thrill of joy and wonder. It is a symbol of what we do every day, unnoticed, unscored by an expert panel of judges, but judged nonetheless. We watch the drama in motion of life, feeling both our awe and connection.
And we smile. And what, for God’s sake, is that tear all about?
Can you tell me?