Spanning Boundaries, Building Bridges

How do we get about the hard work of crossing over the boundaries that separate us?

Most observers today note the deep divisions within our country. It’s not exactly a courageous thing to point out, as it’s all too evident as our long-time culture wars are heating up. Name the issue: racial reconciliation, gender issues, education issues, and the coming abortion rulings. We are divided. That isn’t news. We divide by red and blue, listening to news from a source that confirms our own opinions. As states make rulings that define those issues on one side or the other, people are even moving to states that are more comfortable. We are moving into silos, isolated from those who don’t agree with our position. This doesn’t look promising for a lively democratic republic that depends on laws and respect.

The pressing question is what are we going to do with such division, with ideological boundaries that seem to be breaking us asunder? It happened years ago around the issue of slavery, driven by economics, resulting in a war that divided our country. The normal messiness of democracy has people talking of a more simple solution of a totalitarian government, led by a strong leader who acts decisively, rather than the complexity of a country that values freedom of expression from a diverse population. How do we get reconnected as a country?

I’ve been thinking about this pressing issue over the past few months. It’s way too big a problem for a broken down old preist to solve. I’m not even sure there is a solution on the horizon. But I am thinking about beginning with myself: what can I do to make things better? And my response, simple as it may be, is to begin with my own damn self. How can I help in this reconnection.

Strangely, my thoughts turned to some work I’ve been doing in the last decade. I got some good lessons in “things that separate us” while working with hospitals, but the lessons apply to other areas of our life in community, and maybe in our country.

An enlightening experience happened for me when I started paying attention to social networks.

My healthcare consulting firm would be called upon to do assessments of hospitals and systems of hospitals. We had variety of tools that we could employ in a deep dive into an organization including the interview of the players to discover what was going on. My favorite tool was taken from some research done by Dr. Rob Cross, at the time out of the University of Virginia. Rob is one of the pioneers in the discipline of assessing social networks.

Rob and his team would go into various organizations and conduct an online survey, asking members of the organization to sift through the list of employees, noting who they felt connected to, who they relied upon for expertise, who they valued. But the fun piece for me, and by now you know that I love fun, was an assessment of where they got energy. The question: does this person give you energy when you interact, or do they take it away from you? The results of this analysis is fascinating, and valuable to leaders of the organization in assessing how information is shared, or not.

We took this methodology into healthcare organizations, conducted an online survey with a large portion of the employees, analyzed the connections, and then gave feedback to the individual employees as well as to the broad organization.

Interestingly, we would identify those members who had strong connections, someone we called a “connector”. These were the people who the data showed had the most extensive ties to people in the organization. This was important information in terms of “seeing” the network within the hospital, where relationship flowed easily, and where they were blocked.

But we were also interested in identifying those who had the ability to “cross boundaries”, that is, they related across the natural boundary lines within the organization such as departments, or hierarchy. We called these particular folks “brokers” as they provided the grease that helped the organization to move nimbly across the natural tendency to silo into individual departments.

Strategically, we would identify those high-performing connectors and brokers at a gathering of employees. We would playfully talk about the value of such connections and how “boundary spanning” contributed to the organization, using it as an opportunity to raise the awareness of the value of networks. We found that it gave positive feedback and value to those members who were making connections and spanning boundaries. And, we would “mine” those star players by asking them how they did what they did, usually in front of the organization gathered. The aim of the meeting was to accentuate the power of networks and gain “buy in” from the members of the organization to pay more attention to connections, particularly across boundaries.

Imagine that you are the leader of an organization, say of a hospital, and that you now have a map of the organization, telling you who has the most connections, as well as who is providing the connective tissue across departments. Is that information that you would want to know? Of course it is.

We were able to give an incoming CEO at a hospital a social network map on the day that she began her tenure. She was able to see how information cascaded down through the organization through both connectors and brokers, as well as where bottlenecks were occurring and siloed departments were out of the loop. She was able to use this information to populate teams for change initiatives even though she was new to the hospital. It provided leverage in learning about how the organization was working well, and where it required attention. She said it was an invaluable piece of information in her entrance into the organic reality known as a hospital.

One other story illustrates the phenomena of network blindness due to prejudice. Working a system of hospitals in Iowa, we ran the social analysis assessment on seven different hospitals in a system. I gathered the CEOs and executive teams at a conjoint meeting in Des Moines. To drive my point home, I asked the CEO of the largest hospital who he thought had the most connections as well as the most cross-departmental connections. He guessed that it would be the Chief Medical Officer. Good guess, but no. Next guess, the Chief Nursing Officer. Again, good guess, but wrong again. I let him guess three more times, and was wrong on all three. I revealed to him that the Head of Building Maintenance had not only the most ties, and cross-connections across boundaries, but he was also assessed as the most energizing person on his team.

The CEO could not believe it. I showed him the data sheets but he would not believe that this leader in building maintenance could possibly be the most connected. What was happening was that he was blinded by a prejudice that thought the more intellectual, “degreed” folks would natively be more connected. He could not see, even when the data proved it, that his particular person could be a great resource to him in the future of this hospital. He was missing a bet, and was not open to observe and own his limiting perspective. He was blind. Other CEOs in the meeting “got” my lesson and couldn’t wait to see the results of their surveys, as they looked for connectors, brokers, and energizers, regardless to where they were located in the org chart.

I have played in my mind about applying this to a church congregation. If one were to do a network analysis of a church, what would you discover? My hunch is that you could quickly see the heartbeat of the group in terms of who is connecting and who is not. Who are the people who are able to broker across generational divides? Who are the connectors who are putting the energy and time in reaching out to members? How are new members finding avenues of connection as they make themselves at home, or not? Imagine how valuable this could be to a new pastor coming in, not knowing where the energy flowed, or where it was blocked.

In my work with congregations, it has been typical for people to have their “group”, be it defined by a Sunday School class, comprised of similar age or situation. That is the place where people find comfort and care, which is a natural way to be connected. The tendency is to “take care of myself” by putting my energy and time into what is familiar, what feels good. This can become problematic in “growing the church” as we become self-satisfied with our own needs, forgetting about the needs of those who may be new, trying to enter into the life of the congregation.

My best lesson in this came from the only cowboy in my Texas parish. Jimmy ran a ranch of cattle and had the folksy feel that I loved about real Texans. He was not the typical “all hat and no cow” poser.

Knowing that I loved horses, he put me on his favorite cutting horse, an animal trained to “cut out” cattle from the herd by moving quickly from side to side, isolating the particular cow for some special attention, generally some sort of veterinary intervention. These horses are amazing, moving with lightning speed. While I had developed a pretty good “seat” in the saddle, I was left hanging in midair, like a cartoon character, as the horse “cut” right out from under me. I still remember Jimmy laughing as I got up out of the Texas dust, and climbed back on.

Jimmy had been a long-time member of my congregation and was on the governing board. I was doing an exercise, asking the board about the changes that had happened in the church after I had arrived. I was dutifully writing down the positive things on a piece of newsprint in green magic marker. The smell of magic marker is unmistakable in my work, different than that of the corral.

After we had filled the newsprint sheet, I put the green marker down, and picked up the red. I moved to the empty sheet of the adjacent easel. Now, I invited them to note the negative aspects of the changes that had occurred since my arrival. The smell of the marker was the same, but the color was no longer that of grass, but of blood.

Being polite, more Southern than Texan, they were reluctant to name the negative, the cost of the changes that I had initiated since arriving. I pushed them to name the friction points but they seemed reluctant.

Finally, Jimmy took the bit. “Well, David, back when I first started coming here, I knew just about everybody in this church. I could sit and watch people come in at the front of the church, or at the back door. I could pretty well name everybody. I could tell you about their family, who their grandmother was, what had been the history of that family. I knew them. Nowadays, half the people in the church, I couldn’t tell you who they are. I don’t know them. I miss knowing everyone and don’t much like having all these strangers invading my church.”

I told you he was a cowboy, and he cut right to the chase. He was expressing a sentiment that was shared by lots of folks who felt the pinch of a change in the composition and demographics of the congregation. Others were too polite to name it, but Jimmy called a spade a bloody hoe.

His comment seemed to hang in the air, a pregnant pause if ever there was one. My response came from beyond me, beyond my ability, beyond my expertise. Perhaps it was from God, or the Spirit, or from a demon. But I said it nonetheless.

“Jimmy, I guess we have to figure out if we want to make sure you are comfortable, or do what Jesus asks us to do in inviting strangers to join us.”

Looking back on it, it was a simple, even simplistic thing to say. He could have gotten angry, upset in my comment. But he didn’t. His face paused, and then broke into a slow smile as he said, rather quietly, “I get it.” And he did.

For me, it was a pivotal moment in the life of this traditional Episcopal church. I trace the change back to this moment in time. This congregation had made a collective decision to be connectors, reaching out across the community to people who needed a spiritual connection. People became brokers to invite folks outside of their familiar circles to join them at a place where they got their spiritual needs met. And Jimmy became one of the leaders in that work. But there was a furniture store owner who provided a friendly smile and handshake to greet visitors who came in our doors. There was a judge, who had not been in a church for years, invite his colleagues to join him in the church school class or in the pews. There were young couples who reached out to neighbors to connect them to our church.

These folks were connectors, brokers, going beyond the comfortable position of staying with their “familiar”. They were spanning the natural boundaries that tend to separate us by socioeconomic lines.

It seems to me that this “connecting” makes good sense in business, in churches, in neighborhoods and communities. Rather than luxuriating in the “comfort zone” of those like you, can we put in the effort to reach out to folks that are not already connected? As people return to churches, post-pandemic, hungry for community and connection, might we make a special effort to reach out to those that might not be exactly like us.

People who study churches that grow tell us that the tendency is to go with what we know. We tend to gather in groups that are homogenous, “like each other”. Today’s political landscape is like that in spades. But is there a more fundamental identity that provides the bridge, the boundary spanning impetus to draw us beyond the knee-jerk political lines that divide. Political operatives and media heads, looking for numbers and revenue, are betting that we can not.

I have always believed that a deep commitment to ultimate values could provide the base for gathering large groups of people, from across boundaries. One of those deep values for me is a faith perspective that views all people as children of God, with intrinsic self worth. That vision of reality unites us all, across the divides that differentiate so-called “in” and “out”. It’s a tall order, but our country, as we head toward July 4th celebrations, was a great experiment in this idea, united in a democratic community, inhabited by free individuals. We have lived the polarity of an emphasis on individual rights while balancing it with a commitment to community in the form of an “union”.

We have done this before, particularly in crisis, in the threat of war, in attack such as post 9/11. I’ve seen it happen, even in by-God Texas. It’s harder. It demands that it be more intentional, more deliberate, but it is doable.

Think about your communities, your neighborhoods, your associations, your congregation. Might you make an effort to reach out, spanning the boundaries that tend to divide us, and connect? Maybe you might transcend your blindness to those that are different than you, and make that connecting move that draws us together as intended.

I confess that we may be beyond redemption. Our divide is bleak, and seems to be worsening. But as I began, I am going to do what I can, where I am, to try to make a boundary spanning connection. How about you?

To Look and See What God is Doing…

My friend, colleague, and spiritual guide, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, asked me a rhetorical but probing question that prompted some ponderous thoughts for me: Are children capable of learning on their own? Do they have an innate capacity to learn?

My mind went to my study of Piaget, back in my developmental psychology work. I distinctly remember us using the phrase “undifferentiated” as applied to the infant. There were cognitive structures that needed to be formed within the infant, and then child, so that they could comprehend the world, notably other objects. Piaget in cognitive development and Kohlberg in moral development had a very limited view of what infants and children were capable of grasping. Recent studies on the innate psychological and empathetic capacity of infants calls this prior theory into question. (See Gopnik, The Philosophical Child)

When Charlie asked the question, an old story from my days in Texas bubbled up from my memory. It was a Saturday morning, and I was seated in my study. Thomas, age of three and a half came ambling in, cocked his head to the side, a characteristic that we both do, and then offered his question, “Can you take me out back?”

“Out back” referred to our backyard that had a beautiful formal garden that the previous owners had maintained meticulously. At that point, I had not neglected it sufficiently to take the bloom off the flora. It also had a swimming pool, that was a major concern for me with a three year old son and an infant daughter. My nightmare was of one of them falling in, unattended, having wandered outside. To insure that would not happen, the backdoors were double-locked so that we could accompany them when they went outside. I had drilled this message into Thomas and so I was pleased that he had come to ask me to go with him.

But I was curious as to why ‘now’, and what was on his mind. So I asked him a pregnant question that was ready to burst open in the mind of a three year old, “Why?”

His response has stayed with me for thirty years, and still makes me smile, the kind of smile that explodes on a parent’s face, and has something to do with pride, but more to do with sheer delight.

“I want to go see what God is doing.”

That’s my son who said that. Where are the priests and teachers in the Temple? (oblique reference to Jesus in the Temple at the fresh age of twelve)

Thomas was enraptured by nature. His love affair began in our old backyard in Atlanta. There was a virgin forest that went all the way through from our house on Glengary to Peachtree-Dunwoody. We had a creek that ran over a granite outcropping, producing a constant lyrical gurgle. Thomas and I would cross the creek and sit and listen. I don’t know it as a fact, but I am betting that his sense of music and lyrics were birthed right there in those primal waters.

We had left our Atlanta Garden of Eden to find a more formal display of azaleas and jasmine in the Piney Woods of East Texas, and Thomas was seduced by the colors that played in our new garden setting. Birds and squirrels served as companions, along with our Springer Spaniel. I felt like a guest spectator in that primal Garden as Thomas discovered new beauty in God’s world. It did not occur to me to think it odd that he would talk casually to a plant or tree, remembering that I had been told that such a conversation was a practice of my teacher, Howard Thurman, a true mystic and civil rights pioneer. It was a gift to me to witness this primitive connection of my son to God’s Creation, before schooling, society, and I had a chance to mess it up. It was glorious, primitive, simple…..and fleeting.

I am pretty sure, and getting clearer, that this is what I am trying to get back to in my own spiritual journey. In my current backyard on St. Simons island, it is a nature preserve linked to the marshes of Glynn, the muse of poet Sydney Lanier. Here, in my own corner of the planet, a live oak tree stands to the left. It is draped in the very present Spanish moss, which I fell in love with many moons ago as I first traversed the wild beauty of Cumberland Island. I now have a ringside seat to nature as she moves, ebbs and flows, in my view each day. The moss seems to pick up the slightest wisp of breeze and accentuate my sense of the mysterious wind. I am fascinated by the oscillation of direction and its sudden gusts of what feels to me like Spirit. Have I mentioned that I have started talking with it?

I have been impressed by a call to get more in touch with my connection to the world. It’s part of the spirituality of St. Francis who saw the Creation as revelatory and, by the way, worth protecting. Rather than performing mental gymnastics in my brain, running mental marathons within my prefrontal cortex, can I connect with my embodied self, feeling and sensing my being within my physical body? To be honest, after all the years of academic training to center myself in the mind, it’s a big ask.

Just yesterday, I had a “Thomas moment” of sensing God’s presence. I had been sitting outside in my wooden chair, angled in relation to the railing on my deck. We have placed bird feeders just off the deck, surrounded by irises that are sporadically blooming, trumpeting the summer season. I was meditating as I do and have done for years, employing a method taught to me during my college days by a Trappist monk in Conyers, Georgia. My practice involves a focus on breathing, with a slow inhalation driven by the diaphragm descending, followed by the exhaling of the breath, slowly.

The rhythm of “in-out” has become familiar through time, embodying the native polarity in our very physical being, inhaling and exhaling, a primal rhythm that gives life. That practice settles my “monkey mind”, a term I learned from a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, as it chases any rabbit, or squirrel, of a thought. This “settling” then allows me to focus in a moment of sheer and blessed awareness of just being, freed from the furtive chase of my thoughts. To be in the moment, free from the clutter of thinking, is the promise of this Centering Prayer method. I try to do this twice a day for twenty minutes,

On this particular day, I had been sitting for my twenty minutes, sensing the humidity on my skin, the heat of a south Georgia day, and sounds of birds chirping in the lull before a coming thunderstorm. The breeze was refreshing, and quickening, as the summer storm approached, registering on my face and back of my neck.

With my eyes closed, I sensed a presence there with me. It was odd. It felt much like I experienced the presence of a wild horse once on Cumberland Island, looking at the back of my head as I sat in the inner dune area, I felt the stare of another creature.

I slowly opened my eyes to see a cardinal perched on the arm of my chair, directly to my right. He, with his bright red plumage, cued me to his gender, looking from side to side, much as I had observed the cardinals that inhabit my backyard and frequent our feeder filled with safflower seeds. No bird had ever come this close, literally at hand.

I kept my head still, trying not to blink, finally trying not to laugh at my surprise. My cardinal friend remained perched for three minutes, finally making his move to the feeder, grabbing a few seeds while I watched. And then he was back off to the wildness of the marsh. What a gift to me.

It sent me into a reverie, remembering my mother’s favorite bird. It provided a somatic connection, a feeling of closeness to her, even though she’s been gone for years. And yet, in that moment, she felt strangely present, connected. Is this just the crazy stuff that goes on in the mind of someone getting older, grasping at straws of ties to a past that is slip-sliding away, or is it more? Honest-to-God, I don’t pretend to know.

This is not my first rodeo with this sense of awe, of connection. As a young child, like Thomas, I had a sense of awe and mystery that I clearly remember in the backyard of my grandparents home, connected with a thunderstorm and a sweet-smelling, cleansing rain in the late afternoon. That’s when I first has a sense, a somatic sense of God.

Later, I remember a stained glass window at Oakland City Baptist Church, at the front. Baptists weren’t real big on stained glass. It was the only one in that brick church cavern. It was the scene of Gethsemane, of Jesus kneeling at the rock, praying for the cup of his death to pass him by. And I was shocked as I heard the story told, him sweating blood as his disciples slept, and him fatefully deciding to give himself to death on a cross. And the hymn testified that it could make a soul “tremble”, and I did. It has served as the icon in my life, at my Gethsemanes, even on a stage in Godspell.

In adolescence, after a tremendous rip-roaring storm, there was an sense of joy and connection I felt while walking in my front yard in East Point, the atmosphere feeling electric. There was an underlying bed of awe, something bigger than my weak-ass adolescent self. The sense of peace was palpable and profound, though I did not understand it. I still don’t.

And then, one evening, deep into the dark night, the gold-gilded box, referred to as the “sanctuary” containing the Reserved Sacrament, the priestly blessed Body and Blood of Jesus from the morning’s Mass, placed at the front of the Trappist church, seemed to glow as I sat before it, praying, emitting a feeling of peace and joy that I had not experienced prior. Ever since, I have felt that sense of the Holy present in these mere elements of bread and wine when blessed by the community, transformed into symbols of connection.

Were these moments of psychotic break, intuitions of an oceanic connection, an acute sacramental sensibility, or just something I ate? Again, I do not know.

Rudolf Otto called it a sense of the numinous, of the Holy. My Celtic ancestors referred to “thin places” where you sense a sheer, thin separation between this physical world from the spiritual realm of being. My McBrayer relatives found it in the Pentecostal fervor of unbridled praise. Mystics call it ineffable from within their solitary cave of contemplation, that which can not be put into words, defying description. I think I know something of this thing, and yet, it is clear that I know nothing.

One thing I do know. People in our time, in our world are hungry for a taste of that spiritual experience. No longer content to construct intellectual suppositions and propositions about God, or argue over dogma, or doctrine, they are more than ready to leave that to religious bureaucrats that seem satisfied in talking ABOUT God. They are desirous of an experience of a spiritual reality that gives them meaning and connection and purpose. I’m hoping that the disruption of this pandemic may prompt a moribund church to wake up, to unleash a Spirit that resists control and management and program. Control seems to rule our religious kingdom. Truth is, we were never really good at that, letting go. And yet that kenosis, that kenotic love of not grasping is the signature of the one who profess to follow. It hard to open one’s Self to this new way of Being in the world, and yet we have an incarnate example that shows us how to do it….as well as the cost.

And there was that cardinal. There was the wind, And, there was a felt sense of connection through the communion with this amazingly red bird who shared a seat with me, who re-minded me of my larger world, a creation of which I am a part.

I can’t wait to tell Thomas what God was doing.

How Are You Wired?

A June wedding always causes me to think: What are you doing?

Now, that could be self-referential as once again, I am cast in the role as Marrying Dave, officiating at a wedding.

Back in the 80’s, when I was the Canon Pastor at the Cathedral, and the youngest priest on staff by more than a decade, I tended to do three, THREE, count ’em (3) weddings each weekend. That meant premarital counseling, rehearsals, and weddings. That pretty much took my weekend. So in terms of weddings, my karma is paid up in full. I gave at the office.

My question these days is more directed at the couple. Are you sure you know what you are doing?

These days, those occasions are rare, with weddings for either family or close friends. Such is the case with this past weekend when I traveled from my island fortress to the ATL to officiate at the wedding for the daughter of two of my closest friends, Janet and Marty.

I had come out of retirement to do the wedding for their oldest daughter, Katherine, one of my daughter’s best friends and college roommate. She was marrying Alex, who is Jewish, which pushed me to get schooled by Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, see Driving Miss Daisy. Alvin prepped me on the proper glass stomping by the groom, tourniquet lessons should it go south, and how to mazel the tov! I passed on the circumcision lesson, which costs extra. I’m a quick and eager learner, but I have my limits. Their marriage looks like it’s going well, so the Quirk Irish clan went to the Galloway Scots well again with the sister, Allison.

Allison the youngest Quirk, was engaged to Jake. The first Quirk wedding was in the pasture behind their house, with tent borrowed from Ringling Brothers for the after party. This time, the wedding was to be at the famed Piedmont Driving Club. A number of friends have inquired, as inquiring people do: What exactly is a “driving club”? You will have to guess as to my various responses, because the Club has good lawyers.

The last time I was involved in a wedding at the PDC (that’s how WE in the know refer to “the club”), something unbelievable occurred. The maid of honor was murdered the morning of the wedding in her hotel room across from Lenox Square, during a failed robbery. I was called off of East Lake golf course to go to the hotel to tend to the mother of this poor girl. When I informed the bride of the murder, without blinking, she responded, “Well, Sissy can fill in.” I learned a lot about brides and weddings that day. The show must go on, as they say, or as least this bride said. As I said, unbelievable.

So I had that ghost in my brain flying around. I remember almost every inch of that entrance hall and ballroom after that horrendous experience. I kept a special eye out for Catherine, the matron of honor, and especially on Alex.

Fortunately, the wedding was not in the former memory haunted location. Rather, it was in the courtyard, that’s right, outside at 5:30 in the afternoon. Did I mention that this is June? JUNE? It was hotter than hell. The sun perched at 30% on the western horizon, blinding me, daring me to wear my Joe Biden Aviators, even in Republican territory, to allow me to see. I did not, since it would break the decorum, plus I was fearful that I might use “Folks” repeatedly, and say involuntarily to the couple getting hitched, “Here’s the deal.”. As my Episcopal friend, H. W. Bush might have said, “Wouldn’t be prudent…”

The service program was ingeniously printed on a fan, for Southern belles to fan themselves, Scarlett-style. The couple’s dog, Charlie, made the procession, well behaved, at least better than Marty, the father of the bride. Various children served as flower persons, adding to the degree of difficulty of the dive. And Catherine and Alex’s child rolled in a wagon down the aisle to make it complete. It was truly a family event, with Jake asking his father to serve as Best Man. It reminded me of my similar selection of my Dad, who was truly my best man, causing me my only moment of becoming verklempted during the ceremony.

I have been working with couples preparing for marriage, couples transitioning into a committed relationship, couples hitting the proverbial “midlife” boogie, and all points along the way for what seems like a long time. My work as a marriage and family therapist formed the centerpiece of my psychotherapy practice early on. So I’ve done a lot of reflection on what attracts people to one another, and how they are able to stay together, and grow, through time….or not.

My big insight came from my teacher and therapist, Dr. Tom Malone, who taught me that the natural attraction is of opposites. One intuits that the “other” somehow brings strengths and characteristics that one needs. This is mostly unconscious but results in a pairing that has “creative tension”, which is the dynamic necessary for continued growth. And of course, it also brings tension. Humans seem to require that for growth, to move them from their normal penchant for comfort.

I once got into trouble playing with the term “homo marriage” at a marriage conference where I was speaking. I was not referring to same-sex unions, which I had blessed prior to the official sanction of my particular religious tribe. I was talking about the problematic nature of relationships when one is attracted to someone that is so much like you that you are basically marrying a mirror image. The attraction is understandable as you feel comfortable with someone “like” you. That was my experience with my adolescent “sweetheart” as she could have been my sister, and in many ways, was. We “fit” but had we gotten married, which had been in the back of our minds in our nine year odyssey, we would have gotten along famously for a while, but then would have become bored, no doubt. Loving your mirror image is clinically referred to as a narcissistic tendency.

A real marriage is “hetero”, meaning “different”, whether you share the same gender or not.

Get it?

I thought about that as I was reminded of Pride month, and the Pride parades I had been to in Atlanta, as I made my way from my hotel to the club in midtown. My Episcopal tribe led the way in accepting and blessing marriages between same-sex couples, and we have taken the hit from that explicit commitment, which was a bridge too far for some. I am personally thankful for this openness, and have counseled with many same-sex partners that live into the creative tension that exists in their committed relationship. I celebrate and bless any relationship that emerges from love.

Any marriage gets the good news-bad news that they are joined by the naturally creative spirit of nature which draws them together. The good news is that there is that native attraction. The bad news is that there will be tension. Count on it.

The real work of marriage begins, hopefully, before any ceremony at the Cathedral, a country chapel, or even the PDC, and it consists of getting to know, really know, the Other that you are connecting with.

This romantic connection has a long pre-history that is crucial. From the time of our emergence from our mother’s womb, we are interacting with the world around us. It may start with the glare of the examination lamp in the surgical suite, blinding temporarily the infant making his/her entrance into the world, The child moves to the warming table if the birth happens in a clinical setting, or it may find the warmth of mother’s chest. From the word “go”, the child is wondering what in the world is going on here? “I was just in a warm, cozy environment, and whoosh, out I go, without so much as a ‘by your leave’!” And from the beginning, the newborn is interpreting this environment.

The basic question is whether this world in which I find myself now is trustworthy, or not? Will my needs get met, will my hunger be assuaged by my mother’s milk? Having lived in utero, a dark watery cave, fed by this magical umbilical cord, I am thrust involuntarily into this new environment, pushed from darkness to light. From the beginning, I am interpreting but also figuring out how to get my needs met.

As the infant becomes a child, who becomes an adolescent, becomes an adult (maybe, developmentally defined), the same two tasks continue: 1. the interpretive task of determining the shape of reality and 2. what must I do to get my needs met. No one is exempt, even members of the Driving Club.

Truth is, we develop an ego structure that becomes the vehicle that carries our Self into this reality. Through time, we construct a persona, that literally is a “mask” that we put on to make ourselves presentable, even winsome, to the important others in our life. The persona is developed through time to please others, to enable our survival, and get what we need. That “what” varies from person to person, resulting from a number of factors. A pregnant question for adults to wrestle with, play with, is “What is it that you need?” What are you spending the best energy of your precious life to get? For many persons that I have worked with as a therapist, coach, or priest, who find themselves far into the stages of life, this proves to be the key to understanding where they are and how they got there,

My point in bringing the persona up in this discussion is that when we are in adolescence and young adulthood, the persona is carefully guarded for fear that someone might discover who we really are and reject us. Our persona is what we present to the world to announce subtly, and brashly at times, just who we are. Listening to fourteen male groomsmen and fourteen female attendants make substantial toasts at the rehearsal dinner, ranging from soulful confessions of deep friendships to stand-up comedy routines, I was thinking about the persona each person was presenting, and what they were trying to get by way of their “performance”. You can tell a lot about a person through the persona they present in such moments, maybe not who they really are, but what they are desperately needing. By the way, the same thing is true for the priest!

In a real relationship, one dares to drop the persona, the mask, with the hope of connecting with the other. In relationships of romantic love, amore, the couple let their masks down and connect at a deep level, between souls. That is what happened between Allison and Jake as a family friend had tried to play matchmaker, arranging the initial connection through the dreaded “blind date”. Both Allison and Jake properly rejected such a medieval play of an arranged relationship and refused. But the Spirit of Amore is tricky. They just so happened to meet at a Halloween party in midtown Atlanta, the place where dreams are made, and fell in love. They told me of slowly letting down their “guard”, their persona, and connecting at a deep level. Allison poetically described Jake as the “light of her life”, the “fire in her heart”. Ahhhh, Amore.

That’s how love starts. It involves following your bliss, making a commitment to this One who promises to be with you, even unto death. That’s when you book the club, arrange the caterer, plan the honeymoon, and ask some old priest if he can show up. It’s a good start, an auspicious beginning….but then the work begins.

Building a life together with two individuals, each with a dream and career, is daunting. Maneuvering through epic transition, changes, disruptions, is just par for the course of life, with unknown bumps and obstacles when you are embarking on this marital road trip. The “creative tension” that drew you together will sometimes prove to be the “pea under the mattress” that disrupts the bliss in this fairy tale. A “Fall” is inevitable and the question will be one of commitment and tenacity, all beginning with a simple, innocent meeting of two human beings. It’s epic, Shakespearian in drama, this thing we call love.

I was convinced that the two, Allison and Jake, knew exactly what they were doing. I even asked them that question during the course of the liturgy, “Are you sure?” in so many words, and they both said “yes”.

We got them launched! The ceremony went well, no blood was shed, no one died (this time!) and the priest did not fall down, a small victory for this Southside boy cavorting in high cotton. And they were off to Greece, a proper mythological setting to begin their odyssey, carried away by Marty’s Bronco chariot that I covet.

Every wedding re-minds the witnesses so gathered that there is magic to do, that love and romance exist, in spite of deadlines and budgets and taxes. And, endings occur too, like the family of origin that will never be the same after this wedding…why do you think folks cry at weddings? And everyone remembers a moment of bliss that sparked in their heart once upon a time, and wonders, dreams, wishes that it might come again. Such is the stuff of weddings….it’s how we are wired.

Blessings on Allison and Jake as they begin this new way of being in the world. Godspeed.

A Pause for Memorial Day by a Draft Dodger

Following last week’s article on bliss, I thought I might follow up with some real, down and dirty experience, the raw material of the South of God blog.

I’ve been working hard, writing, working on a couple of articles that have captured my interest. These are the rabbits that I see on the horizon of my attention, and like Elmer Fudd, with a better tailor, I chase those wascally wabbits until they are mine.

One is on multi-dimensional growth and the other, boundary spanning. Piqued your interest? I thought not. They are practically finished, but on this Memorial Day weekend, I felt like a follow-up might be called for.

Having talked about following one’s bliss, how about those women and men whose “greater purpose” was service to their country, some giving it all. An oath of words formalized the commitment, training honed the form, but the cost was their very blood and breath. So Elmer will try to focus on Memorial Day.

Memorial Day brings to mind so many memories. Honestly, for years it signaled the beginning of summer, the “break” we needed from the routine. In my family, it meant climbing in the Suburban and heading to the beach, for golf, Goofy golf, drinks with umbrellas, dinner at Schooners or Captain Anderson’s. Galloways Gone Wild! along with those infamous girls on a bus.

That version of Memorial Day remains in my memory, fading in that sunset and residual buzz.

After years of serving as a priest, my Memorial Day seemed to evolve, change with my experience of the dead, and tending to those left behind. Clearly, these days my prime memories at Memorial Day are of soldiers, some that I have buried, some that died after their active service in battle was done but still in uniform, while others were veterans who deserved and received military honors.

I remember so many hot, humid Texas days, walking in front of a casket, borne by friends, leading a procession to a grave, freshly dug, with the smell of clay still pungent. The taps would play, evoking tears. The twenty-one gun salute would resound, causing me to flinch with each shot. The formerly flag-draped casket would slowly descend down into the good earth, as the flag is folded carefully, precisely, and given to the family, with thanks expressed from the country by the commanding officer. The most painful for me recently has been the burials of service folk who have returned, bearing the invisible wounds of war, and wind up taking their lives. I count them in my prayers on Memorial Day, another casualty of combat.

I was always moved by the burial of soldiers, in any state of service, due to their sacrificial giving of themselves to service. Frankly, I am in awe of those who answered the call to serve their country out of a selfless commitment to something larger than themselves. I witnessed a generation respond courageously after that blue sky day in New York as we came to a new reality on 9/11. A Naval Academy grad, quarterback of my high school, and naval commander, Ken McBrayer died at the top of one of those twin towers. The extremist act touched the deepest nerve in our collective national body, resulting in a brief moment of unity, and a primitive reaction of revenge. And on reflection, the brokers played that natural reaction like a Mississippi gambler makes a bad deal a winning hand….for him.

Memorial Day forces my hand to look at my own personal dealing with that dilemma. I struggled with that commitment as I faced the draft to a war that I had come to believe as misguided. I was in full-tilt boogie mode as it was my first honest-to-God ethical decision that had any real consequence. I had dodged an ethical issue of abortion with a girlfriend who turned out not to be pregnant, but we had struggled mightily, not so much on the ethics, but how our parents would respond. Fortunately, we emerged chastened and smarter, without the pain of making such a difficult decision.

The war in Vietnam, or NAM as Forrest Gump would say, became very real for me as my draft number was about to be called. I consulted my pastor, my dad, a professor, and a few close friends to get their take on things. I had wished my grandfather, my own John Wayne, was alive for a consult, but I figured that I knew what he would say. But by then, I was differentiated enough to know that it would come down to my decision, my choice. Would I accept the draft, and enter the military? Would I head to Canada, or maybe a Caribbean island, like Eleuthera where I could hang out in the wind and sun? Or, would I file for a Conscientious Objector status, based on my religious beliefs? This was the first time it occurred to me that my commitment to Jesus as the Christ might mean that I needed to say “No” to the order of my government to go and kill. It dragged me into a self-consciousness that was new, and uncomfortable, in terms of the consequences of my decision.

It was no longer the daily choice of what to eat and where. It was not the banal decision as to what fraternity I would join, as consequential as that decision turned out to be. It wasn’t as vague as my decision as to what my major would be. Nor as cavalier as my decision as to what courses I would take in my first freshman quarter, which actually wound up shaping my entire life from a fateful choice of Religion 103 with Dr. Jack Boozer who rocked my world. I took it because I thought it would be an easy “A”! I mean, anyone can ace a religion course. Lord have mercy.

Actually, I grappled, wrestled, struggled with my decision over military service, and it would definitely have consequences. Having had relatives and neighbors who had died in Vietnam lifted it above the conceptual model of ethics which I was used to. My ass, literally, was on the line.

The draft was stopped the year I was to receive my number, so all my wrestling was like Live Atlanta Wrestling, just for show. But not really. My self, my soul, my ethics were engaged which “grew me up” perhaps before my time, but certainly not before some of my friends found themselves going into the service. It proved to be my introduction to ambiguity, a friend that would be my constant companion for life.

I can’t come to Memorial Day without remembering my struggle. I think about the young men, like my grandfather who volunteered for World War I and served overseas in battle. Or my father who served in World War II in a B-17. Or my dad who served in Korea. Or my cousins who served in Vietnam, who brought back their own scars. Fortunately for me, I did not have to make a decision, but every Memorial Day, I pause to think about those who did, and willingly went into service, and some who paid the ultimate price of sacrifice. And I shudder, give thanks, and have wept.

My brother and I missed that gig. I am pretty sure I would have sucked. A few of my college friends, who were in ROTC, made the military their career in the Air Force, and I am mighty proud of them. They were of the Top Gun breed, but I would have probably been getting them coffee in the mess, or slapping them on the back when they returned to the aircraft carrier. Ice Man or Maverick would have eluded my appellation. Joker seems appropriate.

My high school buddy, Alan Burks, proudly posts on Memorial Day of his son, Pete, who gave his life while serving in Iraq. I wish I could have known him. I can’t imagine the mix of pain and pride my friend must feel every day, but particularly on this day, as we remember those who died while in service to our country. I include Pete in every one of my Daily Prayers, as well as Alan, as it is my minute way of honoring all of those who have made a sacrifice beyond my imagination, which includes parents and family. Alan continues his son, Pete’s legacy with a fund to support active soldiers, . It is a worthy, and immediate way to support our troops and their personal needs while serving. I encourage you to go to this website, look at the face of Pete, and consider a contribution.

Another friend, Lou Koon, served as an Army chaplain who now works with veterans that are returning from combat, some devastated psychologically with PTSD. The statistics are staggering as to the suicide rate but my buddy Lou is kicking it by training folks to recognize the symptoms that point to suicidal danger so that we can help them before it’s too late. Preventative work is a crucial part of Lou’s work. He tirelessly trains groups like police, firefighters, and civic group to learn how to watch for signals of suicide. His organization is named Armed Forces Mission. You can sign up for his practical training, which I went through myself to test it out. A superb program, that is geared to meet the needs of the general public and will give you some basic skills. And you can also donate to help fund this essential service to our wider community. If you are looking to find a worthy thing to give your time and money to, this is it. Contact them at .

There are two Southside Atlanta dudes who are making a difference in this crazy ass world we are living in these days. I am proud of their work and am inspired by their love in action.

I pray that your Memorial Day was more that just a chance to go to the beach or grill out, or buy that once-in-a-lifetime dream mattress from Mattress R Us. Those are wonderful activities that are part of living in this country. But Memorial Day is a Holy Day of remembering that sacrifice which was given on our behalf by our brothers and sisters.

I hope you caught a whiff of the smell of sacrifice and are finding your own particular and peculiar way to offer service to our community. That is a work that we all share and can not shirk. This thing called democracy is a fragile thing, and takes us all to make it work. And as my Constitutional law professor told me, it is an experiment, grand and beautiful, but an experiment that can end. Thankfully, there are heroes among us, willing to shoulder the weight and carry on. And, there are rumors of angels, those who bear our collective grief and transform the moment, redeeming our time. On Memorial Day, remember that.


Your Bliss is What You Miss

Please forgive me for making a side allusion to Hall and Oates and their hit, Your Kiss Is On My List. It’s a catchy song that is embedded permanently in my psyche, for reasons that will be undisclosed. In a recent dive back into my Jungian pool, I was reminded of a phrase that ruled the day for a nano-second, right around the time I was ordained as a priest, mid-eighties. It was “Follow your bliss!”.

It sounded like something Yoda might teach a young aspiring Jedi. As I plunged headlong into my pursuit of priesthood, with little certainty that it would work out, it felt like I was following my bliss, whatever the hell that was. I felt the passion for a life grounded in the Spirit, making a difference in the world. It had the sense of “bliss” to it, not at all a logical career path that might have been proper and expected, and approved by my dad. Could I make a life that was “spiritual” without going into a cloistered monastery? Since I had discovered celibacy to not be “on my list of the best things in life”, could I blaze a trail of my own, keeping the monk in me alive while experiencing a broader scope of life, the kind I experienced on a Las Vegas turnaround? I had taken a few roads and flights chasing, if not following, my bliss.

The phrase about bliss was coined by Joseph Campbell, a professor of comparative religion and mythology, as he was interviewed by Bill Moyers in a PBS series entitled The Power of Myth. As Moyers pressed for clarification of the deeper meaning of life, Joe mentioned teasingly “follow your bliss!” That simple phrase formed his advice to college students he was teaching. During advisory sessions with his students on every fortnight, Professor Campbell would try to lead them in identifying their deepest interests, and then encourage them to follow. Stay with it, he would advise, and don’t let anyone throw you off that path. I don’t remember having an advisor with that kind of Jedi wisdom. Rather, just tallying up my hours for my major so I could satisfy my requirements and still graduate early.

To press his point, Campbell told a story of a pregnant moment when he overheard an exchange while sitting at a restaurant. A family of three was sitting to his side. A young boy, Campbell described him as “scrawny”, around twelve years of age, was sitting, looking at his food, as young people sometimes do when they are not crazy about the fare of the moment.

The father, still dressed as a businessman just home from work, sternly tells his young son, “Drink your tomato juice.”

And the young boy responds directly from the budding-adolescent script, “I don’t want to.”

The father escalates the encounter, raising his volume and sharpening his tone, “I said, drink your tomato juice!”

The mother jumped into the fray, “Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.”

The father looks at her, and says, “He can’t go through life, doing what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to do in all my life.”

For Campbell, this was a powerful moment that was revelatory as to this man’s personal predicament, but transparent to a fate shared by many who are captured by “the system”. The system can be anything: a business, the corporation, the university, a prescribed career path, one’s social setting, and might I add, the Church. It can be a cultural pattern of life that is embedded in society that one unconsciously “buys into”. And why not? The seduction of money, power, and self-worth is a powerfully seductive cocktail of identity.

A system is an organization, formal or informal, that operates as a culture of assumptions, values, taboos, and rules that offer you a sense of identity. You “belong” and enjoy the gift of identity and value it confers, although the price entails checking at least a piece of your individual freedom. The value of being a part of something bigger than you is high, and some people will go to extreme lengths to “fit in”, including checking your mind at the door. The promise offered is that your worth will be conferred by your connection, but the cost, undisclosed in the moment, turns out to be high.

Most of us make this expected connection, which helps you find your way in the early days of life, providing guideposts along the path, like the white slash marks on the Appalachian Trail. And this works in the first half of life as you seek to master your particular craft, whatever that happens to be. But, at mid-life, a couple of wayfaring strangers begin to knock at the door of your soul. One is Death, who whispers, or yells, that He is coming sooner than you think. Your time is limited, in fact is ticking down, you are one day closer to your death. Cheers!

The other uninvited visitor is not so rude as to taunt you with an unpleasant reminder. His mode is more subtle as he asks an important but troubling question: is this worth it? Is the life you are living worthy of your best energy and time? Or, should you make a change? These are existential questions that drill down to your core, the heart of your being. Some simply can not answer, for it would cost them too much. Others nibble around the edge, playing with the questions, going to a seminar or retreat, just to say you did. But some, some take a bite out of the apple, diving deep into the questions.

I have worked with all types of folks who have hit this mid-life moment. Popularly, it was called a mid-life crisis, which prompts some to buy a Corvette, buy a ’59 Stratocaster, or look for that trophy spouse. It’s called a “crisis” and that oddly gets it pretty accurately, as “crisis” literally implies a decision has to be made. Specifically, it begs the question: do you want to continue on the path you are on, or do you want to make a course correction?

Sometimes, the person finds that he/she only needs to do what he/she is doing but just in a better way, one that includes more of the inner Self that had been left behind, or repressed in service of being a part of a “system”. This “shift” can be made incrementally, using the freedom of some experimentation that allows one to “try on” some new, fresh ways of being without selling the farm. I have assisted several attorneys and physicians “reframe” how they were doing their work. They self-describe themselves as “sick” of being a doctor, or lawyer, as they wistfully remember a dream deferred. My tack is to playfully wonder if they might be able to keep being a doctor, or lawyer, but to do it in a way that took their whole being more seriously. Many wound up not having to leave their profession, just adjusting the direction a bit differently. I am happy to report that many found their bliss, as one lawyer stated it, he rediscovered his bliss, the very reason he pursued his deepest value, justice, as he applies his learned skills in working with the poor. In the wake of recent events, that feels like a hell of a good choice.

Other times, the press for change is so strong that the old “system” is felt to be too stultifying of one’s true Self, demanding a more radical action. Complete severance of ties may be contemplated as one looks to the horizon for a new direction, a new life. This deep disruption is demanding on the person, not to mention those whose lives are attached the this person’s life structure and commitments. But I am a witness to the “resurrection power” of bringing life to the dead when bliss is pursued and a non-authentic self is abandoned. I sometimes refer to this process as “truing up the Self”, bringing one’s being and doing into alignment with one’s bliss. ‘Miraculous’ is a word that comes to mind. ‘Scary’ is another word that seems to apply, begging for the exercise of courage that had seemed to have been hibernating in a domesticated lull.

Living an inauthentic life is all too common. I once used the word “zombie” to describe this condition, preaching on my home court of the Cathedral in Buckhead, long before The Night of the Living Dead. The reaction, positive and negative, was swift, telling me that I had struck close to the bone. It prompted many life-transforming dialogues, which is part of my particular and peculiar bliss.

As I said, this normally comes at mid-life. Jung defined that as the point at which one was aware that the time you had left to live was less than what you had lived. For some, this is a simple math problem, for others, it dawns when the black balloons turn up on one’s birthday. For me, it was a feeling down deep that I could not shake or deny.

Back in the day, 35-40 was the normal marker for mid-life, but this seems a bit artificial to me these days. Some people are wired with expectations for several careers, not just the “one career path”. Many young people who consult with me are planning on several phases and “acts” of their career, with absolutely no notion of staying with one company throughout their life. It will be interesting to see how such a planned path will go and the fruits and issues it may yield.

And, many seniors, who might be considering retirement, are creatively pondering a new path, sometimes pursuing more explicitly the “bliss” they might have missed. One friend, trained as an engineer, has longed for more ways to express his deepest passion for artistic expression. After some planning, he went all “Johnny Paycheck” on his firm, telling them to “shove it”, politely, of course, and is launching a new career that promises to give him more agency in how he spends his time as well as opening up the scope of his canvas of expression. You should see his eyes dance as he dreams and plans. Life abounds. Spirit is released. Bliss is experienced.

Following your bliss isn’t just a slogan for hipsters. It’s an attitude. It’s a mindset. I saw my mother find that in her painting as she moved into her senior years, having relinquished her teaching of biology to raise her two boys. That was a common path in the “system” of her day. When the empty nest liberated her time and energy, she courageously leaned into life with enthusiasm picking up on her lost love of art. She thrived. She grew. She found her bliss.

You are never too young, never too old to tackle this work of finding your bliss. For Joseph Campbell, he tried to get his students to wrestle with this goal right from the get-go. For others, it may come late, prompted by a nagging, gnawing intuition that there is more. But we are wired for the experience of bliss.

Unfortunately, you can be too tied to a style of living that seems to make it impossible to take risks, to try something new on for size. I have seen people dig deep for courage and take the leap of faith into the unknown future. It’s amazing and inspiring to witness, and I have had a front-row seat for many persons’ flight into bliss. It’s been a gift to me as I try to do the same.

To close, I have a story that was told to me at a recent spiritual retreat, trying to make the point that Joe Campbell made forty years ago. It really isn’t a story at all, though it is implied. A tombstone in Boston reads like this:

Here lies Effie Jones. For her, hell held no fury. Born a virgin, died one too. No hits, no runs, no errors.

I hope you laughed as hard as I did. Life is not about playing it safe, fearfully avoiding doing what one wants to do in your heart of hearts. Rather, it is an invitation to a dance of joy, realizing you will fail and fall along the way, but trusting the capacity to learn, rebound, and leap into a new way of being. This “way of being” leans into the future as you celebrate the journey, savoring the taste of life. That feels like a glimpse of bliss to me.

How about you?

Up At Four in the Morning

What is it that goes bump in the night?

In my house, it may be the icemaker, that deposits a new round of icy cubes just when the house is dark, settled, silent. Bang.

What goes bump? Normally, not Neil Young. But something woke me at 4 AM this Monday morning to find Neil Young on Showtime cable, in a documentary of a concert in Nashville at the famed Ryman Auditorium.

Why I woke up early will be a part of my wonderment for the rest of this day. For now, it proved to be a gift of sorts, reminding me generally of the role of music in my life and particularly, this epic concert over a two day gig in 2005. My son, Thomas, gave me a copy of the documentary one Christmas and it became part of the soundtrack of my life. I was immediately impressed with one song Neil did with Nicolette Larsen, titled Comes a Time. One line of poetic lyric landed squarely on my psyche: “This old world keeps spinning ’round, it’s a wonder tall trees a’int laying down, Comes a time.” What an apt description of my world at points.

One fine day, some years later, my phone rang. It was was my son, Thomas, calling from Nashville. He was inviting me to his upcoming gig, playing a pre-concert for Neil in Nashville, giving me a chance to see one of the most energetic shows of my life at the Ascend Amphitheater, as Chris Farley would say, down by the river.

Synchronicity is an odd thing, something I am studying in Carl Jung’s labrynthian theory. I am slow to ascribe cosmic connection to what may just be coincidence, but this seemed a bit strange, even to me. Just last evening, I came across a recording of Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl, which is a song that hooked me on Neil’s artistry. My friend, Alan Jackson, played it for me on his cheap record player during my freshman year at Emory. I had made fun of Neil’s voice in the past, but in that song, I caught a whiff of his soul, as he sang for his group Crazy Horse, driving the signature one note solo with a repeated D note.

Prior, I remember as a 7th grader going on the safety patrol trip to Washington, D.C. being fascinated by the plaintive lyrics and feel of his work on For What It’s Worth by the iconic Buffalo Springfield. Neil and I have quite a history, so being with him in Nashville was a culminating experience. To wake to him this morning prompted my reflection, random as it is, on the soundtrack of my life. Like me, my music memory will be inconsistent but spirited. My taste is wildly varied, eclectic to be sure, but always sensitive to the role of spirit underneath the beat and tone.

One of my first strong music memories was when I was emerging as a hormonal adolescent, discovering the primal force of music, alongside my emerging sexual drive. I remember sitting in Roger Hasting’s downstairs room, listening to Elton John’s live 11-17-70 album, still my favorite production of this artist. Later, I would sit at my piano and try to bang out those chords, sequestered in my basement so that only my dog would bear the pain of my learning.

Paul McCommon and I had the fearful honor of selecting the band for our Junior-Senior Prom, as we were the officers of the Junior class. My fear was palpable, that Keith Melton, the President of the Senior class, would not like the band that we chose, and would kick my young ass. Taking that abject fear in mind, our common (get it) taste was for horn bands, namely Chicago, the silver second album that I listened to constantly. Terry Kath’s guitar solos, and killer, tasty horns dominated my junior year. And of course, Colour My World, was the classic slow dance song of adolescent dreams., although I preferred the bad boy Stones’ Wild Horses for its plaintive soul. We booked Thrasher for the dance that was held at the Atlanta Progressive Jewish Club, which now houses the Turner Broadcast Network, visible from the Atlanta Connector. Look for it on the right, as you are heading south, next time you are sitting in traffic. Good news: Keith liked the band, and I later booked Thrasher, with a Freddie Mercury looking lead singer,twice at Emory. He was awesome on the cowbell leading off on Honky Tonk Woman.

My senior summer, driving my badass midnight blue Firebird Formula 400, I lived off of the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks, playing in my 8 track, stuck on Jumping Jack Flash, and my favorite for unknown reasons, Sympathy for the Devil, introducing me to the E blues progression. I remember specifically a moment of pulling into the golf course where I worked with Sympathy turned up to 11. All was “right” with the world from my vantage point on that day. I was ready to launch. Freedom was in the air, although so close to the airport, jet fuel smell intruded.

My soundtrack in college veered toward more folk rock, remembering the Eagles bursting on the scene with Take It Easy. Jackson Brown, Crosby, Stills, Nash….and later Young were some of the mainstays, though odd adds like Gino Vanelli might find its way into my eclectic juke box mind. The iconic Layla haunted me with Duane Allman and Eric Clapton’s killer guitar solos. However, reverence must be accorded to Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon. Many nights, watching the blinking red lights from the WAGA television tower outside my Emory dorm room would dominate my psyche. A sophisticated Steely Dan also wandered into my consciousness.

A strange thing happened in my fraternity house that sent me down a new path. We had a baby grand that would lend itself to my banging chords, more often than not, Sympathy, or some other three-chord rocker. Or it might yield to Kevin Getzendanner’s attempts at Elton’s riffs. But a new day came for me when Tom Greenbaum showed up from Shaker Heights, Ohio to master the 88s on that beer-soaked piano. I joked, but was probably correct, by saying Tom’s parents put him on piano instead of Ritalin for his hyperactivity. He had memorized the entire Sinatra catalog of songs, and introduced me to a classic live album, Sinatra at the Sands, with the Count Basie Orchestra. Unbelievable. Under My Skin did exactly that.

Then, Tom introduced me to the inimitable Oscar Peterson, who I had never heard of, although my mother and Clint Eastwood had lured me into piano jazz with Errol Garner’s Play Misty for Me. On a bet, we got a trio together, Mark Jones on “Wipe Out”drums, me on muddy acoustic bass, and Tom driving the train on keys. We spent many evenings in the parlor playing, having way too much fun. Someone would request a song, Tom would tell me what key it was in, and then, off we would go in a cloud of dust. I do remember playing the entire list of songs from Pippin, with Magic To Do serving as our spirited break music. We played at the Prado, where I would later work as a bouncer…such is the training for a priest. who’s going South of God.

In seminary, I lived in a house with a covey of divorced South of God ministers. Everyone was depressed, so we drank a lot of beer, listened to Gordon Lightfoot, and partied to Jimmy Buffett. Somewhere along the way, Willie Nelson came into my musical mind and he decided to stay. That was an odd add to my repitoire, that is until I discoverd my deep roots in Texas through my McBrayer grandmother. Later in Texas, Willie and a whole bunch of Texas songwriters took over my head, and I was lucky enough to hang with a few. My genetic code has the Caribbean beat, the Nashville twang, and the Texas heat blended in a mongrel mix. My son claims some of that juicy fruit in his songwriting as he lives out my unrequited dreams in Music City.

I give you all that jumbled, eclectic background to tell you about my current soundtrack, and it’s a strong one. You can thank me later.

It emerged for me last year as I was driving to the courthouse here in Glynn County, Georgia for the Ahmaud Arbery trial. I would leave my home on St. Simons Island, cross the causeway to Brunswick, take a left on Highway 17, hang a right onto Gloucester into downtown. During the drive in, and on the drive back home, I would play a particular album. It was by my current favorite artist, Jon Batiste.

I had learned of his genius watching him lead the band, Stay Human, on Steven Colbert’s late night show. He is unmistakably from New Orleans, growing up in a legendary musical family, natively bringing that Delta soul and bayou accent. But Jon was trained at Julliard and has a broad range of chops that is astounding. What’s exciting for me is that he is only beginning to blossom as an artist and one can only imagine where he will take this profound gift.

The album I listened to, my soundtrack, is called WE ARE. It was named “Album of the Year”, winning one of his three Grammys just a few weeks ago. As he received this singular award, he seemed genuinely surprised by the honor, but took the opportunity to opine of the role of music. “You know I really, I believe this to my core, there is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor. The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it the most. It’s like a song or an album is made and it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.” That was clearly the case for me an this album.

I was impressed with Jon’s attitude as to his art. “I like, thank God., I just put my head down and I work on my craft every day. I love music. I’ve been playing since I was a little boy. It’s more than entertainment for me. It’s a spiritual practice.” I know a bit about that.

Jon’s sincerity and spiritual depth is winsome. His work “found” me when my move to a new locale was fresh, leaving me with a sense of isolation, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic that squirreled us away in our singular homes. The societal stresses even reach into the island culture where I reside, and the starkness of racial division was made pungent in the wake of the murder/lynching of Ahmaud Arbery by three self-appointed vigilantes. February 23rd, in the fateful year of 2020 was the date, months before my move to the area, so the news was fresh. The trial of those three took a year and a half to come to trial.

Going to the trial daily, joining the Glynn County clergy in supporting the family and the community provided me an opportunity for work with which I was familiar. I thrive in the honest-to-God community that makes up the ethos of a small town. But the concommitant cost and stress was recognizable to me early on. Southern gothic scares the hell out of me, after reading Harper Lee and Flannery.

Batiste’s album became my therapy, as I prepped for the extraverted work of gathering with the group outside the courthouse. And, it provided me the calming depressurization on the way back home in the afternoon. It was Jon that rode alongside me daily, boosting me with a deep sense of joy, lamenting the pain of suffering and loss, urging the commitment to “tell the truth”, and rocking me with the brave assertion of freedom. It kept me going, inspiring me as I moved through this tough time.

I commend you takiing a listen. The album is packed with a variety of styles, but each song has a common feel of a “spirited soul” that is who Jon is at his core. I double-dog-dare you to listen to the song Freedom, and not move your bones, even if you are ancient like myself. I am sure that people who were riding alongside my Tahoe, crossing the causeway, thought there was a wild man loose in Golden Isles as I was rocking it on the road. And they would be right.

So, Jon Batiste, with his Delta blues infused jazz, injected with a bit of Gospel, aligns well with my soul. It helped me through a rough patch of transition in my existence. And truth is, music has always functioned like that for me. Negotiating developmental transition, moving through challenging times, music has provided me a base for my soul’s progress. In my planning, I schedule time for music to infuse and enrich my soul, feeding me spiritually for the work and life that I live. It can be Ralph Vaughn Williams, Emmylou Harris, or Charlie Parker. It’s like a vitamin, a nutritional supplement that gives me what I need to live with verve and commitment.

I hope you will take the time to listen to We Are, and see how it moves you. It may not be your proverbial “cup of tea”, and as Jon would say “that’s alright!” But my be;iief is that we all need to find ways to soothe the soul, particularly in the troubled times we find ourselves in. I encourage you to reflect on where you get your “juice”, and then be intentional about taking the time to get your soul fed. Truth is, you are responsible for the care of your Self. No one else will do it for you.

One of the lyrics of Jon states it well: In this world with a lot of problems, all we need is a little loving. Thank you, thank you, for your love.


Is It Worth It?

This is a vexing question that shows up in my soul every so often. “Is all this really worth it?”

It is deemed an existential question that gets to the heart of the matter of our being. It comes predictably as we complete a major project, or approach the end of a portion of our life, when we take a natural breath, that allows us the proverbial pause, and the question arises.

For me, most recently, it came during the conference of which I was a co-facilitator.
We had been working Saturdays, giving our precious “downtime” to gather, imagine, and plan. It culminated in a four day conference that was held online, connecting clergy from Seattle to Boston, from Austin to Warsaw, Poland, not Indiana. It involved forty hours of time on Zoom, going in and out of presentations, individual exercises, and processing our work in pairs, triads, and small groups. It demanded everyone to be unusually “present” which was the “secret sauce” for the alchemy of this process to work.

With participants from all over the globe, time zones were problematic. For me, it meant beginning at 11 AM in the morning and pushed me until 9 at night. Around 6:45, sans dinner, my brain was sending survival signals to my willing soul. What the hell are you doing?

That was when the question arose, without a proper introduction: Is this worth it? Are the hours and energy you are laying down worth it? Is this just another grueling commitment to a project of which you are an inexorably dogged victim, or is this worth your very best?

Let me pause to say that such questioning, in and of itself, is worth it. I am known to question value at most turns, and that habit has allowed me to reconsider some commitments that needed to be amended. Wasting my time is something to which I am resistant. I have made tough decisions to curtail my investment when I determined that the benefit accrued was not worth the cost. The term “New York minute” comes to mind, thinking about my willingness to stop my commitment when the cost to reward ratio is low. And the question seems to rise often on my horizon. Again, is it worth it?

When there is the promise of making a real difference in the life of a person, my answer seems to tend toward the positive. Participating in the transformation of a person, a relationship, a family system, an organization, a congregation, a village or city, or larger….. such an opportunity seems to command my being and undergirds my commitment. Just don’t ask me to “play at it”, merely going through the motions. Homey don’t play that. That is to say, I am no longer willing to give my time and energy to activity that merely fills my schedule. I want it to count. Make a difference.

That’s nothing new for me, as it has shown up on any personality assessment that I have submitted to: a thirst for meaning, a deep desire of making a difference. The change in me has been that, through time, I have sharpened my discernment of worth and value. It has actually liberated me from saying “yes!” to everything people put in front of me, which is a good thing for all concerned. I have become, thankfully, more discerning.

I said “yes” to the idea of investing my time, energy, and creativity to this project, the Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive, because I have been committed to the continuing development of clergy throughout my career. It “fits” the overall trajectory of my life, and it gave me a connection to a group of fellow creatives who dreamed of doing something good through transformative interchange. So I signed the contract, handed my heart over, and off we went.

But, if I am being honest. I did not recognize the cost fully. My enthusiasm can sometimes get me out over my skis.

And, as I was deep into one of those days, the little angel on my left shoulder whispered, “Are you sure this is worth it?”

I have written everything in this piece of writing in order to set up a moment of affirmation: IT IS! It is worth it.

When we wrapped up the final session of the four day conference, we went around the group, getting their reflections on the considerable investment of time. Each one offered a moving testimony as to how the design we used led them to some deep insights about themselves, transforming their image of what it meant for them to continue in the work of serving as a leader in the church. I had a sense at the end of the event that it was all worth it, which is good stuff.

It brought to mind a concept that I have used for years. It’s called “psychic pay”. It’s not like the Cash Money that the O Jays talk about when they sing about Mean Green, the Almighty Dollar. I’ll wait while you remember the lyrics and that badass bass line. Cash money, y’all. That’s what I’m talkin’ bout. No, getting paid for your work is a good feeling, and pays the bills. But there is this other thing, “psychic pay”, where your soul cashes the check. It’s when you do something that is aligned with your greater purpose. You know it when it happens. And, you know it when it doesn’t, which may be why so many people have left jobs, the Great Resignation, that not only did not pay them well in terms of dollars, but was seriously lacking in providing the essential and meaningful psychic pay.

It’s this “psychic pay” that drives my life. When I review my life, it always has, probably always will. And I feel pretty good about that.

Many times, it’s work-related, when I get the somatic sense that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. My “doing” is aligned with my “being”, so that my energy, my juices, are flowing. My hope is that you know what I am talking about here, that vibration of your soul when you know that you are in the right space doing the right thing. It doesn’t have to be a monumental act, with fireworks and bombast. It can be a touch, a hug, a glance, a call, a word. But you know it when it happens. “Psychic pay”.

We gathered a week after the conference to check-in, to see how it was going, how our participants were reentering their lives as they attempted to plug-in fresh insights. One particular participant, a woman, had come to the first session cautiously, which is probably wise. But for her, there was a deep fear that prevented the expression of her self to others, particularly men who were in authority. During the four days of the conference, we observed the emergence of a strong, but sensitive person who found her voice and presence in a new way. Coming to the check-in, she told of her initial approach to her “boss” and how she had been able to be present in a new way, out of strength and presence of self. She smiled, giggled a bit, as she described this encounter with a person who had previously “shut me down”. The face of the person who was now speaking to the group about this interchange looked completely changed, transformed. It was as if she became her true self, not the fearful scared little girl that presented on the first day. When I saw the transformation, I had a moment of “psychic pay”. The work we had done together made a true difference in her life. That is connected to my “greater purpose”.

My colleague, John Scherer, has another way of talking about this special moment. He recounts the biblical narrative of Creation. After God has done the heavy-lift work of creation, the text says that God looked at the Creation and then said “Tov!”, the Hebrew word for “good”. God declares, “It is good!”. Tov actually means more than a simple affirmation of goodness. It is an exclamatory statement recognizing that what one is witnessing, seeing at a deep level, is just what was intended, just right, to quote Goldilocks. It is a profound YES! to this moment, when everything is firing on all cylinders. A bright shining moment. One for the ages!. That’s what I’m talking about! Tov!

In Jewish culture, affirmation at the witnessing of a union of two persons in marriage results in a heart-felt expression, Mazel Tov. When you have done something, especially created something, and you witness what you have made, which is expressing the deepest dimension of your being, that is Tov. An affirmation emerges, flows from the depth of your soul. It’s a kind of pride, connecting you to that moment of creativity, something we share with God. We just might be led to shout “Tov!”, even though we might be South of God. For me. my “psychic pay” is tied in with that experience of Tov, joined at the hip.

Work is not the only place we get “psychic pay”. This past Monday evening, my son, Thomas, sent me the master tapes for his new album. There are seven songs that he’s been working on for the past year. He has put his heart and soul into the writing, performing, and the production of this new album. I put on my studio earphones, as he requested, and I listened to them sequentially, as he requested, making notes. I had listened to most of them singularly as they evolved but this was a moment that my son gifted to me, a sneak peek, or listen, to the master tapes, after all the production work. As I sat listening, I was filled with pride for my son’s artistry, his creative writing of lyrics, and his courage to follow his dream. That provided a moment of father’s psychic pay. Tov!

In past moments, I have gotten that rare “pay day” when I got to see him play live on stage, watching him and his bandmates make music together. I am moved by his courage, his brave face. But my pride swells particularly when I catch him smiling while looking at a bandmate across the way, engaged in this magical, collaborative thing called music. For me, that’s as good as it gets. Psychic pay. Tov!

Same with my daughter, Mary Glen, as I see her with her husband, Michael, and they exchange looks of love across the room, or at the table. Their playfulness, their joy in sharing life together, reminds me of the joy that is in the weave of life, the joy every parent wants to see in the face of their child. Additionally, through time, I have been allowed to watch my daughter move gracefully in the world. Mary Glen has the capacity of deep relationships with her friends, as well, as she cares for them through joy and pain, crisis and celebration. That gives parents a sense of satisfaction as you pray to God that they will find a deep joy in their living. Psychic pay. Tov!

I count myself fortunate to be spending my time these days working with a variety of folks who are making their way in their careers. One is the CEO of a large healthcare system who has transformed it into a responsive organization by strengthening it into a culture of accountability. I have worked with an engineer who is transitioning out of a job he hated in a toxic system into a life-giving business that matches his deepest self. I am working with a young clergy person who is trying to figure out how to be a servant in the Church without losing his soul in the process. I am working with a priest who is wanting to close out his career by “ending well”. And I am working with a retired priest who is trying to write a new chapter in his life. I get the privilege of coming alongside these persons in their sacred journey, helping them along the way as their coach, their guide, their companion. Psychic pay, Tov!

This is the work I do each week, along with my writing. I have to tell you that most days, I end up smiling to myself that I am doing exactly what I should be doing with my time and energy, living out of my greater purpose. To have good work, to work with people that I truly love and care for……that is what I call a blessing. I am most grateful. As I said, it is my psychic pay, and to answer my own question, it is very much worth it. Mazel tov, y’all.


Go Grow Roses….

Telling this paradigmatic story of my journey through life, I got back in touch with some deep truths that have come my way. I have told this story before, in sermons, in this column, but this time it was to a friend and colleague during the recent retreat I was co-leading for clergy. It feels right to tell it again, as a re-minder to me of a deep truth that was given to me in a particularly painful moment. Plus, it’s a hell of a good story.

I was serving as the Canon Pastor at the Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta. Part of my duty was to celebrate the Eucharist (holy communion for those of you South of God) every noon in our lovely little chapel, with usually ten to thirty people who would show up, whether they needed to or not.

Elizabeth Dickey, the cousin to Deliverance’s James Dickey, almost always was there, a resident at our retirement facility, the Cathedral Towers. She was so faithful, one of Dave’s Faves, but always about a beat behind in her articulating the words of the liturgy. She sat in the same pew every day on the lefthand side of the chapel.

Another parishioner, Phil Sapelo, was also there most days, sitting on the front right pew. Phil was a bit overbearing in his opinions, even before the current culture wars, and was one of those people sent by God on a special mission to train me in my spiritual discipline of patience. He was always about half a beat ahead of the normal rhythm of our liturgy, which made the service a bit tricky for the celebrant. “Cacophony” would be too strong a word, but “disjointed” barely approaches the feel of confusion,.

One day, I actually broke down and tried to train them, like an orchestra conductor, to be conscious of that rhythm, and it worked for a minute, but soon we returned to the syncopated liturgy. It turned out that I was more of a conductor on a train, headed for the proverbial train wreck. I smiled, and accepted the lesson in my early days of priesting.

During my time, I would notice the people who showed up for this service. For some, it was a daily habit that provided a structure to one’s day. Many times, it was a moment of convenience as one was out shopping and just dropped by for a spiritual pause in their day. Other times, a crisis had occurred and the person was literally on their knees, seeking guidance. It was an opportune time for me as a priest, to greet the person at the door in the back, giving them an option to engage. And some would take advantage of the moment, while others would scurry back to the world, as I honored the unique role of the Cathedral to provide a safe space for transition, a moment of liminality, a valuable pause in our social network.

Early on in my time beginning to take on this duty, I noticed a handsome, distinguished older man, who sat midway on the right side. He wore a black blazer, not the more common navy with brass buttons. His glasses were perched on the end of his nose, with a cord around his neck, securing his spectacles conveniently.

He was there almost every day, but whisked out before I could greet him. Finally, one day, I rushed to the back and caught him. going against my normal rule of leaving people alone who wanted their privacy. I said that I noticed his regular presence and was glad to see him. He introduced himself as Gary Garnett. I asked if he would like to grab a cup of coffee, an old Episcopal ploy. Over the steaming cup of coffee that Christine had made, he surprised me by telling me that he was an Episcopal priest. He had been a “fast track” priest in North Carolina. He had burned out and had left the parish ministry, something I was beginning to understand. He went on to tell me that he was gay, and had partnered with a man with whom he had a business. We continued to meet weekly, exploring his original calling to priesthood, the things he loved about the work, and the things that made that role problematic, eventually causing him to curtail his formal exercise of that office.

It began with a simple offer. Would you ever like to celebrate the daily Eucharist in the chapel? His eyes lit up, like I had flipped a switch. And so it began. He began to take a day in the weekly rotation in the chapel. Soon, I invited him to provide a limited number of hours, serving as our hospital visitor, as he would drop in on parishioners at Piedmont Hospital. To cut to the chase, I wound up asking him to come on my pastoral care staff, as he became a full-time priest on the Cathedral staff. Truth is, Gary became one of the most beloved priests at the Cathedral, using his considerable pastoral skills while visiting folks in the hospital, Plus, he did not have to deal with all the administrative “stuff” that I had to mess with. It was perfect for him. and he thrived.

Gary became a treasured colleague, but even more a friend. I would often end my day by going to his condo on top of a building behind the Cathedral. We would sit in his roof garden, enjoying the view of the Atlanta skyline, sipping spirits, and solving the problems of the world, the challenges of the urban reality of Atlanta, and the Cathedral in particular, even the rhythm of the chapel liturgy of Elizabeth and Phil. Actually, we often found that it was humor that helped us make it through the times. It was a holy space for me, a place of communion.

One day, Gary came into my office, shutting my door behind him. Through tears, he told me of a diagnosis of lung cancer that was advanced. He would undergo treatment but the prognosis was not optimistic. We prayed, sat in silence, and then talked until closing time.

That night, I had a dream during my sleep. It was vivid, different from most of my dreams, but it was not the first elaborate dream I had on occasion. My witchy grandmother McBrayer once told me that it ran in the family, this dream “thing”. She admonished me to pay attention. She said her father, John Columbus McBrayer, had had a dream of the death of his wife when they lived in the black dirt soil of Waco, Texas. And the vision he had, of her dying during childbirth came to pass. My grandmother said that she also had dreams that pointed to things coming. I remember her telling me one day, as an impressionable little boy, “Pay attention to your dreams! It is God speaking to you!”

Now, science and the Enlightenment had knocked most of that mystical stuff out of me. I prided myself in my scientific perspective, although I had begun to play with the role of dreams in the unconscious as explored by Carl Jung. It still felt spooky to me, but I had experienced strong intuition and had a tremulous dream on the night I was on retreat at the Trappist monastery before my ordination to the priesthood, which I have recounted here in South of God. But this dream was different.

So this particular dream happened the night after Gary told me of his cancer diagnosis:

I was standing on the ridge of a small mountain, overlooking a valley. It reminded me of a location on Pine Mountain, at Dowdell’s Knob where President Franklin Roosevelt would picnic on visitation to Warm Springs. It was a place my grandfather would take me as a boy.

The sky was dark and stormy, the way it gets in mid-Georgia during the summer months. Tornado time. I was standing on the mountain, shaking my fist at the sky, and I was screaming/crying: Damn you, God! How could you do this to Gary? He’s found himself, recovering his sense of vocation, serving as a faithful priest, loving Your people, and now you are going to strike him down? I don’t get it. This makes NO sense. Gary does not deserve this. Damn you!

In my dream, a kind, even-toned voice came from the sky:

David, you let me take care of Gary, and you go grow roses.

That was it. What the hell did that mean? I woke up, wrote down the dream on a pad I kept by the bed, and reviewed it the next morning. In fact, when I awoke in the morning, I thought I had dreamed about writing the note down, but there it was, this vexing dream content of my outburst at the Almighty, with God’s quiet reply.

What was I to make of this? I called my Trappist monk spiritual director who grew bonsai trees in the monastery greenhouse. I never will forget his laughter when I told him, he was trying so valiantly to not laugh at his young perplexed friend. I asked what he thought, and he responded, “If I were you, I’d grow roses!”

The story gets even more strange. I called up an old church member from Decatur who was a renowned rosarian in the Atlanta botanical world. I didn’t feel comfortable telling him about my dream. I simply asked him to tell me how to grow roses….my admirable habit is to consult the best.

Beryl Brown began to tell me much more than I wanted to know. First, you dig out the Georgia red clay from the beds where you are going to plant the roses, three to four feet down. You install French drains to help with the moisture. You amend the soil with peat moss, sand, and perlite. You install a drip irrigation system to precisely water each individual plant. As he is droning on with his masterful lecture, I stopped him and asked him if all of this was really necessary. He paused at the end of my question and I imagined the contortion of his face. “You ASKED me how to grow roses. I am trying to tell you!” he said, with no attempt to disguise his disgust.

Got it. Three to four feet, huh. Really?

So I ordered 70 bare-root roses from Oregon. Dug out two beds, one by the side of the house, the other in my Peachtree-Dunwoody virgin forest backyard. I built a raised bed out of railroad crossties. Amended the soil as prescribed. Planted these things that looked more like sticks than bushes. Installed a drip irrigation system that, to my utter surprise, worked! My house did not explode with water shooting out my chimney, as I had imagined. And, the plants began to grow just like the man said. Beryl even gave me a secret tip, a mystical concoction of alfalfa pellets, water, and other secret ingredients that I would have to kill you if I told you. I mixed it up in a large rubber trash can, witchily stirring the brew with my granddad’s old boat paddle. The smell would knock you naked, as my old friend Ron Lane would say. But, by God, or Beryl, it worked.

Roses grew abundantly. I worked hard, caring for my roses, leaving Gary’s fate to God, learning to trust in a new way. It was sacramental, as I experienced a visceral reaction to the sweat, muscle soreness, escaping blood, and earthy smell that was a part of my piece of Eden. I would carry roses to the staff at the Cathedral, especially Gary, giving me an occasion to express my love for him. It was quite a season for the roses, and for me.

I wish my story had a fairytale ending. The chemo took out some of the cancer, but exacted a terrible price on Gary’s body, though his spirit remained valiant.

In the middle of this cosmic drama, I received a call from an amazing parish, Christ Church, in Tyler, Texas, curiously known as the City of Roses. Surprisingly, I accepted the call, took my young family across the Mississippi River to my grandmother’s native soil, and began to do the hard work of growing people in that part of God’s Creation, staying a decade in the fields of East Texas.

As I left Atlanta for the Rose City, I said my goodbyes to a fine colleague, and even better friend, the Rev. Father Gary Garnett. We both knew that day, it would be the last time we would see each other, as we shared an embrace. Our farewells were watered with tears, but I was able to give my friend, Gary, one last red rose, knowing that the God who gave me an enigmatic charge, would take care of His end of the bargain. It was off to Texas for me while the journey of my friend was drawing to a close.

Go grow roses. Oh my.

A Passion for Transformation

It’s impossible for me to tell you how exciting it is to witness a life being transformed, with dreams emerging, passion flowing, and eyes opening. The experience rivals watching the birth of my children, which makes sense as transformation is much like a birth. Messy, some pain, but the promise rules the time and space.

This week, I am involved in a gathering of people who happen to be minister types: clergy, priests, pastors., oh my! They are a strange lot… I should know. They fascinate me as they talk about their call from God, some boldly, some hesitatingly, some with a whisper. The group I am working with this week come from a variety of traditions: Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists South of God, community churches, and, yes, even Episcopalians.

The event is called a Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive and is meeting over the course of a week. It has clergy with varied experience: some who are just getting started, fresh to their first congregations; some who are mid-career; some nearing the finish line; and others who are retired, looking for their next chapter. They come voluntarily, not sentenced by their adjudicatory boards or bishops. No, they come looking for something: clarity, fresh winds for their sails, inspiration, a word, perhaps. But they have come of their own volition.

The ingenious format for this gathering is the product of my friend and colleague, Dr. John Scherer, who has been doing this work for almost forty years. John began his work as a Lutheran pastor, but he morphed into a leading consultant in the field of applied psychology and organizational development. In the past, John’s work was mostly in the business sector, engaging folks from the corporate world, inviting them to discover the spirit that is within each person in the work they do.

I attended an event thirty years ago, in Idaho, with a bunch of corporate types, me as the lone priest among the heathen. It was a life-changing experience for me as I clarified some of the things that were driving me to do what it was I was doing, as well as to face up to some of the parts of me that were getting in my way. Literally in the shadow of a white-supremacist militia camped in the beauty of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, I found a freedom that I had somehow lost along the way.

It was so powerful to me that I invited John to Tyler, Texas to do his thing with my Leadership Foundation of New East Texas, a project funded by the Pew Trust. Within my mix of Latino, black, and white leaders, who were training to lead in our quiet but conflicted East Texas town and region, John introduced some of the parts of this process, notably the notion of presence showing up with 110% of who you are. The effect on my group was marked as we were about the task of building the capacity of each of our participants.

And a few years later, I asked him to come to Atlanta to my new parish and offer a shortened version to some of the leaders of Coca Cola, Lockheed, and other major Atlanta corporate players who were members of the congregation. It happened to include my brother and his emerging group of healthcare consultants that became Galloway Consulting. John’s ability to invite engagement at a deep level was remarkable and his presentation skills were on full display there in Atlanta. John always delivers the goods, right on time for most folks.

John has worked with a variety of organizations with the intent of connecting folks to the deep Spirit within them. He has a bold approach that pushes one to come home to your true self. He is not hawking a typical self-improvement guru line, but rather, an abiding sense that you have everything that you need right inside of yourself, right now. The surprising good news that he delivers is that you don’t need to change yourself, but rather, come home to your Self. It’s a rich process of diving deep into who you are and rediscovering the passion and gifts within.

John offers five questions that form the structure for the work.

The first is “What is confronting you?” The work begins in the present, in that “now” moment, asking you to face the main thing that is confronting you in your life. He uses the imagery of a tiger as the creature that is engaging you presently. Playfully, John asks “If you are confronted by a tiger in the jungle, what would you do?” Naturally, your first instinct is to run. But, that is not a wise move, for the tiger is trained through the evolution of a predator to run you down and eat you for supper, a tasty treat. Counter-intuitively, you must face the tiger, not running, but looking directly at the person, issue, or situation that is confronting you. Adding reality to the mix, John reminds one that facing your “tiger” does not mean that you are going to survive, but at least you have a shot.

This “tiger” image captures the feel of the whole event: playfully serious, and seriously playful. It is so profound that I have a photo of me confronting my Tiger sitting on my desk from an event twenty-five years ago, It makes me smile as I glance at my figure, leaning into the exercise, and my “tiger”, sans my gray hair. There’s always a tiger prowling.

The second question is “What are you bringing?’ which invites you to explore your history, the blessings and curses that you have gathered in your life journey. This is the question that asks you to come clean about your presumptions, biases, and assumptions about the lay of the land in your world. How are you conditioned to see “this” and not see “that”? What are you missing in the scan of the situation that is facing you?

The third question asks “What is running you?” This may be the toughest question to face as you look to discover your default position, that is, how are you programmed to live your life, unaware of the standard operating procedure that drives you. You are asked to look at how you were trained, consciously and unconsciously, to live life. Who taught you to be the “somebody” that you are? Who is the “person” that you present to the world in order to get what you want, or crave? And, what part of yourself have you put in “cold storage” because you fear it would render you unacceptable, or lead to rejection. The polarity work of Barry Johnson is introduced as a way through the forest of tension that exists within each person, as one is given a model of working with the polar opposites that have vexed our lives and leadership. The promise is to become more aware of how you have been living in an automatic mode, with the promissory hope of becoming able to expand your repertoire of behavior intentionally.

The fourth question asks “What calls you?” This is a promising opportunity to look deeply within and see the particular and peculiar gifts that are inside of you. Some gifts will be familiar, while others you will discover, perhaps for the first time. Still, other potential gifts are locked away, dimensions of your Self that scare you and evoke anxiety and fear when considered. The quest is to become aware of who you are and your deep needs, the needs of others that compose your world, and a connection to a greater purpose that is worthy of your best energy. This is what John calls the “sweet spot”, and when you are there, you know it. The “sweet spot” in your Goldilocks moment: it feels just right!

Finally, the fifth question poses the challenge: What will unleash you? I love the feel of this question, and anyone who has labored under the constraints of a system that holds you back from your full-tilt Self, knows what “unleash” means. It’s exciting just to say the word. This involves the commitment to move from what was an “automatic” life to an authentic life that includes all of the richness of your true Self. This is what is meant by transformation, which is the goal of the process. It includes some letting of what was, accompanied by the pain that accompanies new birth. Transformation requires the deep desire for a new possibility, along with the willingness to “not know” the exact shape of the future. Finally, one is asked to lean into this new way of being with openness. What I am witnessing in these participants in the SLDI is a sense of liberation, a newly discovered sense of freedom, that one person described as “taking flight”! God, I love this work.

John has designed an experiential way of engaging these questions that is not a mere “head trip”. It involves the whole person: heart, mind, and soul. The process demands a lot from the participants, including honesty with one’s Self and others; a willingness to enter into intimate, collaborative dialogue; an exercise of curiosity; the courage to ask the deep questions; and a trust in the process.

As I said, John has been offering this process for executives for years in the corporate world. But about a year ago, we began to talk about a process that would be designed specifically for those who exercise leadership in the faith community. A team of clergy and lay persons began to meet every Saturday for almost a year to think through how we might fashion this experience, tuning it for this rare breed of person known as clergy. This current week, we are proceeding through our initial cohort group, testing and trying out the design, to make sure it is the best we can provide. It’s been a dream of John for years, and I sense his excitement it rolled down the runway, taking off into open air, as we bring this idea to flight.

As for me, it fits a lifelong passion for personal and leadership development for clergy. It began with my awareness of Interpreter’s House, a three-week process for clergy, designed by Carlyle Marney, my theological mentor. Marney was assisted in this work by a young Harvard graduate student, Jim Fowler, who was chasing his dream of understanding the mystery of faith and how that develops through time. It was in this funky mix of listening to ministers tell their stories around a fireside that the nascent forms of faith development emerged.

It was that relationship to Marney that initially drew me to Jim as he came to Atlanta to teach at Emory. As I was pursuing my doctoral work under him, I joined the staff at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University. Using Marney’s idea, but employing our faith development theory, we developed Pilgrimage Project as a week-long process for spiritual growth and awareness for clergy. I later developed a transition process for clergy who were moving from seminary to their first parish. This was in the Diocese of Texas, with my colleague, the Rev. Kevin Martin. I have been using pieces of all these modalities in my coaching of clergy over the years. In many ways, the SLDI work feels like coming home, again.

Getting a chance to work with John Scherer and the team gathered of Mike Murray, Kathy Davis, and Terry Rogers, is a dream come true. This group is an incarnation of the word “collaboration” and brings to reality the spirit of creative interchange.

The dream for this Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive (SLDI) is that it will provide a fresh modality and process for continuing education for clergy. It is not the typical seminar of new, trendy ideas, nor a workshop of training in a technique. Rather, it is an intentional, experiential engagement that clergy can decide for themselves to enter, for clarification and discovery of their gifts for leadership and ministry.

Our independence from any denominational agenda allows us to be free to focus on the development of the person in whatever way the Spirit is leading. It is my prayer that it will evolve into a process that will be life-giving for the Church and the world.

If you are interested in future events with the SLDI, you can contact me at John Scherer’s book, Five Questions, is available through Amazon.

“Don’t Screw Up My Easter!”

Moving from Baptists South of God to the Episcopal Church was a scary time of adjustment and risk, but I knew I was headed home.

After serving as a minister in two progressive Southern Baptist churches, I felt something was missing. I came from a history of stellar pastors, such as Carlyle Marney, Estill Jones, John Claypool, Bill Lancaster, and Tom Conley. Excellent scholarship, superb preaching, and vibrant personalities, these five pastors cut a fine image of what a pastor could be. But, four of the five were known for being “mavericks” within the tradition. And if I stuck around, I probably would follow their lead and become a maverick myself.

I had observed these guys from afar, as well as close up, and admired their courage and independence. But, I also knew the price they paid. I wanted my independence, but I also wanted to be a part of a community where I experienced a sense of being “at home”, not always playing the role of rebel. There’s a definite art, maybe even a trick, to keeping these two goals in a balanced, polar tension. But that was my intuition as to what I needed and therefore my heart’s desire.

Through my educational and training track, I surprisingly found myself at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, working in the counseling center and working with the homeless ministry at a time when psychiatric hospitals were turning patients out onto the street. My experience at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Atlanta gave me an experience of a community where I felt that sense of “home” where you are known and loved. I found both intellectual curiosity and honesty, with wide birth given to all ways of thinking. Inclusive rather than exclusive, Luke’s went out of its way to be invitatory to all sorts and conditions of people. For me, that was more reflective of the vision that Jesus had presented as the coming Kingdom of God. Luke’s pressed the bounds of what it meant to be Church, intentionally engaged in transforming the city of Atlanta. And the broader Episcopal Church was deeply embedded in the sacramental tradition, while intellectually free, following Truth wherever it led. I wanted some of that.

I began to explore the possibility of making the Episcopal church the base of my personal faith as well as the field for my work, whether as a lay person or as a priest. I began to inquire how I might make that move as my new wife and I began attending the worship of St. Luke’s on Sunday.

My first bishop was a form-setter in the church, Bennett Sims. Bishop Sims heard my story and my desire to be an Episcopal priest and responded enthusiastically, He offered a vision of my moving quickly from my Baptist ordination to priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. I was so excited.

But then I was introduced to a scary creature in the Episcopal Church known as “order”, or as I had come to know it as “bureaucracy”. There was a “meet and right” order to things, a process, I was told. The Chairman of the Commission on Ministry told me in no uncertain terms that I would have to go through about a two-year process to see if it was in the cards for me to be a priest. It’s hilarious that I was cast in the role of Chairman of the COM twenty years later. Irony follows me like a dog.

After I was told that a “hold” was placed on my process, I chaffed at the reins being pulled in on me. I made an appointment with the person who was in charge of the “process”, Caroline Hughes (later Westerhoff). She graciously listened to me review my seminary work, my doctoral work, my experience in two churches, and my clinical experience, as I piled them up high in front of her. I strategically added at the end that two other bishops had offered me a quick path that would forego this extensive “process”. At the end, she furrowed her brow ( a look I came to recognize, and eventually love) ‘splaining to me “how it was” in the Diocese of Atlanta. She concluded by saying that she understood the “rush” of a young man in a hurry, BUT, if I wanted to be a priest in the Diocese of Atlanta, I would have to go through the process.

The “process” at that time had two components. The first was sitting with a committee from your home parish who would help you explore your call to the priesthood. If this committee recommended you for pursuing priesthood, you would move into the second phase, the Vocational Testing Program, VTP we called it. There you would go to nine months of meeting with peers who were also seeking the Church’s blessing to move on in the process. The group would meet weekly with two supervisors, one clergy, one lay. My lay supervisor turned out to be Caroline, a gift that I had no idea just how great it would be.

I decided to go through the “process”, but with a critical self-understanding as to it being my own intention, claiming my own volition in going this route. It was MY decision. No one was forcing me to go through this process. I wanted to be clear with that so that I did not waste any time and energy rebelling, consciously or unconsciously, to the process. I wanted to dive into the process with everything I had, not hold back a pound, as Rudy Ray Moore might say.

And that is what I did. I have written about the process in another post if you are interested. It was one of the more transformational experiences of my life, with me receiving the imprimatur of my group, my supervisors, the Commission on Ministry, the Standing Committee, and finally the Bishop. Did I mention anything about “process”?

So that is the setup for my brief story around Easter.

As a newly ordained transitional deacon on Feb. 23rd, I was designated to have a special part in the Easter Vigil liturgy at the Cathedral, serving Bishop Judson Child, who was now the Diocesan Bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta. The deacon is designated to chant an ancient hymn called the Exultutet, which recounts the mighty acts of God in redeeming the people of Israel, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, sustaining them through the wilderness, leading them to the Promised Land. It connects that Exodus journey to the Paschal Mystery of Christ going through death through crucifixion, waiting in vigil for three days for the cosmic redemption of death with the Resurrection. The Exultet is gorgeous poetry set to a series of tones that climb up and down the scale, a challenge to even an experienced singer. And yet, I was the one scheduled to do this, in front of God, a thousand of my closest friends…. and my mama. Lord, have mercy.

I began back in Advent, five months prior to the big day. I would go each morning to the organ in Mikell Chapel and play the notes of the Exultet, singing along in a slow chant, searching for tone and pace. Bob Simpson, the Choirmaster gave me time to coach me, generously giving me his skills in the vocal arts, pushing me for precision, but encouraging me along the way with reassurance. Sometimes, I felt like Bob was observing me as a drowning man in a roaring sea, as he encouraged me to keep at it, don’t give up! Gurgle.

The night of the Easter Vigil arrived, and I was a nervous wreck. I had gotten to the Cathedral early to go through the chant one last time. I put on my vestments early. I could not tell if the weight of the vestment was from the cloth-of-gold fabric, something we bring out on high feast days, or if it was just the weight of the moment. Probably both.

I was pacing, something I never do, but pacing, trying to gather my thoughts, using my old tricks of meditation to calm my young self down. Other clergy were slowly gathering, speaking softly, appropriate to the moment of this Vigil. And I continued to pace.

Suddenly Bishop Child appeared, with his gold cope (cape) and staff (crozier). I have never met another person who loved being a bishop more than him. It was his joy. I was so anxious that I would not do well, my pacing increased as he came into the vesting room, ready to go. He had taken on a father-like role in my life, having sponsored me, ordained me, and then mentored me in my formation to the priesthood. He provided funds for me to go to Sewanee to study with the leading liturgical scholar in the Episcopal church. I owed him big time.

He obviously picked up on my nervousness. He approached me on my right side, grabbing the sleeve of my vestment in his hands, pulling me toward him, firmly. He was right in my face, sort of like the proverbial Seinfeldian dreaded “close talker”.

I will never forget the pregnant moment. He looked at me piercingly with his eyes and then he said: If you screw up the Exultet, you will screw up my Easter. Don’t screw up my Easter!

Dear reader, know that I am cleaning up the specific word he used. It was shocking to hear that word come out of the Bishop’s mouth, particularly with the backdrop of this most holy day.

The effect of the message was first shock, and then hilarity. He and I both were laughing deeply, breaking the tension, I imagine, for both of us. It was true, at least for me. My nerves receded, I was able to be really present, ready to chant that Exultet like it had never been chanted before.

Truth is, Bishop Child knew me, the way I was wired, and took the time and energy and focus and risk to give me what I needed. He knew exactly what he was doing, and it worked.

We talked later about it, and he laughed as the characteristically rubbed his hands together as if the director of a play that went just as he planned.

As you can imagine, I think of that moment every Easter, particularly at the Vigil. In that moment, I sensed the hilarity of the disciples in the surprise of the resurrected Jesus, of life emerging from the tomb of fear and resignation.

But, more importantly, I knew intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, that I, indeed, had found my home. What a blessing it was that day, and continues to be.

This Easter season, I would wish that for you, wherever you are lucky enough, or blessed, to find it. Blessings.