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.

What Time Is It?

It used to be a simple task of looking at the watch on my wrist.

Or looking up to observe the sun’s position in the sky.

Or checking the level of the tide.

You could read the signs, or observe the message as plain as the face on a clock. Even now, digitally displayed.

Not so much any more.

What time is it?

What time is it in your day? What time is it in your life? What time is it in our culture?

As one gets older, one becomes (I become) more aware of the chronological and biological time in one’s life. After sixty-five, I became much more reflective on the journey I have been on, as well as the time I have left on the clock of my human existence. What time is it?

Erik Erikson offered one of the first psychologically based images of the life stages of humans that would guide in globally positioning one’s place in the time of life. I remember encountering his framework in my early twenties, reading about his life cycle stages. I had gone through the identity work, hammering out the sense of self that I inherited from my parents and my native land. This was a lot more complicated than it might appear at first glance, giving two therapists and a psychoanalyst some extra spending money, and a second home. “It’s complicated” was alive and well in my life a long time before Facebook’s profiles.

I wish that Henry Louis Gates would do his magic on my family tree, just for grins. I am quite certain that I am genetically linked to Larry David. Pretty, pretty, pretty sure. Even the creator of the phrase “identity crisis” found the process tricky as he gave himself the name of Erik Erikson….namely “son of Erik”. I thought of David Davison, but I was always a Rich’s man ( an Atlanta department store, as opposed to Davison’s, bought by Macy’s…sell-out!).

Immediately following getting some aspects of identity squared away, one is asked to begin the serious endeavor in the tricky process of sharing one’s self with an other. Traditionally, this meant marriage, but there are other forms of coupling. The key work was to not lose your identity in the process of this sharing, which Erikson called intimacy.

This oftentimes leads to a fusion of identities, where one member of the couple melds into that of the other. Sometimes when identity formation has not been completed, the person is merely attracted to a mirror image of one’s self in an other, entering into an simple infatuation with oneself. This is what I once infamously called a “homosexual marriage”, where a person couples with another person who presents a sameness that initially feels comfortable and familiar. It works in the short term, maybe even famously, but eventually the pairing becomes boring.

A lot of “adolescent” relationships, based in narcissism, yield lifeless marriages. Often, it takes about five to seven years for that to show up, painfully. Smart couples get into therapy and work on the relationship. Some enter into what we called “social therapy”, more colloquially known as an affair. Still others, many others, opt for what I call “zombie” marriages, the socially acceptable walking dead, simply going through the motions. Still others cut and run. As I said, this is tricky work.

The ideal is that this coupling happens with two developed, separate ego identities that intuitively recognize the “otherness” in the other person. It is this unconscious process that draws those opposites together as they hope to learn something they don’t already know. My teacher, Tom Malone, called this process “creative tension” which on good days brings about discovery and awakening to a new part of the self. On bad days, it leads to some hellacious fights as the two separate persons see the world and life from two distinct perspectives. Sometimes, it’s playful sparring, sometimes Ali’s rope-a-dope, but at times, it’s Texas cage fight to the death. The goal is that, through time, both members of the couple will learn from one another. Happily ever after is a nice end line for fairy tales but rarely pertains to real relationships. It’s always in process.

While I am talking about this interchange, let me take a comedic pause….to break the tension. This “creative tension” in no way refers to the hokey Unity Candle, a liturgical practice that was popular back when I first started hitching couples together. The bride and the groom would each take a lighted candle, together light a single Unity Candle in the center, and then blow out their individual flame. If there is a worse symbol in the world, I have not found it. I successfully avoided providing such a display my entire priesthood. If you did the Unity Candle at your wedding ceremony, and many did, I hope your relationship belied the terrible symbol, by becoming a vital coupling, complete with two intact persons. By the way, I have some doves to sell you for your funeral ceremony.

If one chooses not to be married and remains single, one can grow in intimacy in a number of other ways: in relationships, with vocational commitments, and as some of my monk friends tell me, with God. I couldn’t fade the celibacy thing so I opted for marriage as my bed of “creative tension”, which we just celebrated our 40th anniversary. Some of you who have read my writing in the past may be aware of the deep meaning of the number 40 as a Hebrew symbol and idiom, meaning “a long damn time”.

However you choose to do life, as a single, a couple, or in a more creative constellation, it generally entails hard work, and a life that is cast inextricably in relationship to a wider community. One must measure and balance one’s focus on self as well as our concern for our neighbor. In fact, in most marriage ceremonies, I highlight the hope that marriage might become the crucible for learning how to extend our care and compassion to others. My spiritual tradition speaks of loving one’s neighbor as one’s own self. This looks good in a Sunday School room bulletin board but gets difficult when one wants to press militantly the notion of personal freedom to the exclusion of the neighbor. I have been surprised to see the rabid assertion of “my rights” when the exercise of such privilege impinges on others significantly. I am specifically thinking of our difficulty in our moving compassionately through this pandemic. “Balance” is a skill that we Americans seem to struggle with, but it is critical in being a responsible person in this world that we share. Merely beating one’s chest and yelling “My Right!” will not get you off this ethical hook.

One more phase that stirs the pot on our life journey is what Erikson went on to postulate as the phenomena known as a mid-life crisis. This is initiated by the recognition that the time left in your life is less than the time you have lived to point. This places a sense of urgency in play and may lead to some spontaneous bursts of energy. It may open up doorways to new ways of being that enliven and enrich. But it can also prompt people reacting and abandoning long time loyalties in the hopes of finding and doing something different.

It’s been my honor to accompany many people who negotiated such changes by reordering how they do a career that has become stagnant, or limited. I have assisted them in forming what I have called a “personal board of directors” consisting of people that have know them from their early days, people who have known them through time, people who might share their experience in an industry or profession, along with a few “wild cards” that I throw in the mix, just for grins. Rather than leaving a profession such as law or medicine, I have watched people creatively reconfiguring how to do life and work, oftentimes with more balance, more meaning, and even more fun. Imagine that.

Finally, there is the time I find myself in presently, ‘the golden years”, one’s later years, or more honestly, when we feel “older than God”. My friend, John Scherer speaks of “retirement” creatively, that is, to put a new set of tires on the vehicle, ready for a new journey. As a noted organizational development practitioner, John literally got re-tired, going to Poland, in his seventies, to introduce his OD discipline to a culture that had no clue as to those dynamics. It birthed a new phase in John’s life that has continued to bear fruit.

In my own life, I decided to reorient my work to coaching people who need some assistance in making a transition in life. I have worked with CEOs who are looking to stop that particular work, and to begin a time, a new chapter, of a fresh endeavor. They don’t want to fade away into the sunset, but rather want to chase a dream yet unfulfilled. I have loved “coming alongside” these people as they think creatively and plan their next chapter.

I am working with people who have transitioned into a CEO role and are discovering what it means to truly be a leader, forming a vision, building a team. and making a difference in a wider community. Watching people embrace the servanthood power of leadership inspires me.

I am working with clergy from a wide range of traditions. Some are older clergy, like me, who are trying to redefine how they do their work and how they inhabit their skin. Other clergy are middle-aged, hitting their stride and discovering what it’s like to lead a large organization. And other clergy are just getting started, fresh out of seminary, figuring out who they are as professional ministers, vowing not to check their integrity and personal development at the door of the church house.

On top of that, I am writing. This weekly blog is often free-flowing from the experience of my current life and from the bubbling up of images in dreams, journaling, or memory prompts. I am also doing the hard work of writing that Hemingway referred to being willing to sit and bleed. One takes a memoir tack while the other is about leadership. My typical week includes ample time for research and study, including meeting times with people who share my passion. I am busier than ever, but more centered and focused, thanks perhaps to my blessing/curse of my knee injury. I might have been out on my sailboat headed for Bermuda or Cuba, but I have found this writer’s desk a good ship.

This is what time it is for me in my journey. It is fulfilling, demanding, but a time that I experience as a joy.

What time is it in your life? How did you get to where you are now? What remains for you to do? What dream is still waiting, begging for attention?

Mary Oliver famously and provocatively put the question this way: what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? That profound question grabbed me years ago, and shook me, screaming the existential question at me.

Curiously, the new truth for me is that is not just ONE life. The probing question begs to be doubled, tripled, quadrupled. You get my point. Maybe this emerges from age, but here it is: What do you plan to do with your many wild, precious, and evolving lives? ……I’ll wait.

Church…What Is It Good For?

Many clergy are scared to death that people are not coming back to Church.

I’ve talked to lots of people who seem to like having Sunday morning off. Not getting dressed. Not having to herd a wayward family to get their ass in gear to get to the Church on time, in one piece. How much easier to sleep in, enjoy a leisurely brunch, catch CBS Sunday Morning or Oprah. Why bother? What is the value add on going to church? With a nod to Edwin Stars’s “War”: Church. Good God, y’all. What is it good for?

Before you reflexively say, Absolutely nothing!…..let’s pause.

Weekly, I coach clergy from across the country, from New York to LA, and I don’t mean Louisiana, though I have a priest I work with there on the bayou. They come from a number of different denominations, even independent churches. Black, white, Hispanic. A common denominator is that they are scared. In a culture where the coin of the realm is “convenience”, are people willing to put out the effort to get to the church house when the habit has been broken?

When I coach them as they prepare for the start up of the Fall season, I am encouraging them. It may be that this disruption into the default mode may have indeed raised the question: Why do I go to church? And the answer may be surprising. Could be good news, could be bad news….who knows?

Normally that question arises in transition moments. When one goes off to college, when one relocates, when life circumstances change. There is nothing bad in raising those questions. What value do I derive from going to church? What do I get in exchange for the time and effort that is required to get to the church? It’s healthy to assess all our activity every once and a while.

Now, my generation of boomers may have gone a bit overboard. We ushered in the whole reality of consumer-based church, asking pointedly: What have you done for me lately? What’s in it for ME, or MY Family? I have seen families change churches due to more attractive children’s and youth ministries, pulling up stakes to go where the action is. We are running short on denominational or local church loyalty. In my experience, that ran out with the passing of the World War II generation.

But the question posed presently seems more existential. Is church a worthy expenditure of time?

I immediately remember the central role the church played in my family while I was growing up. We weren’t quite like Steve Harvey’s family that was in church every time the doors were open. I laughed at his routine, with a litany list of all the activities they would attend on each day of the week. Such an total involvement can set up a reaction, breaking free of the bounds of gravity, or it can drive deep spikes of habit in the soul. As Emmylou says, you just never can tell.

For me, the church was a wonderful experience of community, where folks seemed to sincerely love on another.

We could rally around the Elder family, as the mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, went through tough chemotherapy and eventually died. We gathered to support the family, a grieving husband, and children. It was an organic body of people, loving and caring. Impressive.

We could imagine the work of caring for a refugee family from the aftermath of the war in Viet Nam. I remember my contemporary girls loving on the young children of this refugee family. I recall the heroic efforts of members assisting in the training of this new family. It was our way of being “ambassadors” of Christ, even in a counter-cultural way. Impressive.

But we could miss the mark when it came to grasping the radical nature of the Gospel, firing our beloved pastor for his public stance on the most volatile subject our country at the time, and arguably even now, race. When the pastor opened the doors of the church to ALL people, even folks of color, well that was a bridge too far. Or perhaps, more accurately, a wall too close. This was impressive, as well, but in a negative way, to the point that the blatant hypocrisy drove me to vow that I would never go back. One of many vows I have retracted or broken.

Not knowing it at the time, church provided me a safe place to discover my self. I was allowed a social field in which to interact, with boys of my age, learning what was good behavior and what was unacceptable. I grappled with how to be a part of a group while maintaining one’s identity. Playing basketball, hanging out in the proverbial youth lounge, riding on the Blue Bird bus, going on mission trips. The youth choir gave me the opportunity to try out my social wings with the opposite sex. There was nothing quite like holding hands with a girl for the first time, in a church pew, of all places. And church youth group parties were unchaperoned and made for some interesting encounters, some that could have ended up in Tennessee Williams Southern Gothic tones. I did not know it at the time, but Flannery O’Conner was lurking just around the corner, waiting for the proverbial slip.

But, the church grew me up. Teaching me how to be accorded as a human, a young adult, not just a child, or kid. My adult teachers provided me excellent role models as to what a person should become. Mr. Holt was a stiff, well-dressed Rich’s furniture salesman, a former boxer. He had a practical Christianity that impressed me, as he gave his time to teach us suburban urchins. Ron Lane and T. Lee were adult males that were responsible but knew how to have fun. These men were gifts to me in my development as a man and a person.

Later, I demanded more of the church rather than merely a developmental social platform. And I was fortunate, lucky, or blessed, depending on your cosmology, to come across a church that fit the bill. I first discovered it on a Sunday morning in the Sigma Chi fraternity house, recovering from a Saturday night that Elton John sang about. I had grabbed a Coke, my scholarship sponsor and settler of upset stomachs. I was sitting alone in the dank TV room, designed for other activities. Turning on the television, I saw a round, pie-faced chalky man, talking about Jesus. I knew it was a sermon, as I recognized the furniture. But he was talking about my cosmic friend, Jesus, in a way I had never heard. It was in the context of a Folk Mass, something with which I was unfamiliar. I remember “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” being sung as a hymn, which intrigued me. Bottom line, in retrospect, I was hooked by this preacher being real, present in the moment.

I called the church and made an appointment with the pie-faced guy who I came to know as Tom Bowers. I spent a couple of hours that week, with him, talking to me about the Bible, Jesus, and the church, and most importantly, what the church was doing in this city of Atlanta.

It was feeding the poor and homeless daily. It was providing education for those who did not have a high school diploma. It was providing care to people who were in distress. It had a food bank to distribute produce, cans of food, and the ever-present government cheese to those in need. It was trying to make the city a better place to live for ALL people. It resonated with me.

Somewhere, Matthew 25 floated in my consciousness, planted by my South of God church, listing what were the things that Jesus thought were worthy actions that was distinguishing sheep from goats. It made sense to me in a fresh way, and I knew this was the place for me.

It took a while and a circuitous route for me to come back to a home that I did not know I had. It was not limited to a denominational designation, or a location, or class, and certainly not a color, but I recognized the church as my home base, the place from which I would live out my life, for good and for ill.

The church has been sponsoring of my growth, inhibiting of my freedom, linking me to that which was unfamiliar and unknown, limiting me, blessing me, cursing me, ignoring me, including me. It has been transcendent in values espoused, bureaucratic in execution, consistently resistant to change, anchoring in storms.

The ancient image of Mother Church prompts a perverse thought that I am forced to repress, due to my raising as a proper South of God boy, but I am inching toward a freedom that would allow even that. But not yet. I’m not there quite yet.

Church for me remains a valuable investment of time and energy. I am trying to figure out what that looks like now that I live on a barrier island. It has to be about growth and spiritual development. It must be about grace, not only because it is crucial, but mostly because I need it. It will have something to do with community. And it will have to do with connection, helping me to be aware of my connection with God, with neighbor, and Creation.

And that Matthew 25 thing still rings true from the Master’s teaching on what will differentiate the sheep from the goats. It really is about orthopraxy as opposed to orthodoxy. Simply put, it’s about how deeply and how widely one loves, as opposed to how “right” one is in defining the terms. Capiche? Dig? Get it? Not everyone does. Not when Jesus was walking in Galilee, nor when his teachings are uttered today, or electronically sent on social media.

A Church that lives out of that Matthew 25 vision seems critical. That will make it worth the time and energy, and even the hurt that is sure to come.

So, what is Church good for? It’s good for connecting your soul to others that are on the journey. As a sheep in training, it’s good to find a healthy herd to help you find your way. And, it’s more fun to wander and wonder with others.

Blessings.

The Day The World Changed…But Not Really.

Looking up at the sky, I noted that it was more piercingly blue than ever before.

I remember the moment. With a slightest chill breaking through the humidity, a welcome relief that I recall from my boyhood Georgia days of growing up. The humidity of August was oppressive and we would look for the coming Fall, to break away from the heat of summer. Summer, and it’s lazy days had worn out its welcome. We were glad to see it go and ready for new beginnings. Fall… my favorite time of year.

On this particular morning, I had come back from my decade sojourn to Texas, the home of my McBrayer ancestors, but a different country, for sure…. becoming more so by the day as I write this.

I was returning to Atlanta to begin my work as the leader of a large parish on the edge of the city. The bishop had told me it was now an urban parish, tied to the city. He lied. But I did not know that yet as I looked up into the sky, before going into my office. I was excited about continuing my urban ministry, if not from downtown, then in a hub. Boy, did I get that wrong.

I was to be meeting with the two lay leaders to finalize the contract for my services. It was to be a congenial gathering with two men that I had already begun to love and appreciate. As the meeting progressed, my new administrative assistant opened the door to inform us that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. Having taken flying lessons while in Texas, I imagined a small plane having mechanical problems inadvertently flying into the structure. Waving off that thought, I imagined a suicidal person flying their small plane in order to make a largesse exit. And then, dismissing that as my tendency for drama, I offered a more rational explanation that perhaps the report was wrong.

She soon returned to the door, informing us that a second plane had crashed into the other tower. One plus one equaled a planned attack, The group of us went to the youth lounge where a television monitor was giving us the local news feed that would become the event now known to us by three indelible numbers and a slash: 9/11.

This 9/11 event in New York formed the contour of my first months at my New Work.

I learned soon that my high school hero, Ken McBrayer, our quarterback and West Point grad, was on one of the top floors of the Twin Towers, losing his life. I discovered later that one of the terrorist pilots had trained at a flight school near where I had trained, perhaps overlapping my own time. Later, a college student from my parish is Tyler, who was now serving as President Bush’s chief aide, called to let me know how things were going on the inside, and to invite me to a speech the President was to deliver later in Atlanta, the first formal speech after the attack.

My days were spent imagining and planning how to help my new parishioners process this disruption in their life, the rip in the fabric of their sense of meaning. To point, America lived in the illusion that we were free from such terrorist actions. That kind of stuff only happened in the Middle East. That was the reason to think twice about visiting the Holy Land and surrounding areas. It was what we called “dangerous”, “risky”. But now, our world had changed. The risk was no longer “over there” but in our backyard.

We immediately gathered that day instinctively for prayer. A Day of Prayer was called for, and gather we did, trying to make sense of this experience. I remember thinking as I was sitting in silence, prior to climbing into the oak pulpit, that this must be how clergy felt right after Pearl Harbor. How do you make sense when tragedy strikes like lightning. It was now my hour, my responsibility, my call to speak into this pregnant moment, curious as to what meaning could be birthed.

It was a time of endless moments of focus that found footing in the liturgical space. Bells tolling, periods of silence, names read….say their name! In addition to this public moment, my schedule was packed with individuals, and strangely to me, couples, wondering together how to make sense out of this. At the heart of their questions was the perennial never-resolved question of theodicy: Where was God in all this?

Theology is a tough subject to teach in crisis. While my experience tells me that our best learning comes in tight spaces, that is not necessarily so when your presuppositions about basic cosmology are lacking. Here were corporate officers of major businesses, civic leaders, counselors in the law, the proverbial brain and urological surgeons, all highly schooled in their fields of expertise, coming up seriously deficient in their conceptualization of how the world works, particularly when trying to fit in anachronistic theological language. The best they could muster was a question: why did God let this happen? or an angry protest: this is not fair!

I was aware that my response to their lamentation, “Damn straight, it’s not fair!”, would not be up to their expectations. As I was going through the same existential grinder they were, I pondered with them, asking probing question, trying to tease out their unconscious, largely unexamined thoughts on the nature of human existence. Remedial philosophy is hard-pressed in such times.

I remember the collective anger that emerged. President Bush caught the spirit of it while standing on the ruins of the Towers. “They will hear from us!” he said, with a primitive bullhorn microphone…. and the thunder rolled, as Garth would say. Over 90% of Americans supported a retaliatory action by going to Afghanistan, and so we did. We now look in the rearview mirror and wonder at the lack of planning. React is exactly what we did. And it good, righteous even, for a moment.

I remember the sense of unity that filled our country. People who had been smirking at the fumblings of my friend, W., suddenly lifted him in prayer and praise. It was fun to feel the patriotism, even at a terrible cost. Fire trucks rolling through the streets of my hamlet with the American flag flapping from its back. We unconsciously transferred our positive feelings onto our local firefighters, police, first responders out of our deep thanks for those who valiantly responded to the terrible Tower moment. People seeming to care for one another, across all kind of divides. Where the hell could you see that today?

Spike Lee. the Morehouse master of film, who proudly hails from Brooklyn, has offered a tour de force documentary on the 20th anniversary of that fateful day and the time following. It’s on HBO and worth the price of subscription. It’s four episodes, dealing with the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and ends with a retrospective on 9/11 and the aftermath. I guess you can tell that I think this is worth watching. It’s not an easy watch, regardless of your political leanings. Fragility and limited thinking and decisions are evident on all sides. There’s something to piss everyone off, because it tells the truth, and, like I said in last week’s column, maybe you can’t handle it.

My favorite “pay off” scene in this documentary is that of a young black man, clearly distraught, sitting on a curb of a New York street after the Towers came down. A white policeman is kneeling down next to him, his arm outstretched, with his hand on the young man’s shoulder. You are not privy to the verbal exchange but you can decipher the care that is going on. Human to human. It moved me deeply. I have been that young man, needing a word of hope. I have been that cop, with the opportunity and ability to reach out in love to another human being.

That is so clearly in contrast with another scene, also portrayed. A white police officer with his knee on the neck of a black man, his face pressed into the street. He pleads for air. He calls for his Mama, for who else would you call to at a time such as this. “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” And the life went out of George Floyd…..say his name.

The truth is both of these vivid scenes portray a truth about our country. Both.

We are caring, empathetic, capable of Great Love. That is us.

We are fearful, angry, capable of ignoring humanity in the service of order. living out of fear. That is us.

On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, Spike lives up to his mission statement, to tell the truth “by any means necessary”. This time, he used his skills with film to tell the story of us, Us, US.

It is a story of vision, of aspiration, of brotherly love, of fear, of anger, of retribution.

When we dare to tell the Truth, to one another, and especially to ourselves, all these things are the Truth about us. Sho nuff.

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

Discernment is a process of determining what is the Truth.

The word “discern” is used frequently in determining a spiritual truth. In my work as a spiritual director, I often hear people talk about discerning “what is God’s will for my life”. Some people are methodical about such a process, with carefully timed analysis. And others seem more intuitive, waltzing through their days, with an eye out for signs that might lead them to their answer. Regardless of the tack one takes, discernment carries a weight, a mystery to its meaning.

To explore this concept of discernment, I want to tell you a story.

Once upon a time was a boy who felt called to serve God and his fellow humans. In the land of South of God, that translated into “finding your call”.

This young man had “tried on” a number of vocations. He considered medicine, caring for the sick, a noble cause. He thought about the law, pursuing justice, especially for the downtrodden. He wondered about public service, in a role of leadership which might be able to change systemically the life of the community. But there was this nagging, gnawing sense of something else…a call to ministry.

He tried it out in his own brand of religion, because that was familiar. But the structure seemed too tight for his wondering about God and Spirit. He finally came upon a religion that seemed to fit his sense of wonder and intuition of grace. And so, he decided that he would become a professional religious person in this group. They called those persons “priests” in that neck of the woods. Where he was from, South of God, they called religious folks gone pro, “preacher” or minister. Or in the back woods of the South of God tribe, “brother”….enough reason to get your doctorate!

In the group he was wanting to be a part of, they had a “process” for anyone who wanted to become a “priest”, that is certified, justified, legitimated, ordained, approved of, okayed….a process known as discernment. The formal title, as conjured up by the formerly certified, justified, legitimated, ordained, approved of, okayed, by this process, was called the Vocational Testing Program, or VTP.

This process was ingenious, designed by a brilliant lay person who had thought about it quite a lot. It would go for nine months…..I am certain you see the organic correlation. It would have four quarters of focus. In each quarter, you would have specific experiences that you would reflect upon and share it with two supervisors (one clergy, one lay) and your peer group (other folks who, like you, thought that God might be calling them to “go pro”). Hijinks will surely ensue.

The first quarter would be highly structured, placing you in a hospital where you were designated as a “chaplain”. They even gave you a badge, an ID, that would show that you were “authorized”. This quarter was to test your reaction to authority and structure. Did you rebel, resist, comply, lay down? You would put in a set number of hours a week, visiting the sick, talking to them of their experience of being in the hospital, listen in a Rogerian style of mirroring what you are hearing…”what I hear you saying is…”., and offer them the comfort of your presence. The sincere hope was that you wouldn’t muck it up, by being obnoxious. uncaring, or evangelizing….which turned out, in some cases, to be a false assumption.

While the first quarter was structured, the second was just the opposite. NO structure was provided. You were to create your own experience of the urban reality, testing your creativity. Were you able to be self-starting, curious, risk-taking, creative? The setting of Atlanta provided a rich target for exploration, visiting strip joints, gay bars, and drag queen shows. Funny how for this group, “urban” meant sex. I, coming clean as to the identity of the aforementioned, “young lad”, actually visited all of the above, including the Sweet Gum Head, where I met Ru Paul. More about this quarter later.

The third quarter was more traditional where you were asked to be in a church other than your own home parish, serving at the altar in worship. Mostly it meant, putting on the ceremonial garb that clergy wear during worship, and functioning in a variety of ways. For most, it meant administering communion, namely providing the chalice with the blessed wine to the pursed lips of patiently waiting parishioners. Delivering this wine to another human being is no natural act. It is somewhat similar to the docking procedure of a spacecraft in orbit. Houston, we have a problem. The whole point was to let you see how it feels to be up front in a church, responsible for being a symbol-bearing person. What would such an experience surface from the depths of your psyche? Would it feel “natural”…..or way too natural?

Finally, the fourth quarter, was a “clean up” time. The supervisors would have decided which of the group were “approved” to go on to seminary and hopefully, ordination, and which members were going back to their home parishes, hopefully with a clarification as to how they would live out their ministry as a lay person…..not a “pro”. I find it harsh to say “amateur”. Clearly there was a lot of caring needed for those whose call was not verified by the group and our supervisors. Lots of tears, and for some, relief, a bullet dodged. You could exit the process, claiming to anyone who cared, “At least I gave it a shot.”

I went through the process, again, an ingenious one that was a test of a variety of skills, personality traits, and foibles. It turned out that I was recommended to “turn pro”, although I already had as a South of God type. It just required rubbing up on the ivy for a while to remove the “reformed” residue. It was a good process for me, allowing me to look deeply at the Self I had formed, as well as make some wonderful friendships.

What I want to talk about is what I missed. And it was a hell of a miss. Consequential.

In the aforementioned second quarter, the “urban” quarter, I dove deep into my favorite pool, creativity. I not only did the expected, gay bars, etc… but I contracted to do a ride-along with an Atlanta cop. I went to neighborhood meetings, just to listen to the sounds of the city. I attended a PTA meeting in an urban school. I loved the fact that I was free, free, to be creative and design my own program. That was in my sweet spot, freedom. Give me an inch, and I’ll take several fathoms.

One of the things I designed was a night on the town. Literally, I planned to spend a night on the streets of Atlanta, where I would live overnight in the city, like a homeless person. I went on the street with no money, and no ID.

I began my night in midtown, going to a church where they served the homeless a meal. I wound up with a group of folks, I was the only white guy, leaving that shelter, heading up Ponce de Leon. “Blood” was the name of the leader of our group. I think he could sense that I was “fresh” to the street, as he almost “little brothered” me. We wound up at Ray Lee’s Blue Lantern Lounge for a few beers, paid for by someone. One dude from another group tried to pick a fight with me over a tune on the juke box, and Blood intervened to save my young ass.

The night was long. We eventually made it to the woods off of North Avenue, where the Carter Center is now. There, I saw an impromptu cardboard city, made of old Bekins moving boxes. It was so tribal. Terry Holmes would have loved the anthropological moment, pure liminality!

Blood built a fire that we sat around, and told stories. At some point, someone brought out a jug of wine. Carlo Rossi, I think. And another person brought out a bag of peanut butter sandwiches which they had gotten that morning at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church from the daily soup kitchen. There, people passed the torn sandwiches, and passed the jug of ripple while the fire crackled. Folk religion in the midnight moonlight.

Can you imagine my excitement at writing this all up for my VTP group? They wanted me to have an “urban experience” and, by God, I designed one. I was pumped, psyched, thrilled….add any other word connoting excitement. And so I submitted my report of my night on the street, with no small degree of pride. I had created a Disneyland ride through homelessness, and Street Life from the jazz group, The Crusaders, was my background music.

The surprise of my life was that I got back a rather terse reply from one of my supervisors who took me down the track for jeopardizing the program by taking such a risk in being on the streets of Atlanta overnight. He and I had a long conversation about the boundaries that were not clearly spelled out but I was clear that my hand held no trump cards in this game. And so I let it go.

I should not have. It should have been a clue to me about the nature of the church as an institution. He was just doing what he needed to do to protect the institution from being embarrassed or sued for my risky behavior if I had been harmed or killed. Makes good sense to me in an institutional mindset. Truth is, I have been in that same position, with similar institutional pressure, but made a different decision.

The point is, my encounter in this discernment process should have hipped me to a basic reality in the church. It is an institution, with legal and financial liabilities that can get in the way of pursuing its mission in full-tilt boogie mode. That has been a frustration for me throughout my career, and a dimension of the church that the ingenious process of discernment clearly identified. I chose to ignore it. And it cost me.

I now coach clergy, many who are experienced and seasoned by years in the parish. But my treat is working with clergy who are fresh from seminary, like the work I used to do in the Diocese of Texas. A basic lesson is the reality of polarity, of tensions that must be honored in the work and art of ministry. The most basic tension is that of Spirit and Structure.

Both need to be given their “propers”, their respect. Spirit is the verve, the motivation, the drive that propels a person in one’s life. This passion is the sine qua non in my book. I have only come across a few religious folks who lack passion. It may be passion misguided, or more common, distracted, scattered. But Spirit seems to be a starting point,

Structure is added to channel, to direct the flow so that the energy is not wasted. Rather, structures sets up the pathways, the order to make things happen, to bring results. When both Structure and Spirit are present, good things can happen.

Unfortunately, institutions by their very nature seem to emphasize the structural dimension. It seems there there is an underlying need for control that is based in fear…”can you imagine what might happen?”. Through time, organizations can tend to veer to a preoccupation with structure, sometimes referred to as maintenance. What I experienced with my supervisor was an eruption of this structuring impulse. As I said, it was understandable, justified, but tips the hand of how the Church is wired.

In my daily devotion, I have been reading of Jesus’ last days with his disciples. It is striking that he presented no organizational chart, no franchise schemes, in a word, no structure. His “structure” seemed to turn the leadership pyramid upside-down, where servanthood is the model. And love is the product. You know, the old “last will be first, first will be last” schtick. I think they missed that at Wharton and Harvard.

Jesus left pregnant symbols, the washing of feet, and a common meal which would conjure his Spirit to be present. No plan, no structure. Just Spirit. And predictably, they scattered with no succession plan.

History shows that they got busy quickly, organizing, ordering….in an attempt to balance this mega-dose of Spirit that Jesus left them. And history documents the evolution of this organization through time, from a snapshot of dazed disciples to an organizational chart that squeaks with a stultifying tightness.

The genius lay woman who I mentioned, who designed the Vocational Testing Program, Caroline, made a telling assessment of me at one point. “I see you as a prophet, standing on the boundary calling in to the community, but not so sure about a priest, who is one whose function is to gather the community.” I knew she had read my mail. It’s why I asked her to preach at my ordination as a deacon. She proved to be the real prophet.

Looking back over forty years, a Hebrew idiom for “a long damn time”, I still love the Church, even in its fearful, reluctant plodding form. Every so often, it gets in touch with the founding Spirit of the Christ and stands up. Cooler heads remember what such zeal for Truth costs, as it cost Jesus his very life. Churches seem to prefer the comfort of the golden bejeweled cross that one wears as a fashion accessory over the bloody crucifix of sacrifice. But, every so often, Spirit breaks through in spite of the structure.

Balance is the key. Via media, I’ve heard it said among Anglicans. I remember my night on the streets, with Blood, and the mystic, sweet communion around the fire in the wilderness. It renews me, fires me up. Keeping the balance….that’s the trick.

Tracing the Network of Curiosity

Curiosity is my superpower.

It’s always been the most active part of my Self. Curiosity may have have killed the cat, but it funded me with the drive to ignore my native fear and press to find out more about this intriguing world.

It’s not always worked out for me, as it has led me down some paths that were dead ends, and even worse, chasing some rabbits that took me deep into the proverbial briar patch.

But, I stand by it. Curiosity is my superpower.

It has prompted me to seek out some thought leaders that have shown me ways that I would have never come upon by myself.

When I find myself curious about a particular subject, my method to my madness is to seek out one of the leaders in that area of expertise, hang out, and ask lots of questions.

When I was interested in meditation, I sought out a Trappist monk who was world-renowned for a particular way of meditating. I knew that I needed to find a “center” that would hold me solidly as I sought to discover all I could, so I sought him out and spent time with him, asking a lot of questions that tended to start with the words “why” or “how”.

When I was chasing down MY particular and peculiar questions as to why some people have faith and some people don’t?, I hung out the leading developmental psychologist in the world of faith development. Again, I asked a bunch of questions, taking on the “beginner’s mind”, soaking up what he had to teach me.

When I was interested in working with the transformation of people, I connected with one of the renowned psychotherapists, a person who had developed a practice of therapy that was psychoanalytically tuned but nimble enough to include family dynamics.

When I wanted to explore the connection of spirituality and social justice, I travelled to see a man whose word’s had funded the action of Martin Luther King, Jr. and provided a depth of spiritual base that would sustain.

I could continue to list other interests that I have pursued, always going to the brightest in the field, to observe, question, but most of all, listen. These bright lights of knowledge and wisdom have always been good to connect me with other sources of information and perspective, which leads me to my point of writing this particular article. These other sources of knowledge weaved a network of connections that continue to gift me today.

My quest began, as most of mine do, in the middle of praxis, that is, my experience. I was working as a very junior member of the staff at the Cathedral of St. Philip, at the time, the largest parish in the Episcopal Church in the United States. The leader, Dean David Collins, had been the leader for years, melding together a diverse congregation made up of traditionalists, Evangelicals, socially aware activists, and, for good measure, Charismatics, which was a new flavor in the Episcopal menu. His “big” personality held the place together. My image for him was sitting on top of a pressure cooker of diversity, the weight of his person keeping the lid on, but it always felt to me that it was just ready to blow.

When Collins retired, we began an extensive search for a successor. Even though I was young, I knew that this was going to be a major change, thus filled with both danger and opportunity. My question was: how does change happen? What is the best way to serve as a midwife to the birthing process of something “new” that was coming? What is the best way, with the least amount of blood, particularly mine, on the floor, to make a change happen?

Following my typical mode of operation, I began to research: who is the best expert in the process of change? That question led me to a person named Daryl Conner. Conner was the head of an firm called Organizational Development Resource (ODR) which was based in Atlanta. His group had worked with many corporations and organizations in the burgeoning world of change management.

I began by attending a two day seminar in which Daryl explained his basic concepts of how change happens. I did not know it at the time. because I had no experience in organizational development (OD), but he was drawing on the rich work of Kurt Lewin, a original thinker in the field.

As I hung out with Daryl over the next months, he introduced me to Dr. Charlie Palmgren, an Episcopal priest who was a principal consultant for ODR, adding some philosophical depth to the work. Underneath his work in change, Charlie had his learning of a brilliant process thinker, Henry Nelson Wieman, who promoted a process of creativity known as Creative Interchange. I was immediately drawn to Charlie and found his work on communications between people in organizations, with the possibility of synergy, so helpful, and needed by me in operating in such a diverse congregation.

So this was my first introduction to the formal discipline of Organizational Development, though I had been introduced to systems theory in my training in family therapy. I began to use the concepts of culture, resistance, sponsor, change agent, and target as I helped to plan for the transition ahead of us at the Cathedral.

After watching this change play out in some good, some bad ways, it was time for me to move on, trying my hand at leadership, and to use the Change Management process in starting to work in a new parish, I called Charlie to say good bye as I was embarking on a sojourn to Texas. Before we concluded the call, he mentioned that there was this guy in Dallas that I might find helpful. His name was Mike Murray.

When I got to my new parish in Tyler, Texas, I went to a local community meeting that was looking at ways to collaborate among the various downtown churches. I was surprised to find that our facilitator was none other than Mike Murray. We connected and exchanged notes.

Later, when I got a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust to begin a leadership training program that would include blacks, Hispanic, and white folks, I knew my first call would be to Mike to help me design it. How could we plan for a year long program that would develop people and build their capacity to make a difference in Tyler.

As we planned, Mike told me of a friend he had in Washington State who had developed a program of leadership. His name was John Scherer, a Lutheran minister who had worked on a process for transformation of people. I invited him to come to Tyler to lead one of our weekend intensives. It was a beginning to a relationship that has now spanned over thirty years. In fact, John, Mike, and I are newly engaged in designing a new process of leadership development for clergy.

That curiosity about the process of change connected me with Daryl, Charlie, Mike, and John. But with my East Texas effort, I became connected with Harrison Owen, the founder of Open Space Technology, that I used with the inaugural event at the beginning of Bishop Payne’s tenure in the Diocese of Texas. It allowed me to connect with the Industrial Areas Foundation, training in community organizing which we employed in our work in Tyler and Longview. It also connected me to THE major player in community organizing in Texas, Ernie Cortes (see Cold Anger, Mary Beth Rogers). I was able to bring him to Tyler, which was a huge boost to our organizing initiatives. All of this started with a moment of following my curiosity as to how an organization, namely a parish, goes through a process of change. A surprising network was producing fruit!

That seed of curiosity, sewn in the field of experience, developed an ever-extending vine that now connects me to Poland, Finland, Italy, Scotland, to name a few. It connects me across this country, across industries, across faith traditions. My curiosity has formed a network that enriches my view of the world and is a result of my boundary-spanning impulse. It is a deep source of satisfaction as I do the inevitable review of my life’s work.

What are you curious about? What have you always wondered about in your free moments of pause? What did you wish you could read more about, do research in, discover? A favorite way I have of teasing out those hidden passions in the souls of folks is to ask “What sandbox have you always wanted to play in?” I love the answers people have within, just waiting for someone to ask.

Think this through with me, let me know your mind. What is waiting for you to discover? Don’t forget to enjoy the ride. And don’t forget to be kind. Blessings.

Sub-version

Does it ever strike you square in the face like it does me?

The Jesus that I use as my model for living is offering a view of life that runs against the grain of my culture.

Jesus offers a version of reality that is different from our normal view. It values all people, as children of God. He says not to retaliate to those who wrong you, with the incredible image of offering the other cheek if one has been slapped in the face. Non-violence is his mantra. Valuing the poor, rather than the productive. What business school did he go to? Jesus offers an alternative version of how to see the world. In this sense, he is subversive.

That notion is offensive to many, maybe even you. A lot of preachers hawk a Jesus who blesses your prosperity and success. In their minds, Jesus is a Tony Robbins on steroids, framed in stained glass. So when someone like Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a more radical Jesus, it catches you by surprise. It did in his day of teaching about the preeminent Kingdom of God to folks who has domesticated their religion into manageable rules and regs. They didn’t like it much. We still don’t.

Jesus can surprise you, even shock you…if you pay attention. The price is simply too high for most. We prefer comfort as opposed to cost. That was true in the church I grew up in, South of God, where the Christian flag flew side-by-side with the American stars and stripes. We thought America “has” Jesus on its side.

I grew up American, or as some in the South mouth the word, “Merican”.

I was taught that America has a special place in the world, favored by God, blessed by God. And my sense is, most Americans still believe that with their hearts, minds, and souls.

It’s similar to a child growing up, thinking he/she is the apple of his parent’s eye, the favorite, the Favored One. It’s a seductive illusion.

I remember my friend, Pat Conroy’s book, Prince of Tides, in which the mother, Miss Lila, secretly and strategically tells each of her children that he/she is her favorite, but warns them to keep this a secret “don’t tell your brother or sister”. I remember smiling when I read that character stroke made by Pat, thinking he must know something of that perverse love. I sure do.

“I have no favorites” I would hear my mother say, convinced that she was telling the God’s honest truth. My grandmother, a confirmed Scot who called a spade a bloody hoe, made no such pretense. She would let you know who was her favorite, no questions. Not that she didn’t love others, just not as much. That’s just the way it is. Deal with it.

We humans tend to project those parental images onto the Divine, the one we, in this country, call God. For some of us, that means God is imaged as a benevolent, if distant, presence in the sky. For others, the image is more of a giant eye in the sky, who has a passion for catching us making a mistake. As I have been a student of this projection process, it’s been a fascinating study of how people project this childhood image from their experience of parental figures, or in reaction, how they “wish to God” their parents could have been.

As a country, our story, our narrative, our scam, is that we are special. Special in the eyes of God. American exceptionalism is the fancy term for it. We claim that God had a “thing” for Israel and the Hebrew people, recorded in the Old Testament. In fact, out of that specialness spawned the Son of God, Jesus, tied in genetically to the root of David. Somehow, we appropriated that title, just like we did this land…..we stole it. We sort of liked the notion that God specially favored us. That would “work” as we needed to justify some rather exploitive tactics in our becoming.

Let me quickly say, I bought it, lock, stock, and gun barrel, the American myth: We are chosen.

In fact, underneath our native repulsion of the idea of a global identity is that we fear losing our specialness. Merica!

I love the idea of America. A place where people are free from domination of a divinely appointed king or queen, free from an authoritarian tyrant. The Land of the Free, that’s how the song and the myth go.
But not for all people. We were birthed with the stain of slavery as our disfiguring birth mark. And we are still living with it, even though we seem to want to cover it up with a cosmetic patriotic dust. Let’s just not talk about it, keep it hidden, a family secret, don’t you know.

I love the idea of America, a place where we practice a democracy where everyone has a vote, a say-so in our direction, in choosing our leaders. Of course, we know that was withheld from women until the 19th Amendment, in 1920, only one hundred years ago. And it was denied with slavery and extended by Jim Crow laws to people of color. There was a blatant attempt to depress the vote in the South of black folks, justifying with the old saw, “we know better how to take care of them”. The same lie was told to ourselves about slavery and the plantation, and damnably, it is still mouthed in more subtle phraseology these days.

What was once blatant is now being carefully engineered by legislators, politicians, and folks manipulating the system. Today, it is called gerrymandering by which we attempt to “protect” majority of votes by rearranging the voting districts. Both parties have used this means, with one being much more shrewd than the other. But today, it has reached the pinnacle of sophistication and cleverness, led by majorities in the state legislative assemblies.

And even worse is the attempt in the states to make it harder to vote, limiting early voting opportunities, or limiting extended voting hours that make it difficult for working people to vote. Most scary is the outright attempt to be able to alter the voting officials so that entire results that don’t satisfy can be thrown out.

The former president tried to do this with the Secretary of State here in Georgia. It’s on TAPE. No hearsay. “Find me 11,780 votes!”. Fortunately, this time, we had a person of integrity who would not be swayed by pressure. Fortunate for him, he taped the conversation as the aforementioned cheat denied the initial allegation. But there was the TAPE. Evidence of attempted fraud by a person desirous of wanting to cheat the real voters of Georgia.

I love America, the land I love with its amazing mountains, plains, and coastline.. I am particularly partial to our national parks that preserve a semblance of the wild frontier which is our heritage. And I am proud of what we aspire to be. We have a wonderous mix of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, coming together as a past of a whole.

But my love is contingent on the justice and law that has evolved to be extended to ALL people, a dream in our Founders’ eyes. It has been a slow turning to make the rights promised available to ALL, even women, even people of color. And it is dependent on the mercy that we have extended to immigrants who come here seeking refuge from a wide variety of oppression in varying venues.

That is the American Spirit that I celebrate, a Spirit that once again is threatened by those claiming a supremacy over others not like themselves. Intuiting a change, an increase, in demographics of non-whites, confirmed by the census, folks realize, in the old “small town” reactionary way, “something must be done”. Afraid of losing an “advantage”, they seek to rig a free election by limiting who can vote and how they can limit access to the right to vote.

This is clearly counter to the American Spirit. Not counter to some of our historical aberrations of justice that we had to overcome by the work of such heroes as John Lewis who engaged in “good trouble”. We must guard against a regression in liberty that hides in hampering access, and the old Southern hack of nullification. Rather, we must work hard to register, and turn out voters in record numbers in response to this misguided effort of control and repression. I’m counting on the anger that such blatant suppression will inspire. This suppression is a short-sighted strategy that will backfire in the long run.

Good trouble won on a bridge years ago in Alabama. And it will win the day again. Count on it.

My Horse I Call Music

I suffer from amnesia.

It’s a disease I have had for awhile.

It’s a spiritual disease of forgetting the hard lessons that I learn. It means that I tend to have to relearn things that I already know, but for whatever reason, I have forgotten them. So I have to repeat my learning process again, relearning a vital principle that I swore I would never forget. But…..there I go again, forgetting. It’s an onerous process, one that I have found myself repeating.

In my process of grieving for my friend, Chris, I was reminded of a basic component of my Self, and that is music. Music has functioned in so many ways in my life, but I sometimes finding myself taking it for granted. You would think that would be impossible as I am surrounded by my instruments in my study.

There’s my D-18 Martin that is an unfortunate reminder of the downturn in workmanship at the factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It also heckles me for selling my original D-35, bought for me at my graduation from Emory as a peace-offering from my mom for banning guitars from my hands when I was growing up. Something about “rounders” she had known. I won’t follow that rabbit in this piece, but it’s a hell of a trail. I bought a cheap Yamaha my first year away from home. So much for protecting her baby. It’s in the genes.

It also taunts me for selling the custom J-40 I had ordered from the Martin Custom Shop, the sweetest sounding rosewood ever birthed from the messianic cradle of Nazareth,. It’s what the Indigo Girls played, although I learned that later in Decatur.

There’s my Gibson Mastertone Grenada banjo. I met both Early Scruggs and Bill Monroe one afternoon my freshman year in a celestial bluegrass moment in the courtyard of my dorm, I was fascinated by the three-finger style of Earl, “had to” buy a banjo like his, although destined to be mediocre at best, And my F style mandolin is made by the master, Steve Kaufmann, who owned Flatiron before he sold it to Gibson. It’s a treasure. Ricky Skaggs once told me that it has an amazing tone for the high lonesome sound of bluegrass.

And my electrics are less memorable, And old Blackie Stratocaster which is beat to hell, and my black Precision Bass by Fender. George Coates, who sold it to me, told me it was owned by one of my heroes, DeDe Vogt, but George was selling. Black seems to be a theme, don’t you think.

Finally, a National Guitar, which shines like the one mentioned in Graceland. I bought it, not in Memphis, but in Dahlonega, Georgia at the closing of a music store, always a sad but screaming opportunity, a moment when you come face-to-face with the reality of mark-ups.

So, these mythic figures sit in my office, or on a good day, my study, and they mock me for being a half-ass musician. I have perhaps a tithe of my son’s proficiency, since he put the necessary time in the woodshed, learning the mysteries of the fretboard. But his love for music can only approach my long-time passion for its power. Truth is, he’s working on it, but I have a few years on the boy.

Allow me to waltz you down my music trail.

I remember sitting with my grandfather on Sunday mornings, listening to the Gospel Jubilee on WSB TV, with the Florida Boys, the Dixie Echoes, the Happy Goodman Family, featuring Vestal on piano, and the new-fangled electrified Hinson Family. I also remember going to Bremen and Waco in west Georgia, to Gospel singings, where I was injected with a love for four-part harmony.

As an elementary student, I remember “waking up” to a protest song by Buffalo Springfield, which told me to stop, and look around, and see what going down. It was my first intimation that things weren’t as they appeared to be, Better pay attention…and I have. That advice is no less true today.

I recall shooting hoops in the backyard of my friend, Danny Hall’s house, listening to a cheap transistor radio offer up a lament, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. I remember intuiting that satisfaction had something to do with something I shouldn’t be thinking about. After all, I was raised up South of God. But the driving beat, caught me, snared me.

In high school, my best friend, Paul McCommon and I were the officers of the Junior Class, which meant it was our responsibility to choose the band for the Junior Senior. In my mind, I had an image of Keith Melton, Dick Brandes, and Danny looking disapprovingly at me if I screwed this up and got a bad band. Actually, I thought Melton would simply beat my ass. So Paul and I got serious when we went to a “showcase” of bands on the celestial Northside of Atlanta….it was on Roswell Road, speaking of wasted brain cells. No amnesia there.

There we picked a band, Threshold, who has a horn section that could mimic Chicago but also deliver the Stones. I did not know it at the time but “Wild Horses” would be my ticket to ride. The band was a huge success, as I passed one of my initiation rites into young adulthood. I later booked the same band twice into Emory.

In high school, my next door neighbor, who was six years older, was in a rock band. Later, he emerged as a major entertainer in Atlanta, and a life-long friend, Elgin Wells. Elgin is the most talented guy I have ever known, including my Austin buddies. He even built his own electric violin which he used in a variety of jazz songs in swanky clubs in the ATL. He introduced me to jazz, namely Horace Silver, Grover Washington, and Les McCann to mention a few.

In college, I hung out at Underground Atlanta, listening to Piano Red tear up a piano at Muehlenbrinks Saloon, and sing some old time blues. But my “go-to” was Dante’s Down the Hatch. There, the Paul Mitchell Trio play nightly in the hold of the boat-shaped club. I got to know Layman Jackson, the lion-bearded bass player who have me a few lessons on the use of a melodic bass,

I had been introduced to trio jazz by Tom Greenbaum, one of my fraternity brothers from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Tom had been hyperactive as a child, and his wise parents put him on piano rather than Ritalin. He knew the entire Sinatra catalog which he slowly taught to me and Mark Jones, our drummer. So many nights in the Sigma Chi house parlor playing until the wee hours. Tom loved Broadway songs, unsurprisingly, and we learned the entire score of Pippin. “Magic to Do” became our opening song, which still inspires me, as we all have magic to do in this amazing life we have. But, “Corner of the Sky” touched me most as it seemed to express the wanderlust that was at the heart of this trio: got to find my corner of the sky.

But, the real gift from Tom was an intro to the genius of Oscar Peterson, and Ray Brown. The Trio Live album became my life for a couple of years, with the driving melodies and intricate jazz embellishments. That album remains my secret place in which to retreat in moments such as this.

Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett made an odd entrance into my heart and soul, while in seminary, living with a few divorcees from the Baptist Church. We called our odd collection of folks living on several acres in the middle of Decatur, Menagerie Farm, because we were. When people asked me about life there, I reported that we drank a lot of beer, listened to Gordon Lightfoot, and got depressed. Pretty accurate description if you add Willie and Buffett to the mix.

When I went to Texas, I was blessed to expand my mind by adding the whole Texas/outlaw repertoire to the mix. Thanks to my friend, Andy Shaw, who was the news director at the local NBC affiliate, I got a gig going to “report” on Willie Nelson’s 4th of July concerts for four years in a row. The first concert was in Luckenbach, where else would it be? The last one, I was allowed a private interview with Willie on his bus. That, my friends, was epic.

Which brings me to Austin, where I got to know a number of artists, spending time in their houses and in studios, getting to know their music and souls. Which brings me back to Chris Wall, my friend that I wrote about last week.

My grief sent me to my old horse, Music. And my horse spoke to me, inviting me to ride her through the night into the dawn of a new day. That is what I have doing for the last week, evoking memories, tears, laughter, a few regrets, but finally a wide smile.

It has been a reminder of how important music is to me, even in the middle of clients to satisfy, projects to complete, and articles to write. It is to my great advantage to line the bed of my life with music, to build in time to practice, to listen, to play. So, it’s Chris’ last gift to me, a reminder of my beloved horse, Music.

The Poet may not be in today, but my steed is saddled and ready.

Let’s ride.