You Need A Booster Shot!

A booster shot is in order.

After the Ahmaud Arbery trial, the rush of a full-tilt boogie family Thanksgiving here on the island, and the regular, relentless press of work, a booster of some sort is clearly needed to restore my energy and sanity. But I am talking here about the Covid booster shoot that is being pushed at present as an even new variant is emerging.

My wife found out that the Moderna booster shot was being given at the CVS located in the Target department store just over the causeway in Brunswick. So we made a mad Monday dash to the Target….pronounced Tar-jay in tony St. Simons.

It was amazingly efficient and quick, getting that booster shot. The workers in the pharmacy were so kind and helpful, getting me checked in, forms completed, with a quick hypodermic shot to the arm. The attendant asked if I wanted the shot in the left or right arm. Please….. Always the Left! It was over quickly, allowing me to tune into Bill Gates almost immediately with my microchip in full operation.

I decided to take a spin around the store as I have not been in one in just about two years. It’s sort of like going to the zoo, except the animals talk to you.

I used to go to the Walmart in Ellijay near my cabin in the north Georgia mountains, always coming away amazed at the spectrum of humanity I had just observed. Having been trained in anthropology as a participant/observer which tunes one into the conversations between the natives, it became a field day for observation. For the sake of not appearing judgmental around class and education (my natural prejudice that I work on to curb and correct), I will leave my comments hidden in the vault of my journal.

I do want to note a older white man, a little older than me, who functioned as if he were designed to be a greeter. In the church, this is called a spiritual gift, the gift of hospitality. If he were faking sincerity the way I trained my Sigma Chi brothers for Rush, he was a master. He made me feel like I was welcome in my visit to this time and space continuum…something that is not easily accomplished in my book.

And as I was leaving the store, a young black man with a Santa cap on top of his dreads, went out of his way to make sure I was safely maneuvering my path with the cane I was using, into the waiting Highlander. He was so cheerful and helpful that it positively punctuated my visit with a good feeling of having been there. That is what we call customer experience in the healthcare field, which is of high value, just below surviving the stay.

On the way back home, on Hwy 17, known as the Golden Isles Highway, we approached the Torras Causeway that would take us back to the island we call home. There is a message board there at the intersection, normally used to advertise upcoming events or important messages. This time there was something different:

Do Justice, Love Mercy, Walk Humbly Glynn County.

My biblical scholar readers know that this comes from Micah 6:8. That’s in the Old Testament or, as it should be known, as the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Micah lines out in simple terms what we are called to do as human beings who desire to be faithful. This simplicity is seductive for it is on the far side of complexity, something I have always longed for. The sign was put up by our Glynn County clergy, which is a mix of religious traditions, including Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. It’s a good faith message to our community following the trial and verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery killing, an event that strangely brought us together in a new way.

I have to admit I went flush with pride when I saw the message, knowing it was sponsored by the Glynn County clergy, a group that I have just begun to know well. They have seen sponsoring a community effort to promote unity in the face of this disruption of a high-profile trial. I participated in several prayer vigils throughout the month of trial activities and there was a good spirit in the group, as I have written about previously. We are sponsoring interracial gatherings with meals that provide a mix that doesn’t happen in Glynn under normal circumstances. The conversations that occurred in the courthouse square need to continue, with widening scope and deeper dialogue. I have a good feeling about the future of this effort.

Justice, Mercy, Humility.

In a previous article, I mentioned the need for a hard-nosed focus on justice. It is something that gets driven, by insisting on fairness and an equitable share of justice for all. In the past, there is a legacy here in south Georgia where that didn’t happen, not just along racial lines, but class as well. I witnessed the community rising up to demand a better system of justice here, writing-in a candidate for District Attorney that resulted in the removal of the incumbent. She now is under indictment in her handling of the Arbery case. Everyone wants our community to be fair for all, at least in spirit. That’s about as American as I can imagine. Justice for all! For ALL!

The love of mercy is a recognition that we all are fragile, and that we all fail at times in our efforts to be kind and compassionate. We all require a full measure of grace, which we ask for ourselves, but then must extend to others. A community of mercy looks with compassion on all folks as they are trying to make their way through this life. I was moved by the active mercy that was extended to the Arbery family as they had to go through the excruciating pain of seeing the video of Ahmaud being killed. The tape was played over and over. Imagine that person being your child and seeing the horror over and over. The community was amazingly loving to Ahmaud’s mother and father, and to the extended family. Glynn County community did itself proud through this. Mercy, indeed.

“Walking humbly” is the third admonition coming from Micah. Humility gets a bad rap in our culture, sometimes taken to mean self-deprecation. I heard a great definition of “humble” by a musician being honored recently at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The artist was LL Cool J who said he was humbled to receive this award. But he went on to say that his image of humble comes out of a recognition that he needs others. In producing music, he said that he knows he needs the gift of others to collaborate with his own talent.

I like that. A team, in basketball, football, or soccer, or in the world of business, depends on a generous collaboration of a variety of talents in order to produce a desired outcome.

Similarly, in the life of a city, we need a variety of folks to make it work well for ALL people. We need judges who are fair, District Attorneys who meet out justice fairly, police who treat people fairly. We need clergy who raise the prophetic voice of justice and mercy. We need doctors and nurses who bring a healing touch. We need educators who offer our children and young people a chance to develop. These are just a few of the various vocations that are required to have a healthy, vibrant community. Humility means realizing that you are a part of a bigger whole, something that seems to be missing in our country. Humility demands that you recognize that you are a part of a larger organic reality that depends on you and your participative contribution. In return the promise it that you get a healthy community in which to live.

Finally, I noticed that the Micah quote was missing a rather crucial piece of the prophetic scripture. The verse actually concludes “with your God”, that is: To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

And there’s the rub…or the problem. How is one defining that God? What is your image of God? It requires a bit of courage to seriously ask oneself that question. Dare you do it? Pause for a moment, ask yourself honestly, what is the image of God that you carry around inside?

For some, it is the Creator God that is the source of life for All people, making us all children of God, regardless of our particular belief system.

For some, God is a Spirit that unites us, across boundaries that might divide us, making us One.

My image of God was expanded by the admonition of Paul in Galatians in the strong affirmation that in Christ, the reality that binds us together, there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no male nor female. That verse blew up any segregation that might be used to separate us.

Many of us inherit an image, bequeathed by our parents, family, our community of origin. For many, that image is largely unexamined, just coming with the territory from which we were formed. While one may not call this image “God”, each one of us has a world view, that is, how we see the lay of the land in which we live. For some, it includes a divine being, a higher power. Some resist that designation, but everyone has an image of what is going on in this world and what one needs to do in order to be a part of it.

The hard truth is that we all decide just what our personal image of God is, what is our ultimate concern, our world view. This may be forged in a fiery interaction between our individual experience and the tradition of a particular community of faith. Or it my simply be picked up “off the shelf” with little attention paid to a critical examination.

To be honest, some of us are serving a God that looks a lot like us, and favors us, our kind, over people who may look differently than ourselves, claiming some kind of superiority. Some serve a God that they image as their possession, someone who they can manipulate or control with certain behavior or incantation of prayers. And I have experienced a number of folks who use their God as a weapon against those who are not like them, or share their beliefs.

And again, here’s the rub, or where the friction and sparks fly. Conflicting images of God produce different belief systems, which can result in in deep divisions, even wars. In our country, we purposefully decided not to choose a “state supported” religion. Rather, we constitutionally allow people to believe what they will. This sounds wonderful on paper, but the knives and AK-47s come out when push literally comes to shove. The issue of abortion is the current issue of the chopping block as I am writing this article, and one can hear the swords being drawn.

“Under God” is a wonderful aspiration for our country. But perhaps we need a booster shot of tolerance for folks who see the lay of the of the land a bit differently than we do. Perhaps a booster of grace for those that operate out of a different image of God than we do. Our Union of states, that just celebrated a common Thanksgiving, may need a booster shot of love and compassion for ALL the people who share this land we call home.

A booster shot of justice, mercy, and humility. Just what the doctor ordered. Blessings.

Giving Thanks for a Particular Black Panther

If you have been reading my blog over the last few weeks you know that I have been attending the trial around the killing of Ahmaud Arbery back on Feb. 23rd in 2020. It’s been a long and circuitous road for justice in the death of this twenty-five year old man here in Glynn County, which includes the town of Brunswick and the island of St. Simons.

I am writing this on the eve of Thanksgiving. In my family, our tradition was to gather in a circle and share what we are most thankful for in the past year. As a teenager, I always hated it as someone would go on and on about something, and then I would be thankful that certain someone had finally stopped talking. But that would not be an acceptable entry on the McBrayer/Galloway Thanksgiving Hit Parade. So, I would have to scramble like Fran Tarkenton to make something up that would make my mama happy, and make her thankful that she birthed me, sorry soul that I am.

My own family doesn’t go for the formality but shares impromptu thanks during the course of the feast. Last year, we sat at distance, and faced one another, a safe six feet away, breaking up our usual adult/kid segregation at the long table. What happened, to my surprise, was one of the best conversations I think I have experienced, with both laughter, deep-dive conversation, and surprisingly intimate sharing. Beat the hell out of “I am thankful for my new lawn mower, or Green Egg.”

This year, with Covid somewhat at bay, and booster shots in arm, I’m not sure of the configuration, but I’m betting on a good exchange.

I will be sharing an experience that surprised me in the context of this trial.

I have noted the neighborliness of the gatherings that took place during the course of the trial, as this community came together in formal vigils sponsored by the clergy of the area. It grew in numbers as Rev. Al called on black pastors to come to Brunswick. I ran into a number of old colleagues from Atlanta and from the Candler School of Theology. It had a “homecoming” feel with back slaps, stories and lies told, “hugging one’s neck” in true Southern style, and exchange of concern for the outcome of the trial and beyond. But while that was enjoyable and edifying, it was not THE surprise that made me grateful.

The surprise happened on the one day that the Black Panthers showed up, the New Black Panthers as they were billing themselves. The air got tense as these black men dressed in black military clothing, carrying AK-47 assault weapons, came into the courthouse square. What had been laid back, suddenly took on some anxiety and urgency as the precarious peace seemed to be threatened. I joked to a black priest friend that there was nothing like a black person carrying an assault weapon that will motivate gun control among whites. Truth and humor are both close to the bone, and my way of dealing with my anxiety.

In a particularly powerful moment, the Black Panthers brought in a casket with the names of people who had been killed unjustly. In the casket was a black figure with names on it such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Emmett Till, and now Ahmaud Arbery. It is a shocking symbol that rocked the soul of people who had lingered in the pastoral setting of the park. It was an existential reminder that would not be denied by pious prayers and platitudes. It reminded me of the injustice and systemic issues that still plague our country today, that systemic reality that we seem so resistant to face head on. And the death of Ahmaud was a most recent victim. That’s what this trial is all about.

It was a tense morning that flooded into the afternoon. At some point, I stood to begin my walk to my car to attend to a phone conference with a pastor that I coach each week.

My walking is problematic as I live with a torn quad tendon. Two surgeries a couple of years ago did not repair my knee, so I now walk, slowly, with a cane. In my home, on flat land, I am slow but tend to do okay. The geometry of the triangle, two legs and a cane, that my physical therapist taught me, makes it possible for me to move forward relatively safely.

On this day, the cool weather, combined with sitting too long, made my forward walking problematic. The undulations of the grounds, and the uneven concrete blocks made for a harrowing walk. At one point, I became anxious as I felt like I might fall, Suddenly, someone at my side, grabbed my elbow to give me some help, as he provided a fourth point of contact for my movement. I turned to my side to see what kind soul was trying to help me.

It was a Black Panther.

He asked, “Do you need some help?”

“More help than you got! But thanks for the assist. You saved me from falling. Thank you.”

We exchanged looks, feeling each other out. And then we both smiled.

It was a kind of Flannery O’Conner moment of revelation for me. It broke through the persona of a Black Panther and a White Priest. Something deeper than adjectives or nouns roared into the present moment, or as my teacher, Howard Thurman, would say, the Eternal Now. There was a recognition of our common humanity, a connection that was more than skin deep. And in this historic context, it moved me. I would dare claim that it connected me to the Spirit that connects us all. Rudolf Otto called it “the numinous”. I call it “holy”.

When I got home later that night, my thoughts turned to Black Panthers as I stared at my journal. Oddly, the movie, The Black Panther 2, had been shooting some scenes on the riverfront just across from the courthouse a few weeks back. Odd synchronicity or mere happenstance? Free association sent my mind to another connection, unexpectedly, but right on time. My sense of humor brought the scene from the movie, Forrest Gump, to mind as Forrest apologizes, “I’m sorry I had to fight in the middle of your Black Panther party.”

But these two distractions could not take away the accidental meeting I had with a real Black Panther and finding a caring human being who disrupted my category in which I had filed this person away.

That was the gift of these days gathering under the moss-draped trees in the courthouse square. Encountering people of different backgrounds, race, class, faith, orientation, and sensing a connection of neighborliness. I wonder where this type of “meeting” happens in our world in which we choose to segregate into “sameness”.

We talked, we listened, we cared for one another, we laughed, we cried, we shared silence. This sense of connection is what our country is missing and threatens to tear us apart, as Forrest would say, AGAIN!

Maybe Forrest’s mama was right all along: life is like a box of chocolates, or a bunch of Panthers, or Baptists, for that matter….you never know what you’re gonna get!

Postscript: The verdict came in after I finished writing this. The joy in that gathering was deep, as justice came down like a mighty river for Ahmaud. My friend, Mrs. Annie Polite, was on national television proclaiming that she had faith that God would see a way through all along. I can learn from a Black Panther and an old educational activist who teaches me about faith. In fact, I can learn from anyone if I simply pause and take the time to listen deeply. That’s on me. And it’s on you. Truth is, it’s on us.

So, I guess I know what I will be saying I am thankful for tomorrow on Thanksgiving Day. I know that makes my mama happy. And that will make for a fine Thanksgiving here in Glynn County, Georgia. Blessings.

Justice for Ahmaud

I experienced a miracle this week and feel a sense of duty to tell you about it.

I met Ms. Annie.

Ms. Annie is an eighty-nine-year-old black woman who has the slickest walker I’ve ever seen.

I used to admire (make that “COVET”) Corvettes, Porche 911s, even MGs. Nowadays, I am admiring Ms. Annie’s red walker. It has wheels to “roll on with your bad self”, but it also has a convenient seat to use when you have made it to your destination.

I have been watching Ms. Annie carefully during the weeks of jury selection and now the actual trial in the Ahmaud Arbery trial here in Glynn County, coming a year and a half after the killing in the southern part of the county. Annie is often the person who starts the chant that ripples through the gathered family and neighbors, JUSTICE FOR AHMAUD!

There is just something powerful in her witness, to call out to the powers that be, demanding justice. She bellows out of passion in those moments, much louder than the way her regular diminutive voice sounds when she seems to whisper her comments and observations. I try to find a spot near her, because I don’t want to miss her wisdom. She has been at the Courthouse every day since this trial began. As she tells me, “I’m here for the family.” That’s what “love” looks like these days in Glynn County, showing up and speaking up.

For those of you not familiar with the events of February 23, 20202, here’s a brief summary:

Ahmaud was jogging through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. He stopped by a house under construction to look around, like I’ve done a hundred times in Atlanta. Only I was white. A couple of neighbors decided to chase Ahmaud down, as they described in statements, “to trap him like a rat”.

The father-son pair grabbed a shotgun and a .357 pistol to go after this 25-year-old black man. They chased him around the neighborhood, trying to “trap” him, but Ahmaud was a runner who could evade their “traps”. Finally, the father parked the car, while the son got out with a shotgun and proceeded to confront the young man head-on.

Ahmaud chose to head toward the shooter, rather than veer to the side, risking a shot to his back. The young white man shot into Ahmaud’s shoulder, a wound that the medical examiner said would have been enough to kill him. Ahmaud continued forward to try to wrestle the gun away, but the shooter fired two more shots, the second into the center of Ahmaud’s chest, causing him to collapse. ( for more details and history, see my note at the end)

All of this would have likely gone unreported, or altered, if it had not been recorded on the cell phone of the third defendant in this case. He, also a living in the neighborhood, picked up on the vigilante spirit and used his truck to assist in the trap. He just so happened to catch the final encounter on videotape, which found its way to the media some time later, which forced the demurring authorities to finally arrest these vigilantes. Otherwise, it, like so many other crimes like this, would have been ignored.

It’s telling that the introduction of the capacity to capture events on a cell phone has changed our social landscape. This cell phone footage grabs people by the nap of their soul, and shakes them to make them see the reality of the violence that is being done. That is what happened when our lives were put in “freeze frame” during the pandemic. We saw, over and over, the violence used by a police officer, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as he begged for air, calling for his mother. We were a witness to his death at the hands of an out-of-control cop, and it moved our collective soul.

The same thing happened with Ahmaud, as these vigilantes from the “Satilla Plantation” had to teach this “boy” a lesson, and took it upon themselves to chase him down, confront him with deadly force, and take his young life, as he bled out on the south Georgia asphalt. Jesus. What makes people do such a thing?

As the trial is going on, neighbors, family, and friends have been gathering in the morning at the courthouse. We pray, we chant sporadically if our cheerleader Annie feels a move of the spirit. But mostly we talk. About a lot of things. The weather, local news, who’s sick, who is having a tough time. And then our talk will turn to the family, the family of Ahmaud, who are sitting in court, having to watch the video that is played incessantly, and to look at the coroner’s photos, black and white, of the injuries inflicted on this young man with two shot gun blasts of buckshot, ammunition used to bring down deer on the run in the Fall. Jesus.

I’m new to this part of Georgia. I’m learning, or more accurately, trying to learn what makes the community tick. It’s more small-town than I knew in the Atlanta I grew up in. My decade in Tyler, Texas taught me a little about living in a small town where everyone knows your business and where the bodies are buried. But this town is different, with a history of slavery, of a port city economy, of extravagant wealth on the island across the causeway, the creative entrepreneurial rebirth in the downtown, and the economic struggles of the working poor. It’s not unlike most towns, but has that unique low country feel that my friend, Pat Conroy, taught me about. It’s something of the ebb and flow of the tide, the glistening of the moon on the water, the unmistakable smell of the marsh….the famous marshes of Glynn. It’s in the water.

But what I have discovered about this area is the neighborliness of the people. Of people genuinely looking out for one another, going the proverbial “extra mile” to care for the neighbor. Part of that spirit clearly comes, oozes out of the Southern soul of religiosity, grounded in religion. In the groups I have been with over the past few weeks, religion gets shared like breathing the air. It’s a mix, Baptist South of God, Methodists, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Jewish. Everybody seems to keep it light, with no dogmatic or doctrinal fights that I could catch. Even the most outlandish theological statement would receive a simple smile, maybe a head-turn to hide the roll of the eyes, and of course the trademark, Bless Your Heart.

There is a sense of community that seems to thrive on neighborly awareness. Which is not all bad, as we in the South seem to favor comfort. But sometimes, comfort, mere comfort, keeping things comfortable, becomes a sin. We just don’t want to rock the boat, face the hard reality, or deal with the inevitable pain of change.

I was struck on Tuesday driving over the causeway and coming to a billboard sign strategically placed for those traversing Highway 17. The sign had a notice of a prayer vigil taking place the next day, with an added admonition” “Pray for Peace”.

Pray for Peace. Seems reasonable. Appropriate. Desirable. In order. Who doesn’t want peace? I remember when I was growing up, facing a war I did not understand, I was captured by the lyrics on the Beatles’ bard, John Lennon, “Give peace a chance”! It was our mantra, our chant. That phrase became enhanced and real by the man who wrote on my heart about following the “Jesus way”, talking specifically about a vexing radicality: love your neighbor, even your enemy. Lord? And, he added, “practice non-violence”. Jesus, are you kidding me?

As I saw the billboard sign, Pray for Peace, I thought it a worthy admonition, certainly better than an advertisement for a ginormous personal injury lawyer, or fast food, or some other odd sales offering.

But I also thought: “What about justice?”

It’s not enough to merely maintain a placid community, which is of course good for business and commerce. But what of our sense of values, of justice. A man is shot down as he runs through a neighborhood. The thought of a pickup truck, with two white guys, chasing down a black man and killing him just sounds too close to the bad story that’s been told in this country for way too long. Peace, I can pray for, but not at the expense of justice.

Love without justice is mere sentimentality, the jibber-jabber of a Hallmark card Christianity. I did not understand this when I was a freshman in college, trying to read and grasp the wisdom of theologians, although I could regurgitate it on a test, just like some folks that quote more Bible verses than they are willing to live. But now, I actually understand that dialectical tension . And I am trying. Trying real hard. Right here, right now.

Thank God, I experienced a miracle in my life: finding a person older than me. Ms. Annie Polite is trying to teach me, educational advocate that she is, about the powerful, profound dynamic between love and justice. Justice for Ahmaud! Justice for Ahmaud! Justice for Ahmaud! I can see her daily, but she’s now in my mind’s eye, and more importantly, in my heart.

So I hope you will pray for peace. But don’t forget, or deny, the need to pray for justice.

Justice for Ahmaud. Indeed.

*NOTE* For an excellent adventure into the background of the Armaud Arbery killing, I recommend listening to BURIED TRUTHS, a podcast by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Herb Klibanoff, who has investigated “cold case” civil rights cases here in Georgia. His third season focuses on the Arbery incident. Herb sent his Emory students to do background research and it has resulted in a view of the depth in culture and history of this region, and the persons involved. You will not regret the time invested. I got to know Herb through our work at the Carter Center.

A Symbol of Unity In a Divided Town

How can a stone structure empower a nation rent asunder?

I got my first taste of the power of a building just about the time when my adolescent hormones began to kick in.

I was a mere seventh-grader at Mt. Olive Elementary School in the southside of Atlanta, in East Point. It was a trip, a sojourn to our nation’s capital city, Washington, DC that brought me to the National Cathedral. The year was 1967 and it was the annual School Safety Patrol trip. We took the train, the Southern Crescent, to transport us to this fabled city. It would allow me my first trip to this “house of prayer for all people”.

I don’t think I had ever been to a big, gargantuan church building like that before. I had been to my own Baptist South of God buildings, but they were pretty simple. A section of pews, maybe a balcony, a choir loft, a pulpit front-an-center, and a table down front that always seemed to be bare. Except in those rare Sundays when the table was draped with a cloth, making me think there might be a body underneath, like on the TV shows that featured work in a morgue. There was the first time I saw it, and I soon discovered that there were only stale saltines and Welch’s Grape Juice in impossibly small shot glasses. It became the sign that the service would run LONG today.

I had been to country churches out in west Georgia for some preaching and singing, but the buildings were simple. In fact, my memory is more of fellowship halls, where people gathered to eat, talk, and sing.

My church in East Point, Dogwood Hills, was more modern, with colored glass set in concrete frames, more modern in style. I loved the sun coming through the glass, and understood the “big deal” about stained glass. It was about engaging your senses. I missed it when I visited other churches with more simple appointments and clear windows like in houses. Not much play with the senses here, but that was the point in such strict surroundings.

That was clearly not the point in this thing called the National Cathedral. My own mind wondered as to why we would waste our time visiting some church, when there were memorial buildings and amazing museums. Who put this on the list? But, I quickly and experientially learned “why”.

The National Cathedral was huge. Vaulted Neo-Gothic architecture, with stone arches, stained glass rich with images and deep blue glass. It was begun in 1907, with President Teddy Roosevelt, a good Episcopalian, witnessing the laying of the cornerstone. Construction would go on, and on, and on. It was completed 83 years later, in 1990, as President George H.W. Bush saw the placing of the “final finial”. I guess God was waiting on another good Episcopalian, this time from my own Diocese of Texas. God has a sense of humor, and timing, obviously.

Even in the middle of construction, the architecture did what it was supposed to do, that is, lift me heavenward. I listened to a stone mason talk about the careful, painstaking work of crafting the various columns and statues. I remember the gargoyles, in particular. However did they get Mitch McConnell to pose, I will never know.

The woodwork was impressive as well but it was still in progress. This would be my introduction to the idea of a National Cathedral. I would visit on many occasions, almost every time I came to our nation’s Capitol. One time in particular, I spent two weeks in residence there as I taught a course at the College of Preachers, which is housed at the National Cathedral.

That magical week allowed me to reside in the Bishop’s quarters, with my private elevator to my third-floor perch. Quite heady for a priest from Tyler-damn-Texas.

I would use the time well, spending the early mornings in the garden, meditating before my lectures. The Prodigal is a sculpture placed strategically in the middle of the garden. The gray statue so captured my imagination, and a small version sits on my desk today, as it has for twenty years, re-minding me of the Grace that is at the heart of the Gospel.

There are various chapels, many nooks and crannies that I would explore there. But there was nothing like the nave of the Cathedral with the vaulted ceilings that suggest a reality that is more than what we perceive with our senses. It provided the magical, mystical stage for the apprehension of the numinous, as Rudolf Otto would frame it. That was true for me on my first day in this space, and it has only increased through the years.

It has been the site for many state funerals and events. Its very design meant it to be a gathering place for this country, and it has served that purpose well.

And so last week, the National Cathedral was the scene for such a time, to bring us together. The occasion was the funeral of General Colin Powell. a soldier and statesman.

The congregation gathered were a testimony to his power to cross boundaries. Democrat and Republican Presidents were there, those with whom he had served so well, both in military and civilian roles. When I looked and saw our current President Biden, along with President Obama and President Bush, I was filled with a sense of unity that I had not felt for some time. Memories of the insurrection on January 6th receded if but for a moment as we remembered and honored a boundary-spanning American who served our country, not some political party, ideology, or demagogue. This was the best of what our country has to offer.

General Powell is one of a number of generals and admirals that I have met through the years, the majority of whom are Episcopalians. The reason for this is the strategy employed by several Presiding Bishops of the Episcopal Church, to place some of our brightest clergy in the role of chaplains at our military academies. How brilliant is that, placing stellar spiritual leaders in a place where we train our military leaders. The effect is evident in many of the warrior leaders who I have talked with about their sense of servant leadership and deep commitment to life. Their formation took place and root in the chapels of our military academies.

One of those Presiding Bishops, John Hines, talked to me at length about this strategy when he was visiting at the Cathedral in Atlanta in the late 80s. His brilliance and commitment to social justice made him controversial among some of the faithful, although I saw him as a Moses figure, much as in the style of my South of God mentor, Carlyle Marney. Truth is, they knew one another in Austin, both roared like lions, smart as whips, and quick with wit…..just the way I like my mentors.

Watching the funeral of General Powell caused me to pause. What would Hines and Marney think about where we are as a nation. Marney had been up close and personal with the infamous Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee, where intellectual freedom and science were in jeopardy. Both men had lived through the explosive and tearing times of the sixties. Both had fought fiercely in the civil rights battles over the issue of race. I paused to wonder if they might give me a mere word of encouragement for where we are in this country, as party loyalty trumps commitment to our founding Constitution, and brash lies question the legitimacy of our elections. a wily tactic when you know you are bound to lose. Could they offer me a word, even a single syllable that might buoy my soul in these times?

And then there it was. Not one word, but three. Three syllables, in fact. They were both eloquent but could go lean with no fat.

Faith. Hope. Love.

Faith, being a trust in a process that undergirds this whole Creation of which we are a part, a process we can rely upon.

Hope, a mindset that leans into the future, looking to the horizon with an expectation of good coming, even in spite of evil clearly present..

And, Love, that transcends self-interest, reaching beyond one’s self to the needs and concerns of others, even to one’s enemies.

This National Cathedral, on this hallowed day of honoring General Powell, stands in stone, rock-solid, with it undercroft of faith that is its foundation, its vaulted arches lifting our hopes heavenward, and with a cruciform shape of space that reminds us of the promise of love that is poured out, emptied for the Other.

Hines and Marney. What a pair to draw to!

It’s The Time of the Season

It’s the time of the season for loving.

That’s the key lyric from one of my favorite bands, The Zombies. Featuring Rod Argent on the Hammond B-3 organ, this mysterious, lilting tune captured me in budding adolescence and has held on through the years. “Turn it up” does not need to be said when one of the Zombie tunes comes across my Spotify mix. Volume goes to 11.

Here we are, prompted by Halloween, signaling the beginning of the holidays. A rush of family gatherings, the planning that must be done on account of dispersed members across the United States and beyond, the careful scheduling that must be tended to.

For many of my friends, the arrival of pumpkin spice is sprinkled on seemingly everything. Some wag has suggested pumpkin spice-laced communion wafers, but there’s a special ring of Dante’s Hell reserved for such folk. The introduction of this added spice seems to be getting earlier and earlier each year. Of course, Halloween punctuates this pumpkin craze, as sugar-crazed kids roam the streets looking for free candy…what a country!

All Saints Day comes on November 1st, following All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween for you pagans. Every year, it’s a pause to remember the persons who have died in the past year. In church, we name those people aloud, and find various ways to honor their lives, and the fact that we are missing them. It was always a special day for me, remembering ancestors from way back in Scottish past, specifically the McBrayers from the lowlands. But I also pause to think about my grandparents and parents, and give thanks for the blessings they gave me. I picture them in my mind, and tend to smile, remembering their quirks as well as their lovable ways. I’m betting some of you do the same.

This year is a bit different. All Saints Day was the day of the funeral of one of my closest friends, Bart Miller. I knew Bart as a member of the parish where I served in Atlanta. But he was also on the board of the school there. He was part of the team that helped us to negotiate a covenant with our neighbors for the purchase and development of additional land for use across the street from the church/school. We spent a lot of time together and developed a friendship that was remarkable. I came to know him as a loyal friend, something that seems to be rare. Bart had battled cancer over the last few years, aided by the doctors at Emory. What an optimistic attitude he maintained, which resulted in me being shocked by his seemingly sudden death. He died at the beginning of last week, and his family chose to celebrate his life at a service on All Saints Day. So appropriate, as Bart is truly one of the saints that have graced my and others’ lives. For all the saints, who from their labors rest. Indeed, my friend. Blessed be your memory.

Bart’s death reminds me of the preciousness of life, the gift of friendship, and the pain of loss in losing someone that has become dear through time. I am finding as one gets older, the deaths of friends and family come at an increasing pace. It’s a natural occurrence, but I don’t have to like it. A friend reminded me that it is the price of staying alive. Going through my contact list on my phone for a phone number, reminds me of folks that have died that I have not removed from my list. Should I clean up my list, or leave their name on it, to remind me of their being a part of my life? Hell, I probably can’t figure out how to remove them logistically but am I simply covering up by my sentimentality. At least that’s what I’m claiming.

The next day, the day after All Saints Day, is All Souls Day. In Austin, it is celebrated as the Day of the Dead, or Dia de Los Muertos. It is a day of remembering the dead, especially those of one’s family. There are many folk traditions such as visiting the graves, placing the favorite food or libation on the grave, in order to prompt remembrance and symbolize the love that one feels for the dead, even though departed.

In Austin, I have experienced this tradition on occasion, which in keeping with Austin’s beloved weirdness, is over the top, and lots of fun. Not so much here in the South, though I did make a visit to Christ Church’s amazing graveyard to place an offering on the grave of one of my favorite sports journalists, Furman Bisher, in hopes of getting some mojo for the Braves sixth game in the World Series. It worked.

Having been a lifelong fan of the Braves, this whole World Series thing is much scarier than Halloween. The curse that Atlanta fans deal with connected to our sports teams is infamous, remembering a couple of blown Super Bowls, in particular, and several losses of World Series in the 90s. It has made me a superstitious freak, wondering “how” to watch the game, and not jinxing the boys of summer. I have my John Smoltz warm-up jacket, my baseball cards, my glove….all which have to be carefully arranged for full-force mojo. The win, with two massive home run shots, and shut-out pitching, made the evening less painful, though I kept waiting for the curse to strike and the bottom to fall out.. Thankfully, it did not.

Even though the game itself was in Houston, I loved seeing the Atlanta faithful fill the ball park in Atlanta, as well as The Battery that surrounds the field, offering great entertainment for the fans. It was fun to watch my nephew and my friends, especially Charlie, the son of my high school friend, Julie Stephens. Charlie is, without a doubt, the number one Braves fan on the planet. It was an emotional treat to watch the Braves look on a screen after the game and see their loyal, long-suffering Atlanta fan base going crazy in the championship’s aftermath. There will be an amazing celebration in Atlanta on Friday, as the schools have declared a holiday!

My emotions brought about a late night call to my boyhood baseball friend, Danny Hall, who now lives in California. We had our own Sandlot crew, with him cast as the phenomenal player, Benny ‘the Jet, and I played the new kid, Smalls. And we even had our own Wendy Peffercorn! It was quite a trans-America call, whooping and hollering about the Braves being World Champs. We get to do it every quarter-century.

Today, I am back in reality, as the final jury selection panel has begun in the Ahmaud Arbery trial, over at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia. By the end of today, the jury has been selected and the trial is ready to begin with opening statements.

I have been over at the courthouse square several days, sitting with the family of Ahmaud, who are hoping for justice. I have listened to many stories about him from his aunts, and friends. The chasing down and shooting of this young man has been a wake-up call in our community, resulting in the replacement of the District Attorney who bobbled the prosecution of the shooter and his accomplices. It has our community talking about race in a way that is out of the ordinary, that is, honestly. At the initiative of the Glynn County clergy, we are beginning to have dinners with one another, across racial lines, to discover concerns and common connections. The trial looms in the next few weeks, and the verdict will be telling as to the state of things here.

In the next few weeks, I am beginning a group with fellow clergy that is called Sacred Ground. It uses a design offered by the national Episcopal Church, which is promoting the formation of the Beloved Community, borrowing the term from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a community where all people count. Its specific aim is around racial reconciliation, a pressing need in our nation and in our community. It provides a fresh look at the history of race in our country, and promotes dialogue and understanding. It’s made up of ten sessions in a small group, with readings and video, followed by candid discussion. I am committing my time to this project as a way to honor the life of Ahmaud and as a prayer of action for peace and unity in my new community.

For an excellent discussion of the situation surrounding this trial, I refer you to a well-produced podcast, Buried Truths, in the third season’s production. It is led by my Pulitzer Prize friend, Hank Klibanoff, the former managing editor of the Atlanta Journal, now journalism professor at Emory. He employed his students to do investigative work over the summer here in Glynn County, in the middle of the pandemic. It’s a worthy listen that will give you a surprising, in-depth look into the community in which this terrible moment happened on February 23, 2020.

So this is my moment of pause as I begin to lean in toward the holidays. I have some expectation, some fear, some anxiety, some hope as we move into the living of these days. As I began my article, it’s the time of the season for loving. It always is. Blessings.

Used To Rule The World

A friend of mine was telling me of his recent work, something that makes him proud, as if he was engaged in something significant. And I think he is spot on.

Terry is a physician, having spent many days as a healer of folks. My sense is he loves that work, though as any doctor will tell you, if you will only listen, medicine has changed. A lot!

My father-in-law, who birthed half of Atlanta, was an “old-school” doc. He was an ObGyn but truth was, back in the day, he was the internist, psychiatrist, and just about anything else a woman patient needed. Dr. Grimes was the type doctor who would spend time with his patients, listening, carefully “attending” to the women who would visit his office for care. He was one who you would trust with your fears, your pain, your hopes and dreams. He was the type of doctor that nurses, and finally the business manager, would have to cajole to keep them on schedule, on track, to keep the flow moving. Otherwise, he would bog down in the care of the patient. This was years before the advent of efficiency and productivity charts that measure the work of a physician. He measured it by the smiles on peoples’ faces as they left his office. He was the kind of doctor you wanted.

My friend, Terry is like that, He cares deeply for his patients, and even gives care away to his friends when the need arises. He is a good man, way before you might add any other qualifying word such as a physician, or doctor.

In retirement, Terry has taken up another vocation, though, in my book, it’s the same healing vocation. You see, it’s his calling.

He loves photography, specifically portrait work of people. That doesn’t surprise me as he has spent his career looking deeply into the face of his patients.

Recently, he has been working with an addiction rehabilitation center. He has evolved a process that is genius. He takes pictures of people who have just come to the therapeutic setting. And then later, he takes their portrait photograph at the end of the healing process. “Before” and “After”. The portraits tell a story of those who have made the journey across the river, or desert, of addiction, to a new land, the land of sobriety. If one takes the time to look, as Terry does, there is a new life in the face of the one who faced the demons and lived to tell about it. It’s a face of life and hope.

What is captured is different for each person. The wear of addiction on the human face is generally not erased. But there is a spirit present that was not evident at the beginning. The camera catches the shadows in the facial contours, but reveals the new spark that has returned. This is evidence that a soulful transformation has begun, and that’s good news.

Terry and I are working on a huge project together with some other dreamers, and it too is about transformation.

It is a designed experience for folks who need to find their way again in this thing we call life. To recapture their sense of call, of purpose, while mid-stream. It involves facing whatever is confronting you in this present moment of your life. It asks one to look deeply, below the waterline of one’s life, to see what one is dragging along behind you, your “story”, including all the characters who inhabit it. The program prompts you to be honest as to what is “running “your life, whether by default or whoever owns your soul. It invites you to pause and sense the voice that is calling you now, as you regain the energizing pull and push of purpose. And then, the design intends to unleash your person in service to this world. It’s a tall order, but we believe in the process and are designing a pilot project for the beginning of 2022.

Last week, in our design and planning meeting, Terry was talking about his passion for his work of capturing the spirit of the folks in recovery in his portrait work. In my free association, a song came to my mind, not an odd happening for me. My brain seems to be filled, or infested, with lyrics.

The song is Used to Rule the World. It was written by Randall Bramlett, a multi-talented musician that I know and who played on one of my son’s albums. He wrote this song for himself to perform, but blues legend, Bonnie Raitt, picked it up to be the first song on an album she recorded, Slipstream. I like Randall’s funky version, but I prefer Bonnie’s take even better, for obvious reasons, betraying my taste in music, and women.

The song is basically a litany of people that have lost control of their lives. Randall invokes the characters of a businessman, a preacher, a socialite, and my favorite, Miss South Carolina 1975… I think I dated her. Each one, who represents a part of our society who might suppose that they had achieved some status, some position, some “cred”, wakes up to find that they have, in fact, lost it, this prestige that they thought they had. They have started to “wake up” and smell the proverbial coffee, that they are part of a new group of affiliation that they would have never applied for membership in.

Randall puts it graphically, as if he knows this all too well, just like I do: you’re mystified as you find yourself standing with other souls, who “used to rule the world”. The phrase grabbed me the first time I heard it, and it’s never let go.

It’s a humbling thing to see the illusions of your “hold” on reality slip, or plunge away from your grasp. You are faced with a sobering realization that you are not in control. For many, this comes in the aftermath of an addiction that now controls your life. For others, it’s a fairy tale marriage that winds up on the rocks. Or, I’ve seen people with great skill suddenly fall, sometimes just because of fate, and their place on the top of the heap that Sinatra crows about is gone. It’s humbling, I said, but in fact, it is a recognition of the true lay of the land we call “existence”. “Ruling the world” sounds pretty sweet at first glance, but the price is high, and the rewards, illusory.

I know something about “ruling the world”, only to find out you are just like everyone else, fallible and broken. So does Terry. My hunch is that his attraction to this holy work of portraiture is intended not only to catch a glimpse of the broken person who is fresh out of tricks by which he/she ruled the world, but more importantly, to catch the shimmer of the childlike spirit that has returned to this creature of God. It is a portrait of healing.

Transformation is what I have tried to be about most of my life. I love to see it happen in people’s lives, and feel called to assist and midwife in that process of rebirth. That’s what motivates this odd band of angels I am working with on this project. I am looking forward to the launch in January, and hoping Terry brings his camera.

Strike a pose.

“What’s It All About?”

As a young college student, preoccupied with making sense of my own religious background, confronted by hard-nosed science, I found a defense mechanism that could get me through the night.

It’s called humor.

My grandmother, who I talked about a few weeks ago, who claimed she was a witch, had a wicked sense of humor. Her Scots rapier wit would slice and dice, making a comment about someone she wanted to cut down to size. She could be cruel but mostly her McBrayer wit was employed for fun as she mastered pre-Seinfeldian observational humor about the world around her.

My grandfather, the Atlanta cop, had a bone dry sense of humor that got him through some tight spaces. My favorite example of his sense of humor is found in his comment when he noticed that birds in his yard “messed’ on his Chevrolet. He would pause, look up into the pecan tree, and remark, “They sing for some folks.” As a kid, I thought that was a hilarious comment, seeing comedy in the middle of less than optimal conditions. I have tried to follow in his giant footsteps in similar situations in the church.

My mother was sort of a combination of both. I have told the story of her “taking down” the mayor of East Point, a notorious “clothes horse”, as he would parade in front of the church as an usher. She got his attention while he was passing the collection plate one Sunday morning, whispering to him that his “fly was down”. He quickly put the collection plate over his crotch, retreating to the back of the church to remedy the situation, only to find he had been “had” by Miss Doris. Then, there was the time in a Bible class that she asked Dr. Jones, the pastor, how the officials in the Jewish Temple knew whether or not a person was circumcised. When Dr. Jones, holding back his laugh, allowed that there were qualified people appointed to check, my mother raised her hand again, asking if she could volunteer.

These are all stories I plan to offer to a jury of my so-called peers when I am brought to trial as reasons behind my defense of lunacy. A waxing moon, indeed. Just a family, south of God.

So when I was living in the scientific bastion of Emory University, I was informally confronted with my prior life within the Baptists South of God. Half of our student body was Jewish, which raised some natural questions I did not have to confront in my prior life in the southside of Atlanta. It was like I got the experience of going to college in the North without freezing my tookus off!

The context of my time at Emory was the early 70s. It was a time in our country where evangelicals did not spend their time defending a corrupt President, but were focusing on building up their own kingdoms. There were a menagerie of actors. Pat Robertson with his 700 Club and Regent University. Jerry Falwell with his Moral Majority. Jim Bakker, with wife Tammy Faye and the Heritage USA development. And my favorite, Ernest Angley, who had the worst hair piece, even worst suits, with an effeminate lisp, as he would bellow, “Heal!” that might, in fact, scare the Devil back to the deepest ring of Hell.

In the middle of the milieu, or situation for you South of God folks, I resorted to my McBrayer humor by creating a comic figure that I would trot out on occasion for good humor. Ernest Angley was clearly the base of my impression, with full lisp. But my better impression was really Pat Robertson, with his signature, “Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is deviancy!” Truth is, it was an amalgam of the whole lot of them.

I would do my imitation at an improvisational setting in the basement of a dorm, or at a late night party where things had definitely gone south. But my favorite venue was the Sigma Chi house, in the kitchen, early, and I mean “EARLY” in the morning at breakfast.

Our fraternity house served breakfast every morning beginning around 6:30, provided by our two cooks, Ethyl and Pearl. These two women “got me through” my Emory education by becoming my mother figures. I can’t begin to tell you how important they were to me, and to most of my fraternity brothers. They could “love you up” when you were down, bring you back to earth if you were bearing an inflated ego. I’ll let you imagine which one they did for me most. But they were better than any psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, guidance counselor, or priest. And their secret was that they loved their boys, and by God, we loved them.

I lived in the house three of my four years in college, and they greeted me every morning. I am not sure how it all started but one day, we decided to “have church” in the kitchen, and I went into my alter, not altar, ego, “The Rev.”. After a few times of me holding forth, either one or both of the two would make the request, “Come on, Rev, give us a sermon” and it was there I learned the fine art of improv. I would take on my character and go for ten minutes or so. And they were a great audience, giving me the “Amen”, or “Hallelujah!” or “Preach!” to drive me to my sermonizing on the sins of the fraternity.

Now, I have to tell you that Sigma Chi at Emory had a bit of a reputation of having a large number of Jesus freaks at the time. Many were involved in Campus Crusade for Christ with the inimitable Four Spiritual Laws that could be recited forward, backward, or exponentionaly by our brethren. They did not take too kindly to my parody of evangelical preachers, which made it much more fun for me. Several of the “strong” Christians would try to protect the holy but vulnerable Christian sisters from the wiles of a traveling evangelist like me. And, thank the Lord, they were successful….mostly.

But my real audience was Ethyl and Pearl. That was my congregation, and they would laugh, guffaw, chortle, and howl, keeping this poor boy sane, thank you, Jesus.

Now at some point, during our summer break, someone stole a sign from a local church, I presume. I think it was Robert Tucker, but I am not sure, in my tottering old age. The sign was a “parking sign” meant for a church parking lot. It was a white painted (white, a noted sign of purity) piece of wood with black letters with the name: Rev. Galloway. How about that! It took it’s place over the window in the kitchen to let anyone know that this was the haunt of the Right Rev. Dr. Galloway, the pastor of the What’s Happening Now Church.

Two more notes from this story to ponder. One, when I was in seminary, I did a directed study where I went to Ethyl and Pearl’s church over near Grant Park. I attended for three months, being a participant/observer, taking notes on how their honest-to-God church functioned on Sunday morning. The mourner’s bench, the prayers, the music, and yes, even the preaching of the legitimate pastor was a blessing to me. But the real gift was to be with my dear mothers, Ethyl and Pearl, in their home setting. Blessing does not even begin to describe the gift I got.

Secondly, it seems that God is the best audience of comedy, or at least, God has a hell of a sense of humor. Going to Emory, trying to make sense of my heritage of Baptists South of God, I happened to launch into a full fledged pilgrimage to find out about this Jesus fellow, and the Spirit that seemed to animate so many people I met and interviewed. I have written before about the odd gift of my first quarter, being introduced to the quest of the historical Jesus that lay beneath the Christ figure we worship. It proved to the the quintessential detective story that has occupied my mind and heart for coming up on three score years.

I had a friend call me earlier in the week, which prompted this article. We wound up talking about his life, what he had done, where he had been, what he had been spent for in his life. He is in the mood of reflection, thinking back on the decisions, good and bad, that he has made. He seems to have little regret but there seems to be a pause, a catch in his step these days. It reminded me of a question that Dr. Bill Graham used to use in his sermon as a “set-up”. He would frame it this way, “People come to me and ask me, ‘Billy, what’s it all about?'”

And that is the existential question we all face: What is this life we are living all about? What gives the time and energy we spend here worth it? Pause. Ponder. Wonder.

What is your answer?

My friend reviewed his commitments to family, to his marriage, to raising children, contributing to our common life serving in a civic capacity. Those were the marks of achievement he pointed to, literally making his case, as it were (he is an attorney). The question must have emerged for him one of those dark nights we all have, but he wanted to face it down in the light of day. We agreed to continue to chase it down, for as long as it takes. I am honored that he has asked me to come alongside him in this quest. I am pretty sure he did not choose me for the sermonizing that he heard me do at the Sigma Chi house, but he knows I am a quester, too. I, too, love the questions of life, and the praxis in which we discover truth.

We all are questers, some more diligent and intentional, but all, making sense out our existence.. We all give our answers in the commitments we make, in the lives we live. While we may philosophize, reflect, and wonder, our real answers are written with our lives.

What’s it all about? Indeed.

Perspective Taking

This past week, a long-time friend and ministry colleague came to the island.

His name is Jerry Wright, who has recently published a new book, A Mystical Road Less Taken, describing an alternative spiritual path which takes seriously our collective psyche. Previously, he wrote a book offering a new way of looking at our religious impulse, Reimaging God and Religion. I have found both books compelling and provocative as he looks at the current situation in our struggle to find ways to connect with God in a disenchanted world.

He was taking a break from his normal work as a therapist/analyst. He called to tell me he would be here for four days, and then go up the coast to my old haunt, Folly Beach. He was bringing his dog with him, his faithful companion.

I had recently heard him speak on Zoom as a part of a group we both have been associated with for years, the Jung Society of Atlanta. He was specifically speaking about a trip he took recently to Africa. He leads “spiritual pilgrimages” to various places, and people accompany him because of his expertise and wisdom. He has travelled to Iona, to Canterbury, to Greece, various places where traces of spiritual encounters still resonate and glow. His trip to Africa prompted the remembrance of Carl Jung’s journey there in 1925, which provided a striking threshold moment of enlightenment for Jung.

My friend found such a moment for himself. He was positioned at the Mara River, watching the annual migration of animals across the plain, making the crossing at the river. It’s an annual, instinct-driven migration that takes all kind of species across the crocodile-infested waters.

My friend’s eye caught sight of a specific family of zebras poised to make their crossing. As they did, the youngest of the family was seized by a crocodile, taken under the bloody water for consumption. My friend watched in fascination and horror. The rest of the zebras made it across, but were concerned, as they arrived on the other side, discovering one of their number missing. After looking around frantically, scanning the river bank for their missing family member, they went to return to the other side to find their lost member. My friend could not look any longer, and turned away, caught by the pathos of the situation.

Let’s pause for a second. Pause. That’s a power we have as humans, to pause and not react. What were your immediate feelings in my short word picture of this moment in Africa? What images came to mind? What feelings came to you? Are there specific memories that emerged for you, a trace of an experience where a similar thing occurred as you observed nature, or perhaps in your own life? Pause. Ponder. Wonder.

My friend and his group returned to camp following this paradigmatic moment. My friend, a most empathetic and caring person, identified with the innocent, young zebra who was caught in the jaws of this waiting crocodile, remembering his own helplessness, and moments of being out of control, of vulnerability. He had a visceral reaction to observing a creature being “taken under”, as he remembered a time in his life when he himself felt such experience.

But he also identified with the zebra family, hurt by the loss of a familiar member, left wondering what had happened. Befuddled by the instant change in the reality of the moment. Shocked at their own vulnerability, torn by self-protection and the need to find the lost one, my friend has been there in his own life experience, as have we all. He recently dealt with the ravages of a disease on his wife, and watched as she slowly succumbed to its power.

But finally, he faced the fact that he was also the crocodile, waiting for an opportunistic moment to seize an unsuspecting and vulnerable victim. His hunger for food and survival drove his movement. He, too, was capable of the violence that can self-justify the disregard of another’s life and perspective. He knows his aggression, civilized but just underneath the surface, like a croc, waiting.

Has my friend’s musings resonated with your soul? How do you see the nature of reality? Is this just the way it is? Is it as Norm of Cheers suggested, a “dog-eat-dog world…and I’m wearing Milk Bone underwear!”

Is their a natural “plan” underneath this moment of bloody death, or is it another example of cruelty, of the powerful, overwhelming the vulnerable? What sense do you make of this? Pause. Ponder. Wonder.

My Jungian friend is still pondering this moment as he has been back to his home in North Carolina for weeks. It made a profound impact of his thinking. We are both zebra and crocodile. The human is the most creative of species of animals on the planet, but also the most destructive. We are both, simultaneously. Zebra and croc. How does that show up in your life?

We sat together for lunch at a spot I enjoy here on the island, Tramici’s. It had been sunny and clear for days, and almost at the precise time of our meeting for lunch, a violent thunderstorm struck, with the pyrotechnics that would have made DeMille happy. He had brought his dog with him so we were sitting outside, forced to experientially witness the power of nature. What sense did I make of this? A random thunderstorm on an island….not too rare an occurrence, but why now, in the middle of my long-awaited time of meeting? Had some cosmic force conspired to dampen our gathering, or was it a meteorological punctuation to the profundity of our exchange? Or, more to my scientific worldview and bias, was it a cold front merely transforming the tropical atmosphere? The storm seemed to come and go with our meeting. How odd.

It was what I would call a “threshold moment”, a time between the structured life that we live everyday, and the chaos of the anti-structure, where things seem up for grabs, in question. Such places have been described by various cultures in a number of different ways. The one that appeals to me is the term “thin space”, where the line between heaven and earth seem to blur, a space where one glimpses the presence of the Holy. In such moments, one senses both the attractions to and fear of the profundity of the moment. Your heart beats harder and faster, but there is also a sense of dread, even fear. How odd.

Rudolf Otto called it the numinous, a sensing of the presence of the holy. One seems to touch the hem of the garment of life, where the sense of connection is palpable but fleeting. Impossible to put into words, Otto employs the ancient words of the mystics, as it is ineffable. We are prompted to gaze into the mystery that is beyond our schedules, budgets, and agendas to a depth that connects us to one another, creature to creature, across species, even across partisan lines, as it that were possible today. Those are moments where I wish to linger, but it is ephemeral and fleeting. Precious, but oh so real.

I think that is what my friend experienced there in the exotic plain of Africa. It is what we sensed together as we broke bread in a courtyard of a restaurant, encompassed by lightening and thunder. It is what I experience when I visit the quietness of the graveyard at Christ Church here on the island, as the day passes into night, as the young deer cavort among the tombstones, playfully denying the finality of death.

A thin space. A place between the Structure of our civilization and the wild Spirit of Creation. A threshold of entrance into a land of connection, where the dance goes on, and the journey never ends. A space to pause, ponder, and wonder.

Did I mention that I love thin spaces?

On the Corner of Bourbon and Toulouse

My New Year’s Eve was a bust. A complete bust.

I had gone to a party at my old residence in Decatur, Menagerie Farms, named in a fleeting alcohol-induced moment of self-awareness, because that is who were. A menagerie, and I had just read Tennessee Williams play. We were, or had been, a rare Baptist band of gypsies. Most of the “founders”, divorced Baptist ministers and a chairman of deacons, just for grins, had moved on to new pastures a couple of years prior to this fateful eve of a new year. Living there now, a son of a founder, my brother, and a collection of other species this exotic farm let in.

I was in the second year of my doctoral course work, and feeling ancient among these pups. I would end up leaving the party before midnight in my forest green CJ-5 Jeep, in a bit of a funk.

The girl I had just started dating was a senior at the University of Georgia and she was out of town. Out of town? Hell, she was in New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl with who knows who. And here I was, headed back to my Emory apartment. Alone. Naturally.

The girl I mentioned in the previous paragraph had been practically engaged to her high school sweetheart. I knew something about that predicament, my own damn self. They had dated through college and I had gotten the clear message that she was out of bounds, even though I had bumped into her on occasion at the church and at Everybody’s in the Emory Village.

After exiting Decatur First Baptist Church, after beginning my doctoral program, I had not been back for awhile. I had decided to go one Sunday morning to hear a favorite professor, Dr. L. D Johnson, of Furman, who was speaking. I sat in the balcony to keep a low profile and make a quick exit. Across , on the right side was the aforementioned girl. She was obviously home for Thanksgiving break from the University, and sitting with her parents. “Fine” is a vintage word for me, used rarely, to be savored. I used it that morning and decided to drink deeply.

After the service, I quickly intercepted her path and asked how she was doing. Smooth, don’t you think? After some “check in” exchange, I asked if she would like to go get a drink that evening. To my surprise, she said “yes”! We arranged to meet at the Lullwater in order for me and her to avoid the embarrassment of me having to talk with her father. Thank you, Jesus.

The evening went well and I found out that she was now “dating other people.” Open season for a Southside boy! I asked her out for the following weekend, and began a barrage, taking her to my favorite places like Dante’s or my go-to move of sitting in with my friend, Elgin Well’s band, Extravaganza. It was a full court press, as much as my VISA card would allow. Grad assistants are not wealthy, well below poverty, but I was in full-tilt mode. Such is the life of a romantic.

In spite of my push over the Christmas holidays, she had plans to go to the Sugar Bowl to see the Georgia Bulldogs take on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame for the National Championship. It was hard to argue against that decision, although I did not know if she was going with her old boyfriend or some other wanna be.

As a result, I was SOL on New Year Eve, and I was figuring she was with her boyfriend in the romantic setting of the French Quarter. I was screwed.

The next day, New Year’s, I went to the new house of one of the Menagerie Founders, Wendell, to watch the football game. As the game progressed, I was allowing myself to imagine this girl in New Orleans and it was driving me crazy.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I called my dad, a Delta exec, and asked if he could get me two tickets to New Orleans. He quickly asked me, “What’s her name?” I told him that he had not met her, but would, and could he have the two tickets waiting for me at the airport. Like the prince he was, he did.

I then had to convince my brother, Mitch, to join me on this fool’s errand. As I recall, he was sitting on the end of a comfortable coach when I inquired as to his readiness to make an exciting expedition. Mitch, with a Heineken in hand, responded that “No”, he would be staying right there, drinking and watching the end of the game. It’s funny how peer pressure can be applied in just the right way. It’s called “leverage”. My friends assisted in shaming him with a variety of appellations that required his positive response to secure his manhood. We were off to the airport.

We got to the Atlanta International Airport, otherwise known as the Janet Jackson International Space Port, my favorite place on the planet, picked up our tickets, and were sitting ready to board a flight to New Orleans. The effects of the intoxicants had waned, and the reality was beginning to set, if not break in. I realized that I did not know if this damsel was with her old boyfriend. I did not know where she was staying. We would be arriving mid-evening after the game with the fans of Georgia and Notre Dame ready and loaded for some serious partying in the French Quarter.

Sitting in the infamous fitted blue seats at the gate, Mitch and I assessed the situation, I asked him a reasonable question. “Mitch, you are a brilliant Georgia Tech student with considerable mathematical skills. What are the chances that we will be able to find Mary in the crowd there in New Orleans?” Mitch replied smartly, “Do you want a precise calculation of the odds?” And I replied, “I would.” Looking off in the distance, he said, “Slim to none.” There ensued a pause. I offered a Tim Russert follow-up question, “But, if we don’t find her, will we still have a great time in the French Quarter?” It was what is known as a rhetorical question, but Mitch answered, nonetheless, “Hell yeah.” We were off.

Drinks came on the plane (I knew one of the flight attendants), we’re in First Class because we were non-revenue, meaning we’re flying free. Lot’s of space, leg room, flying on New Year’s Day.

We landed, grabbed a shuttle to a local hotel. So, just to make the point clear, we had spent no money on this Galloway gallivant. Sweet. But my investment was substantial.

Upon arrival in the French Quarter, Mitch and I engaged in the ritual of a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s, Not my first rodeo. Then, strategy, skull session, game plan. I had been thinking about it for awhile. We would make two passes the length of Bourbon Street. Mitch was assigned the left side of the street, I would survey the right. After making the two passes, if we did not spot Mary, the Georgia co-ed in question, we would simply go free-style party mode for the rest of the evening. Not a bad “worst case scenario”.

As we began our initial walk down the boulevard of dreams and drunks, I discerned that my brother did not share the level of commitment I had, so I made a tactical move to keep an eye on both sides of the street. In our first pass, I saw her on the left, on the corner of Toulouse and Bourbon, standing with a group of her sorority sisters. No sight of the old boyfriend. Jackpot.

We ambled, moseyed, sashayed our way over to where she was. When she saw me. she looked surprised, I discerned, pleasantly so. “What are you doing here?”. “Just happened to be in the neighborhood.” Cue Morris Day and the Time. C O O L…that spells “cool”.

What a night. I spent the rest of the evening with her walking the streets of New Orleans, while my brother got the spoils of my hunt. It had a magical quality, a mystical connection that spoke to my mystic soul, enough to convince me there was something special between us. Could it be love? It was, at least for that night.

Turns out, in the next few months, we both had family secrets and personal dreams that we were able to share with one another in rare moments of intimate dialogue that I used to teach about. After that crazy night, she joined me many times in my Jeep rag top, in our “tent of meeting”. Once, it even meant spending a day, driving to my special beach, Folly, just for grins, with the top down.

I would write her a song, called The Rock. It was about the love story between my witchy grandmother and my lawman grandfather. When they became engaged, he did not have the money to buy a diamond engagement ring. They just went with the love that was between them until wedding rings were exchanged. In retirement, he had saved money to buy a boat which would enable him to fish in local lakes. On the way to the purchase, he took a side trip to a jewelers, long before Tom Shane, my friend’s brother, came to Atlanta to become “my friend in the diamond business”. My granddad bought a diamond ring to give to my grandmother, just a little late to his engagement. I am glad that I come, not only from a witch, but a knight in shining armor.

I wrote the song to propose to Mary. That is the aforementioned girl’s name. How romantic, you might be saying. After a while thinking about it, she said “yes”. That was forty years ago.

Even with my epic New Orleans quest, my proposal song, there weren’t many people betting on The Kid that August day we got married in 1981. And they were smart. Like my brother assessing our chances of our New Orleans gambit, the odds were slim to none!

But, that’s just how I like it.

If you want, you can see that ring on her finger if you come to my island.

Not bad for a Southside boy. Not bad.

My Grandmother Is A Witch

My grandmother admitted it to me one day. She was a witch.

She said it with that twinkle that I caught dancing in the corner of her eye, a joy she could not push down. Joy is not something one should have in a religion that was all about control, and certainly not be celebrated, admitted….rather confessed. But she was full of it. Joy, that is. And as hard as she tried, she could not suppress it.

I spent my first four years at my grandparents’ house, while my mom was off teaching biology to her students. It meant I was with my recently retired grandfather, retired from the police force. He would take me in his Chevrolet, out into the woods of West Georgia, or on his farm there. Or, we might go driving around the streets of Atlanta that he knew like the back of his hand. Whitehall, Lucky, Pryor, Sweet Auburn, Lee, and the iconic Peachtree. He was unconsciously schooling me in the way of the wilderness and the city, and they would, and do, remain in polar tension within my soul. A love for the wild and the urban, juxtaposed, in dialectical tension, although my grandfather would never frame it in those philosophic terms. He knew about balance, and had lived it himself, at home in the woods or on his beat on Broad St..

Other times were spent in the presence of my grandmother, Glennie Mae. She would allow me in her kitchen to help prepare Southern concoctions that came deep from the ancestral plain. There was indeed magic in the way she prepared chicken and cubed steak, drew flavor from vegetables, and crafted biscuits light enough to escape to heaven if you weren’t paying attention.

But she also told me stories. She was known as the best Bible teacher at Oakland City Baptist Church, and she would relate those biblical narratives that I would later study and exegete. But the way she told stories of David, my namesake, Moses, Paul, and that Jesus, rivaled any Hollywood producer or any jackleg TV preacher.

She also told me stories of her life, something she obviously passed on to me. She loved to tell of her childhood in Texas, as her father, John Columbus McBrayer and mother, Mattie Worthy McBrayer, who lived outside of Waco, Texas in a town called Mart, and a settlement named, Battle. My grandmother spoke in grand images when referring to Texas, a land made of rich, black dirt, flat as far as you could see, with field upon field of crops. She could conjure up cinematic scenes of gigantic storms, full of thunder and lightning, as she retained the trauma from being a little girl in such a force field. When “it came up a storm”, as she described it, in our house in southwest Atlanta, she would telegraph fear and concern, mostly fear, across her face, and have us get under the bed in the bedroom. My inheritance from this in my childhood was a fear/excitement reaction, an adrenaline rush that I could not diagnose back them, but feel even today. It’s a rush, and a sense of connection to this mystery that swirls around me.

She once told me of the time my great-grandfather was plowing in those rich fields. He had a sixth-sense, she said. She baptized it by naming it a “vision”. He “saw” my great grandmother falling down, and so he ran from the field to the house, finding his wife bleeding from the premature childbirth of the fourth child. Mattie did not survive the childbirth, like many women of that time. Grandmother said that she was buried in a graveyard there in the corner, by a single mesquite tree. John Columbus packed up his McBrayer family and headed back to Georgia, where he would continue his farming.

This story made an impression on my young psyche. Being a budding scientist, like my mother, I asked how her father “saw” this thing happening, even though he was not in the physical space to observe it. She replied, with a change of tone in her voice, “He had the gift.”

Later, when I asked her about it as a young man, that twinkle returned as she quietly cued me to the secret, “I have the gift, as well. So does your mother.” When I asked my biologist, scientist mother about the exchange, she said, “Your grandmother is a witch…and so am I” as she smiled. I pushed my interrogation adroitly, “What do you mean ‘witch’?” and she only replied with a smile.

That story stayed with me for awhile. It was fed by moments when I remembered her catching me when I was sneaking around as a adolescent, when she predicted some untimely event in our lives, or when she would intuit someone’s illness, or on two occasions, a death. When it happened, I would simply utter the declarative statement, “Witch.”, at which point, she would smile in a way I still remember.

Go with me now to 1992, when I was a new priest in Tyler, by God, Texas. I was feeling mighty homesick, missing Atlanta, and the state of Georgia. I felt like an outsider, even though Tyler was more Southern than it was Texas….something I could say just to get a rise out of the prideful locals. “I thought I was being called to a parish in the Great State of Texas, only to find out that my church actually was in Mississippi.” Imagine their love for me.

In any case, I was homesick. I was on the board of an organization that was meeting in San Antonio, so I took off on a stormy Fall day for the gathering. As I was approaching Waco, I saw a road sign on the left side of the road, indicating that the city of Mart was thirteen miles to the left. In a split second decision, I turned left onto this highway. Curiosity, my super power and my distractor.

I continued on the road toward Mart for a while, on this flat land that provided a basement for these threatening dark skies. The coming storm made me smile as I remembered my grandmother’s fear that occurred in this general area almost a hundred years ago. There were no road markings. I intuitively made two right hand turns, leading me to a cemetery. I parked my car, and walking into the football field sized repository of the dead, I noted a lone mesquite tree at the back of the lot. I walked straightway to that tree, remembering my grandmother’s story. It was a surprise, and yet not, as I came to my great grandmother’s grave, marked with a headstone.

The hair on the back of my neck was dancing. An electrical storm was gathering but that was not the source of the charge I was feeling in my body, not dissimilar to the one I’m getting as I am typing this. As I knew, she had died in 1900. What I did not know that her birthday was my own, June 30th, her day in 1873, mine in 1954. How spooky is this scene. Fade to Rod Serling. “Imagine, if you will, you are traveling in a different dimension, into another time.”

The upshot of this wild moment was surprising. First off, it made me feel connected to this woman who gave birth to my grandmother almost a hundred years ago. In my quest to find ancestral connection, this was a profound link.

But perhaps even more important in that particular time in my life, I was standing in the place where my great grandmother lived, and died, and was buried in the rich, black dirt. I grabbed a handful, clutched it, and felt it in my hand. I opened my fingers and let the soil fall back to the ground. I was filled with a new feeling, a fresh sense of place. Texas was my place, my home. It is a strange road that led me to my sense of belonging in this beautiful, strange land. It was a magical, mystical moment for which I will be forever grateful. What a long strange trip it’s been.

I guess it’s good to have a few witches in your bloodline. Blessings.