Taking Care of Your Self

This weekend, I became acutely aware of the effects and drain of this pandemic on our community. I have been been in contact with many healthcare workers who have been on the front lines of the work of saving lives in emergency rooms and intensive care units. But sometimes, the sustained intensity of those moments blur the line of pain that we can see in the people around us.

My wake up call happened over the weekend. A young priest colleague in a town in Georgia took her life. By young, she was my daughter’s age on that dark night. I am not certain as to the details of what led to that decision, but my hunch is that the stress of living in this peculiar time is getting to us, and it got to her. I grieve for the pain that she must have been experiencing in that moment in which she could see no way through.

I listen weekly to the clergy I coach express their emotions around the difficulty in leading during a time for which they were not prepared. Having to become a producer of a broadcast, to preach without a congregation in front of you, to not have the human interaction that is the lifeblood of a congregation……all of this combines to make for a time of stress for clergy. They are attempting to give care to their parishioners, who have their own worries about their loved ones, their jobs, their particular disrupted lives.

We’ve been at this for over half a year, with the end not in sight. The normal uptick that occurs as we approach Fall is not there. The typical September start up and enthusiasm is a bit subdued, at best, dude. It’s weighing heavy on everyone, clergy and other caregivers, especially if they don’t tend to their own self-care. Any one of us can get into some serious trouble.

In my work with healthcare professionals, I predicted some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the severe work hours, the intensity, and the sheer number of deaths. That’s proving to be true, as well as a rise in domestic violence and abuse of substances. Even docs and nurses who served in war zones have told me that this is different, and more taxing. Not only are you dealing with death, but your own susceptibility of contracting the virus, added to the fear of infecting your family. I had two emergency room docs in New York City, badass combat docs, breakdown into tears in the middle of the worst of it. Refrigerated trucks parked in the adjacent lot that held the deceased bodies were a constant reminder of the devastation at hand. Hospitals are needing to take care of the caregivers in a responsive and creative way.

This is true for all caregivers. Priests, ministers, teachers, social workers, all types of people who are called to pour out themselves for others must be sure to “fill up” and not allow themselves to dry up.

This is, in fact, true for all people. We must take the time and energy to invest in our self care. My grandfather who was a cop, who did his work with a servant’s attitude, back before there was such an innovation called “community policing”, used to tell me a simple line of truth: “You can’t give what you ain’t got.” It rather homey, but true nonetheless. You are only able to give when you have been filled up by your own self care.

I spend a lot of my time teaching Emotional Intelligence, that is, the ability of a human being to be both self-aware of what’s going on inside of oneself as well as be empathetic with what’s going on inside of the people around. This takes a lot of energy, not only with being attentive to what emotions are being stirred up inside of oneself, but taking the time to tune into what emotions are perking in the other. Are they hurt? Are they angry? Do they need some attention, or do they want to be left alone? Anyone whose job demands that they take care of other people knows what this feels like. We call it empathy, that is, feeling WITH another human being in the messiness of life. It requires a great deal of energy and patience. Some of us come by it naturally (my mother schooled me), but the good news is that we can learn to become more tuned in, more sensitive as we tend to the other.

But along with the teaching of self awareness and empathy of Emotional Intelligence. we have to train people to take care of themselves: self care. Without it, we can burn out, we can experience “compassion fatigue” which can slowly invade our mind and turn our view of the world dark.

So, how do you tend to self care? One is by taking some time off, where you are filling yourself up, rather than spending your inner resources on others. For me, it used to be sailing on Thursday, single-handing my boat or taking a friend along. Either way, it was a renovating experience of life that fed my soul. It’s different for every person. It can be painting with watercolor or oils, reading classic books or trash, exercise or birding. It can be playing golf for those of us dogged victims condemned to an inexorable fate. Whatever. It’s what the ancients called Sabbath time, or as we make it more colloquial, “down time”. How do you take care of yourself?

Another way is by connecting with others. For me, when I was under pressure, some sort of a therapeutic relationship was helpful. Sometimes that was with a particular shrink, Freudian or Jungian, but human. Sometimes, I enjoyed the care and challenge of a group of colleagues, or just a group of fellow travelers. And sometime, it was my golf buddies who I could pal around with, cut up with. One of my favorites was a Texan, who had the perfect drawl. But if I was ever getting down, feeling sorry for myself, he would pipe in with the Texas folk wisdom that I love: “Oh David, don’t be so hard on yourself….that’s what we are here for!” That’s a sense of humor that keeps you grounded.

Frankly, listening to the people I coach, made up of leaders, clergy, and caregivers, I am noticing a low-grade depression. It’s different than I have experienced in the past. It feels a bit more like exhaustion, of being tired of the new way things are. The hoped for “quick end” is not in sight. There’s a little lack of the normal spirit I sense in my folks, maybe due to being worn down over the last half year.

I know what I am going to do this week in our coaching sessions. I am going to talk about it.

Our tendency is to not mention this kind of thing and just focus on the work we have to do, do some creative playful imagining, to make some action plans, and then get on with it. But not this week.

I am going to pause, take the temperature of the water we are sitting in to see if the heat is rising ever so imperceptibly, so that we might miss it. I’m going to take my time to see where people are, rather than just jump right in, which I can easily do in my typical push. We need to check on each other in this strange time of Covid, this election time of division, this tense time of race. We need to care for one another, and….to take care of our self.

How are you taking care of your self?

If you are feeling troubled, a bit listless, or sad, you might reach out to a friend by phone. Not as good as in person, but I’ve been surprised at how good a phone call can feel.

Or, reach out to a professional, someone who knows how to help you through the tough times, those times that are a part of being human.

If you are hurting, and worried about hurting yourself, get your sweet self to the local Emergency Room. Don’t let the rumination on bad times, tough times fool you into thinking there’s no way out of this predicament. There is. Take that step toward recovery. We’ve all been there in that dark night. Make your move toward healing.

Finally, if you don’t know where to turn, you can call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There are people there trained to get you the help you need. There are people who care about your well-being.

Check it out: how are you doing with your self care? What do you need to be doing to take care of your self in this crazy time? There are people ready to help. But, as I learned once again this weekend, it’s your move. Take care of your self out there.

Who Comes to Mind?

I was watching the rebroadcast of a PBS documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.

I remember Mr. Rogers, though it came a bit before my time. It hit my brother at just about the right season in his development so I do remember catching glimpses of it, “hey neighbor!!”, and probably making fun of it. Trips to the Magic Kingdom had a different connotation to me at that time. I remember Eddie Murphy’s famous take off of Mr. Rogers going to the “hood” which was hilarious, “thank you, boys and girls”. I recall being puzzled by the “land of make believe” and the rather simple characters that did not catch my attention. When I saw Fred Rogers slip into his comfortable sweater and shoes, it was a sign for me to head to my own room and listen to Santana, the Stones, or the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper was my King Friday.

Like most PBS specials, this was so well produced, dredging up footage from the early days of rather primitive production, but moving into deeper waters as to the motivation behind the man. Fred had intended to go to seminary but got short-stopped into the idea of producing a television show that was pitched toward young children.

The documentary looks at his growing up in a privileged background, but being susceptible to the taunts of his peers, as they referred to him as Fat Freddie. The piece does not deal with how he transformed into a more confident Fred, but does make a curious point that he slimmed down to a weight of 143, which he meticulously guarded throughout his life by swimming daily at the Athletic Club. Delving into numerological prompts. it is disclosed that the number represented the number of letters in the three most important words to Mr. Rogers: I Love You. Seemingly, his earlier taunting caused him to be particularly sensitive to issues of esteem in young children. Mr. Rogers was known specifically for offering the reassurance that “you’re special” to children that tuned into his daily show.

Examining the evolution of the show’s format as the years went by is fascinating. The practicality of funding is addressed as Fred Rogers spoke to Congress about his mission of providing self esteem to children who are listening. His balanced, yet passionate rationale for his show proved convincing, leading a previously skeptical Congressman to exclaim that Mr. Rogers’s testimony won the show five million dollars of funding. Oh, for the days when Congressional funding was more based in caring for our children and their development instead of showboating and blocking partisan maneuvering.

Having played in the waters of Piaget and the education of children, I was fascinated by the way Rogers took the perspective of the child and pitched his material to meet their specific cognitive capability and needs. His empathy for the unique position and vulnerability of a child is amazing as many educators forget that perspective as they deliver information. You sensed, as he interacted with all different types of children, that he really cared. It’s hard to fake that, as politicians know.

Eventually, he began to take on topics that less courageous folks would avoid. He shared a wading pool with the policeman who was black, to experientially address the issue of integration, an issue that was real to me as a child swimming at the Oakland City pool in Atlanta. I remember parents taking their children out of the pool in a hot hurry when blacks “invaded” the community pool. My grandfather, a cop, kept me in, without so much as a word. That is, until I asked him, which he explained in simple terms of us all being God’s children. Made sense then. Makes sense now.

Mr. Rogers plucked a dead fish from the aquarium, examining it and observing that it was not moving, becoming an opportunity to discuss death. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, he showed pictures of people crying, not hiding reality from these young children. He took the time and space to talk about sadness, of how it feels when bad things happen. When 9/11 occurred, PBS smartly trotted out Mr. Rogers to talk about how you deal with such terrible things.

I was struck by one piece of advice that he offered at times when one was scared. He encouraged children to look to the one’s who are providing help. Go there. Those people will see you through this bad time. It’s advice I have thought a lot about lately.

The documentary goes on to the conclusion of Mr. Rogers production and his struggle with aging and death. His wife tells touchingly of his asking her if he will be a sheep. This is an explicit reference to the scene in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, of The Final Judgment, where God separates the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous. “Will I be a sheep?” he queries, just as a little child might. And his wife responds that if she knew anyone who was a sheep, it would be him. It is a powerful, pure moment as the question of worth and esteem emerges for a final time for Freddie, and hopefully got answered.

The show is a tour de force, displaying the care and the careful way Fred Rogers sought to engage the children in our country. It concludes as the various players in the program are asked to bring to mind the one person who made them feel that they were of worth, or as I would frame it, one person who blessed you with the knowledge that you were loved.

The camera goes to most of the faces that had been talking throughout the documentary. It frames and focuses, pauses, and holds for silence. You can visually see the cogs and wheels turning in their cerebrum, searching for images of people who have conveyed that holy message of worth, of value, and esteem. You can imagine that, for many of them, it was Fred who came to mind. I wondered as the camera focused on Fred’s two sons, and who came to mind for them. For each person who was asked, a small knowing smile, and look of peace emerged as they remembered a sacred moment in time when that blessing was conferred.

Isn’t that the way it is? We are graced by encounters with people who bless us with conferring an affirmation of our down, deep goodness that can not be taken away. If we are fortunate, it may be our parents, but that’s messy territory that gets a bit confusing. Sometimes, it may be a teacher who saw something special in us and tried to nurture it. It might be someone from our particular neighborhood or community that decides to invest the time in getting to know us, and then gives us that sense of worth, of value. However it comes, it is blessing. It is sacred. It is gift.

Who was that person for you? Stop. Right now. Pause. Catch in your mind’s eye the person who gave you that gift, that existential blessing. savor that moment, that exquisite feeling. Who comes to mind that makes you smile?

Follow the Leader

For forty years, my Sunday mornings were spent at the church house. Teaching, preaching, celebrating, presiding, praying, greeting, dodging, and connecting.

Little did I know of the holy space and time called CBS Sunday Morning. It is such a fine show, giving the Lord God a run for the money on Sunday morning. If God was as “small” as some of our leaders, God would be unnerved by losing the Arbitron viewing ratings…..it is not a good thing to fall into the hands of a jealous God, I am told.

Obviously, God did not smite the hosts of this show. Charles Kuralt, Charles Osgood, and now Jane Pauley anchor the show that presents substantive pieces of journalism over the course of an hour and a half. I confess that, upon finding the freedom of schedule, it became my Sunday morning time of collecting my self at that pause between weeks. It was with a sense of religious commitment that I would turn my Smart TV on each Sunday at the divinely appointed hour.

That is, until the blessing/curse of the pandemic. I was curious as to how church might be done in such a time where social contact was not allowed. Through Zoom and Facebook, I was lured back into the fold of Sunday morning church, forsaking CBS for CCF, Christ Church Frederica.

I marvel at the creativity of Tom Purdy, the rector of the Episcopal parish on St. Simons Island, my new home. I think he digs the medium and secretly longs to be a television producer. I have been surprised by the effectiveness of the presentation, of how I feel connected with the congregation without the usual physicality of gathering in a specific place and time. As a sacramental person, I long for the connection through the blessed bread and wine, but this will do for the moment. I am a sucker for creativity.

Strangely, I now find myself “booked” every Sunday morning, watching Christ Church at 9:15, New Life Cathedral (a black Pentecostal church in Brooklyn NYC at 10, or St. Mark’s, Brunswick, and Holy Nativity Episcopal, also on the island, Simons not Long, at the traditional 11 o’clock hour. I am not missing Jane and crew, nor Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. And heavens to Betsy, whatever the hell that means, I find myself looking forward to it. What’s wrong with this picture?

This past Sunday, I was watching intently as the Celebrant was offering the Eucharistic Prayer, an ancient action from the days of gathering with the early church, under the persecution of Rome, not just some damn virus. I focused on the priest’s manual acts, the precise motions and actions of the hands of a sacramental actor, as he said these prayers. Priests, particularly those of us from a certain breed, spend hours studying the choreography of this sacred act. After reciting the words of Jesus at the Last Supper (what we South of God folks call it), the celebrant typically elevates the bread and the wine, and holds it midair for an eternal moment. This week something holy happened for me in cyberspace.

As the Celebrant lifted the bread, my memory sent me back in time to my days at the Cathedral in Atlanta. I remembered standing to the side of my bishop, Judson Child, as he celebrated the Eucharist. At times, it was at the High Altar, and on other occasions, it was in the intimacy of the chapel. Each time, Jud would elevate the bread, or the chalice, and would quietly say this odd phrase: Dominus Meus, Deus Meus. It was uttered with a reverence that took my breath away. Luckily after four years of Latin in high school from Ms. Speer, I knew what he was saying, and knew he was not speaking in tongues. “My Lord, My God”.

Those of you familiar with Scripture will recognize these words coming from Thomas. It was after Thomas showed up late for Easter. The women at the tomb, the disciples gathered…. all experienced the Risen Christ on that pivotal third day. The first day, they witnessed Jesus suffer and die, executed as a criminal. The second day, they waited, not knowing, anxious as to what was next. And then, on the third day, they experienced the Risen Christ.

But not Thomas. For some reason, he was not there in the gathering room with the others. He comes in late, like us. We too are late to the party.

Thomas is tellingly disturbed by missing the action, and he in frustration blurts out that unless he can see and touch Jesus himself, he would not believe. And here, Thomas stands in for us….at least for me.

I have a deep affection for Thomas, I confess, as he is me. He embodies the need to experience the Christ for himself, not just hear about it in third person telling. He’s not a doubter, Doubting Thomas. He’s just late…..like I said, like us. Thomas the Tardy.

Thomas was my touch point when I was wrestling with what to do with this Jesus. I could easily sign on with his ethical teachings, radical as they are about loving one’s enemy. I enjoyed his teaching parables….I’m South of God, so I love a story. But this Resurrection thing…..that flies in the face of my scientific mindset and training. Like Thomas, I needed to experience it for myself, just not hear a report. Second hand will not do. I don’t just want you to tell me about the movie. I want to see it my own damn self.

Pause: I named my first-born Thomas. It was over-determined as my spiritual director, Tom Francis, my therapist, Tom Malone, and my primary source of learning, Thomas Merton, all led me to a love for the name. My brother-in-law, Tommy, thinks my son was named for him, so let’s keep this among ourselves. But more importantly to all of this, Thomas of Bible fame is my person in the story that I identify with. Back to the action.

When Jesus shows up again, to allow Thomas to experience the Risen Christ, his faithful exclamation explodes as he touches the very wounds: My Lord, my God! Dominus Meus, Deus Meus!

My own experience of the Risen Christ has occurred when I see, feel, even touch the connection with Christ that death can not erase. For me, that experiential moment came and comes when I gather with other persons around a table that we set in common. There the Spirit creates a transcendent and imminent connection that re-minds me of the Christ that is in me, and the Christ that is in my sister and brother, even in my enemy. My ordaining bishop, Judson, who was from the strange land of Jersey, experienced that connection and would proclaim with Thomas: My Lord, My God, when he celebrated the holy mysteries of the Eucharist. As I watched him, and marveled at his devotion, his commitment, his joy, I consciously and unconsciously decided to follow him. My own practice of being a priest, of being a person took note of his way of leaning into life.

So in this odd time of corona, watching a Zoom broadcast, I strangely touched the Christ again.

This peculiar moment of watching another priest, in another place, at another time put me in touch with this person, Judson, who was formative in my person. And in that moment, I was grateful to have such a leader to follow.

This begs the question: who are you following? From whom do you get your cues as to how to live your life? Is there someone presently who you look to? Are there voices from the past that whisper, or yell, in your ear as to what is important, what you need to pay attention to?

I have a host of those figures. My mentor, Marney, called them your “balcony” people. I prefer that term to Freud’s super ego. It’s the people who stand on the balcony of our lives and call to us to live out our best, to aspire to the highest goals, to live a life that is worthy. Who are your “balcony people”?

Marney also observed that we have “cellar people”, people who call up from the basement, reminding us of our failures, our shortcomings, cautioning us to not stretch, trading in that toxic commodity known as fear. These dark figures employ fear for the future, and shame from the past. Who are these “cellar folk” in your life?

The art of being a person seems to be orchestrating those various voices and attending to those who call you to your best self, while quieting those voices that want to pull you down.

For me, my daily rhythm of morning and evening prayer and meditation focuses my attention on the aspirational sounds of faithful living. And on Sunday, my Sabbath time, I am able to touch the reality that calls me to my best self, the Christ in me, even if only through a cyber prompt. I prefer the real thing, in the messiness and inconvenience of gathering with other persons. But even in this odd time of pandemic, of Zoom and Facebook, the reality breaks through on occasion, if I am present and paying attention.

And I gasp, Dominus meus, Deus Meus, following my leader as I lean into the future.

A Horse They Call Music

I have always been a sucker for a song. One gets in my head, and it rules my day.

My friend, Andy, calls them ear worms, songs that sneak in and won’t let you go.

I am infested. My hippocampus is chocked full of bubble gum songs of the 60s, protest anthems, rock and blues. My piano friend, Tom Greenbaum snuck in some Sinatra and show tunes, and Oscar Peterson claims a top spot on my hit list. And horn bands, Chicago and Tower of Power provide a music bed to my living of these days. My mother accused me of needing a theme song for the background of my life. She was right.

But there are some special songs, logged in with some association with signature times, halcyon days. The Allman Brothers transport me back to high school days, what the Boss called Glory Days. It feels mystical, magical as it happens to me. I am not in control. A song from Idlewild South comes on and it takes control of my soul. Later, it would be Eat A Peach, but in those early days, it was Idlewild that danced in my soul.

From the upbeat rhythm of Revival, to the sliding moves of Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’, and the plaintive plea of Midnight Rider, the haunting melody of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, and the slinking tribute to the blues in Hoochie Coochie Man, this album formed the primal beat to my adolescent birth of a soul.

Formation takes time. I listened to that album over and over in the sanctum of my high school bedroom in the basement of my East Point suburban home. But more memorable, it was the constant presence in the red Datsun of my friend, Pat Whaley, as we took the half hour drive to Clayton Junior College the senior year of high school.

Pat, Tommy Elder, and I were enrolled in a Criminal Justice course, thanks to the innovative thinking of my amazing teacher, Mrs. Melvin. Amazing Melvin, breaking the rules to sponsor the learning and curiosity of her students. Oh, for a hundred of her breed. She negotiated  with Clayton Junior, Fulton County, and our local administration to get us a “pass” so that we could get this opportunity to learn, to taste the excitement of moving out into to the world a few months before we graduated from our parochial cocoon. Think Jack Black and the School of Rock gone legal. She had sponsored the moot court trials, took us to the My-Lai hearings at Ft. Mac (now Tyler Perry’s studio), and sprung me to go to see F. Lee Bailey try a civil rights case in Clayton County. Amazing Melvin.

Riding in Pat’s car, freshly equipped with an 8 track player in his glove compartment, we listened to a constant stream of the Allman Brothers tunes as we made our escape from the concrete prison of high school to the freedom of a junior college. It was our ticket, our chance, and we knew it and took it, with a smile, wind in our hair, Wayfarers on.

Pat, Tommy, and I talked about our dreams, about things that are important to teenagers, to adolescent boys with a fresh injection of hormones, experimenting in our exercise of freedom, longing to break out of our constraints. I don’t recall the specifics, just the spirit of expectation, of dare, of dreams, of “miles to go before we sleep”, our high school, Briarwood’s Frostian motto.

I do remember going into the college classroom, mingling with the law enforcement recruits who were required to take this class on legal matters. This was in the era of Viet Nam so there seemed to be some tension in the room, with those interested in how we enforce the law, and  those of us enamored with this novel view of civil rights. Plus, we cast a bit of a hippie dippy persona as opposed to the crew-cut dudes in the class. I am certain they were thrilled to have three smart ass high school seniors invade their kingdom.

But the thing was, one day, before class, we three started a conversation between us, waiting for class to begin. Pat started it, I believe, talking about an upcoming concert. Suddenly, Tommy, Pat, and I were talking Allman Brothers ALL the time. The police trainees overheard us and joined in. We were talking about the Brothers and their unique style, little did we know at the time, derived from the blues. We talked of seeing them play at Piedmont Park on the steps….for free. And for the excitement of the evolution of what was coming to be known as Southern rock. Music was the horse we rode across the walls that divided us. It was something. We talked about it as we drove back to the southside, in Pat’s red Datsun, with the Allman Brothers playing on the 8-track. Music connected the disparate across the divide. I think that was the first time I consciously recognized is power that music has.

I heard a story of jazz legend, Dave Brubeck, playing a show in Atlanta, that was segregated by race, employing a purple, velvet rope down the middle of the crowd……blacks separated from whites. But when the music started, the spirit of the groove provided the energy for that rope to drop, as the divide, artificially constructed, came down. The fear that drove such separation vanished in the night as the horse they called music once again jumped the barrier.

During my seminary and doctoral work, my roommate was my friend, Eddie Owen. Eddie had been a phenomenal all-around athlete as a kid growing up in Stockbridge. He wound up playing tennis for Georgia State, later becoming a teaching pro out in Stone Mountain. Post divorce, Eddie and I lived together in a large house with a bunch of broken down Baptist ministers, the fabled Menagerie Farm, where Lightfoot and Buffett played continuously, beer flowed, and depression tried to rule. Eddie and I escaped the Farm, moving to an apartment near my work at Emory.

Everyone knew Eddie could throw a football, and had a wicked backhand, but few were aware that he had a gift of a gorgeous tenor voice. I convinced him to try out for a part in a production I did of Godspell, and it was magic. It grabbed his soul, this live music thing, He started a small operation in Decatur during its amazing renewal, morphing into Eddie’s Attic, that became THE acoustic room in the Atlanta music scene. He was a believer, and a promoter of the power of live music, and my sense is, Eddie rode that horse called music, breaking down social barriers, making Decatur the special piece of Atlanta that it is. Now days, Eddie rides the horse out in Duluth at his new venue called the Foundry, where he pursues the mysterious power of live music.

In the middle of this pandemic, in the racially charged present, and the hype of political conventions and the wake of their talking points, I have gone to my private pasture to catch my favorite horse, and ride. I grab some Hiatt, some Lovett, a little Raitt, even some B. B.. And off I ride, looking for the magic, the freedom, the hope.

In the middle of all the political posturing by both parties, I have been thinking about things that unite us, rather than separate us. Surely, our hope for lives of meaning, of living in freedom, and pursuing our passions are common dimensions of our humanity that we share. Those who trade in fear and distrust will do their work to separate us, perhaps not with velvet ropes, but with strains of distrust, with screeches of fear.

I find myself wishing for that old horse of music that I have loved through my years, a horse that can jump barriers, ropes, class, even walls. I enter this time in our country’s common life with a song in my heart, and as the song says, a tear in my eye. That’s a song that St. Willie sings, the Red Headed Stranger, and it puts a catch in my throat and a smile on my face. I know we are united, in spite of all that would divide. I have bet my life on it.

I love the Allman Brothers, but clearly, I have some Texas hidden here in my heart. What horse are you riding these days, partner? My old saddle pals, Pat and Tommy, are gone, but memories linger, and the Midnight Rider rides on.

A Well-Worn Bible

In August of 1976, I left Atlanta to go to Louisville, Kentucky.

I was following the advice of developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, to take a “pause”.

I had graduated from college in the Spring, facing the reality that I did not know what I wanted to do with my one, wild and precious life, thanks Mary Oliver, who had not written that line at that point.

Emory College had done a hell of a job giving me a liberal arts education. I had been able to experience the breadth of human knowledge, cavorting with Shakespeare, physics, history of art, religion, political science, history, and economics. I had started school with the inclination toward medicine, psychiatry in particular. I had worked for a former Congressman, who turned my attention to law or politics. And a summer working with youth brought the suggestion from some that I consider the ministry.

Doctor, lawyer, tribal chief?

The Congressman, Jim Mackay, suggested that I spend this “gap” year working in the Carter campaign. He had introduced me to Governor Carter while sailing up on Lanier. Mackay said it would be great experience, but I, in my 20 year old wisdom, said that Carter was going nowhere fast. Why waste the year? The first of many bad decisions.

Having finished classes at the end of Fall, I worked as a bouncer at a club in Sandy Springs, my first of two times trying to keep order in that neck of the woods. The other would be when I was the Rector of Holy Innocents……pretty much the same job.

In Spring, I begged my way into the Clinical Pastoral Education program at Georgia Baptist Hospital. Here I would be serving as a chaplain on a neurological/orthopedic floor to folks who were in a life and death struggle, just the ticket for a 20 year old, baby-faced kid. I’m sure they were thrilled to see me walk in the room to comfort them in their hour of need.

My supervisor was rightly concerned at my presence. But his main concern was my interaction with the student nurses. As I interviewed for this position, he queried, pointing out his window toward the hospital, “Galloway, what is that?” Having just finished college, I was on my game and quickly responded, “That’s a hospital, sir.”

“Hell no. I’m talking about the building next to it. It’s a nursing school!” I was quiet, having learned an important lesson.

“Do you know what is in a nursing school?” he asked, and I retorted, “Student nurses?”

“Right. And do you know what I am going to do if I catch you messing around with those student nurses?” Again, a quick learner, I was silent.

“I am going to kick your ass!” I nodded.

“I am going to kick your ass hard!” He had given me the ground rules, something that I should have learned is critical, particularly in the life of institutions.

And so I was accepted into the program, I am sure, in an effort to up the revenue in the chaplaincy department. I was excited because it would give me a chance to see the inside operations of the hospital and interact with a few psychiatrists that provided training.

By the way, on my first day on the floor on 5 East, I saw a nurse that looked just like my favorite Charlie’s Angel, Kate Jackson, and I fell hard. I asked her out, and we began to date intensively…..I’m cleaning it up for the youngsters and my wife. The nurse and I became the talk of the hospital, which landed me in the dreaded supervisor’s office.

“Galloway, what did I tell you?” I quietly responded, “You told me not to mess with those student nurses.”

“And I hear you are dating one of them, causing quite a stir.”

“Sir, she is a floor nurse, and registered nurse, an RN. Not a student nurse!”

“Galloway, you damn literalist!” I later found out that he was involved in the psychological enterprise known as projection.

I finished up my clinical quarter before leaving for my time in Louisville. I planned to work in the psychiatric unit at Norton Children’s Hospital, while taking a few classes at the Southern Baptist seminary for grins. It would be a great year of assessing what I wanted to do with my life.

When I got to the seminary, I found that I needed a proper Bible, one that was one of the accepted translations. I had been reading out of an old Bible in King James, and a paraphrase version, the Living Bible which made it easy to read and understand in modern English. It had a green cover, tellingly soft. The New Testament scholars there referred to it lovingly as the Green Abortion, because of its loose translation of the original Hebrew and Greek.

The “proper” Bible was the Oxford Annotated Bible, although the more literalist version preferred was the New American Standard. You could tell a lot about the person by the Bible they were packing.

I made my way to the bookstore to purchase my “sword”, a Baptist term for God’s Word, aka Bible. This year, the color of the cover was black, which was appropriate to my mood. It was not just any ole black. It was shiny black, glowing like neon. As I would walk across campus, my Bible would glow, announcing to everyone: This Bible is brand spanking new. The Holder of this Bible has not studied it, has not marked, learned, or inwardly digested the Word of God. He clearly does not care. He probably dated student nurses, or nurses, at Georgia Baptist. Warning! A heathen is among you. Warning!

Now, everyone else had well worn Bibles, tattered, marked with highlighters, notes scribbled in holy tones. You could tell the players by the look of the Book!

I am embarrassed to admit that I succumbed to the peer pressure and began to rub, vigorously rub the cover of my new Oxford Bible on the side of my desk late at night. Other students probably have other sins to confess to about their nightly activity, but my secret sin was Bible-rubbing.

It took me nearly two weeks to knock the sheen off that bad boy, but I finally had me a Bible I could be proud of, that made people take notice at my obvious holiness.

I tell you this with a comic slant as I am reflecting on my profound attachment to the Bible here in these latter days. It is not about showing speed in looking up particular verses. It is not about quoting passages that confirm my bias. It is not even succumbing to the temptation of showing off my expertise in the original biblical language of Hebrew and Greek, though I will tell you of the three Greek words for love a the drop of a miter.

It is now more about the overall narrative of the Bible, about our common life that is on full display within the pages. It is about the drama of human existence that oozes from these pages, dusty or not, telling an old, old story of life. Within these pages, I find guidance as to what this life is all about. I witness the struggles of people in the past and gain insights into how to negotiate my own walk. And for me, I am afforded that stories and parables of Jesus, who tip the hand of God in terms of what was intended in Creation.

The good news for me is my Bible is now well-worn, not by artificial rubbing on the formica top of my desk, but by the consistent tending to its deep message of hope. The pattern I identified in last week’s article, the Paschal paradigm, of endings, transition, and new beginnings, is found throughout the text as a way of redemption, a way of moving through the changes in life.

I was fortunate to get the advice of a saint, Howard Thurman, who counseled me to breathe the Bible, not just read it. Drawing on the ancient tradition of lectio divina, he suggested that I “abide” in the words of Scripture, starting me off with Psalm 139, giving me a somatic connection to the Spirit of God in my very being. Over the course of a year, that Psalm spoke into my brokenness and gave me a word of hope that is carried deep in my heart to this day. I chose it to be read at my ordination as it re-minded me of my origin. And, if I have anything to do with it, it will be read as I return to the Earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The Bible has become worn for me through prayer, not beating people over the head with it, nor trying to use it as a sales gimmick. I am surprised, happily so, that it is even more prominent in my daily life than in the years I was so busy being holy, smart, and productive. It is a light unto my path, especially in darkness.

How is the Bible for you? Do you fear it? Do you ignore it? Do you use it for your own devices to prove that you are right or more holy? Or is it your companion? Or is it, like Dr. Thurman advised me, a part of your being, the way you move and breathe?

A Pattern to Count On

When life feels like it’s exploding out or imploding in, what does one do?

An old colleague of mine got in touch with me during one of those times in his life recently. He needed to tell me about what was currently disturbing his comfortable reality. It happened to be the disruption of a job, but it could have been one of health, or of a marriage. Disruption comes in various forms, but it breaks apart our sense of control, or more accurately, our illusion of control. It calls the question, and announces that the way things have been are not going to see us through to the morrow.

You know how that feels, right?

Early on in life, it can be the break-up in a relationship that you thought was “true love”. Think again.

It can come in the disruption of a life plan that you thought would be your path into the sunset.

It can be the end of a marriage, where the relational ties that had been frayed, are unraveling for good.

A job loss can prompt a career change and initiate a frantic search.

Or it may come with a gentle but nagging sense of unease with the way things are.

And, thankfully, it can emerge with a persistent longing for a freedom from one’s self-imposed corral. An invitation to run free.

Disruption comes in many forms, sometimes like a bolt of lightening, sometimes as a slow, approaching reality on our horizon, and sometimes from behind, unexpected.

If you have lived a bit of this thing called life, you know the reality of which I am speaking.

In speaking with my friend who was telling me of his disruption, I was reminded of a pattern that I wrote about in my doctoral work many moons ago. It’s a pattern that I think is woven into reality. For those of you who pull back from attribution such patterns to a divine being, you can think of it as a natural process, creative, if you will, that is at work in the nature we share.

For those of us who sense a spiritual reality behind that nature, we can claim that the process has been embedded by our Creator. And those who might claim Jesus as embodying that process in his very incarnated being, we would point to his story as a poignant and dramatic demonstration of a Christ “way” of being that we all share, knowingly or not.

I had grown up in a Christian home in the South, South of God, obviously. I knew all the stories, the Bible ones as well as the local gossip, including who did what and who’s doing who. But the important pattern of which I want to speak avoided me, or I avoided it, as I was growing up. Church, for me, had been another pool of socialization, from Sunday School in gender assigned classes, to youth choir rehearsal mixers, to secret parties held at clueless parents’ homes. Another place to learn or to be socialized.

It wasn’t until I was in my doctoral work that I finally “got” the pattern, or it got me. Confessionally, it had been there all along. I just missed it. Had my mind on other things. But it was through an anthropologist that I finally got it, it clicked.

I’m talking about the book by William Bridges, Transitions. Bridges had lost his job and began to study his own process of going through the change imposed on him. As a phenomenologist, he used van Gennep’s esoteric study of initiation rites in various tribes of folks. As he reframed it, he said it was a three-fold pattern. Endings, Neutral Zones, and New Beginnings. It’s a framework, a heuristic device, for helping you to understand where you are on the map of change. I have used it leading retreats for people on a spiritual journey. I have suggested it as a means for understanding with the persons I saw as a therapist. I have reminded, or “minded” members of my congregation of this key hermeneutical insight in finding one’s way. And I am currently employing it with the people that I coach in leadership.

Endings. Neutral zone. New beginnings.

Endings: It about a major change or shift in one’s reality or life structure. It is sometimes chosen, as one goes to college, gets married, or moves. But often, it is imposed. It is a forced ending, as a loved one dies, a job goes away, or life subjects you to an alteration. Recognizing the ending for what it is and what it means seems to be difficult for many of us, as we long to hang on to “the way things were”. Marking the ending of “what was” becomes the key for a healthy transition. I love the comedic twist of the Texas adage: When your horse dies, dismount!

Neutral Zone: It is characterized by a sense of disorientation. One’s identity, bestowed by role, is often shredded, leaving one with a sense of confusion. The structures that provided the container of one’s life which maintains the status quo has been busted. Everything feels like it ‘s out of the bag, and up for grabs. Rather than the controllable order we crave, we experience disorder. While it may feel like a vague time of dislocation, the Neutral Zone may prompt a profound sense of anxiety where one does not know where one is, nor where one is going. This can last “a spell”, a clinical term my grandmother used. One generally is uncomfortable in such a place and may lead to a premature closure, just to get beyond this “unpleasantness” as we say South of God. My favorite quip here is: Let’s do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong! Such a precipitous move usually is not smart.

New Beginnings: It offers a new structure, the promise of stability in what felt like the vortex of the Kansas twister in the Wizard of Oz. It is characterized by the energy of the birth of the New, the promise of a fresh start. The danger here is making sure that it is truly “new” and not merely a variation on an old, familiar theme. One is tempted to move quickly out of the transition, forgetting to take the “lessons learned” along. These lessons are called “wisdom” and should be remembered and memorialized in an appropriate way. I have no favorite saying for this other than an old admonition I remember: Lean in!

I have used this three-fold pattern in my own life work as well as in my professional work. It provides a map for the road ahead as well as where you are.

Jim Fowler and I used this as our model when we were trying to redesign the ground-breaking work of Carlyle Marney at Interpreter’s House. He would gather ministers from a diversity of traditions at a retreat center in North Carolina. The first week was spent telling your story within a group of fellow travelers. Marney appropriately called it “throwing up”. He also quipped that all people had a story, and that a few knew how to tell it well. Most, not so much.

The second week was spent being introduced to some new way of thinking about the world. Marney would invite leading thinkers to come share what they had learned in order to prompt the imagination of the participants. He would also seed the clouds by dropping tidbits of Marneyisms into the crucible of this sacred time and space.

The third week was about planning how one was going to reenter the place from which one came. It was to be a courageous plan but steeped in practical actions that would make for a healthy reentry. People I have interviewed say the three weeks of Interpreter’s House was life-changing.

Fowler and I took the basic idea of a gathering place, but recognized that we did not have the “genius” of Marney’s being at our disposal. Rather than trying to manage the egos of thirty ministers in a single group, a task only the gargantuan persona of Marney could pull off, we placed them in groups of four. We condensed our program to a single week, and concentrated the time, using the small group to gain more “air time” for each participant. And we kept the work in tension between individual reflection that used journaling and the work one would do within the small group.

Initially, we though we would use Fowler’s Stages of Faith to unlock the mystery and messiness of each participant’s life. However, we found it unwieldy and a bit obtuse for casual consumption. We resorted to my use of Bridges’ accessible three-fold pattern. But we framed it in the Exodus narrative, of the Hebrew people ending their time of slavery in Egypt, of transitioning into a new freedom as they wandered in the wilderness, and finally, their entrance across the river into the Promised Land. It was the rich narrative that provided the backdrop for the Christian Easter experience of the Easter Vigil. We pointed to the three-fold pattern within the life of Jesus: Crucifixion-Holy SaturdayResurrection as the Paschal paradigm. This proved to be a powerful way for our participants to reflect upon their own lives, where they were currently, and how they got there.

The format proved fruitful and was eventually published and used within the Methodist tribe, not only for clergy but for laity as well. I still use it when working with the clergy I am coaching as it gives a good map for the journey, helping persons to see their way through the dark.

Is the pattern suggestive for you? Are you at an Ending, painful, promising, or both?

Does it feel like you are wandering, in the wilderness or the desert? Do you feel like you are going in circles, or caught in a fog?

Or are you entering a new time of life, a new chapter that might be both exciting and scary? How are you making this new beginning in this odd time of pandemic?

I am hoping this pattern that I am pointing out is helpful as you reflect on where you are as well as where you are going. It’s an ancient pattern that puts words to our common experience, and allows us to talk together about our journey.

It might be worth taking some time to reflect and record your insights. Maybe even share it with someone you trust. Or better yet, share it with someone who has no agenda or investment in your life to help you dig a little deeper.

Where are you in your journey, your unique story?

That’s My Story

Personal stories are what makes my heart beat fast. I love to hear a story, well told, about how someone came to be the person they are. Maybe that’s why I love writers like Flannery, or Pat Conroy, or Eudora. I have been unpacking all the cardboard boxes that provided transport for all my beloved friends…books, from Atlanta to the island. Settling into my new digs, I now have new stories to learn of this low country, and maybe tell.

I remember that as a young boy on the Southside of Atlanta, I attended Tull Waters Elementary, just down the road from Fulton High where my mother taught biology. She would drop me off early and I would go to the library and visit my favorite section, biography. I would check out a book a day, reading these short biographies of characters, mostly in American history.

Imagining that I am psychologically predisposed to be fascinated by stories of origin, I poured through books with the underlying detective instincts of what made this person “tick”. Even with my limited understanding, you could see immediate connections as to why people did certain things, why they pursued a particular and peculiar path. Their destination in life could be foreshadowed in their beginnings.

Now, this raises the eternal question of determinism and free will, which I answer with an emphatic, “YES!’ to both.

We are determined by certain genetic factors, given at the fateful collision of egg and sperm, or, sperm and egg, depending on your disposition and political leanings. My genes predetermined that I would be tall, 6’3″, and with a build that would not lend itself to being a jockey at Churchill Downs, an unfortunate turn of events for a horseman such as myself. On the other hand, I received some traits that served and serve me well, such as my native curiosity and wicked sense of humor, both bequeathed from my mother.

But as a confirmed and practicing existentialist, I believe in the power of deciding, of self-determination, of human choice. “Two roads emerged in the woods” and I, of course, chose the path less travelled, which condemned me to my maverick way. Choice. Freedom. My own McBrayer Scots background took, as its motto, “In Defiance”……how typically Scottish.

So genetics, free choice, and then mystery. The chance occurrence, the chance meeting, the odd happening, all mixes the brew of existence within the witchy caldron of being. I have written before of the decision of my home room teacher, Mr. Jordan, who moved the most popular girl in my class, who was talking too much in the back of the room to our star halfback, to sit next to me, the most shy boy. The result was an unforeseen opportunity to talk with the girl that most intrigued me, and scared me most. At the end of the year, I had made a life-long friend but had a new found confidence that changed my sense of self. A chance move makes a huge impact.

I recently saw one of my favorite programs on PBS, American Experience, as it presented a two episode series on the presidency of Bill Clinton. William Jefferson Blythe was born in the now-fabled Hope, Arkansas. But his father, the proverbial traveling salesman, was killed in a car accident on a rain-slick highway. His mother remarried a man named Roger Clinton, who was an alcoholic and inflicted violence on his family. The program recounts how Bill was talented, popular, seeking approval of others, and hell bent on hiding the secrets of his destructive family life.

As I watched the unfolding of Clinton’s career, I was struck by the way in which these opening events of his life formed and shaped what was to come. His backstory helped to bring understanding to his peculiarly tragic/heroic political play. I met Bill when he was on his initial bus ride start of his campaign as he came through Tyler. I have never experienced the way he literally lit up the room with his charisma. It was an odd experience as this man from Hope touched the people he encountered and gave them a charge of energy, even in the very backyard of his opponent, George H. W. Bush. Retrospectively, I was struck by his original name, Blythe, a word that means “happy, and carefree” but has been loaded through time with the connotation of “not paying attention as one should”. Both spins seem to be apt for the Comeback Kid, born in the Baptist village of Hope but raised in casino town of Hot Springs. This begs for a country song.

Like I said, I love stories. I was fortunate to get my first job in academia listening to stories of people that were a part of our research at Emory’s Center for Faith Development. I had a ring-side seat as people would tell their stories, of what happened to them in their childhood, their lives, and how they had made sense out of all that mess. Homo poeta, human beings who are meaning makers. Our theory was that all people take the events of their lives and do the work of finding meaning, making sense out of thing called life.

I carried that skill into my work as a therapist and as a priest. Today, in my work as a coach, I listen carefully as to how people have negotiated this journey of life, where they have chosen to find value and invest their time and energy, and how they are trying to lean into the future in a meaningful way.

What is your story?

How do you see the lay of the land of human existence?

How are you living out your days here on this planet?

How has this intrusion of a virus changed the way you see life, or confirmed your view?

If you are so inclined, drop me a note as to how you might answer any or all of these questions. Over the last few months, many of you have reached out with your reflections on life, on the process of moving, on pain, on disruption, on meaning. I am always honored to receive your thoughts. So, what’s your story?

An Outbreak of Joy

Going to a doctor’s office is not on my hit-parade of things to do.

Old magazines in the waiting room; after a long wait, being poked and prodded, stuck; feeling tolerated by staff; cups to fill…..none of these things fill me with a sense of joy and wonder in God’s Creation. Rather, I tolerate them. Reluctantly.

Back in Tyler, Texas, I could just walk in to the office of my friend and golf partner, Dr. Dan Toney. He would take a quick look, give me what I need, send me on my way, perhaps with a Cuban cigar, and laugh at my defense mechanism jokes. My kind of Doc.

But that was in the Nice Nineties. Today, not so much.

This Monday, I had to go for a check up here in my new island home. I was not looking forward to it with anticipation. Not so much anxious, but just a pain in the ass, an interruption in my busy day.

I love it when God surprises me.

First off, the waiting room. Normally, a quiet, somber place where people are conjoined in a common anxiety and impatience. We sit through the wait quietly, rarely looking at the others, in the old days looking in magazines, now honed into our phone screens. Add to that, social distancing and masks, and you have the waiting room from Hell.

That’s what I expected.

What happened was far different. Two older men (“older” is a relative term) were sitting across the room from one another. I could tell immediately that they were of the extravert persuasion, who had been suffering at home in isolation. This was a chance for them to engage in the fine art of communication which they wanted to claim. One was more talkative than the other, wearing a Hawaiian shirt that I would only wear if I had been drinking heavily, the other man in more muted tones.

They began to talk about the new development going on in the region, how it’s making their island unrecognizable. There was some politics in the mix, mostly about local politics. And of course, they talked about traffic. Now, these dudes had never been in LA freeway traffic, Houston mess, or the I-285 Atlanta International Raceway traffic, but “traffic” is a relative term, much like the aforementioned aging. They’re clearly “agin” it.

A funny turn in the flow of the river happened. The Hawaiian shirt dude began his lament regarding church. Not about how it was losing its way, or meddling in politics. Rather, both men began to express their pain of missing the gathering of the people of faith. They took time to recognize the creative efforts of their pastors, but asserted the lack of the personal. Zoom or Facebook can only convey so much. They both longed for the “good old days” of touching, of gathering, of being.

They simultaneously began to talk of communion. Subdued dude offered that his church was distributing “crackers and juice” in plastic bags which could be picked up at the church, and then shared during the communal cyber moment. He noted that he picked up several bags and took them to the shut-ins who could not get to the church. He said this with a spirit of service that seemed grateful for the opportunity to be helpful to his fellow human beings. I think I would be right in both guessing he was from South of God kind, and was a person who knew of the Servant’s heart.

Hawaiian guy dropped some hints that he was of my Episcopal tribe. He talked of two small parishes in his community, Darien, I believe. They were taking the Blessed Sacrament, his words, to the members in their homes. The clergy and lay members shared that responsibility.. He noted with some mix of surprise and admiration that one church had resorted to a “drive by” communion, with people getting their sanitized sacrament as they drove past in cars. “These are strange days…..can’t wait till we get back to normal!” he said.

It occurred to me that we were having Church in that waiting room, safe distance, masks, and all. Communion was breaking out in the context of this strange day because it is what we long for, what we need. Connection.

I almost hated to be called away from this waiting area for my appointment, but yield to the call, I did, said Yoda.

I was meeting with another doctor, as my doctor of three weeks was on vacation on the Florida panhandle. This new doc reminded me of my friend, Dr. Toney, as he entered the exam room, flooding the space with human warmth. I felt like I was in good hands, a nice place to be. After he examined me, talking about his days at the University of Georgia, our common Sigma Chi bonds, and his pride in his son who went to Georgia Tech who graduated with a 3.9 GPA (he did NOT join a fraternity), he looked me in the eye and pronounced, “You’re good” as he carefully touched my knee. It was a verbal and physical blessing, as pastoral as that of any bishop I have known. You can’t teach that kind of presence, Actually, you can. It called Emotional Intelligence, and I teach it to docs, executives, and priests all the time, but it was good to be on the natural receiving end of a human touch of caring.

Leaving the professional building, I had one more surprise in store for my holy morning.

An older couple, the kind of couple I see, or notice, more and more these days, were walking together from the parking lot, across a busy lane where cars move quickly, anxious to escape the gravity pull of doctor’s offices. The couple was entering the “danger zone” as they were crossing. I noticed a red car moving down the lane toward the couple. The driver could have rushed through without endangering the slow-moving two. Instead, the car stopped, and allowed the two to shuffle across with no fear. The driver slowly advanced after the couple was past, and as she did, the older man turned and waved at the car, bellowing a grateful, “Thank you for stopping, ma’am!”

No big deal, right? Except the driver was a young black girl, and the couple were old white folks.

The moment moved me. Common courtesy, you say? Perhaps, but what I saw and celebrated all the way back, across the causeway to my home on the island, was a profound moment of community. A person taking it upon herself to slow down to make another’s passage safe. And a person who paused, took the time and energy to say thanks. No big deal, you say? In today’s world, in a climate that is decidingly warming in polarization and selfishness, it was a huge deal. A sacrament of caring, of giving a damn.

A conversation/communion in a waiting room. A touch/blessing by a doctor. A pause and a thanks on asphalt. The way it is supposed to be.

For me, a morning of grace, which I celebrate and share. And, dare hope.

Cause I’m Happy….

I was in no mood for bad news, but this is 2020, so what did I expect?

I purposely have stopped watching the news right before bed, trying to calm myself down before sleep. But like a lot of things these days, my well-laid plans went awry.

I flipped onto Brian Williams on his hour-long newscast at the 11 o’clock hour, and heard his voice break. He was announcing truly breaking news, that my hero, John Lewis, has died.

It should not have come as a shock. He had been very public with his battle with pancreatic cancer. I had not been able to talk to John in a month of Sundays, but it was hard for me to imagine anything taking him down. Some of my friends kept me informed, but I guess I was hoping against hope, as we used to say. Maybe this hero of mine could beat it, like he did the racist charge he met on the Pettus bridge in Selma.

I had many long conversations with John, dating back to my college days working for Jim Mackay, a Congressman from Decatur, Georgia. John was not as loquacious as many others in the movement, but you had the sense that his words were forged deep in the heart, not just grandstanding. He was not the silver-tongued devil that I usually admired. His words were of iron, forged under pressure.

He reminded me of a bulldog, facially pugnacious, embodying a persistence that I coveted for my own damn self. He had an amazing sense of humor in the moment, which is top of the list for me in a quality of leadership. Out and among his people, he was quick with a comment, making easy connections with his constituency. He was the very incarnation of a servant leader, laying down his life, like the One he followed.

We were in a march together in Cumming, Georgia in1987, as he was ones of the stars among the constellation of leaders who gathered to lead us into downtown to protest the Klan presence in the county and the restriction of blacks living in the countt. One of the things I remember is as we marched, the counter-demonstrators began to shout, “We hate you. We hate you.” It seemed as if the spirit of Martin King’s Beloved Community was resurrected as we responded organically, “We love you. We love you.” How’s that for non-violence. It was a paradigmatic moment for me, as comments and bottles were thrown at us, and yet we responded non-violently. We marched from the expressway to the square where various folks delivered speeches.

With unexpected numbers of people showing up, we were delayed for three hours, so we got to the square late. I had to officiate at a wedding back at the Cathedral that evening so I had to leave the protection of the National Guard, and make my way back alone to my car. Luckily, I did not look conspicuous in my clergy black shirt and white clerical collar. Not much. There were pick up trucks o’plenty cruising up and down the highway, flying the Confederate Stars and Bars, and making insinuations about the lineage of my mama. I think I broke a land speed record for walking, making it back to my car. By the way, I made it to the wedding on time, but my hair had a rather Clint Eastwood wind-blown look. Go ahead, make my day.

With the news of his death, I remembered an old clip of John in his office, “clowning” as we used to say to Pharrell’s bopping song, Happy. Instinctively, I searched and found it, as John busted a move in front of a staff member’s camera, as the groove moved him. His smile, as he “broke it down”, proclaiming that “this is MY song!” was infectious. Every person I have shown this to responds exactly the same way, “He’s so cute!”

And he was, until he was staring you down in a confrontation over something that mattered. His famous line was to “make good trouble”, and he did, from his famous freedom rides on the buses in the Sixties, to his “sit-in” around gun violence on the floor of Congress. John was ready to “engage”,, my favorite word, when he saw injustice, and his courage was inspiring to me and many others.

On this night, ambushed by the news, I needed to see the image of an alive John, clowning, enjoying life as I had seen him do in his district so many times. I needed the resilient spirit of John as I face the days, weeks, months ahead. As I watched him dance, a smile busted out on my tear-filled face. I was happy, to see a person in full. What a gift he gave to us by making good trouble.

This prompted me to think about being happy, about a joy that emanates from the soul, not just some cheap laugh line. I saw, I witnessed that joy in John many times through the years.

I began to reflect on where I find my joy. How is that for you? Where do you find your joy, your “happy”?

I remember earlier in life, my joy centered on accomplishments, something I did, completed. It involved my ego, getting something done, scoring, spiking the ball in the end zone. It ties into the first part of life where we are looking to master certain skills, to do something well. But now, as psychoanalyst Erik Erikson suggests, in later life, joy shifts to being. He said that we humans do a life review, to see if there is a thread of meaning that forms a cohesive strand through one’s life. If there is such meaning, one is blessed with a sense of hope. Conversely, if not, there resides an underlying sense of despair. How is it for you? Where are you finding joy in your current landscape?

Since moving to the island, I have been thinking a lot about this notion of joy, of review.

I am fortunate that my daughter, Mary Glen, lives here, having moved to St. Simons since graduating from the University of Georgia. She has found a young man that she loves, Michael, and they were planning to be married on the marshes of Glynn back in May. She and my wife had carefully planned the event, the ceremony, the reception, the food and drink, and most importantly, the soul band. It was sure to be one hell of a party. “Happy” may have been on my dance card for that night.

All of that is up in the air, thanks to COVID. Nothing like a pandemic to straighten up your moral compass of taking into consideration the lives of others and how a gathering could wreak havoc among those you love. A fairly tale, and an island one at that, interrupted.

What it has helped me to see is that the most important thing is the love that my daughter has found. No matter where the wedding takes place, on a luxurious marsh setting, in a stately historic church, or in an Elvis chapel in Vegas, the important thing is that my little girl, my daughter has found love. For a parent, things get real simple, even when it’s complicated. You want your child to be happy. The smiles I see on their faces, when they, Mary Glen and Michael, look at each other, is my joy.

Quickly shift to the Nashville skyline. My son, Thomas, came to visit from Nashville, after playing his first gig in a pandemic while. He played outside at the City Winery, and said people seemed hungry to hear live music. I think I know exactly what he means. I have enjoyed watching my son fall in love with music, a siren I have heard myself.

He tells me he first fell in love with music on the occcasion of me teaching at the seminary in Austin, Texas. We would go to Stubb’s for a Gospel Brunch on Sunday morning, featuring Mexican fare, make your own Bloody Marys, and get the essence of live music, listening to Gospel music from black choirs. The spirit would get a moving in that cantina, with a truly mixed audience, not legislated by law but mandated by music. That’s where it happened, where Thomas experienced the power and spirit of music.

He first took drum lessons from a session player in Texas named Nardo. When we moved back to Atlanta, he formed his first band, rehearsing in our basement, with him playing drums and doing the vocals, Don Henley style, who was from East Texas. I still remember the thrill of hearing him play and sing The Weight, just like Levon. Sweet.

Later, the band moved to Athens, working the famous bars there, while going to college on the side. After touring, he decided to go to Nashville and pursue his songwriting, while he played in a couple of project bands.

To say that I am proud of him is an understatement. The courage to climb onto a stage to sing the songs that you mined from your heart and soul is a special kind of commitment. When I see him on stage, playing his guitar, looking over at his band mate, and a smile of joy breaks out on his face, returned by his mate…..that is the same kind of joy I feel when I look at my daughter who is in love.

It’s what I have come to call a parent’s psychic pay. You work hard, spending time and money, investing in your child’s future, and the payoff is to see them happy. My psychic pay. I am a wealthy man these days.

So, when I reflect on John, on my kids, on my life, it all comes down to two things: relationship and a passion for one’s life that brings meaning.

I have come to know that this sense of relationship is not limited to marriage but can exist between friends you choose and family that you learn to love. The relationality between people embody the deeper spiritual connection that exists between all things in heaven and on earth. Here, I know I am moving into the Mystic, as Van the Man sang, but it’s really about our basic sense of connection. Relationality is about the essential connectedness that links us spiritually to all that is past, all that is future, but grounded in the present moment, the eternal Now.

John Lewis knew this connection. He heard it articulated in Martin’s image of the beloved community, a hope and a dream in which to invest your very being, your life. The yield is the fruit of joy, a joy that comingles the essence of relationality and the passion of one’s life.

For me, that’s where I get my joy, my “happy”. In the rich relationships through time, and the participation in a mission that is larger than me. That’s my song. That is my “Happy”.

The One Place I Did Not Want To Be: The Emergency Room

The wound on my foot was just about healed. My doctor in Atlanta, on my last visit, had cleaned it up and pronounced I was good to go.

But the rigors of the move got to me. Moving heavy book boxes, torqued my foot with awkward moves and twists that exacerbated the wound, opening it back up. After a couple of weeks, it was clear I needed to address the now “yelling for attention” wound.

Having not secured a doctor in my new town, I took a leap into the arms of a local doc, proving that good luck does happen. I showed up at his office in the professional building beside the hospital in Brunswick. I was expecting him to take a look at the wound, dress it, prescribe some antibiotic, to be picked up at the local CVS, and the get on the road to healing. Thirty minutes, tops.

Not so fast, as Coach Corso says on College Game Day.

He looked at my foot, looked up at me, and declared in a voice, folksy, but straight to the point, “You’re not going to like me much.”

He saw a wound that he knew was threatening my health. It was infected, and needed immediate attention, namely, an IV antibiotic, requiring hospitalization.

Going to a hospital that I did not know is a fearful prospect on a good day. But add to that the COVID situation, and you have trouble in River City. I had been on the phone that morning with the CEO of a Florida hospital that I have been coaching for the last three years. He told me of an increase in numbers of cases, depleted and exhausted staff, and diminishing supplies. With that in mind, I was in a tail spin, as I assessed my options.

But it got worse.

There was no room in the inn, so to speak, that is, the hospital was full from the influx of new cases of COVID-19. My doc told me that my best bet was to go to the Emergency Room and wait for a room there. His sense of urgency made its point with me.

My wife dropped me off at an emergency room that is under renovation. No visitors are allowed to stick around, so there I was. No leaping gnome with a bottle of wine to be spilled. Just me, a phone that had little charge, and my book by Coach Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings.

I went through the obligatory triage, determining that I was not dying, at least not immediately, meaning I would go to a waiting area. From there, I could observe the other unfortunate few who would come in, some with accidents, one from a fry accident from McDonald’s, but most looking like the Covid patients I most feared. I hunkered down with Phil, taking in all his Zen stuff he had taught to Michael, Scottie, and Wildman Dennis, which was perfect for my immediate need to chill. BE the Ball! Was that Phil or Ty from Caddyshack?

After two hours, I was finally called back to the ER proper. All the ER treatment rooms were full, placing me on a hallway gurney, which would be my home for eight hours. I had a bird’s eye view of the ER, a place where my consulting firm often does a process assessment of waste and inefficiency. Funny how one’s perspective changes when it’s your ass is on the line, or gurney. However, my fascination was at full tilt as I was observing patients who were in need and the doctors and nurses who attended to them.

I did not take formal notes but particularly noted one nurse who seemed to be the spark plug of the whole show. His name was Mike. He wound up setting up my antibiotic IV to get me going with my healing and deftly managed to find an illusive vein. I found out that he grew up in Manilla but made his way to New York as an immigrant.

He went to college to train as a Registered Nurse, and had since worked in  a variety of nursing settings. Mike’s time in psychiatric hospitals served him well especially well in this night’s menagerie of patients. One particularly crazy woman across from me was a patient type I knew from my own days of clinical work.She knew how to manipulate the young inexperienced staff, but she was no match for Mike.

I watched her size up the staff, and then zero in on the most vulnerable. This was not her first rodeo. She was my age, but lived a life that was full, or as we used to say, clinically, rode hard and put up wet. Her head had a gash where she had run up against her lover’s wrath. She fluctuated in her willingness to blame him, and yet made excuses for his behavior, even without his presence to defend himself. Watching her, put me in the mind of The Band’s Up on Cripple Creek, a drunkard’s dream if ever did see one, though I don’t think her name was Bessie.

Mike was a master at getting her through her tests, making sure there was no serious damage to her cranium, just one of those head wounds that bleed profusely. She was eventually released, with kinfolk coming to pick her up and return her to her native setting. In her inimitable Southern, style, she made the rounds thanking “the help” for taking care of her, taking on the Scarlet persona as she made her exit, stage left.

I, on the other hand, waited until three in the morning to be assigned a room on Five St. Simons Tower, where I would continue a steady drip of powerful antibiotics to keep my foot from falling off. I got great care from the hospitalist doctors, made a few friends among the staff, had two roommates, both long-term St. Simons residents who helped me to get a lay of the land not included in travel guides.

This is definitely NOT  how I planned on learning about my new digs on my island. But it was not bad. Existentially, it took me down to the proverbial river and asked me some powerful questions about life, namely my life, how I had lived it, and most profoundly, what I was going to do with what is left of it. There’s nothing quite like the harsh florescent lights of the ER to get you unblinkingly clear. It was designed for clarity, not comfort. This is life and death.

It occurred to me that this was not unlike retreats I made at Trappist monasteries or times in the desert in Texas at a hermitage. Unplanned and undesired in the land of Covid, it came nonetheless. I am oddly proud of the way I kept my attitude up, and remained receptive and of good spirit. Age seems to be doing that to me. A side benefit, along with Medicare.

The key “lesson learned” for me in this experience was the role of attitude. Throughout my stay, certain individuals showed an attitude of service and an attention to detail. Mike, who I mentioned earlier, provided the juice for the whole Emergency Room team. His enthusiasm was more contagious than any virus. Thelma, head nurse on 5 Tower, had her team organized, encouraging when needed, pushing when required. Eddie, who was the veteran, training new nurses as a mother hen huddles her chicks. Samuel, a faithful servant from Ghana, with a soft voice, whose devotion was embodied in the way he cared for folk. Arianna, a young, fresh nurse whose appetite for learning is voracious and dedication to her profession remarkable. And young Dr. Wiles, a hospitalist whose love of medicine and for his patients was palpable. These people all had a little different twist on how they saw their job, but each one had a mindset for care, and as Delta used to say, it shows.

I’ve thought often of  those folks who took care of me in a strange, unfamiliar hospital. I have given thanks for their passion each morning and evening in my daily office of prayer. It’s my discipline of pausing to reset, coming to me from my Anglican tradition,  to double down on my mindset. It’s my way of tackling attitude.

And I’m thinking tonight, not of Blue Eyes, but of the many doctors, nurses, technicians, support personnel who have been going at it nonstop. This pandemic that we thought might end quickly with the summer’s heat seems to not only drag on, but is on the rise in many parts of our country. Imagine how that feels to them as they make their way for one more day of intense care for those whose lives that depend on them to get it right. 

Give thanks for them in your own particular way. Offer a word of encouragement if you can. I was talking to the CEO of a large health system in Florida this morning and he became transparent to me as to his frustration at politicians who are using this medical issue as a political football, playing games with people’s lives. He, who is a physician himself, trained originally in birthing babies, urges folks to practice social distancing. He is clear that masks do help, both to deter transmission of the virus as well as providing protection for one’s own self. His daunting task is to lead his team of caregivers into these uncharted waters with a clear vision and passion, a heroic quest in my book. I am honored to come alongside and help as I can.

Strange, that in the church, we are now in what I call the “green” season. We have left the purgation of Lent in the dust, gone through the Feast of Easter, such as it was in this year of 2020. And now we are in the long “spell”, as my grandmother would say in her Texan way, of learning. Listening to the teachings of this rabbi, Jesus, talk about how we should live our lives. And like any good teacher, he tries to keep it simple, straight to the point. And when asked by a hungry student, Jesus boiled it all down to the heart of his tradition: Love God and love neighbor, 

Those of us who love to spend time arguing about ontology, the virgin birth, scriptural interpretation, sacramental theology, must be reminded on the basics, of simple things. We’ve actually added the complexity of how we worship in the cyber world, what is proper and what is not. How does the Spirit of God work in this age in which we find ourselves, the production world of Zoom. How odd that we quickly impose limits on the power of Spirit, using technology as the definer, the authority. Maybe this green season, of growth, is calling us back to basics. Love God, and love neighbor.

Loving your neighbor can be as simple as keeping a safe distance. Compassion may be as simple as a mask that you wish you didn’t have to wear to block the world from seeing your gorgeous face. But, it may save a life, or the contraction of a disease that has long term implications to one’s health. It may be saving your own life. Don’t allow yourself to get hooked into the games people are playing. Be safe and be smart. And offer up whatever prayer, thought, or righteous vibe you can for our heroic healthcare workers, these ordinary people, who are loving their neighbor in the work they do in extraordinary ways. Blessings.