The Way Through

Years ago, I worked with my academic mentor, Jim Fowler, the founder of the Center for Faith Development at Emory, to construct a retreat format for people who were trying  to make sense of their lives midstream.  Fowler had worked with his own mentor, Carlyle Marney, at a retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina known as Lake Junaluska.  Marney, a world-class theologian from the Baptists South of God, had begun a rescue mission  of sorts. He periodically  gathered  a menagerie of ministers to sit with him, telling their stories, trying to make sense out of where they had been, where they were, and where in the world they were going. He called this sacred space of meeting, Interpreter’s House, in homage the John Bunyan’s spiritual classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. Carlyle Marney had also served as my boyhood mentor, so the apostolic line of connection was strong as Fowler and I teamed up for this new work of extending Marney’s soulprint.

Could we give people a map to help them in the living of life? Could we offer a picture  of the lay of the land of being human that might give some guidance? While we had developed and researched a six-stage cognitive framework that we were presenting in the academic world as a normative model for how people develop in their faith, we knew that our intricate stage theory would be hard to translate into everyday language for quick and easy consumption.

Instead, we opted for a model that was a bit more simple and accessible. It came from the ground-breaking work of William Bridges who presented a three-part way of seeing human life. The three stages saw first light of day in his book, Transitions. Bridges looked at the human experience of change, using sophisticated anthropological studies of how people in various cultures negotiated the process of change. He named these three phases: Endings, Neutral Zone, and New Beginnings. We thought this would offer a descriptive, non-judgmental way of helping people reflect on their lives in process.

We constructed a retreat format, which we tested among generational cohort groups, funded by the Lilly Foundation, to see if our design could actually help people make sense of where they were in life. The good new was that, in fact, it did, to the point that it would wind up being used in United Methodist circles as the Pilgrimage Project. I was excited to see the work we had done be so helpful to people in continuing in their journey of life, knowing that Marney would approve.

With this three-fold process in mind, I wound up continuing my work by thinking even more deeply about this pattern. Clearly these three phases in transition match up and correspond to an older story found in Hebrew history, the Exodus. This story of liberation and deliverance is memorialized in the annual festival in the Hebrew faith known as Passover.

The story begins with the ending of the Hebrews’ time as slaves in Egypt. Moses demanded freedom for his people, and after some unusual strong-arm tactics of the Almighty, in terms of plagues, famines, and notably, the death of the first-born in the household of the Egyptians, Pharaoh let the Hebrew people go, liberating them to leave their bondage. This represents an Ending, a death of sorts, of the way things were. The Hebrew people left what was known, headed for the New, the unknown..

But before they could get to the New, whatever that was to be, they had to go through a time of wandering in the wilderness. It corresponds to Bridges’ Neutral Zone, a time of “inbetween” in which disorientation tended to predominate. In the Hebrew narrative, it was said to have lasted 40 years, which I used to joke that “40 years” was a Hebrew idiom, a symbol, for “a long damn time.” It has been said that the forty years was about the time it took for the slave identity, or mindset, to die off before they were ready to enter into the New.

Those of you who remember the story recall that Moses was able to see the Promised Land but knew that he would not live to see the completion of the journey. As an Atlanta boy, Martin King’s use of this imagery on that fateful night in Memphis resonates loudly when I remind myself and others of this part of the story.

Finally, the Hebrew people cross the mythic boundary into the Promised Land,  a new way of being, full of promise and freedom. They entered into a covenant with God. They would be God’s people in this new landscape of being. This was the destination point for this particular people who had left slavery, suffered through the wilderness, to then crossed over to claim the New.

This is the three-fold pattern that we employed to prompt people of faith to think about their particular life journeys. What slavery has bound you in the past, and what did it take for you to get free? What wilderness have you gone through in your life? What did the existential desert feel like? Where did you find sustenance for your time in the wilderness? What did your new beginning turn out to be? What principles have you found on your mountain of experience? What covenants and vows have you made to God and to neighbor?

I found that this form made sense to many people in naming the components of their journey in life. They could readily place themselves in the story, or should I say, the story helped them to name where they were in their current journey. We found that this Exodus narrative freed them to talk about the contours of their life, namely the present challenges. Surprisingly perhaps,  once they felt “located” in a bigger story, it granted them a sense of hope for their own story’s continuation.

Further, this biblical journey was called the pesach, or the Passover, as the Hebrew people have ritually celebrated their passage from slavery to freedom. Christians employed this ancient form to apply to the drama in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who comes to be viewed as the Christ. Again with a three-fold pattern, Jesus dies, spends the mysterious “inbetween” time of three days, and then rises from the dead as the Resurrected Christ. In my liturgical studies, this cosmic drama was called the Paschal Mystery, coming from the word “pesach” or passage.

In my own life, and in listening to the stories of others, this pattern seems to be repeated, over and over. Death, literal or symbolic, occur. It is followed by a time in the wilderness, a time of transition. And this is followed by the birth of something new.

Death- Inbetween-New Birth. Has this happened for you? Or am I just trying to manufacture a pattern that makes me feel better in the chaos and change in my life? Is this a three-fold pattern that helps you make sense out of your life?

I would love to hear from you as to what you have experienced. Drop me a note here or email me in a more private means at drdavidgalloway@msn.com .

I will be expanding on this in future posts but wanted you to get a taste. Many Christians are beginning a period known as Lent that is meant to prepare for Easter, Following this Paschal model, the death, or change, occurs sacramentally, or symbolically at Ash Wednesday, as our literal mortality is affirmed. In fact, our noses are rubbed in it. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return!” In other words, Don’t forget it! You are mortal, formed of cells that will die some day, at which point you will return to the dirt. Ash Wednesday highlights our mortal nature, a truth that we are in the process of dying.

Having gotten the message of mortality, you are invited to enter the land of “inbetween”, Lent, in which you embrace your brokenness, your ever-present mortality, as you approach the Easter mystery. Traditionally, you “give something up” for Lent, something you probably should do anyway. But a deeper participation in the Lenten time is to use it as a way to examine your current situation in life. What might you need to change? What needs amending? What directional adjustment might be needed? What might you “take on” in your life, rather than give up? This is the powerful way the Church provides for pilgrims to journey again from the slavery of “stuckness” into the new land of being awakened.

This three-fold pattern. Death- Inbetween- New Birth. I have called it the Paschal Paradigm. It is a way of conceptualizing faith and hope. The Paschal Paradigm grants hope to those that have experienced the death of their loved one, a death in relationships, or the death of certain institutions. Change is the only constant. How can we  move more faithfully into those changes that come, some that we choose, some that just come unbidden? How can we faithfully lean into change? Death represents the ultimate change we face as humans.

The Paschal Paradigm offers hope to folks who are fresh in their experience of endings that threaten the meaning of the present, as they await silently, in hope for a new beginning.

Personally, the naturalist, the nascent Druid-in-me self, is thankful that the Easter drama and the Hebrew Passover takes place on the stage of Spring. It is no accident that these powerful stories find themselves cast in the wake of a gray, testing Winter as Spring answers with the resound Yes of new life and growth. That vexing gray  is invaded by green. The old dies and awaits the birth of the new. Such is the pattern that we live within and have our being.

Perhaps this Paschal Paradigm has more to offer than a Hallmark card flimsy aphorism of Happy Easter. Perhaps there is more joy in this awakening than that of the taste of a Cadbury egg, as rare and delicious as they are.  The Paschal Paradigm offers a way through, and that is worth celebrating.

Intentional Change

For the past few weeks, I have played with the role of defining moments of decision and twists of fate. This week, I want to talk about intentionality in the engagement of defining moments. As a coach of leaders, I move alongside people who are seeking to grow intentionally, to develop themselves professionally and personally. The focus of our work may begin with a clearly stated focus of professional competency that may need improvement but can often end up with the altering of the way of one’s being. These are truly defining moments that can literally change the course of a life. Watching this transformation within a person is my psychic pay of being a coach.

I want to share a particular story that illustrates the power of intention combined with a coaching presence. It happened when I had first begun my work as a consultant in healthcare. My firm, Galloway Consulting, had been hired to address a pressing financial bleed within a well-know healthcare system. The new CEO was brought in to fix it, to stop the bleeding, and turn the organization around. We had worked with this CEO before, which gave him confidence in our methodology and value. He wanted us to arrive the very day that he did and begin an assessment to get the new start off with positive momentum.

Our organizational  assessment involves the typical crunching of numbers to discern opportunities and challenges. This work of analysis of data is accompanied with an equally rigorous round of interviews that capture a sense of the culture that is currently present. We go to great lengths to make sure the set of  interviews include all level of employees as well as across the variety of departments and locations. It is time-consuming but has always turned out to be key to understanding the issue that is impeding the organization’s health and growth. There’s much more I could tell you about this method but I want to focus on one event of the intentional growth in a leader.

The person that emerged in our interviews was one particular member of the executive team, we’ll call him Bob. Bob was viewed as a hard-nosed, bottom-line driver of people. The words “mean”, “dismissive”, “uncaring” appeared over and over in our interviews. Several folks said that Bob had “no heart”, strictly concerned with finances, while not caring about patients nor fellow staff members. Sound like anyone you work with?

The Catholic Sisters who comprised the governing board, a collection of nuns, readily condemned Bob as “off mission”, that is, he did not understand the values of  the healthcare system that the nuns took very seriously. They were clear that the problems they were facing was a result of Bob’s bad attitude. They told me, in confidence, that they felt Bob needed to go.

What was interesting to me was that we had discovered in our assessment of the executive team, two clear facts. One, Bob was a problem in terms of his leadership style and his communication skills. His 360 interviews (interviews of Bob’s direct reports) only confirmed his problematic style as an abusive command-control leader. Clearly, Bob’s leadership was a problem.

But, we also discovered that Bob was really the only one in the leadership team who was driving any kind of accountability. Bob was the one, consciously and unconsciously, appointed by the system, to raise the tough issues that everyone else wanted to avoid, which they excused by their admirable commitment to “being a mission for God”, just like the Blues Brothers. Truth is, which I relayed to the Sisters, in my inimitable style of calling a spade a bloody hoe, they would likely bave been closing their doors if it had not been for Bob’s lone effort to drive a minimal effort at accountability. As I put it to the Sisters, No bucks, no mission. I was thrilled later in our engagement when one of the eldest nuns quoted my comment to a large assembly of leaders, “No bucks, no mission”. She had a time-purchased credibility, and her endorsement  represented a sea change in the culture. In a word, the Sister had “stroke”!

Let me be clear, and quick.  I work with a lot of talented folks at Galloway who can quickly discover waste, ingeniously redesign systems of work to be more efficient, initiate and drive change initiatives, cascading down through the organization, gather employees engaging them in a creative process to solve problems. And we did that, getting this system up and functioning well for the CEO who brought us in to do just that. Impressively, I think, we did it without lay-offs, the easiest route taken by most turnaround firms. While this turnaround was impressive and proved to the the center of a nationwide conference on healthcare, I want to focus on is Bob’s personal turnaround.

While my colleagues were doing their herculean work righting the ship, I was asked to coach Bob, to assist him in a process of development as a leader, and as a person. Crucial at the beginning of any coaching relationship was his decision to enter into a coaching engagement. Did Bob want to change? Was he up to the challenge of personal transformation?

He had received specific criticism from the 360 surveys as well as diatribes offered, with loving Christ-like love, by the Sisters. Bob was smart enough to realize, his job was on the line. Helpfully, Bob was relieved to find Galloway as allies in his personal crusade of accountability, welcoming our intervention. But, he also knew  he had some work to do on his style and way of getting things done.

Fortunately, Bob and I had a good foundation of relationship with which to begin our work. We began our engagement with a series of interviews in which I attempted to get below the surface of his clipped, curt, business-like demeanor that left a wake of fear wherever he roamed.  What was behind his personal style of leadership?

Through time, he revealed a telling story of his MBA experience, minted at a prestigious business school, where he was taught that one should be direct, objective, sans feeling and emotion, in the prosecution of his work. That is, he professed, the only way to drive the organization, to get things done. So, entering the high pressure work environment of healthcare, he donned a persona, that is, a “face” of a tough-mined businessman who drove the business, with an eye only on the bottom-line.

As I talked with him, I found him to be natively empathetic, possessed by a passion for the noble work of healthcare. But I also discovered a limiting belief that he had bought into at b-school: to be a senior executive, you must present a fierce, no-holds-barred image of accountability.  The pressing issue that emerged was whether or not Bob could be a responsible driver of accountability while also being himself, who turned out to be a nice guy. Could he move beyond the limiting belief of how a Senior Officer should appear within his organizational context? Is change possible? It seemed a tall order to fill.

As we moved into our coaching relationship, we spent time exploring what he was wanting to get from his work. What were the values that brought the fire in his soul? He told a few stories of why he decided to use his management skills in the field of healthcare. He spoke of the frustration of being the “only one that got it” that hospitals need sound principles to enable quality care, to offer the best they could be to their entrusted patients.. Listening carefully below the water-line of his persona, I found a person who cared deeply.  It seemed that our early conversation got beneath the encrusted structure that stifled his passion  and his ability to lead with vision. On his own, he came to a new dedication to do what he had been doing with forceful coercion with a new way of casting vision and securing buy-in, not mere compliance.

I come across people like Bob in all occupations, not just executives in healthcare. I talk with people who have lost their soul in their work, buffeted by unrelenting bureaucracy and busy work. Not surprising to me, many are clergy who started out with a burning vision to make a difference but find themselves swamped by the busyness and business of maintaining an organization. I know something about that.

Often, I  find myself pointing people to certain articles in a discipline that has come to be known as emotional intelligence, or EQ. The principles are pretty simple, and revolve around treating people with respect and dignity, paying attention to how you communicate, and investing time and energy into relationships. I often joke that my mother was my adjunct professor in this field, giving her props. Most people get it, once you put it out there, but sometimes, like in Bob’s case, there is some unlearning that must be done.

Being on site, my job was made easier by observing him in Bob’s daily work. I watched how he interacted with people. I observed him leading meetings, monitored his email communication, sat in on important huddles. Giving him immediate feedback was extremely helpful as he was trying to make a quick turnaround of his style. The 360 assessment after six months gave us the objective evidence that his intentions of changing his style were making a difference. Central to this success was that his critical numbers, in fact, had improved even as he was taking on a more humane persona. He was still driving the organization to be efficient and productive as he was simultaneously treating people with respect, and for toppers, enjoying his work.

I offer this story about Bob to suggest that our lives are malleable, that is, they can be changed. Beliefs about reality that we drag along behind us can be altered if we make a decision to do something about it. The key is INTENTION. It begins with self awareness, and a critical decision to do things differently, followed by a commitment to being mindful of that change. It helps to have a coach come alongside to help you be clear as to what you want to do and why. The coach also provides a monitoring presence that helps you stay honest with your self in your progress. The good news is that we can change, if we want to.

What limiting beliefs might you have about your job, about your relationships, about life? Might a coach help you discover a new way of viewing reality and help free you to be the person you want to be? Liberation presents an exciting possibility for most people who feel stuck. Getting a coach is one way to move intentionally through the stuff of life, between those defining moments and twists of fate. To live life with intention seems to be one of the most important decisions we make as persons.

Doctor, Lawyer, Tribal Chief?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make Your Move

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twist of Fate or Defining Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I

A Wild and Precious Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fresh Eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game. Set. Match.

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

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

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

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

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

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