Doctor, Lawyer, Tribal Chief?

Framing my concept of the journey of life, I have written about two distinct dimensions of how life unfolds. One is a defining moment in which a person makes a major decision that defines the direction of one’s life. That choice changes the course one will travel.

The other, a twist of fate,  is a seemingly random action  that spins one’s life in a particular  and peculiar direction. Last week, I wrote about a classroom seating change that made way for a huge difference in my  own development. This week, there is an odd mixture of making a critical decision which results in an unexpected twist of fate. It’s complicated, this thing called life.

When entering college, I had made a decision to use the next four years as a means to discern my career path. I decided to attend Emory because of its reputation for a superb pre-med program, playing with the notion that I might become a physician. That was the main driver behind this decision to choose Emory  but it was reinforced by the presence of a vibrant liberal arts program that would round out the learning of any student, something I knew that I wanted. I hoped that the four years would yield a broad exposure to the world as opposed to a narrow specialization. The focusing would wait for grad school in whatever form was appropriate. That was the plan.

That plan included me taking the courses required to prepare me for medical school but with the clear intent of taking a broad range of courses that would expose me to a variety of subjects, keeping my options open. Who knew where I might go: medicine, law, politics, journalism.  But to be practical, I knew that I must take some courses that would allow me to choose a more specialized path when my college days ended.

When I arrived on campus in August, I knew that I would be taking at least one science course  in my first quarter. It would be a challenging chemistry course   sometimes known as a “freshman killer”, renowned for taking an aspiring student out of the chase for medical school, redirecting his/her career path. Better early than later seemed to be the Emory mindset.

I also planned to take a psychology course, as I had a native curiosity in how the human mind worked. With those two courses on my plate, it meant that I would be able to select one course from a wide scope of options. To be frank, in this competitive environment, facing two challenging classes, I was thinking of taking a course that would be a “slam dunk”, or as it was known in my circles, “an easy A”.

What course might I take that would fit that goal? In my head, I thought about a wide range of subjects. English had been my favorite subject in high school but Emory had a host of fine but difficult professors. probably not a good bet right out of the gate. History was a favorite, but I was unsure as to the depth of my background. History of art had a renowned department but I didn’t think I could float it past the scrutiny of my dad. And then it dawned on me: religion.

I had grown up in a Christian home, attended Sunday School, learning all the Bible stories. The pastors I experienced while growing up were holders of doctoral degrees in New Testament, no jack leg preachers in my past. These guys were New Testament Greek scholars. They had innoculated me against a simple literalistic  approach to the Bible. Frankly, I had not been impressed by the thinking of the religious folks I knew. How hard could a religion course be? I was prepared, ready to go, no problem here.

Now a brief side trip is called for. Beside Emory’s reputation for its medical school, it also had recently become infamous by the writings of a religion professor, one Thomas Jefferson Jackson Altizer, who had popularized the notion of the Death of God. Although originally offered by Nietzsche, it hit the popular media which sensationalized the thesis on the cover of Time Magazine, a magazine that functioned as the social media of the sixties. If you are interested, you can google it but you will find “the death of God” to be rather tame by today’s standards. But the cultural response was quick and strong, as if the bedrock of America was being shaken. It resulted  in the ladies’ group at my home church putting me on their prayer list as they heard that I had decided to attend a godless college. Their specific prayer was that I would not lose my faith. There was lots about me that needed some earnest prayer but going to Emory was not at the top of the list.

Back to my curriculum strategy, I looked in the course catalog in the religion section. Time of the class offering was important….nothing too early. There was a class, Religion 103, Contemporary Trends in Religion, that sounded broad but not too deep. Perfect. The teacher I knew nothing about, a professor named Boozer, which was comically appealing. And the class was scheduled to meet at 11 o’clock. Perfect. Piece of cake. Easy entry into the collegiate world of scholastic pursuit. Right?


When I attended the first class, I caught a clue that I might be in trouble. The professor was a barrel-chested Methodist minister who did his doctoral work at Boston University, Dr. Jack Boozer. This quiet man passed around an appropriately blurry, mimeographed syllabus that was packed with titles and names of authors I had never heard of, except Schweitzer. Albert Schweitzer, I had heard of him. A missionary, I seemed to remember, couldn’t be too sophisticated or demanding. My second mistake.

This bespectacled professor decided to rock my world by exposing me to a panoply of writers that revealed just how limited my experience and how narrow a horizon I had. Day after day, he opened my mind to the variety of systems of truth, asking tacit questions about my own beliefs and faith. Later on, I would understand that this was my baptism in cognitive dissonance, my ride on the intellectual scream machine known as the vortex of relativity. Looking back on the experience, it was both vexing and exciting, my brain in an uncontrolled spin. Did he have an agenda, a plan, to dismantle my constructed view of God and the universe, or was he just doing what college teachers do, opening and developing my mind?

He began with a Jewish mystic, Martin Buber, and his classic text, I-Thou. It gave me my first taste of a nature mysticism, offering me words to put on my native feelings of connection that I had been searching to find. But even more, he used Buber to introduce a basic notion of ethics, of how we treat one another, to touch my Southern soul of fairness, having observed discrimination in my own backyard. I was hooked.

He lowered the existential boom, as much as you can with an eighteen year old, with the rapid-fire barrage of Camus and his dramatic text of The Plague, a text I would recall later as I faced the AIDS crisis in Atlanta. This was followed by the Basque essayist Miguel de Unamuno and his The Tragic Sense of Life.  This pair of existential aces would push my innocent head under the dark water of finitude and death, leaving me gasping for air.

Throwing in some Christian existentialism, he initiated me into a life-long love of Paul Tillich in his classic, Dynamics of Faith. This thin volume of a book shook my foundation of equating faith with a mere list of beliefs, redefining faith more broadly as ultimate concern, a way of leaning into life. He filled this out by dipping my spiritual toe into the deep water of Tillich’s second volume of Systematic Theology that examines the role of Christ in the thinking of an thoughtful Christian.

Not to get stale, Boozer then trotted in Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his dazzling integration of science and religion. In a blaze of imagery, we read passages from The Phenomenon of Man, introducing the notion of evolution in scientific and poetic terms. Then came Teilhard’s cosmic fireworks of The Divine Milieu, a fantastic devotional tour of creation with a spiritual twist. I was not ready for its depth but knew truth when I saw it. I would have to get back to you, on this, TC.

Rounding out the course, before Christmas vacation, we read the script and then listened to Bernstein’s Mass., playing the vinyl record on one of those inimitable gray institutional record players. Not knowing what a “celebrant” was, nor the traditional structure of the Mass, I followed the text as best I could, enjoying the genius and spirit of the work. I resolved to figure out this liturgical stuff later. I was mounting a list of deferred learning.

In the middle of the course,  Boozer began my  personal “detective story” journey of searching for the Jesus of history behind the myth. He did this by affording me a chance to read the work of a man who was a physician, theologian, and humanist… kind of guy, Albert Schweitzer. The world agreed with me as he won the Nobel Prize for his philosophy and reverence for life, incarnated in his humanitarian hospital work in Africa. The Quest for the Historical Jesus became the starting point for my life’s quest to understand who Jesus was in his time and how to make that real in my own. This would launch me into many more religion classes with the stellar faculty of Emory’s religion department.

So what began with the momentous decision of choosing a college, tweaked by a strategic selection of an anticipated “easy” course to pad my grade average, became the unexpected twist that altered my life journey. I stumbled onto my life’s mission in a weak moment of “deciding”, the very thing that the existential school, that Boozer introduced me to,  would tell me was the distinctive burden and glory of being a human being. It was my choice, a seemingly inconsequential selection that became a determining twist of fate.

Later, going through classical psychoanalysis, family therapy, and spiritual direction, I could see how my path had been prepared by earlier events that make the outcome less surprising. But I hold fast to the irony and comedy of how my deciding my freshman schedule, desirous of an “easy A” brought me the ride of a lifetime. It was none other than St. Jerry of Garcia who said it: What a long, strange trip it’s been. Indeed.

Make Your Move

Last week, I wrote about my musings on the nature of life, with the conclusion that we all carry stories about who we are, and those stories contain our identity, our sense of self. The stories are composed of both twists of fate and defining moments. As I was writing, I found my list of both kinds to be overflowing with examples, made up of consequential happenstance and heroic decisions. In my editing of last week’s post, I simply had to “cut” the overwhelming number of accounts in order not to run long. As my old editor used to tell me, and remains a permanent introject in my mind, “keep it tight”. Tough words for a writer or speaker, but straight to the point.

I received notes from a number of readers who remarked that the post evoked memories and reflection, which I hope is true for all of you. Each one of us are edited collections of stories, some we excise and some we include, some we forget and some with remember with remarkable accuracy and detail. Here’s one of mine that has remained in my mind for years, from a particular. but  regular day in high school.

Sophomore year was an odd time of moving beyond the exile of elementary school’s protective cocoon to emerging into one’s identity as a person, a self that exists among other selves. It’s that peculiar time of not only recognizing the particulars of one’s existence but also the scary notion that others are looking at you as well. The awareness of self, that “me”ness, marks me as an individual, distinct from my family, but still tied to it. The pressing question is: can one break free of those familial ties, claiming a self identity without destroying the connection itself? It’s a perilous dance of identity that classically has been painted in tones of rebelliousness, angst, and passion, a tale often told, not always ending well.

It is that mystical, magical time known as adolescence. As my old developmental psych professor used to frame it: I see me, seeing you, seeing me. Scary indeed. One becomes literally “self conscious” in terms of awareness, aware both of an emergent sense of self as well as an awareness, sometimes painful, of the reality that other people are observing you.

This transition is often romanticised in books, songs, and movies. I recently watched one such “coming of age” film, Stand by Me, one of Rob Reiner’s first directorial efforts. The screenplay came from a novella by one Stephen King, entitled The Body. How’s that for a pedigree? The main character, Gordie Lachance, played by Big Bang cameo dude, Will Wheaton, was my identification point as he struggled with a secret family past and his unusual gift of being a writer, a storyteller at this young age. Gordie is joined by three pals on a journey to find a dead body in the woods (this is Stephen King) by the railroad track. These friends interact in the ways typical of young persons who are struggling to discover the identity within and the relationship with others. It’s a fine story, treading water in the pools of existential angst that goes with awakening. This story, told from a reflective writer’s perspective, noted the caughtness of his friends in their social setting as well as the heroic determination of one friend, Chris (played by Rivers Phoenix) to escape that embeddedness. Typically dark, the drama is captivating for those who love “our gang” kinds of adventure, along with traceable character development

It was not quite so dramatic in my Southside  neighborhood of Atlanta. My friends and I, growing up  in East Point, never took a pilgrimage to find a dead body, but we did have our own drama. Like another “coming of age” film that I love, Sandlot, we gathered everyday during the summer to play baseball, discovering our sense of self in the company others. With remarkable similarity to the movie, each member of my “gang” had a backstory, some quirkiness that was memorable, maddening, and endearing. We even had a swimming pool, with some neighborhood beauties to raise the sap, but no one quite like Wendy Peffercorn, the unattainable lifeguard/water nymph. The children’s pool game of hide-and-go-seek Marco Polo, becomes a sexual exploration aquatic drama of a different kind of chase. And there were no wise old black man with a Mastiff beast to intrigue and mythologize, just a very white Mr. Holland at Ye Olde Shop with a magical Slushie machine. But we did the dance of adolescence, and I guess my gang, we made out okay.

In my look in the rearview mirror of this time, I remember many things, mostly stories, but one stands out. A game changing moment that could have gone another way, or never even happened. It occurred in the curious location of a science lab room. It was my sophomore year in home room, Coach Jordan was the teacher. When we started the year, we were given the rare gift of freedom to chose where we sat, no stock determinism by alphabet, putting Heath and me, back to back for eternity.

For me, it was the second row sitting next to my best friend, Mike Hornsby, from my neighborhood gang and part of my church youth group. We were like brothers back in those days. He and I had easy conversations, about football, what was going on in the neighborhood, even broaching the subject of girls, particularly those at church. And we were both quiet by nature, shy, particularly at that age. It was perfect. It was familiar. It was comfortable sitting with my friend, Mike.

That’s when it happened.

Coach Jordan had gotten tired of the loud conversations going on in the back of the room. Karen Littlefield and David Wheeler were sitting next to each other, the unofficial Queen and King of my class. Karen was the definition of the cute, bubbly teen, the typical cheerleader, my Cybill Shepherd in my picture show. Wheeler was a running back on the football team with remarkable skills He had been a phenom early on, due to his premature growth and accompanying speed, but time was catching up to him, even as a sophomore, unlike the defensive players on our opponent’s team.

Coach had enough of the noise, and so one fateful morning, looking up from his front desk, as he graded papers, he announced his edict. He ordered Mike to go back to the back row next to Wheeler, and sentenced Karen up to the second row to sit next to me. I wish I had video tape to capture the mix of feelings on my baby face, a commingling of fear and excitement, an alchemical mixture that would fuel my life.

Again we can glimpse the “coming of age” plot in the background as the shy, bookish boy suddenly gets to talk with the beauty of the high school. It wasn’t an overnight transformation but slowly Karen’s gregarious personality engaged me, breaking me out of the confines of self-consciousness around girls. Something about her kindness freed me to risk being known, even my geeky passion for golf. Slowly, I became more confident in my self, no longer afraid to talk to imposing “others”. For Karen, it was a minor inconvenience; for me, it was an opportunity of a lifetime, made possible by the quick decision of a science teacher-coach.

I won’t bore you with the details of my high school journey, but only say that this event retrospectively was a powerful catalyst in my transformation of self. I find myself grateful for that fateful swing of the hand of the emperor, Coach Jordan, whose quick decision changed the course of my life,  And grateful to Karen who patiently listened to my wonderings and ranblings, who unconsciously gave me her blessing by being with me through that transition year, and conferred value on me by her friendship. It was gift, even if the result of a twist of fate. It has struck me for some time that this moment, this random action, changed the course of my life. How odd. How wonderful.

By the way, it occurred to me as I was writing that my friend, Mike, who was unceremoniously banished to the back row with Wheeler, started playing football that Fall and by our senior year, had replaced Wheeler as our featured running back. And I continued my relationship with Karen, a friend through time, as we have both made our long strange trip of life.

What twists of fate have formed your life, your journey? Take a break for your Twitters, your political bickering and rants, your anxiety about the Braves’ lineup. Pause….and remember. Write down those odd moments that have influenced who you find yourself to be this day.

Twist of Fate or Defining Moment

One of the first thinkers who had an impact on my way of conceiving the world was psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. The originator of the term, identity crisis, Erikson was seminal in his thinking about the stages or phases of human life, the passages we all make in a lifetime.

At the beginning of my professional work, I was designing a research project at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. My colleagues and I were looking to find a methodology that would assist persons in their process of looking back on their past experience.  Erikson was front of mind as I imagined a way to evoke the stories that made up a life. He had posited a sequence of  ages that all humans move through, which concludes with what he called a life review. At the end, Erikson said that all persons look back over their lives in a quest of making sense out of the events. The central question is whether or not there is a thread of meaning that runs through their sense of self. Does the narrative have a sense of meaning or not? If there is meaning, the person enters into the last phase of life with hope. Without that prevailing sense of meaning, a despair pervades.

In listening to people in clinical, pastoral, business, and personal settings, I have found that Erikson is right. People naturally string together selected moments of their lives into narratives, stories, that tell themselves and explain to others just who they are. Every person is, in fact, an editor of his/her story, including some events, highlighting some, excising others, and forgetting others. Each person composes a story that they tell about themselves, a story that has mostly to do with identity, that is, who I am.  In Eriksonian terms, it’s the way they form their identity., the sense of self. And, if given enough time, it is how they present themselves to others, how they introduce themselves. This is me.

Whenever I speak to groups about this topic of story,  I often begin with an old joke about how people tell others who they are when time is short and there is no time for a story, a kind of personal shorthand. If you are from Atlanta, you begin by telling them what you do for a living. If you are from Augusta, you tell them who your grandmother was. If you are from Macon, you tell them what church you go to. And if you are from Savannah, what you drink. The example played well on the circuit but is somewhat particular to Georgia and a bit dated these days. However, it makes the point that if we have time, and we really want to be known by the “other”, we tell our story.

As I am spending time writing, I have been doing my own life-review of sorts. Stories from my childhood, from high school buddies, and  college friends fill the front of the narrative. Later, my relationships, my marriage, my children predominate. And of course, there are stories I paid for by being a priest/pastor in a variety of congregations of people. When I was leaving my parish in Tyler, Texas after a decade of service, the Queen Bee of the  parish stopped me on my way out and asked, rather, charged  me: “Well, I guess you’re off to Atlanta to go write about all of us?”. I stopped, smiled, and with the sense of humor of my mother gave me, “No. Only you, Bitsy!”. The look on her face was worth the ten years of blood, sweat, and tears that I spent in that parish. Bitsy was, in fact, a great example of a person who had carefully constructed a public story of being a tough, hard-nosed person, but her many acts of compassion, carefully hidden, spoke of a kind heart that could not be missed, in spite of her bluster. Every one of us carries a story that we have edited for public consumption.

Reviewing my life has me asking some questions about how things happen, and more importantly, “why”. In short, my musing comes down to this: is our life formed by twists of fate or defining moments? My existential bias leaves me wanting it to be the later, a defining moment in which a human person makes a conscious, intentional decision. Sounds heroic, huh? That is the preface for a heroic story, a hero’s narrative. The hero’s journey is natively appealing to me. My mother named me David, which blessed and cursed me with a proclivity for heroic acts, namely in the face of overbearing giants. My belief is that my name has unconsciously led  me into some tight spaces. And as the Sufi story goes, could be good news, could be bad news.  Who knows?

I have had many such “defining” moments during my lifetime. However, I have found that when I look carefully, and honestly, there are moments forming my story of which I had no control. Certain things just happened to me, causing my life to veer in some surprising ways. Over the next month, I’ll be sharing with you some of those defining moments as well as the twists of fate that shaped and are shaping my life.

My hope is that you will enjoy the telling of my story, recognizing that I am the very example of editing the text. I’ve been telling those stories of my living South of God for all these years. It’s been a good ride, and in the words of  St. Jerry of Garcia, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

But more importantly, I hope it prompts your reflection on your own story, your narrative as  human in this world.  I hope that you will remember times that you were pressed to decide, when the cost of deciding was all too clear there was a price to pay. And I hope you might pause to consider those twists and turns that have shaped the path of your life. We all have a story, and learning to tell it well is part of our burden and glory of being a human. I invite you to the sacred fire where stories are told. Blessings.


A Wild and Precious Life

Word came to me that Mary Oliver had died while I was proofing last week’s post. I found it auspicious as she has been one of my major inspirations during my writing life, charging me with a simple admonition: pay attention to the world around you! Attention is the starting point of devotion, she counseled. That was, in fact, what I was writing about last week, taking a lesson from my young son, Thomas, and his quest to look and see what God is doing in his backyard.

Paying attention to nature has always come easily to me. Perhaps it’s my native nature mysticism that I inherited from my grandfather’s love of God’s Creation. I was struck by his tendency to find his way to the wilderness whenever he could, making me his lucky co-conspirator. He built it into me, hard-wired, to go into nature whenever I can. I have made my way to the lush mountain wilderness of the Chattahoochee, to the pristine Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, to the rocky coastline of Maine, and to the Rocky Mountains of Montana. But it can be in the urban forest of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, or in the barren wildness of Texas Hill Country. This is where I find my cathedrals, as grand and inspiring as any built by hand. I’m betting you have your holy spaces as well, where the boundary between the ordinary and the sacred becomes thin. Holy spaces, indeed.

One of my earliest mystical experiences occurred just after a thunderstorm in that “in-between” time just after the storm ends and  the tantalizing moment when everything reverts to the normal. The air itself felt electric, charged with possibility. Not in a wilderness,  a suburban neighborhood street in my hometown of East Point was the setting for mystery to break through on that late summer afternoon.  A deep sense of connectivity, of oneness, overwhelmed me, for a fleeting second. There, palpably, then gone. It  is one of many moments that I have been gifted with through the years, coming and going when and where it will,

And I must admit that it’s happened in designated religious space as well, roped off  and consecrated for just that. But Spirit seems to be not limited by schedules  our programming, or convenience.

Mary Oliver captured that kind of sensitivity to nature and I am sure it was what first attracted me to her writing so many years ago. She died this past week as the age of 83, having moved from her beloved Provincetown, Massachusetts to the unfamiliar but warm mangroves of  the west coast of Florida I find it curious that I find myself working these days on the east coast of Florida, at almost exactly the same latitude. Geographical proximity aside, I hit me hard, her death, the end of her life. It was a reminder of finitude, her finitude, the end of her brilliant career of writing. And it served as a reminder of my own finitude specifically;  that it does all end. No getting out of this alive.

Earlier in my life, she had reminded me of the task of living. She wrote powerfully of her observations of life within a poem entitled The Summer Day.  She meticulously described her view of a grasshopper, watching it perch as it methodically chewed on crystals of sugar with its mandible jaws. This very moment brings forth the question of how this world was made, who was the creator of this particular grasshopper?

And as the grasshopper takes wing to fly from her hand, it prompts an existential question as to the purpose of life itself. She writes, almost casually:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I’ve been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Poetically framed, that is indeed the question? What are you planning to do with this time you have been given?

I spend a lot of my time working with folks who are trying to answer that very question. Some use sophisticated productivity planners to get a handle on where they are spending their minutes, hours, and days, what they are investing their time pursuing. Some are at the front end of their lives, trying to clarify a path into their future, even playing with the weighty word of vocation. Others are busy planning the next chapters in the story their lives are writing, looking for a plot or a twist. More and more, I find myself listening to a host of folks who are looking back reflectively, assessing the way they have spent their time and energy. All want to find that magic thread of trajectory that holds together and gives integrity to the lives they are living.

We share that human vocation of living one’s life in a quest for meaning. Some of us have more agency or freedom than others, but ultimately our choosing plays a role in how it is we are spent. To whom do you feel accountable? To whom are you answerable?

This week in which we remember the legacy of my hometown hero, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself reflective as to the way I have been spent and am spending this life. Martin’s prescient statement, on the night before he was shot down in Memphis, seemed to weigh literally the acts of his life in the balance. Longevity has its place, he said, but there are more important things, more critical things to consider. I believe he had assessed how he had spent his wild and precious life on that dark night, and while not happy with his fate on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was at peace.

As a white male, born in the United States, in the middle of the twentieth century, I have lived with possibilities and limitations. The privileges  I have had and the limitations imposed have contributed to how I have spent my days. We have  freedom to decide how it is we live, but only within the confines of limits that we have no say in determining. I have exercised the limited freedom afforded me but, at the same time, I have abdicated that very freedom at moments due to “caughtness” within systems. I have squandered that freedom in sheer laziness or seeking to maintain a seductive comfort. I have worked to invest part of my life energy in developing self-awareness in an attempt to be more free in my choices, to increase my agency, my freedom. And yet,  the “caughtness” can trick me into the sleepy belief that I am self-aware, when I am not. Amnesia afflicts me when I forget who I am.

It’s a tough gig, this being human. Caught in the dilemma of freedom and limits. Life is this dilemma to live through, not a problem to be solved. And yet, as Mary Oliver reminded me years ago, and then again last week, it is a wild and precious thing.

Do you dare to face the question, dear Grasshopper? Tell me what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Fresh Eyes

In 1990, my young family experienced a significant move when I accepted a call to become the pastor of a large downtown Episcopal parish in Tyler, Texas. With that young family, I wanted to live as close to the church as possible so that I could make it home easily in the push-pull world of parish ministry. So, we decided to buy a house in the Azalea District, a historic section of Tyler on the edge of downtown, made up mostly of older homes.

The home we chose was a gray painted brick house with a formal garden, a back lot, and a carriage house for my office and wood shop. It was quite a find. It would have been out of our reach financially without the economic downturn in the early eighties. I came to know that the house was called “the Babin House” by the locals, as it’s owners, the Babins, had renovated the old place. It was a “stop” on the annual Spring Azalea Festival Tour, with a world-class exhibition of azaleas, thanks to the work of the former owners. It will probably be the “best” house I will ever live in. But there was an unlikely problem that complicated things. And that problem came in the unlikely form of a pool.

When I initially flew into Texas, looking down on the suburbs of Dallas, it looked like every house had a pool. Part of the Texas mystique, I thought to myself, a cement pond, as Granny of the Beverly Hillbillies called it. I quickly found out that in the Texas heat, a pool is not a luxury but a necessity. The maintenance of such an aqua feature was a bit of a concern but nothing like the sheer terror I had of introducing young children into that Danger Zone. I had a friend whose child had drowned when she took her eye off her child for what seemed to be a second, but turned into a moment that  lasted for eternity. That happened in a backyard pool in an instant. My wife and I were both concerned with the issue of safety at our house on Chilton.

That fear only heightened when Thomas drove his Big Wheel into the pool early in our residency……I don’t think he had been drinking., but to be honest, I did not check his blood-alcohol level. We were right there on the scene, which made for an easy save, and  a great story. Thomas’ plunge became the focus of a sermon topic which connected with  the hearts of other parents who shared the inherent fear that goes with the job of parenting.

To ward off such vulnerability, we immediately signed Thomas up at the local Y for swim lessons, drown-proofing is what we called it at my college. Mary Glen, who recently had emerged from in utero was accustomed to floating in fluid but she was too young to qualify at the Y. That  would have to wait.

By royal decree, it was hereby ordered that if a kid wanted to go into our picture-book back yard, they would need to ask for a parent to accompany him/her. That seemed like a reasonable rule to safeguard my young family in our early Texas days. As springtime and the blossoming of azaleas came in our first  year, the rule would be tested by my curious son.

Thomas would stand at our French doors, pressing his nose against the glass, looking at the Disney-like explosion of colors going off in our backyard. The golden jasmine, the multi-colored azaleas would appear each morning, birds chirping and squirrels squirreling, announcing the renewal of life from the doldrums of winter. It was spectacular.

There is a word that gets used a lot these days, “awesome”. It’s used to describe something that is remarkable, beyond the normal, on the far side of the expected. It’s a word I was introduced to during a national military campaign of “shock and awe”, with “awe” referring to something that connotes Almighty Power, originally with a connotation of being feared. It’s cultural usage has evolved.n It means it is big, really BIG, when something is awesome. I hear people use the word to describe a meal, an experience, a song….. you name it. It is awesome!

Typical of my Scot’s family’s motto, “In Defiance”, I find myself rebellious, avoiding the word altogether. Much like the over-used “slippery slope”, I simply have banned the utterance of the word from my lips, searching for other terms that might capture the feeling, the experience of the moment.

That being said, this particular springtime display was AWESOME. No other word quite captures nature’s magnificence. The juxtaposition of a dreary winter in our first season in Texas added to the wonderful surprise of color going on in our backyard and all over this lovely East Texas city.

That beauty was  not missed by my three-year old. He would gaze at the colors, and finally come to one of us, asking us to take him out back so he could see, smell, and touch the wonder of his first cognizant Spring. Our rule, my royal David’s edict, made sure he was safe, but there was a price to pay, that of being interrupted.

It was on a Sunday afternoon after I had finished my duties at church. In that first year, I was the only priest, so it meant three services on Sunday morning plus a church school class that I was teaching to introduce the congregation to my way of  thinking. Added to that was the obligatory greeting of people as they were departing at the back door of the church. Christ Church had a long tradition of hugs and salutations that I had to honor, even in  my introverted fatigue of being with folk all morning. I played along, learning people’s names, listening to their passing advice, assuring them of the orthodoxy of this Atlanta invader. And they could have not been more welcoming and kind to me and my family. But, I could not wait to finish that parade of folks wanting to press the flesh.

I would literally run to my SAAB to drive the couple of miles to my idyllic home, have lunch with my family, a glass of wine, and then relax, finished with responsibilities, that is, until the six o’clock communion service. That afternoon had become sacred to me, a respite in the rush of being a priest. And that’s when it happened.

Thomas appeared in front of my club chair as I  had just settled in to relax, maybe even grab a brief nap. With his hands clasped behind him, shifting back and forth on his feet, he inquired, “Daddy, will you take me out back?”. Begging for reprieve, I asked, “Can you wait for a little while?”. “Daddy, I’ve been waiting all morning. Can’t we go out back now?”. “Thomas, why do you want to go right now?”. And that was the payoff pitch that he knocked out of the park: “Daddy., I want to go outside to see what God is doing.”.

Game. Set. Match.

We went outside and I watched him, his young eyes seemed to be drinking in the deluge of colors, his ears listening to the buzz of the bees, the soft spring breeze kissing the skin of his cheeks. His young eyes were watching and witnessing God’s presence in Creation in a way in which I was familiar, in the way I had when I was a child. And yet, on this afternoon, I had the gift, the privilege of watching my son basking in the glory of God’s world. It was awesome.

From my childhood, a hymn came into my mind, having been pushed to the periphery of my consciousness by Anglican anthems and liturgical litanies, claiming its rightful place as a starting point for my spirit that found its birth in Nature:

“This is my Father’s World, and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the beauty of the spheres. This is my Father’s world, I rest me in the thought,  of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, His hand his wonders wrought.”

Fresh eyes. To see the Presence in the middle of the ordinary. To attend to the world, awash in the Holy. Fresh eyes to see.

As I get older, I find that I value the gift of fresh eyes more and more. The fresh eyes of a student who is energized by learning something new. The fresh eyes of a recently graduated nurse who sees opportunities to optimize the work of care. The fresh eyes of lovers taking in the lines and curves of the other, the beloved. The fresh eyes of an elder who has recovered a sense of wonder and has taken on a beginner’s mind. Fresh eyes to see the world anew.

It’s winter, cold and windy, bleak, but I find myself hoping for Spring….and fresh eyes.

Put Me In, Coach!

It seems like I’ve been coaching all my life. Even as a kid, I would coach my little brother and his friends playing backyard football. Part of the great fun in growing up in East Point, a southside suburb of Atlanta, was having a neighborhood chocked full of kids, ready for pick up baseball, basketball or football games at all hours of the day. Danny, Tony, Ricky, Collie, even Johnny were characters in my own Sandlot production.

Later, when I was in seminary, I coached a local YMCA team that played soccer in the highly competitive environment of Decatur, Georgia. This was back before there were girl leagues, so I happened to have two girls that I coached, Jennifer and Leah, the only two girls in the league. They were at that age when they had grown faster than boys. And obviously, it goes without saying, they were smarter and more mature than the boys. It also goes without saying, they were my favorites.

I taught them a defensive formation I learned in college, a “diamond”, that is simple but effective in preventing the offensive advances of opponents, like a magical web. Most coaches at that level are dads, so we were pretty much ahead of the curve in sophistication of game plans. A number of them went on from the mighty, mighty Panthers to play for Decatur High and won a state championship. And one of my girls wound up playing in college. As impressive as that is, those achievements were tertiary to the sense of team we experienced.

Later, I moved to Texas and was coaxed into coaching my son’s soccer team. Once again, I installed the diamond that Richie Warren had taught to me at Emory. There was one kid who was a little bigger than the other kids, but he lacked focus and aggressiveness.  He reminded me of Michael Oher of the real-life movie called The Blind Side, and I was cast in the Sandra Bullock role of pulling out his native gifts. Yeah, that’s right….me as Sandra Bullock. Deal with it!

I convinced Russell that he was the fiercest person on the field, in fact,  in the world as we knew it.  When an opponent came on his side of the field, his mission was to take the ball away from the intruder. I looked him square in his eyes and said, “You are the destroyer! Got that. Who are you?” And Russell would respond dutifully, “I am the Destroyer.” And he was transformed from tentative, reserved Russell into The Destroyer,  becoming aggressive during those games, destroying the offense of our opponents. A couple of years ago, he asked me to officiate at his wedding in Park Cities, Utah. As I drove up to the rehearsal at the tiny Episcopal chapel downtown, his mother greeted me, “The Destroyer is waiting for you!”. She had remembered, and reminded me of the coaching transformation I had wrought years ago, and we laughed. Luckily for the bride, The Destroyer had throttled back and expanded his repertoire of behavior to become The Lover. A good man, this Russell.

I have been a coach all my life. I coached young people who were trying on “the fit” of  adulthood, being a young man or young woman in a demanding world. I coached couples who were trying to get prepared to launch their marriage; worked with scared partners scrambling to keep their young marriages together; sat with folks to negotiate breaches in trust and promises broken; and counseled with older couples that were trying to bring life back into their intimacy. I coached people who were struggling with their identity, people who had experienced some sort of breakthrough or breakdown. And I’ve even coached people through their process of dying, as well as  those that had to say goodbye to a loved one. Coaching, it turned out, is part of being a priest.

It’s ironic. I’ve often had athletic coaches schedule time to talk to me about becoming a priest. I take them seriously and listen to their story as they tell me about the circumstances of their sense of calling to the priesthood. I always try to help them understand their unique position of being with young people, and the peculiar advantage of being with a human being as they are early in the developmental process. I attempt to get them to see what a noble job they have already and what they will be giving up by putting on a collar. But I have to admit, most of them don’t listen to my coaching, and they move forward with their plans. Foolish mortals.

At one time in my career, I was charged with coaching clergy that were graduating from seminary and heading off for their first work in a parish. My colleague, Kevin and I would meet with them for a couple of days each month, over a year, and assist them in thinking through this awesome and awful role of being a priest in community of faith, comprised of people who were mixtures of  sinners and saints. It was one of my favorite times, helping them figure out how to lead, how to challenge, how to comfort, how to be present to others. I did that coaching for five years, and it was such a gift from the Bishop of Texas and these emergent priests. Not surprisingly, I learned a lot about how to be a priest by coaching them to do the same.

I have coached persons in how to be people of faith, of finding and being their True Self, fighting off the temptation to just “get by”. Some people call it spiritual direction but it’s really the same as coaching soccer. I am just trying to bring out the very best of what may be undiscovered.  Rather than calling out another soccer player, I call out humans who are gifted, talented, compassionate, creative persons who have a special path to follow.

I have worked with other priests, a bunch of faithful lay folks, people who were figuring out where they fit in the vocations as doctors, lawyers, or tribal chiefs. I was fortunate to work with Trappist monks who were struggling to live out their vows within the crucible of community.  And recently,  I have worked with people whose careers had ended, and were trying to make sense and joy  out of retirement. Still coaching.

For the past few years, I have been coaching people in healthcare. I have loved working with executives who want to make healthcare a place of better quality care and more compassionate, more humane. Again, I have been fortunate to work with a team of colleagues who know the particular and peculiar challenge of healthcare, from both business and clinical sides. I’ve enjoyed working with a CEO who was retiring after a long successful career, moving on to another chapter of life. And I’ve coached a brand new CEO, taking on an unfamiliar role and trying to make good on a promise to transform healthcare, providing a model for the nation. I have worked with execs, docs, nurses, and administrators as they try to live out their vocation in the healthcare arena. Still coaching.

These days, I continue my coaching, therapy, and spiritual direction with a wide variety of folks. I still work with clergy who are trying the be faithful in their calling of leadership. I work with people who are trying to make sense out of a life that is not neat, but messy. And I work with folks that are seeking a way to live before they die. Still coaching.

Coach. It’s who I am.  I have been called Father, Doctor, Professor, Reverend, Canon, and in Texas, sumbitch. But it’s “Coach” that I love, “Coach” that I relish. It is where I get my juice, my psychic pay.

The best way I can describe it is to say that as a coach, I have the unusual privilege of coming alongside a fellow person, attending to what is going on, listening carefully to the story someone tells me, asking powerful questions that clarify, helping them make sense of their experience, and design plans for the living of their days. Building capacity. It’s good work, this being a coach. That’s why I am still coaching.

Self Awareness

To say I am a Springsteen fan is an understatement. His recent run on Broadway made me verge on coveting the tickets that several of my friends scored to see the Boss “live” and in person. I had to wait for Netflix to tape one of the last shows and put it on the air before Christmas….Merry Christmas to me!

The show is superb. I enjoyed his music, playing solo with guitar, with a little help from his wife, Patti on a couple of songs. Raw, live music…as good as it gets. The connection of his lyrics to his surroundings was remarkable as he was the poet of an era on the New Jersey shore. I was moved by his description of his friends who were drafted and died in Vietnam, as well as his thanksgiving that his name was not on the memorial wall in DC. And when he talked of the Big Man, Clarence, he brought me to tears as to his sense of brotherhood, the type that only happens in a band. His lyrics evoke a depth of feeling in me that I can’t quite explain, from the brash Born to Run  all the way to plaintive The Rising, which he recorded in Atlanta at Southern Stages after 9/11. I love me some Bruce.

But the thing that grabbed me about this special Broadway performance was his honesty. Honest, not only with his fans, and his audience in the theater, but more importantly, with himself. Simply, he knows himself.

He owned up in his autobiography that he was from a boardwalk town that was tinged with fraud. In his show, he is even more explicit, admitting that he had written songs about fast cars, when he didn’t even drive; written songs about blue collar workers without ever setting foot inside a factory. And he laughs about it as he fooled us all with his lyrics….because, as he quips, he’s just that good! The ability to be honest with oneself is a rare gift, I think. No, I know.

Rare, and yet it is the essential ingredient in life, particularly if you aspire to lead. Just who do you think you are kidding? is a damning self-indictment if you are found to be caught unaware of your mixed motives, or your darker sides. There’s the face that you present to the world in order to gain what it is you want, what you desire. It’s a face that you have been perfecting since you emerged from the body of your mother in utero. It’s a face that you use to attract, to get reaction in a way that gets you what you need. And by the time you reach mid-life, say forty, there’s very little you have to learn to perfect that face. You have it down. Carl Jung, a depth psychologist, called it one’s persona. And everyone has one. If you are reading this and thinking that you don’t….that is a sign that you are in trouble.

Most people have some awareness of the mask they wear, but many have only a slight conscious sense of how they use it to get what they want.

That’s the first step of self awareness: What is it that you want? It’s an existential question that goes to your heart of hearts. When I am teaching or training a group of leaders, it is often my FIRST question, because I think self awareness is the starting point for leadership, for that matter,  for authentic being. What is it that you want? Do you know?

Bruce tells a funny story about taking a rented guitar to his backyard with his neighborhood kids when he was eight or nine years of age. He didn’t know how to play the guitar, but it did not matter. He banged on his six string box, known as a guitar, and made noise to get the attention of the other kids. But more importantly, Bruce said, he used the guitar to pose, that is, to present himself in a way that got attention. And that was when he was hooked. That’s what he wanted, and he rode that  intention all the way to to the stage. He was honest with himself then, and now. Attention is what he wanted, what he craved. What do you want? Do you have that awareness?

When I work with people in therapy, coaching or teaching, I often demonstrate this principle by coming clean as to my own driving motivation. I spent years and thousands in analysis and therapy to get clean with myself and Self as to what was driving me. There’s a host of nuances to my drivers but it come down to a need to be chosen. To be “the one” that is chosen from the others, the one who is anointed by choice. Imagine the power of the chase to get someone, like my wife, to choose me, David Galloway, over her other suitors. Imagine the thrill of getting a call from a predominantly black congregation to call me as their leader, me, a white guy from Atlanta. It was the stuff of my dreams….to be chosen. To know was is subconsciously driving you gives you the opportunity to be aware of what’s happening, and if you are good, as good as Bruce, you can avoid making some bad decisions.

My brother, Mitch, remembers a time in high school when he received a standing ovation for his superb, and surprising performance in the musical Carnival. He loved it. And he is self aware enough to recognize that when he is presenting in corporate settings, he is wanting another standing ovation. It drives him to be an outstanding presenter that delivers good information in an accessible way. It makes him one of the best presenters in the healthcare industry. But he knows what drives him. He is self aware enough to throttle back when the situation is not appropriate for his Broadway flair. He also knows when to “turn it up” when his best performance is demanded.

Some of the folks I worked with articulate other drivers. A minister friend of mine admits, sheepishly, that he wants to be adored…..not just liked, but adored. If you were to watch him in action, you would know he’s telling the truth. It has led him to some heights of leadership and popularity, but it has also led him down some roads that almost destroyed him.

Another person told me that what drives her was just a need to survive. Her early abuse, lack of self confidence drives her to be cautious, careful, and this too makes it known in her everyday existence. She has worked hard to recognize that driver and change her mindset.  Knowing what drives you is the beginning. You can know it, recognize it when it emerges, deal with it, turning it “up” or “down”.  And you can change it. It’s not easy, but the work I do with many folks is to help them examine and then transform that driver.

What is your driving motivation? How did it come about, what’s its source? How has it worked for you and how is it limiting you? These are worthy questions that are some initial steps toward self awareness as you move into the New Year.