The Ride of the Peachtree Cowboys….

The death of a person floods the fields of one’s mind with memories, some good, some painful, some jarring. But fortunately for me, I find I have a tendency to focus on the good.

James White died last week in Austin, Texas. He was the lovable owner of the infamous Broken Spoke, a honky-tonk bar set in the urban landscape of the Capitol city of Texas. He and his wife, Annetta, played host to local Texans looking for a time travel trip back to the good “old days” of the proverbial Texas roadhouse, with Lone Star beer, country music with a Texas twang, and two-step dancing on dance floor.

Several friends of mine who had gone to the University of Texas (Hook ’em) decided to introduce me to the pleasures of a Texas roadhouse, even though Patrick Swayze or Sam Elliott were nowhere in sight.

There is a front area that has a place to sit and eat, separate from the long dance hall with an incredibly low ceiling. James was leaning against the bar, his leather vest on and cowboy hat in place, a picture that repeated itself almost every time I visited The Spoke.

On this particular night on my initiation into life at The Broken Spoke, James turned to greet my two Longhorn friends, looked at me, and his face lit up, surprisingly.

“Peachtree Cowboys! What year was that, again?”

I could not believe it. It had been fifteen years since I had been associated with a group, The Peachtree Cowboys. Originally, the Peachtree Cowboys had been a bluegrass band with two hot pickers along with a fiddle player. Everyone knows that Bluegrass is the royal highway to making lots of money in the music business…..NOT.

After they had slowed down their mercurial rise in the charts, they basically disappeared, known to only a few aficionados in the Atlanta area. They had experienced a death that is the fate of most bands.

But it was the strange time of the rise of The Urban Cowboy, and it had led two of the former members to resurrect the legend. They recruited a seminary friend of mine who was a decent country vocalist. This friend, Jerry, knew of my musical background so he asked if I could fill-in as the drummer at a local festival they had booked. Being an idiot, I said “yes”, knowing that anybody can play drums, especially a 4-4 time, or waltz, which comprises about 97.5% of all country songs.

So, I borrowed Jeff Durham’s crystal clear set of Ludwig drums, dragged them up to North Georgia for a festival to play with a band that I had not rehearsed with……I had unfortunately done that many times.

It was, as I imagined, a pretty easy gig. A basic 4-4 beat, along with the waltz time for the lovers on the dance floor. I did not know most of the songs, but could fake my way through going light on the high-hat and snare, with no flourishes, throwing in crash cymbal at the conclusion of the song. The Peachtree Cowboys were all about featuring the virtuoso talent of these bluegrass refugees. My mission was to merely stay out of the way, to lay down a basic beat.

And I did so, with one major flaw. I was unfamiliar with Good Hearted Woman in Love with a Good-Timing Man, so I was surprised when the song shifted into a double-time near the end. I recovered quickly enough and did not screw the pooch, as they say.

After the gig, we were breaking down and the two old guys both came up to me and told me that I was the best drummer they had ever heard. It did not take me a New York minute or a East Point second to realize that they dug me not getting in their way. Everything is contextual.

We wound up playing a number of other festivals and a few clubs where there was some definite boot-scootin’ and a neon moon. I went so far as to buying a black set of Gretsch drums at Pro Percussion, later to be put to better use by my young son, Thomas, under the tutelage musician of Ken “Nardo” Murray, a Texas session drummer for Dolly Parton. But eventually, the urban cowboy fad faded, leaving the Peachtree Cowboys as a forgotten but treasured memory of my circuitous journey.

That why it surprised to to hear the reference by James White. I mean, I don’t even think my mama remembered my short tenure with the Cowboys. But James had quite a memory, particularly of people, face and bands, hopefully not miss-cast drummers. I am thankful he was nice enough to not mention my remarkable performance of Good-Hearted Woman.

The Broken Spoke became my Austin “go-to” when I was visiting in what I consider the greatest city on the planet. Midway through my sojourn in Texas, I was hired as an adjunct professor to teach the faith development theory that I had worked on with Jim Fowler at Emory. It was the wonderful Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest that brought me in to teach this specialized subject of the psychology of religion. They gave me an apartment on campus so that I could drive my K-5 Blazer down from East Texas to the hill country to teach.

After my first evening of teaching on a Thursday night, I took off for The Spoke considering it a reward for my long drive and my compressed class. I still had on my black clerical suit and clergy shirt, but I took off my white clerical collar in the parking lot….no need to scare the horses.

After being greeted by James. I took a seat at a table on the left, ordered a draft beer. The band that night was Chris Wall and Reckless Kelly. I had heard of Chris and his infamous Texas juke box classic, I Like My Women Just a Little on the Trashy Side. Chris is a superb performer who surrounds himself with talented musicians. I was enjoying the new songs to my ear, one in particular, Give Me Half of What Killed Elvis, typical of his clever and wonderfully dark sense of humor. It was a good night to be in Texas. Having recently found the grave of my great grandmother McBrayer buried outside of Mart, Texas, near Waco, I had the blessing of feeling and claiming my roots as a Texan. Such is my remarkable gift of rationalizing.

As the band took its regular break, Chris came off stage and moseyed, not walked or sashayed, to my table. He looked me over carefully, a lonely solitary man, dressed in black.

Chris quipped, “You’re either a priest or Johnny Cash.” Perfect.

“Well, I’m not Johnny Cash.” was my brilliant reply.

Chris sat down, and we began a twenty-five year relationship that included his visit to Tyler, my family’s attendance at The Spoke for his birthday party, and my officiating at his wedding in Austin. We still talk on occasion, reviewing the craziness of this country, the emerging music career of my son, Thomas, and our love of literature. Chris and I shared a love of James and his enterprise of The Spoke, and now we share the grief of another of our friends moving on across death’s deep river.

James White is memorable for many reasons. Building an honest to God roadhouse on the outskirts of Austin was a worthy endeavor. But protecting and promoting the Texas tradition, even when yuppified folks like me to to invade and domesticate the spirit of a gathering place, that is a hero’s quest. James lived his life well, focused on this “one thing” as Covey and Curley admonish. I’m glad to have known him, been graced by his friendship, and prompted in my memory to celebrate his personal vision for The Broken Spoke.

What is the vision that drives your life? It could be a family, a love, a passion? If your in the hill country of Texas, it might be a honky tonk. It matters less as to what it is than how much you are invested it its development.

Individual friends remind us, upon reflection, particularly at the end of a particular and peculiar life, just what their vision, or mission, was. In the case of James, it’s easy to identify his “one thing” and a smile comes to my face, maybe even a grin. As a priest, I have been forced to offer summaries of peoples’ lives when they die, which may have formed my habit of such activity, of trying to discern the “one thing”.

I would suggest that it’s a good thing to reflect on such questions “this side” of the grave. What would people who observed your life say was your vision, your mission? What are you devoted to? Is that satisfying to you, give you a good feeling of centered being? And if it is, keep on keeping on. But if not, and I am assuming by you reading this you are on “this side” of life, you can change course. You have the distinctive human capacity to change course, alter the direction, re-center your focus.

Sometimes, one needs some help in seeing reality, seeing oneself. A therapist, a coach, a spiritual director, or a good friend who can tell you the truth….all can be good companions on the journey to self-awareness and change, even transformation.

Think of people in your life who embody a certain vision or spirit. What do they do that makes it easy to distinguish what drives their life? What “lane” have they chosen to spend their energy and time on?

And then, apply the question to yourself. Where are you being “spent”? And, are you pleased with the answer? If not, why not make a decision to change course? If not a drastic course change, how about a commitment to invest more time and energy in a particular project in this next period of time. Sharing that commitment, that decision with someone who will hold you accountable can be just the leverage you need. Or, it might be a smart move to find a trained professional who will assist you in this life change and can be just the ticket. What do want to do with this life you have been given? How will you be a good steward of this rich gift called a life?

James White died, leaving a legacy of joy, community, and celebration. What will be your legacy? asked the former Peachtree Cowboy.

Did You Get The Lesson?

“Everyone gets the experience. Some will get the lesson.”

This is one of my favorite quotes. I first heard it spoken by my friend and colleague, Mike Murray, who I brought in as the lead trainer in a leadership academy that I began in in East Texas. I had arrived in Tyler, Texas at the beginning of the Nineties. The community needed to diversify its leadership pool beyond the long established families of this city. A number of us made application to the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation for funds to begin a number of initiatives that would broaden the scope of leadership, including arts, healthcare, economics, and race relations. To our surprise, we were the recipients of a grant aimed at mid-sized cities. Like the dog who caught the car that he chased, now what?

My piece of the work was the founding of the New East Texas Leadership Foundation. I conceptualized its beginning as a kind of MBA of leadership in communities. We were attempting to link two disparate communities, Longview and Tyler, who in the past lived in competition with one another. With differing demographics and cultures, we hoped to embrace a more regional identity that would enhance both cities, and present a unified image to world.

We sponsored a nine month program, notably following the human gestation period, with a monthly meeting, lasting all day on Saturday, quite an investment for our participants. It was intentionally a diverse group of Hispanic, black, and white folks from a variety of constituencies. Our promise to our participants was to assist them in clarifying their personal vision and mission, and then help them in pursuing it within our community. We intentionally designed the program to introduce them to some of the disciplines that inform the practice of leadership. The phrase that emerged in my mind was the aim of “developing the capacity” of citizens to make a difference in their communities.

I brought Mike Murray in to help me design the nine months. I had heard of Mike when I was on my way out of Atlanta. Dr. Charlie Palmgren, a noted expert in the dynamics of change in organizations, had helped me to try to manage the major change of leadership at the Cathedral of St. Philip, as a new leader arrived, replacing a long-time Dean. Charlie helped me to conceptualize the process of change and prepare for the challenging transition. Charlie’s framework was so helpful in seeing a messy transition through to completion.

As I was departing to begin my own change process, assuming the leadership of a Diocese of Texas parish, Charlie mentioned the name of a colleague who lived in the Dallas area, Mike Murray. What a surprise, indeed a fortunate gift, that the leader of my first training at an interfaith organization in Tyler, was Mike. It began a thirty year relationship that still blesses me.

As Mike and I conceived of the nine month process, the training would involve learning about the nature of leadership, specifically servant leadership. We would address the nature of collaboration, communication, designing change initiatives, project management, creativity, and even a lick of time management. Additionally, we brought in some world class trainers to add some specialized teaching.

One was Ernie Cortes, the famed community organizer in Texas, also of international renown, to teach the principles and methods of the Industrial Areas Foundation. The key notion here was that every person has power that can be used, and multiplied by collective action.

Another was John Scherer, a lauded expert in the work of leadership. John brought the insight and inspiration of the power of being present, of showing up in the fullness of one’s passion. John’s work of developing the inner life of the leader continues to inform my work, as well as the persons in the wake of his influence.

Harrison Owen brought a method of bringing forth Spirit from within the community by creating an Open Space in order to evoke innovation. I later used his method to lead planning processes in a variety of parishes. Most significantly, we used this method to gather the Diocese of Texas as it began a new day of mission, sponsoring a new spirit of engagement. We gathered the members of the diocese in Houston with an open invitation to all to join us in a planning process. I remember the “old guard” who predicted that this radical notion of engagement would crash and burn. Just the opposite occurred as people from throughout the Diocese of Texas came up with a host of new initiatives that would drive our work for years.

After our initial flush of success in Texas, I was asked to employ this methodology of bringing together the bishops of the Episcopal Church, which we did with a gathering in St. Louis. In fact, we were able to bring Harrison back in to use his Open Space Technology to gather the City of Tyler to initiate new projects that would better the community for ALL people.

With these amazing contributors, the Leadership Foundation had an embarrassment of riches in terms of input. But the key ingredient was the willingness of these seasoned leaders to learn new material, to open themselves to learning a new trick of the trade in leadership. It’s the proverbial reverse of the adage “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” We learned that you can IF the person is willing to take on the beginner’s mind, that is, looking at the world with fresh eyes. We were incredibly blessed to have eager learners, willing to engage the process, leaning into the material out of a deep desire to lead well and effectively, producing results.

The main “take away” for me was the role that self-awareness plays in effective leadership. Is the person aware of what motivates him/her to do the work? Are they willing to wrestle with the mixed motives that are a part of any leader’s soul? Are you open to investing the time and energy in tracking your emotions and reactions to things that have happened in your past? Are you ready to explore the internal images of how you think the world is, and how you should be in it? Might you be willing to examine the narrative or “story” that you have brought with you from your family that guides how you see yourself? And finally, are you brave enough to come clean as to the “self” that you present to the world to get what you want and need?

All of these pieces form the whole “self” that you bring to leadership and to the life you live. By examining your “self”, you are in a better position to not be blindsided by internal forces that are hidden under the surface of your personality. The real surprise is that, not only is this real “self” hidden from others, but that it is often hidden from YOU. Self-awareness allows you to focus your energy and passion in a way that does not get siphoned off by side hustles that are a part of your personality.

I would note that Self-Awareness is one of the central dimensions of Emotional Intelligence, a way of engaging in leadership that is the most effective way I know of making a difference in the organization that you are serving. I am currently serving on the board of an organization founded by the legendary Roy Oswald, a congregational development guru, that is attempting to promote and equip the church with the insights and challenges of Emotional Intelligence.

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To restate my point, everyone gets the experience, but only those that take the time and put in the energy are able to get the lesson.

Experience is not the best teacher….EXAMINED and DIGESTED experience is. Take time to PAUSE in order to reflect, and process what’s been going on in your busy world.

The experience just happens, the lessons are waiting for the student to come and learn from it.

Again, everyone gets the experience. Some will get the lesson.

Tent of Meeting

It’s odd. It makes me wonder.

Some people would say it’s coincidence, “serendipity” we used to say. When I was trained in Jungian theory, we began to use the word, “synchronicity”.

Or maybe it’s the Spirit. I am slow to ascribe such causation, but I know it does happen, here and there.

I had been writing about the “tent of meeting” over the weekend. I was referring to the image that my mentor, Carlyle Marney, had used to describe the gathering of ministers at his retreat called Interpreter’s House. I’ve written about this particular work of Marney’s before. It was a three week program for ministers who needed to be “fixed” or “retread”, or just needed a proverbial kick in the ass.

These ministers and priests would “come aside for awhile”, to a magical place on a mountain lake in Western North Carolina….not a bad respite from the grind of the parish. The first week, they would share their stories in front of a fieldstone fireplace. Marney called it “throwing up”, telling the tales of how tough it was out in the church house. The second week introduced some new concept, some insight that would shake the foundations of these road warriors to get them to imagine perhaps a possibility of something fresh in their ministry. The third week was spent planning on how to re-enter the parish, how to move the ball down the field. Marney built this field of play in the middle of nowhere, and like they say in the carnival business, the people would come.

Marney described the whole gathering as reminiscent of the Hebrew practice of Moses, pitching a tent outside of the normal camp, described in Exodus 33. This distance from the warp and woof of the normal life in community provided a break in order to get perspective, to clear one’s head in order to listen to the Spirit, to God, for direction. This is an image that has been suggestive as to how church should be.

Marney took it a step farther. He said that the tent of meeting, or church, was a place, a gathering where we could take our image of what it means “to Christ it in the world”, and submit it to one another for correction. What a grand idea for what church could be, a place where we could trust one another long enough to offer up our precious images of what life should be for amendment, or corroboration, or musing.

Just where might you have experienced such a place in church?

Most of my church experience has been more a place where we covenant for comfort. A place we meet with folks like us, a place where we easily “fit” in. We go to have our prejudices confirmed. We want our convictions applauded, lauded is even better. We have worked hard to get our act together, to form our concept of what is worthwhile, what is of value. Why should we submit our precious images to others? Who could possibly know better than me about “me”? And there is the rub……it’s called pride.

Marney’s answer was that we would only submit them because what we were about was worth it. We cared enough about the results that we would risk it. We would engage one another, push and pull against one another because we had a conviction that this every engagement would yield more clarity and distinction. Has that ever been in your mind when you went to church, when you sat your self (I’m cleaning it up) in a pew? I kind of doubt it.

It’s more a dome of protection than a tent of meeting, a place of discovery,

If we do dare to enter the tent of meeting, don’t you find it more adversarial than engaging? It’s more like boxing, where you enter the ring in a protective stance. You hold up your two fists in a defensive posture, moving from side to side, back and forth, waiting, just waiting for an opening where you can strike your opponent, to knock him/her out. That’s the feel of boxing, actually keeping your distance until your opponent lets their guard down. Then, you opportunistically strike to knock your opponent down. And as he/she sprawls below on the canvas, you lord your advantage over him/her, as sign of your domination. Where have I heard that recently? But that’s the game……

How different it is to wrestle. An engagement, but one marked by closeness rather that the posture of distance. The match itself begins with the two persons touching one another. There is close body contact, where you can sense the force of the other, respond the push, react to the pull. You can see the sweat of the other, you’re that close. You can smell their body, their anger, their fear. You are definitely engaged. It’s back and forth, rarely letting go of the other. When there is separation, one quickly reengages, grappling to regain contact. While there may be a winner in the match, there is no doubt that there was an engagement for both.

I would suggest that wrestling is a healthier and more productive way for us to engage. The engagement I have felt in recent years feels more like a boxing match, defensive, guarded, looking for a knockout punch. How different would it feel to wrestle, to engage, because what we are wrestling about is worth it? Could we truly engage “the other” as a worthy counter-force rather than an “other” that we fear, keeping our distance, looking to dominate?

So I began by saying “it was odd”.

What’s odd is that on Tuesday of this week, I received a letter from an old priest friend of mine. He was writing about the events of the last few weeks and was encouraging us to follow the example of Moses in having a “tent of meeting”. This guy is a Franciscan friar, of the Roman Catholic strain. He is one of the best teachers of Christianity that I know. I came to be familiar with him back in the late 70s when he was putting out cassette tapes of his teachings. Father Anthony at the monastery in Conyers hipped me to this guy, and I’ve been listening to him in one form or another for years. So how weird is it to get this note after I’ve been wrestling with the concept all weekend?

Cue the Twilight Zone theme. Rod Serling appears and says, with his head tilted to the left, “Submitted for your approval.” Funny, that phrase became a “go to” for those of us who attempted to imitate him, although he only used it in three episodes of the show.

A tent of meeting. Is it possible for Church to become this kind of gathering? In the light of recent events in our country, can we engage one another in a more civil way that respects the “other” rather than going for a knock out, or a put down? Is it possible to respect the dignity of the person we are engaging, submitting to push-pull of engagement, to wrestle because the understanding is worth it? Rather than bringing contempt to the engagement, an opportunity to prove how “right” we are, and just how “wrong” the other is, could we enter the “tent of meeting”?

In all honesty, I do not know. I do know that I hope for such a community, a tent of meeting. And that’s a start. How about you?

A “tent of meeting” pitched in our current desert. Now, THAT would be odd. But I am finding myself hopeful. A Tent of Meeting that is movable, built to bring us together, not just for comfort, but to engage, because what we are doing is worth it. Or as an enthusiastic, mystical Terrance Mann reassures a doubtful Ray, whose vision built a baseball field in the middle of a cornfield, in the movie Field of Dreams, “It’s definitely worth it.”

That’s my “take away” from my synchronic moment this week of renewal. My enthusiastic, mystical Franciscan friend was telling me: It’s definitely worth it.

And it is.

In The “On Deck” Batting Circle Behind Hammerin’ Henry

The national observance of Martin Luther King is coming around again. I am so pleased that our country has chosen to honor the life and ministry of one of my fellow Atlantan as he offered an image of “the Beloved Community” as an aspirational goal. God knows, and I mean “God Knows” that after last Wednesday’s attempted insurrection in the sacred halls of our Capitol, we need an image to carry us forward through this despicable time of lawless violence.

In my office, immediately over my computer monitor, there is a black and white photograph of Martin, standing at this desk, with a picture of Gandhi by his side, reminding him, and now me, of the principles of non-violence. It’s hard when fire hoses, barking dogs, or screaming conspiracists are in your face to remain calm and non-reactive without falling victim to the natural response of returning the violence. But that is what Gandhi taught, that’s what Martin taught and trained his followers, as he tried to lead them toward the beloved community.

That was years ago, and today we face another battle for the soul of America. It’s one more battle that join the line of attempts to destroy our nation: from succession over slavery, the push back on Reconstruction, to the institution of Jim Crow laws, to the rise of the Klan marching down Pennsylvania Ave in 1925., to the McCarthy era in the 50’s, to the rebellion against the Brown vs. Board of Education judicial decision…..this insurrection falls in the long line of resistance to the dream that America be a country where ALL people have rights and privileges.

This right as a human to be treated with dignity and respect seems so obvious to me, but I had good raising, from parents and grandparents who taught me that people’s value and worth was not dependent on skin color, or their jobs, or the amount in their bank account, or how they chose, freely, to worship, or how they chose to connect sexually. Everyone had a right to be. It’s not up for grabs….it comes with the territory.

And while I am blessed to have been raised in that ethos, I also chose to be a part of a community that defines its very identity in that principle. In the Episcopal Church, we affirm in our baptismal covenant that we will respect the dignity of every human being. It goes with the territory of being a child of God, which is a birthright you have when you take your first breath, a birthright you can’t sell, even when you mindlessly follow conspiracy theories that just happen to fit your prejudices and anger. That’s why I have the picture of Martin in front of me most of the time: to remind me that the One I claim and intend to follow, who tells me that I have to love my enemies, for they are children of God, plain, but not so simple….but plain.

That’s why we observe this day…to REMEMBER Martin, not just the man who lived the vision out, even unto death, but the very principle of equality that he stood for and stands for, especially in times such as ours where so-called politically smart strategists advocate for suppressing the opportunity to vote.

And I get it, when the people, ALL the people vote, they lose. Then they cry “foul!”, the election was stolen, it was rigged. Because more people got to vote, they lost. It’s back to the old issue of “who counts?”. I only want people who look like me to vote, and count! I only think that those that agree with me should count. How can we limit the number of people who vote? What barriers can we place in the way? That’s not democracy by any stretch of Constitutional thinking.

So we have this day, Martin Luther King Day, prescribed to be celebrated on the third Monday of January. It’s coming up soon. I always found humor and irony that racists proudly take that day off. I imagine that they think it’s funny too. But we have gatherings across the United States to honor this man, to remember his legacy of civil rights for ALL people, and then, commit to leaning into his vision for such a democracy from sea to shining sea, from the “curvaceous slopes of California” even unto “the Stone Mountain of Georgia”…….let freedom ring!

I am usually at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sweet Auburn Avenue for the ecumenical service. This thing starts at 10 AM but goes on and on and on. For politicians who gather to be seen, the old religious goats like me who feel compelled, we are facing the proverbial Black Baptist schedule where everyone has a little something to say, that goes on and on and on. Did I mention this thing goes on and on and on. The true test of bladder capacity….note to self: no coffee in the morning.

At one point in my illustrious career, I was behind the Pine Curtain of Texas, in Tyler. It was the first, the FIRST observance of the MLK Day in that area. We would gather downtown on the Square, and march down Broadway, the main drag in Tyler, to the Roman Catholic cathedral where we would have an interfaith service. On the first march, there were literally SWAT teams positioned on the top of the buildings in response to threats we had received. My friend, Rabbi Art Flicker, once appeared in a film put together for my birthday, thanking me for teaching him how to march in an MLK Day march. Art deftly puts a bullseye target on his chest, and laughs a rabbinic laugh. It was not funny on that original day.

I had been asked to speak at this meeting, not because of my ordination as an Episcopal priest, not because I was the pastor of the downtown Episcopal parish, not because of my academic credentials. I was asked because I was from Atlanta, the home of MLK, and I knew “the Atlanta Way”, a way of cooperation and collaboration, at least that was what a couple of my black colleagues told me.

On this day, there were the usual officials who welcomed the gathering. There was a black Gospel choir that sang a spiritual, as I recall. Then, there was to be a prayer by one of the old black pastors, which was to lead up to my speech.

Well, it was an amazing prayer. No quick three sentences and an amen. No Episcopal or Roman Catholic constrained “collect” from ancient prayer books. No. This man really prayed. He “held forth” as we say in the trade. He was covering the waterfront of salvation history, beginning in Genesis, props to Abraham and Moses, bringing a smile to the Rabbi’s face, and then on to Jesus. The prayer hit all the marks going on for twelve minutes. And the crowd was with him, with an Amen here and a Praise the Lord there.

Listening to him “tearing it up”, in a good sense, I began to get nervous. W. C. Field always cautioned as to following a child or a dog. I was being taught an additional rule: don’t follow an brilliant charismatic pastor. But follow him I would have to do. When in crisis, I have learned to dive deep into my emotions to discover what is down there, and as I did, I became all too aware of the anxiety I was feeling.

As I walked to the pulpit of that elegant Cathedral, I could feel the blood rushing to my face. I wondered as to the shade of red my face was showing, highlighted against my black clerical shirt. And then, it came to me. How to deftly transition from this amazing preacher to my faithful but meager attempt at bringing to mind MLK and his spirit. It came completely without my thinking or planning, as if it were from the Spirit, if you believe in that spooky stuff.

“I feel today like Dennis Menke. (Pregnant pause) You know who Dennis Menke was, don’t you? (Pause again). Dennis Menke was the infielder, the shortstop that played for the Atlanta Braves. He always followed the immortal Henry Aaron at bat. So Dennis, would stand, taking practice swings, in the On Deck circle, waiting, watching Hank do his thing before it was his turn at bat. (pause) That is precisely how I felt, standing over there, watching The Rev pray, knowing I was going to have to follow him and his powerful prayer. “

People started to laugh, partly out of my self-deprecation but more out of my honestly telling about how I felt in my predicament. I went on to say that I knew I was not as eloquent as The Rev, just like Dennis Menke knew he was not the slugger Hank was. But like Dennis, I knew I had to do my best and deliver for the team. Transition made. Or as George W. might say, Mission Accomplished.

And so I delivered my speech on Martin King, on the beloved community. And I noted that we might not have the eloquence of this noble hero. That we might not have the learning and training of this man. That we might not have the confidence Martin had in the face of the challenge ahead. But, nonetheless, we had the opportunity, and the responsibility to lean into the work that is set before us in our own day. It is our calling, our vocation, to be people of the promise, the people of the beloved community to claim dignity and worth, not only for ourselves, but for our sisters and brothers.

That was my message on that chilly January day in Tyler, Texas. And it still is. It’s our time at bat. Let’s not shy away from the challenge of this moment. The fast ball of history is heading our way and it’s up to us to deliver, for those who came before us with a vision for this country, for those who share these precarious times that would rob us of our dignity, and for those who will come long after us.

It’s our turn at bat. Blessings.

Sunday Morning Coming Down

If there was ONE song I wish I could have written, it would be Sunday Morning Coming Down.

To me, it is the perfect song, with the best combination of pathos and humor, tragedy and comedy. It is so inexorably and sensate Southern as it oozes culture with it’s “cleanest dirty shirt”, the smell of chicken frying, and the sound of soulful songs sung. I know about all three, but it took a genius like Kris Kristofferson to write it into a poem/song. My envy is only outrun by my admiration. It is a perfect song.

Sunday morning.

My Sunday mornings have changed. Used to be, they were full, getting up early, shower, dressing, coffee on the way out, early church, more coffee, children and family church, teaching a class, getting to “big” church, shaking hands at the door, going home to collapse. That was my Sunday morning.

Actually, I would begin my Sunday morning with a “quiet time” of meditation, at least twenty minutes, followed by my Anglican duty of Morning Prayer, which through the years proved to “center” me for my hectic day, reminding me of why I was putting myself through this shotgun of activity.

I enjoyed the drive to the church house, listening to music that got me moving, maybe the above song, the Indigo Girls, Bruce, or Willie. My eclectic taste would sometimes spin me off-center. By the time, I reached the church, more coffee was consumed, and classical music like Ralph Vaughan Williams, Barber, or Handel would settle me down. Music is my drug of choice.

Getting ready for Sunday.

And then I would start. I would lean into the morning and not look up. Between keeping my sermon points straight, remembering the announcements, trying to be cheery after someone complained about the heat or the cooling system, and being garrulously social to folks who just wanted to touch and be touched, Sunday drained me of the juice that animated me. After shaking that last hand, I could leave for the sanctity of my bear’s den. Tip: always wait for an invitation into a bear’s den.

I am an enigma for most folks in that I play an extrovert on TV but I am natively an introvert. It literally sucks the life out of me to be in front and among people, but it was my job. My good friend and colleague, Gray Temple, once told me to inform your congregation as to your introverted nature, and then they will cut you some slack. I did. They did not. I did the best I could, but being a priest is an extrovert’s game, and I drew a tough hand. I did that work for over twenty-five years, some would say successfully, but it was a high price to pay. I paid it.

These days, Sundays mean I can spend most of the time in the cave. Did you get my tip?

Sunday mornings now!

I begin with coffee in a relaxed mode, still having my time of meditation, followed by my habitual and cherished Morning Prayer. But then. I am focused for three hours on the Zoom screen, watching worship from a variety of venues.

I begin with Christ Church here on my island of St. Simons. It starts at 9:15 with gorgeous music and images befitting the island it issues forth from. Kathleen Turner is a talented musician who has scrambled to deal with choirs that are separated by space, and sometimes time. It is remarkable the sound she is able to produce to support the liturgy.

Christ Church had been streaming the service for years before the pandemic so it had a leg up as the shift to cyber worship happened. The Rector, the Rev. Tom Purdy, is media savvy and I think he enjoys the process of production. He is assisted in the technology by Parish Administrator, Glenn Queener, who has a musician’s background, and it shows. They not only have high production values but they have shown remarkable creativity and humor which keeps me interested and expectant, which after all these years, is surprising.

I actually have fantasized about doing such a production myself, utilizing the brilliance of my former choirmaster, Keith Weber, producing an ecclesial Prairie Home Companion liturgy, but it was not to be. It is no small blessing in the coincidence that the capacity for Zoom was timed perfectly for this pandemic. Had this COVID sheltering happened in the 90’s, we would simply not have been able to have any semblance of a worship experience. It would have been a much more bleak midwinter! For that happy coincidence, we should give thanks.

After watching Christ Church, I shift to the worship from Brooklyn, New York. It’s the service from New Life Cathedral, a black Pentecostal church. I know the Executive Pastor there, and have been thrilled to see incredibly well-produced music and video that would rival most musical television shows I have seen. I confess that I love the lively music, which would be characterized in my Episcopal circles as “praise” music, which is to say, it has a distinctive beat that gets you moving. As Dick Clark, or better Don Cornelius would say, “You can dance to it!” I enjoy the spirited prayers led by one of the ministers and most times, the Archbishop of this group, Bishop Rochford, renders a spirited sermon that was assuring in such precarious times.

Finally at 11:15, I go to the Zoom worship of an Episcopal parish across the causeway in Brunswick, Georgia. This is a historic black Episcopal parish, also of the Diocese of Georgia, St. Athanasius. The Rector is a young black man from Augusta, freshly educated at the Episcopal seminary outside of D.C. in Virginia, the Rev. DeWayne Cope. Father Cope, as the parishioners call him, is a fine preacher and does a good job in leading the church, gathered on a Zoom page that resembles an extended Brady Bunch family or Hollywood Squares. I keep looking for Paul Lynde,

I have enjoyed listening in, eavesdropping, on their community kibbitz prior to the beginning of the liturgy. Lots of community information is shared along with a homey heaping of neighborly care. At precisely 11:15, Father Cope calls the church to quiet, to center, beginning the common prayer. It has been a mix of Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist, but each time it has been a powerful sense of community for me, even if via a monitor on my desk.

I have joked with Father Cope that it feels like it could be a production of Tyler Perry’s version of Madea Goes to COVID Church. It’s odd to see members in video squares, visually, and at times, vocally interacting with one another. But this proves to me that creative people can get it done with a will and a prayer.

Sunday mornings in my world are no longer “coming down”, as in the song, but coming “ON”, when the worship of God’s people gathered is transmitted through cyberspace to my bear’s den. I miss the touch, the handshakes, the hugs, the tactile human element. But, worship happens, and community gathers and connects. Miraculous?

Colleagues of mine in the “church biz” wonder if the convenience of not having to dress up, drive to a church, will put the gathering in person in jeopardy. I sure as hell would not take that bet. We humans need the intimacy of a gathering, much like ancients circled round a fire to ward off the threatening darkness. As they say, we’ll be back.

While we have learned some new tricks in terms of how to connect with people “bound” at home, which we should not forget, I am certain that people still long for that circle of humanity that reminds us of a presence that transcends our isolated selves. I did, have, and will take that bet.

See you on Sunday. Got to get to work on a new song: Sunday Morning Tuning In. Blessings, y’all!

Totem: A Connection Through Time

It sit’s on my desk.

I am currently perching it in the coffee cup from my grandfather, a cafe-style porcelin mug that would link me to my grandfather and our mornings together.

The object, my totem, is a pipe. A smoking pipe. It is made by Comoy.

It is a pipe that was the property of one of my mentors, Carlyle Marney. It was gifted to me by Marney’s wife, Elizabeth, one of the greatest, most meaningful gifts I have ever received.

I had travelled to Marney’s fabled house at Wolf Pen Mountain in western North Carolina. My boss at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University, Dr. Jim Fowler, had sent me on a mission to meet Mrs. Marney, the recently widowed wife of our mentor in common. In fact, Jim and I had planned on meeting with Marney at a Pastor’s Conference held yearly at Furman, hosted by professor L. D. Johnson. A heart attack took Marney out before he could depart on the journey, leaving us and others reeling is grief. Jim and I had planned on writing a book with Marney on his work at Interpreters House, an occasional retreat for ministers. After his death, our vision had morphed into what was now unformed. We simply did not know where to go with this project. Our grief blurred our minds, but first things first. Fowler wanted Elizabeth to meet me, and hopefully give me her blessing for whatever project emerged.

And so I took off from Druid Hills, a tony suburb where Emory is nestled, early one Thursday morning with a mist arising. It seemed fitting to be in my Jeep, a green CJ 5, with the top off. I made it to Marney’s home by late morning, fording a mountain creek just off the highway. The house was built onto a fore-standing apple barn, with the barn serving as Marney’s study. The house was a two-story wooden structure with a flurry of large windows that provided light to enter the living area in myriad lines, a testimony to Elizabeth’s artistic eye.

But my focus was on the study. As I said, it was an old apple barn, with rough-hewn timbers that retained the distinctive scent of ripe apples. It was an olfactory gift that I still retain in my memory, prompting a smile when I get a whiff these days. In the middle of the study was a round fieldstone fireplace, with a copper hood providing the escaping smoke. Bookshelves o’plenty is what I remember, filled with volumes of knowledge, wisdom and musings. I was struck with the various objects that seemed randomly placed, though I am sure had sure intent for Marney.

Elizabeth and I talked easily, me trying to avoid the feeling of auditioning, or trying to impress her, a mode that is learned and trained. My personal agenda was to be as honest as I could be, to indulge my curiosity as to how Marney did his work, and to literally lean into who she was as a person who shared this space with this larger-than-life figure.

To say we “hit it off” is an understatement. The time flew. Stories she would tell me of her beloved, this irascible maverick, would yield tears, and laughter, as she was fresh into this field of grief. Every so often, she would look off toward the door, as if expecting the old bird to come garrulously through the entry, bigger than life. She and I shared a love for the man, a quite different kind for each of us. Mine was for a man, I’ll use the word again advisedly, a maverick who had blazed a trail through the desert of South of God thinking. He offered fresh thinking about social issues, recapturing the demanding call of a Christian humanism, imagining a community of “priests at every elbow” where one would find the courage to submit one’s images of faithfulness for correction. Marney was a handful, sometimes loved, and sometimes not, noted in a tribute by his parishioners at Myers Park Baptist at the occasion of his death. He was not to be ignored, though many Southern Baptists, his tribe of origin, pushed him to the margins.

For me, Marney gave me a place to stand. He was literally a place-holder, allowing me the fainting hope that one could follow the Christ with conviction and yet not be sentenced to checking your brain at the door of the church house. Having fought hard to remain in the church, Marney gave the young “me” hope. Though his scholarship often eluded me in my youth, too high, he would say, and yet his presence in the circus tent of church gave me the hope that there might be a place for me.

Marney’s books have a place of tribute in my study, a library chapel. His work sits immediately by my desk, on a shelf that contains other contributors to my thinking: Fowler, Thurman, Merton, Gerkin, Ruhle, Temple, Miles, Conner, Scherer, to name a few.

When my conversation ended that morning, Elizabeth noted me eyeing Marney’s collection of tobacco pipes that he had on a shelf. I had, in fact, worked at the famous Royal Pipe and Cigar story in downtown Atlanta to bring in a little money, but also to learn from Mr. Andrews who knew tobacco better than any person I knew. I knew pipes, and smoked them on occasion, probably more for the stage presence than enjoyment.

Elizabeth told me to choose a pipe from the collection for my own. I demurred, saying that it was far too personal. She smiled and left the study for a moment, returning with a light blue cloth, like that of a baby’s diaper. She placed it on Marney’s desk, unfolding this bundle, revealing five pipes. She said there were his favorites, the five that were on his desk the day he died. She said she knew that Marney would want me to have one. Again, I resisted, but she insisted, telling me that it would give her pleasure, and assuring me that it would please Marney. Those were the magic words.

I looked carefully at the five, two very expensive Dunhills with distinctive white dots on the stems that identify them to those in the know. Two others were undistinguishable, but there was THE one. It was a Comoy, a quality pipe but not of the expense of a Dunhill. This Comoy has a bend, like one thinks of Sherlock Holmes, but understated. More importantly, I recognized it as the pipe I had seen Marney smoke and had been captured in a number of photographs. That was the pipe I longed for, a totem that would put me in the mind of Marney.

Elizabeth smiled when I pointed to it. She said it was his favorite. At least she said it, and I hope it was true, but she said she had hoped I would pick it, to carry it on into the future.

I felt like Indiana Jones who the Knight Templar blessed: You have chosen well. I had selected the Holy Grail of Marney , and now, it was time for my crusade, my journey.

I thanked her. She gave me the Southern hug a grandmother gives her favorite grand, and I departed the mountain for the flatland. I have put that pipe on my desk at the Cathedral, in my study at Christ Church, Tyler, and in my office at Holy Innocents. It is now on my desk here on the island. I am looking at it, holding it now.

I have put tobacco in it and smoked it, in certain moments of decision, seeking discernment from my spiritual mentor. I lit the pipe as a sacrament to a Spirit that must live inside the limits of structure. That was not only Marney’s dissertation, but his lesson of life that he passed on. It reminds me of the various vows I have made throughout my life, but none so crucial as to follow the Light of Truth, wherever it leads. A quixotic quest, to be sure, but the Knight Templar had it right: I chose well.

What totem treasures do you have around you, treasured symbols from your past, your story? As I have recently changed locales, I have found certain totems. particular books, grant me a sense of being at home. When you read of my Marney pipe, what similar object connects you to the past, and gives you the trust to lean bolding into the future? I invite you to pick that object up and hold it. Look at it. Speak a word or two to it (no one is looking, hopefully). What word does it say to you, encouraging or challenging? What is its message.

We are ending up a tough year that will be strangely known as 2020, once a designation of clear vision. Instead, this year has been one of misty vision, clouded by tears, fears, and separation. I urge you to take the time to review your year in the rearview mirror, as well as looking at the future horizon. What are your hopes and dreams? What are the goals that you have set for 2021? With hope, let us push off the dock for the open water of adventure. Blessings.

The Proper Christmas Rush

In this pandemic world, my Christmas Eve will not be like any other.

Normally, I would be rushing about, finishing up a Christmas Eve sermon, encompassed by preparation for Christmas services at my Episcopal parish.

It would entail a lot of prep, living with the Nativity story for the season of Advent. I would dig deep, trying to find a transposition of the gist of the Christmas story to the current moment. Looking for a twist, a new angle on the story, I would sit for hours musing about a way to make the familiar story accessible in a fresh way, particularly for those searching in their particular and peculiar darkness.

I would sometimes resort to sitting in the back of the church to watch the children rehearse the infamous Christmas Pageant. On my knees praying for inspiration, I would find myself busting out laughing at the wonderful interplay with Christian education mavens, casting the children and working as simple a choreography as possible to relate the story from the Gospel of Luke.

Recently, I thought up a fiendish plot to press my Christian ed genius, Betty Barstow, to do a new version of the Christmas Pageant, this time, in this dastardly pandemic, using the Gospel of John. There would be only one character, the cheekiest kid in the parish. He or she would come to the center of the stage and simple say, I AM, and stand there holding the space for seven minutes. It would be epic. So much less to worry about. Betty?

The story, the infancy narrative, as it is referred to by scholars, is romantic in conception, but turns tragic as the plot thickens. This cute, cooing baby will turn into someone who has demands for his listeners, not suggestions. This child would develop into a teacher, a rabbi, espousing love and caring for all people, even those folk the society would marginalize and show bias against.

The gentle Jesus, meek and mild, laid in a manger, makes the mistake of growing up. He grows up, develops in the Covenant of his Jewish people, loving God and Neighbor with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. It culminated in his Sermon on the Mount, which we politely domesticate and basically ignore, except for the parts that comfort us. Blessed are the rich and famous….no wait, he didn’t say that.

The Baby Jesus grows up into what some people today are calling RADICAL, and by that, I mean, someone who takes, with ultimate seriousness, the rule of the Kingdom of God, not the current reign of whoever happens to be in political power or office. If you are IN power, that kind of a view seems RADICAL, and not a mere spiritual cheerleader for the status quo, the prescribed order, or as St. Bruce of Hornsby framed it, “the way it is”. The “powers that be” perceive correctly that this dude, this once cute baby, was coming out, making demands, disrupting.

Baby Jesus, all grown up, rolls into Jerusalem at the major festival, Passover, and enters with a crowd size that didn’t require exaggeration by a press secretary. And it obviously got under the skin of the religious and political leaders of his day. Wasn’t this the winsome kid from Nazareth? You remember, the smart kid from Nazareth who knew his Scripture and Tradition when he was a mere lad of twelve. What the hell went wrong? Bad parenting? How did he become so RADICALIZED? What are we to do with him?

The question had changed so radically with him. Back in the day, on that day heralded by a conjunctive Christmas star, the question was “what gift do we bring a Baby King?”. Gold, myrrh, frankincense? And now, the question is “how do we stop him?”.

They figured it out. The religious establishment and political players sought to quiet him as we typically do with a message that annoys. They decided in the temple and in the palace, the places of power: we will snuff the boy out by crucifying him, lynching Palestinian style.

But wait, I can hear you saying. Don’t ruin Christmas for me, Father!

Let’s stay with the soft lights, the sweet hymns, and why not throw in a real Christmas pageant with cute kids, that make the grandparents feel good about the future. And so we do.

Ready on set! Lights, camera, focus on the small part of the action, the feel-good story of a birth in a stable that becomes world changing, with angel wings flapping, shepherds gathering, and even that cultural injection of a little drummer boy drumming. Can you turn it down, please?

I always felt a little sheepish about hyping this cute Baby Jesus, who is so adorable, and comes with a blanket, just like the one in the adorable St. Jude’s Hospital promos. Shouldn’t I tell the folks about the fine print in this contract of laying down one’s life? The hard part of loving those that persecute you? Of turning the cheek when one is struck? That doesn’t sound American. Should I come clean about the end of the story concerning what this Baby will cost, with compounding interest?

No, no, that’s for another day. Let the people be happy…..for a while. They’ll get to Gethsemane and Golgotha soon enough. Trot out the lovable characters, cue Silent Night, and call it a day. Cocktail time, y’all! An acceptable level of numbness.

When I had my live radio call-in show in Texas, I had a person once call on the Sunday night before Christmas. The caller noted that he loved to drive around and see the beautiful Christmas lights. And he went on to say that he had a certain fondness for the manger scenes, they call them “creches” in Paris, Texas. He loved seeing the various characters: shepherds, wise men (early), Joseph, Mary, and that cute little baby. But my caller lamented that one particular manger scene in the front of a Baptist church had a cross behind the manger stall. It troubled my caller to see a reminder of the ignominious death by crucifixion of this infant. The caller said it well in his Texas drawl, “They don’t even let the little feller grow up before putting him up on that Cross!”

I remember chuckling as he said those lines. Not exactly a surprise, because I wrote the lines, and they were adroitly delivered by my producer and friend, Paul Kyser, now a physician in Longview, posing as a character we had created, Buck….from Bullard. We used Buck as a plant, to pose pressing question, disturbing questions, disrupting questions. It was my way to posing the deeper question implied in this story: who is this baby, and what does it mean for me?

This need for “truth in advertising” raised its ugly head here and there throughout my career. It was counter-balanced by my love, my heart for the seeker who is looking, searching for meaning in their life. Christmas Eve is THE event that seems to bring in the crowds, some merely following the cultural Christmas rush, but some come, sincerely seeking an answer to their deepest Questions about life.

The love for the seeker led me to use the cultural shadow of a holiday to push the winsome message of the Christ, sent by a loving God to point us a way through our dark night, point us to the truth wrapped in flesh.. Jesus represented God’s love for the Creation, captured in the image of sending his Son among us, to be like us, to embrace us. This is Good News that has won the hearts of many down through the years. And it’s here, being heralded again, even in a pandemic.

That was the way it happened to me in 1972, going with my girlfriend to the Midnight Christmas Eve service at St. Philips in Atlanta. She and I were refugees, like Mary and Joseph, from the Southside, looking for a place in the night, though she was not with child, thank God.

We entered into the unfamiliar space, with the nose-bleed high worship of the Anglican tradition, music bolstered by members of the Atlanta Symphony. These boys looked like they knew what they were doing. I remember looking at the transcendent architecture, the stained-glass and stone tracery, the measured movement, the reverence of the people, the unfamiliar immediacy of the approaching and receiving communion, the pregnant message of God’s love, all combining to strangely communicate a connection of depth that had eluded me to point. There was a spark of spiritual connection that I could not explain, a depth that defied my chemistry, biology, physics, and logic. But in spite of my questions, I knew that this experience was real. I would have to deal with it.

It was the beginning of a journey that would lead me to a commitment that I could not have imagined on that starlit night. The Mystery of Incarnation grabbed me by the soul and would not let go. What if I hadn’t made the effort to break my familiar pattern of Christmas Eve? What if we had gone to our normal Christmas Eve candle light service? Or stayed home to watch It’s A Wonderful Life? How might my life have been different, better or worse?

I don’t know, but my hunch is that there are people, like me fifty years ago, who are hungry for a connection with something bigger than themselves. In this crazy year of 2020, it may be that the time is ripe, the moment full, for someone to experience the incredible joy and awe implied in this starry night.

It may be in a small gathering of people meeting safely, with masks and a necessary distance. It may even happen under a tent pitched in a storied graveyard, like at Christ Church here on my islasnd. Or, it just might happen through this amazing technology of Zoom that will creatively tell the same old story but in a fresh way that miraculously connects despite cynicism, doubt, disappointment, and boredom.

That is the hope. That was God’s hope in trusting us in this Incarnation, this birth. And it’s our hope as once again, we give it our best shot in telling the story in a winsome way. Blessings on you in this mysterious Christmas season. May your Christmas rush be to that manger, to that Mystery contained in a trinity of words: God with us.

A Golden Thread, or Woven Chord?

I have lived most of my life, guided by the Erik Erikson’s view of human existence as moving in developmental stages. A psychoanalyst by training, Erikson predictably spends more time in childhood, with a focus on the development of trust, autonomy, initiative and the finally emerging identity.

He originally only tipped his hat at old age, as a time of reminiscing, of looking back over one’s life, a life review, he called it. He offered the idea that in that review, one is seeking to find a thread of meaning that runs throughout the narrative that gives meaning and significance. If one discerns that thread, one enters the later stage of life with a sense of integrity, granting a sense of hope. Ruefully, if one does not find that thread, one sails off into the sunset with despair, that is, there is no meaning.

Theoretically, I sensed the power of this observation in my work as a research assistant at the Center for Faith Development at Emory, interviewing a variety of persons about their lives and the sense they made out of it. Our intent, being structural developmental psychologists, was to identify the cognitive structures they were using to think about their lives and the decisions they made. As a more analytically inclined person, I also kept an ear out to the dynamics in play within the psyche of the soul I was interviewing.

Older people fascinated me as they were clearly in a more review mode, looking back over their life, with a profound sense of assessment. Though they were not familiar with Erikson’s theory, they were engaging in the life review work. Some clearly had a sense of integrity, that their life was worth the ride, and there was deep joy that I could sense. And then, there were some persons that seemed scattered, feeling adrift, “at sea”, disconnected, with a feel of depression under the reflection, an inkling of regret that permeated the person. This was my observation as a young adult, full of expectation, great in the Dickens sense, and anxious, in the Kierkegaardian way. I was making life notes as well as doing my job of developmental research.

Later, my first job at the Cathedral was to work in pastoral care with the seniors who lived at the residential high rise behind the campus, Cathedral Towers. There had been several suicides among the residents, pricking the concern of the administration, and motivating them to double down with a therapeutically oriented approach to the job. While initiating a variety of programmatic work, I brilliantly instituted a “happy hour”, after all, most were Episcopalians. But out of those gatherings, I began groups that encouraged life review, or as we called it, “reminiscence’.

I borrowed from my prior work at Emory, working with ministers as they took a pause in their career for an assessment. Gathering cohort groups of ministers of similar tenure, I had developed a starting point exercise which we titled, “Chapters of My Life”. We asked people to list the chapter titles of their “autobiography”, giving transparent titles in images that would capture the “feel” of particular times in their lives. We asked them to frame it in eight to twelve chapters, although we went easy on our restrictions. We also asked that, after they completed the chapters assignment, the participants offer a title to their imagined “book”. What would be the title of your autobiography? we playfully probed.

It was a surprisingly effective exercise that I initially designed as a mere ice-breaker for the gathering of folks before we got to the “meat” of our didactic work. Surprisingly, the exercise emerged as one of the most powerful moments of the week.

I would have the participants, after completing the assignment, take the proverbial educational magic markers of various colors, and write down their thoughts on newsprint. Sprawled on the floor, or spread out on tables, the folks would record their work in interesting ways, some with precise careful lettering, meticulously measured, and others in varying colors and shapes and emphases.

They were instructed to put the newsprint up on the walls in the room. After all the work was posted, I gathered the group in the center of the room, explaining the next step. We were going to move around the room, pausing at each posting on newsprint, allowing the person to read their own “chapters”, in their own voice. I imposed one restriction that was disturbing initially to these ministers: there was to be no commentary, no questions. Just read the text. A tough restriction for those ministerial types who were used to asking questions and “splaining” things. But I was determined to maintain the time limits. The result of the silence was a complete surprise.

What happened was what I call “holy” or sacred space, as there was a deep recognition of the depth of the words being uttered. This was the “stuff” of life, and a sense of awe and reverence was indeed meet and right. We moved around the circle, listening to the voices reading the script of chapter titles, some spoken proudly, some with nervousness, some with emotional breaks, tears, occasionally weeping. Regardless, one got a sense of the power of what was being captured in that “now” moment, our common sharing of the pilgrimage of human life that we all shared. No “splaining” was necessary in that moment. Awe ruled.

I borrowed this for my elders at the Cathedral Towers, without putting it up on newsprint, merely read. There turned out to be something missing without the written words in print, so as we continued the work, I had some volunteer scribes who could assist in the transfer to newsprint. And the circle, with the movement, though problematic dues to mobility issues, it turned out to be worth the trouble. Again, the holiness seemed to shimmer as these older voices shared their “chapters” with their fellow pilgrims.

The “Chapters of My Life” became a starting point for some of my people, as I encouraged them to unpack the various chapters. Some used time to edit their chapter titles, adding more titles, removing some titles, shaping their sense of narrative as they worked. It turned out to be a powerful method to get at this thing Erikson pointed to in the continuing developmental arc of these persons.

That was almost forty years ago. I can hardly believe it. It seems like yesterday, gathering with the Peytons, Don Hinkle, the Snoddys, and my favorite, Elizabeth Dickey. What a group of teachers I had, as I learned what it meant to grow old with grace and grit. And I was the blessed student of the wisdom of these witnesses as to how a faithful Episcopalian who keeps an eye on the horizon for what was coming. These persons were my adjunct professors.

My own work of writing reflects some of the “lessons learned” from these teachers. I’ve been listing my “chapters” for years, filling it out, amending, adding, extracting, and as my kids would remind me, embellishing…..after all, I am South of God. And when I go to my list of twelve, I natively cast an eye to find that thread, that one thread of meaning that unites the variety of experiences that made up my life.

What’s dawned on me recently is that there exists several strands of meaning in my life, woven together into a cord of transformation. I have studied how individuals grow and develop as persons. I dove deeply into how individuals join together in bonds of intimacy and closeness. And then, I shifted my focus to how families form, functionally and dysfunctionally. Extending that, I expanded to gain the insights of organizational development as groups of these things called humans seek to join their visions and wills to make something happen. Eventually, I found myself studying the power, positive and negative, of culture. Centered in transformation and development, I discern my thread has evolved into a cord with a variety of strands, woven together in complexity.

It leaves me feeling excited about what’s next, hungry for the next chapter of exploration, insistent on pushing on down the trail of discovery. Recently, I shared with a trusted colleague my wish of sixty more years to discover, to deepen, to explore. That’s not a bad place to be, psychically. I hope to continue my journey in my new island locale, with a childlike wonderment as to what is ahead. Expectation seems peculiarly right for Advent.

How is it for you? No matter how far down the trail you might be, why not take the challenge to write down your “chapters of my life”? What would be the “title” you would choose to capture the flow and direction of your life? Do you discern a thread, or a cord of meaning and direction that weaves your life together, or are you in the process of putting it together?

Some of my best time these days is coming alongside folks who are in that process. Assisting them discern those patterns, chase those threads of meaning into a cord of trajectory that leads to their destiny and future, it has been my joy as a coach, a therapist, a spiritual director, as a person.

Why not use some of this strange time of holiday in the middle (preacher word: midst) of this pandemic to invest in this exercise of self-awareness? What are your chapter titles? What is the title of your life story? Dive into the playful exercise of review, whether you’re a dinosaur like me, or not. I think you could discover some valuable insights from the past and promptings for the future. Blessings.

Blessings From the Pandemic

Thanksgiving brought me an insight and a gift.

Normally, the Galloway family, my brother’s family and mine, gathers on St. Simons Island for a family feast.

In the past, we would gather at our condo in Panama City Beach, the Redneck Riviera, for a family gathering hosted by my dad and mother. Dad would pick up the tab for lunch at a Thanksgiving buffet at Hamilton’s , a local restaurant. It was a hedonistic feast that would jar my senses with the overabundance and consumption of my fellow Redneck Riveraens as we walked down the buffet line and then rolled out.

Then, we would cook in the afternoon for a family gathering, as I showcased my grandmother’s Southern cornbread dressing and my sister-in-laws fabulous sides. In the interest of full disclosure, my culinary work was significantly fueled by a buttery Chardonnay all afternoon, which made for some interesting variations on my Southern Baptist grandmother’s recipe.

It was a good time, but that tradition faded with my parent’s issue with traveling and finally their death.

We transitioned to a new tradition by renting houses on East Beach on St. Simons, a definite shift from the gorgeous emerald water and sugar sand of the Gulf to the darker blue and sand of the Atlantic coast. After several years of us enjoying that new tradition on the coast of Georgia, both my brother and I bought homes on the island. This terrible year of 2020 would be the first time of celebrating this new tradition with us both as residents of Glynn County.

I almost pulled the plug on the deal as we were cautioned about a family gathering in the face of COVID. My wife and sister-in-law championed the gathering as our two sets of children would be coming from Washington D.C., Nashville, and Atlanta. To say that I was nervous is an understatement as I had been isolating probably more than most, as the pandemic gave me an easy excuse for being my native hermit. But as usual, the women led the way. Selah, as Furman Bisher and the Psalmist would say.

We gathered at my brother’s house on East Beach. My nieces engineered an amazing setting outside on a porch with two tables set across from each other, separated by ten feet. The chairs were arranged so that our two families faced each other, across the gulf of separation.

Now, here resides the engineering magic. In the past, we sat at a long table, with the adults at one end, with the kids and significant others filling out the rest of the table. The result was an unintended segregation of the conversation and dialogue, with boring parental talk on one end, and fun-talk popping on the other. I enjoyed those gatherings, to be sure. Seeing the Galloway clan in one place is always a treat with the variety of interests being represented, vociferously so. But it was not something I looked forward to with great expectations.

Enter 2020. Speaking of expectations, I had none. Rather, I was a bit fearful, leaning into the moment with resolve. The menu went pretty much as normal, turkey and ham, delicious sides, a chess pie awaiting, and my provision of grandmother’s dressing sans the Chardonnay inspiration. But the conversation that ensued across the space was unexpected and amazing.

After niceties and congratulations on dishes well done, we settled into a conversation across the two families. Two invaders, otherwise know as cousin spouses, sat with a proper fear/wonder as the Galloway cousins began to spark and flame. The talk literally was electric as the sun went down, and the owls overhead, my new spirit animal, began to hoot.

The topics were far ranging: aging parents; the scary prospects of introducing a love interest to this whack family; what one thinks about death; how one wants to be buried, just to point out the kind of upbeat talk we entertain in a Scots-Irish family. We discussed the phenomena of squatters in beach houses when absent owners vacate. We actually talked about the reasons that my brother and I found our way into the Episcopal Church, with Mitch specifically thankful for a group that allows him freedom of thought.

The real star of the show was Mitchell, our first grandchild for the group who was present at our last gathering in utero. He arrived right after last year’s Thanksgiving. His command of the gathering was impressive while he shared his bounty with the dogs who knew a good thing when they saw it.

The highlight for me was the disclosure by the children in my brother’s family of the “sign” they have developed to note that the story that is being told has been previously related…..many times!. The cousins simply raise their hand with the index finger pointed up, notifying said teller of story that they are repeating a story that is well known. I was on the floor laughing as they demonstrated this signifying through the evening.

Family gatherings are something that we have taken for granted most of our lives. We would gather in large McBrayer gatherings, my maternal grandmother’s family, in West Georgia.

When my brother lived in Omaha, and we lived in Tyler, Texas, we would gather in the summer on the Gulf coast in Florida, giving “the cousins” an opportunity to have time together. Later, my brother’s family moved back to Atlanta and in time, so did we. The result was “the cousins” going to the same school, Holy Innocents Episcopal School, giving them a unique opportunity to grow up together. This made for a closeness that was never carefully engineered but simply happened happily. I know that my parents were thrilled with the resulting proximity.

It struck me at this year’s Thanksgiving gathering how fortunate we are to have these family gatherings. I do not take it for granted as it has not been a huge tradition, certainly not in the Galloway side of the family. But this year, in particular, it struck me how fortunate we are to have the sense of connection. And it’s a connection that is not “forced” where one feels obligated. Rather, there seems to be a deep desire to gather around these holidays to check in with one another.

The need for social distancing prompted a change in the status quo, a reconfiguring of the normal way of seating. And that alteration “changed it up” in terms of how we related, bringing about a freshness to the encounter. If not for COVID, we would have had the old “familiar” way of segregated seating, with the same predictable outcome. That’s an insight, or as we say at Galloway Consulting, a “lesson learned”. I don’t won’t to lose that.

It’s hard for me to be thankful for this pandemic. So much has been disrupted, made more difficult, and actually caused death. But the disruption can bring about, or force innovation and creativity.

I have seen it with the pastors/priests that I coach, finding creative ways of using Zoom and online platforms to gather congregations for worship and study. Every Sunday morning, I spend my time watching a variety of cyber worship offering. Some simply “mail it in” but most have show incredible creativity, actually seizing the opportunity to do a new thing.

I have observed the adoption of telemedicine that has been around for years, but rarely utilized, becoming a lifeline for patients getting care and attention. The health care leaders I coach have been force-marched into a new way of treating patients, made even more difficult by the urgent treatment of COVID patients.

I have been a part of an organization, EQ-HR, that exclusively had used expensive and involved gatherings in remote venues to deliver its core message of Emotional Intelligence. COVID forced us to get innovative, producing a new way to gather via a webinar that is at once more convenient and more effective. This has produced a change in delivery that will live on beyond the pandemic, a change that had been resisted by folks who would say “that’s the way we always have done it!”

We all hope to go back to a point where we can gather without fear and anxiety. If you live South of God, you long to be able to give one of those traditional hugs, or as one my favorite Southside folks says, “hug your neck”…..which has always been a curious saying to me anatomically.

We all pray for a vaccine that will give us, return to us, the gift of gathering. But, did we learn some things to take with us into the future? Are there gifts to garner as we move forward?

I know that next Thanksgiving, we Galloways will be using what we learned from this year. My hunch is that we will take the new table configuration inside, and be together in a new way that promotes our gathering in a fresh way.

What have you learned from COVID? What blessing did you wrestle from this pandemic that you will not let go of as we emerge? What “lesson learned” have you received from this crazy time?

An organizational development colleague of mine re-minds me, every so often, of a favorite saying: All of get the experience; some of us get the lesson.

Which one are you? Good news is: it’s not too late. What have you learned about yourself, about life? Why not take a proverbial “pause” and write down some notes as to what gift you have received from this rather odd gift-giver. Blessings.

Pushing Off From the Dock

Early morning, but it was already getting humid. The lake surface looked like a mirror, and I wasn’t liking what I saw.

What I saw was a young man that was caught between a drive for exploration and a fear of the unknown. It was not the first, nor the last time, but became a paradigm for life.

I had bought a sailboat, a Cal 25. It was a flush-deck, Lapworth-rigged with a huge amount of sail area, but the over-glassed hull needed all of it to make way, to move the mass through the drag of the water. I would learn that such boats are made for steady, strong winds, not the capricious winds of Lake Lanier.

I had sailed with my college roommate from Chicago, who grew up on Lake Michigan. During Spring breaks, we had sailed in the Caribbean thanks to a fraternity brother from Nassau. After graduation, Kevin had bought a San Juan that we had tooled around on Lanier, me providing the grunt work with hoisting sails. Being the captain of a sailboat was just a dream I had stolen from Stuart Woods and William F. Buckley. It was a fantasy of mine, and yet here I was, on the edge of adventure.

I had taken delivery from the Gainesville boat company that left it tied up at the end of a dock at Aqualand, a marina that catered to Atlanta escapees and wannabes. I had dropped a check off to secure my title, and then made the drive in my SAAB north to my rendezvous with this fiberglass beast.

She was not pretty, not in the least. She had spent her youth in the Caribbean , running from island to island, doing nefarious things, I fantasized. But now, here she was, waiting for me like an experienced woman of the night, willing to teach me how to catch the wind.

After inspecting the boat, like I knew what I was doing, I thought I might wash her down, show her some love. In the back of my mind, I knew that I was going to have to move her to my slip on F dock in another part of the marina. It was not far away. I could simply start the Evinrude motor to back her out, motor her to her new home, and call it a day. But the challenge that yelled at me was not unlike a lady I once knew: Sail me! she insisted.

The thought of pushing off from the safety of the dock teased me, both thrilling me with the possibility of setting sail into this new day, full of promise, and scaring me to death with images of grounding her, ramming a dock, hitting another boat, tangling the lines hopelessly…..namely, looking like the landlubbing fool I knew that lurked beneath my Lands End polo and trunks. A “poser” was at the top of my shit list, my greatest disdain, and yet, here I was.

I gathered my courage, which was running on empty, but my resolve to catch the wind prevailed. I cast off the dock lines, jumped aboard, by myself, single-handed fool that I was. In a moment that remains on the mantlepiece of my memory, I pushed off from that dock, and its illusion of security, headed out of my little harbor into the open water, small as a mountain lake but as challenging as a transatlantic passage for this Atlanta home boy.

That’s really my story. It has been my paradigm, my model for living. Pushing off into adventure. That day, it went surprisingly well, hoisting the main, setting the genoa, sailing up the lake to the dam, an easy sail, a simple series of reaches, tacks, and eventually beating my way against the wind, putting the rail into the water, bringing a smile. It was a great day for the home team when I brought her home to her new slip in Aqualand where she would be my learning lab for two years. I was to graduate to a new Cal, with prettier lines and a more livable cabin, but my first boat, my first love still catches my breath. I imagine that ‘s why they cast boats in the feminine.

My memory of this peculiar and particular morning was prompted by listening to Bruce Springstein talking about the night he left Freehold, New Jersey as a nineteen year old. “Nothing like being young and leaving some place”. He was on the top of a flatbed truck, feeling the wind, looking at the stars overhead, and embracing the freedom of leaving home. The thrill of adventure, of pushing off the dock, leaving the safety of home or harbor, or both. Exhilarating. Just the stuff of youth? Wasted on the youth? I think not.

I felt it again a few months back, as I pushed off my dock in Atlanta, headed south for the island, a new life. Thrilling, and sad, at one moment, sensing a promising new chapter while sadly aware of an ending. Maybe I am a bit wizened or beat up to get beyond the illusion of full freedom. We all are pulling trailers of the past, regardless if we are nineteen or ninety. But the thrill remains.

A new place, a blank piece of paper, or the blinking cursor on a screen. New. Possible, Adventure. Birth. Or rebirth.

What words come to your mind? Your heart? Your soul?

In my tradition, my tribe, it’s the season on Advent. It’s a pregnant time of looking to the horizon with hope, hoping to catch a fresh wind in one’s sails, to sense the magic of movement, powered by the Bernoulli effect or the spirit of discovery.

Advent signals four weeks of preparation, of looking for the fresh, anticipation, of hope.

Dare you hope, in the deep wake of a pandemic, in the split, divisive play of politics? In this dark darkness, dare you squint you eyes to catch a glimpse of the new, the possible, the fresh wind of the Spirit? That’s a question that actually confronts us each morning as we awake to start a new day. Is it just a grind, another day to check off, or is it a time to be embraced with hope?

I have recently written about mindfulness, including a pregnant pause, centering, and journaling. All of these are tactics that serve a deeper strategy of living fully, being present. The image of being awake has always been appealing to me. I once played with the image of the proverbial “snooze alarm” that we push when we don’t want to wake up. I employed it in a tense, tight moment of racial tension in Texas, but the truth is, it is applicable every day. Do we want to wake up to the possibility of the Now moment, or do we choose the zombie way, merely moving without awareness?

Advent gets us in touch with the choices we have made and are making in terms of how we want to live our lives. Four weeks to try to wake us up. It seems timely as it comes in the darkest time of the year, when the nights are longest. Will we grope for the snooze button, or shall we choose to wake up?

For me, it has always been facing the challenge, embracing it, especially the risks, for I can no longer plead youth. But then, I get to choose, the unique existential burden and glory of being human, the “deciding” that is distinctively human. Can I muster the courage to push off the dock again, into the deep water of adventure?

Play with it, if you find it intriguing, or suggestive. What is the dock you are tied to? What makes it secure and comfortable? Why in the world would you want to leave it? What adventure awaits? What dangers are there? Where are you in this time in your life? In my book, the key is in the act of deciding, you making that decision as to what you want to do, what you need to do?

Advent is a precarious season. It threatens to wake you up, to bring you to the cold-faced awareness that there is a decision to be made. To push off and head to open waters….or to remain at dock. What a blessing and curse it is to decide. Regardless, it is our call as creatures on this earth.

I remember the feel of the wind on my cheek, promising to take me away. Do you feel it?