The season of Christmas goes for twelve days, from Christmas to Epiphany. Hence, we have the Twelve Days of Christmas song that I learned in elementary school, a list of twelve things that, at the time, I enjoyed memorizing… at the time. It is now a song that goes on forever about geese a-laying, pipers piping, maids a-milking…..five golden rings and the inevitable partridge in a pear tree. You know the drill.
Twelve days, Christmastide.
But sometimes, the dates don’t mesh or align with the “stuff” of our lives.
That has been true for me this year.
First, Christmas got an early start with my daughter taking my wife to New York City for a Mother-Daughter Christmas trip. Nothing like New York at Christmas, except maybe San Antonio, but that’s just the Texas-hidden-here-in-my-heart yodling. I watched their pictures of their adventures from my warm apartment beside the Braves stadium. It was the definition of vicarious enjoyment.
They spent four days over a weekend to get their fill. I was proud of my daughter for coming up with the idea, planning it, and pulling it off well. A comedy club owner saw these two Georgia girls coming from a mile away and put them front-row CENTER, a comedian’s easiest target. All six of the comics “roasted” them lightly, leaving them with a lifetime memory.
They also went to the Neil Simon Theater to catch MJ…the Musical, telling the story of Michael Jackson, focusing on the tempestuous relationship with his father, Joe Jackson. An amazing cast, catching the various stages of the development of Michael, presented both the vocal and dance components of this talented man. This was probably the highlight of their sojourn, with 30 Rock, Hoda, Freedom Tower, and a plethora of restaurants contributing to their memories. I was so happy they got to go, spend precious time together, and make that memory. Priceless.
Upon their return, I saw a few folks for coaching sessions before jumping into the intrepid Highlander to head for the coast. The drive down to St. Simons Island is always nostalgic as I remember the sights along the way, especially my days growing up in Atlanta. But the whole Christmastide mystique engages my emotions and sentimentality at a profound way, it seems.
Taking the downtown expressway south through the heart of the city, I saw the Turner Broadcasting Center, two modern production studios joined in the middle by the classic Georgian architecture style by the Atlanta Progressive Club. It looks a little odd to me, but it was thrown together by Captain Outrageous, Ted Turner, and he was in a hurry at the time. We held one of my Junior-Senior proms at the Progressive Club, a classy venue back at that time. My date for my junior year was a senior whose family began the Savannah College of Arts and Design (SCAD), a premiere learning center for the arts in the southeast. Pam was a gifted vocalist, playing the lead of Maria in my high school’s production of Sound of Music. We had lost connection as she moved to Savannah after college to work with the campus there. Unfortunately, I learned a few years back that she had died from cancer, this beautiful, petite songbird had suffered an early death. Seeing the Progressive Club, now dwarfed by the studios always takes me back to that special night and friend. This particular time prompted a brief flow of melancholy.
Not for long. I quickly saw to my left Emory Midtown Hospital, formerly Crawford Long, where I spent time in clinical chaplain training. But more importantly, it was where I had quad bypass surgery, by my Emory classmate, Omar Lattouf. Omar is a leading innovator in cardiac/thoracic surgery, developing a procedure to do the bypass without having to put the patient (in this case, my smart-ass white boy self) on the heart/lung machine. While I was on the table for eight hours, it allowed me an almost instant recovery from this major surgical procedure. Whenever I am talking about this event. I always add that Omar was an immigrant from Jordan and is a faithful Muslim. How about that: an immigrant, and a Muslim saves the life of South of God renegade. That’ll preach.
And it does! And has.
I barely have time to give thanks to God for Omar’s calling and gifts before I catch a glimpse of my Camelot, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on historic Peachtree Street. It was there I caught a glimpse and demonstration of a congregation that convinced me that the Church could be a player in the city, and that it could be the place where persons could be transformed. St. Luke’s provided me a vision and gave me the courage to follow the promptings of the Spirit to leave the comfort of my “home team”, that I grew up with, in order to enter into the arduous discernment process in the Diocese of Atlanta. The priests and lay people were sponsoring for Mary and me as we both made this transition. The Rector, Dan Matthews, my supervisor, Palmer Temple, Gene Ruhle, Rey Parkins, and Peter Gorday gave me the gift of seeing what was possible when talented, committed, creative people are unleashed. My heart fills with gratitude every time I pass by that building on the overpass.
Side note: Later, I was able to visit with my sponsoring priest, Dan Matthews, and thank him specifically for the gift. At the time, he had gone from St. Luke’s to Trinity-Wall St. in New York and was mixing it up with the power brokers in the Big Apple. He was there at 9/11 when the Towers came down, blinded by the billowing dust. As I said, I thanked him, but added a bit of a rejoinder. I told him that he had “skewed me”. He looked puzzled. I explained that he “skewed me” by leading me to believe that all Episcopal parishes were progressive and engaged in the social gospel. Not true. Ask me how I know this. And his staff, brilliant, energetic risk-takers did not give me an accurate view of the priests in the Church. My ever-present dialectic comes to visit me again as I was both blessed and cursed to have this halcyon experience early in my Episcopal life. Dan laughed at my comment but agreed with my assessment, I was “skewed”. Oh, happy curse.
Next, coming into the Grady curve, we cross over Sweet Auburn Avenue, directly by Ebenezer Church, where Daddy King and Martin pastored, now pastored by our U.S. Senator, Raphael Warnock. Sweet Auburn is the hub where civil rights leaders met, strategized, and acted. The MLK Center is a pregnant reminder of the commitment needed for justice, along with the cost that goes with it. Dr. King’s grave is a regular stop for me “get my mind “right”, as Boss told Cool Hand Luke. A sculpture on the horizon pictures Martin with his arm, raised and outstretched, in a typical prophetic pose, as it should be.
To the right just beyond Auburn is a building with a wall mural of my hero, John Lewis. It has a HUGE painting of the man in full, with HERO painted at the top. He is my closest link to the apostolic order of freedom fighters in those early civil rights days, along with Andy and Joe. For a priest in an institutional church, it is important to be reminded of the hard work and risk of proclaiming a realm of God that is breaking in, even now, over our heads. John called it “making good trouble” and I am trying to uphold his legacy. Advent and John the Baptizer put me in the prophetic mindset. John’s defiant face was a proper send off for me to head back south for Christmas, getting ready for Christmas Day.
I would pass by the Stadium on the downtown connector where the track and field events took place during the Olympics, an epic event making Atlanta truly an international city, not just a Chamber of Commerce hype. I would pass by the Hartsfield-Jackson airport with a stream of jets heading to and from who knows where. There’s the Porsche test track where wannabes, like me, are playing like kids with these amazing vehicles and the laws of physics. There is the wonderful throwback of the Atlanta Farners’ Market where my granddad would take me to pick out our watermelons for the church gatherings. So many scenes in my memory flood my fields. It was a good way to take leave of my urban perch for the pastoral scene of my island.
My route takes me down through Macon, veering east on I-16, down through Dublin and Metter, on to Savannah, where one exits on to I-95 which could take you all the way down to Florida, should you so desire. My wife, who is driving, goes the interstate the whole way. Me, I’m looking for side trips, coastal towns. I regularly hop off on Ga. 17 somewhere along the way so that I can see what’s shaking in Eulonia, Sapelo, and my favorite, Darien. Regardless as to how you get there, St. Simons Island is our destination. Did I mention that she was driving?
My son came into town from Nashville, bringing Scout, his dog, a Covid adoption dog who is an Australian Shepherd, one of the sweetest dogs I have known. To live with a musician, I guess you have to be natively of a sweet disposition, or get that way as soon as possible. Thomas also brought along Boudreaux, the dog of his friend, a dead-ringer for the mastiff Good Dog Carl. To say that Boudreaux commands the space with his size is quite the understatement. However, Bou was so gentle and kind as he moved among us. I posted his winsome photo on Facebook which prompted several people to opine that he looked like my kind of dog. I love me some Boudreaux, and some Scout, and my resident island dog, Reagan. All adopted granddogs. A houseful of dogs at Christmas is my idea of a good Christmas, even if it was not at a duck camp.
Christmas Eve found me getting sick in the morning, with a terrible cough from deep within my chest. I would find out on Boxing Day, Monday, that it was flu. No fun. This is the first year in a long time that I have gotten the flu vaccine shot. In any case, I was very sick Christmas Day, saw a PA on Monday, getting on symptomatic meds, and just riding this sucker out. I have missed the family gatherings to point, my son acusing me of going Buehler on the group.
It’s been a very different Christmas for me this year. In all my years of doing multiple Christmas Eve services, followed by Christmas Day service, I was never sick. It feels odd, even intrusive, but I am trying to use it to take my own counsel: to Stop, Pause, and Reflect. Nothing like Mother Nature getting your close attention.
I am hoping to get to enjoy the season in the time remaining in Christmastide. I still have nine days until the Epiphany, Jan. 6th. I’m going to give it my best shot. I hope that you survived the Artic blast, the travel woes of Southwest skies, and the “I can’t believe my relative said that!” experience at Christmas dinner. Try to enjoy this magic time when, in the deepest darkness of midwinter, a light breaks through to bring you hope, to warm your heart, to set your face for the coming year.
Christmas blessings, y’all, from my island off the coast of Georgia. Great love has been given to us, and now, our task is “to Christ it” in our time, loving our neighbors with lavish abandon. Let that be an intention as we lean into this fresh year.