Playing The Game

“Play ball!” will soon echo over this land.

Baseball Spring training is underway, with the Red Sox in their training home where I work in Ft. Myers, Florida. My Braves are in Venice, Florida at their training camp, and soon will be at my back door at Truist Park in Atlanta.

Spring marks the beginning of the baseball season. For me, Spring also marked the beginning of the golf season. Augusta and the Masters was the “official” beginning of the flurry of golf events. My dad would take me each year to Augusta, me blissfully unaware as to how blessed I was to be on the famed Cathedral of golf at Augusta National, built by the immortal Bobby Jones. In my office, there was a portrait of Thomas Merton, an icon of Jesus as Pantocrator, an icon of Mary, the Theotokos, and……wait for it…Atlantan Bobby Jones, in a painting entitled Concentration. I would love to see a time study of which portrait I looked at the most. I’ve got a hunch.

But, I am not wanting to talk about baseball or golf, but rather, another game. It’s a game we all play. The game of life,

I have been rereading my friend/colleague, Dr. Charlie Palmgren’s books on Creative Interchange. In his book, The Chicken Conspiracy, he writes about the “game” he calls the Vicious Circle. The intriguing title of the book, in fact, kept me away from reading it, as it seemed a bit fanciful, too light-weight for my reading desk, crowded by Joyce, Proust, and philosophy and leadership tomes. When I finally got around to reading it, at the prompting of my crazy engineer friend from Flanders, I found that it was a treasure.

The “chicken” allusion points to an old story of an eagle’s egg that is placed in the nest of a chicken. When it is hatched, the eagle is raised alongside the chicks, learning to scratch in the soil for insects to eat. He lives as a chicken as he assumes that is who he is, because that is how he was raised. The story goes that one day, the eagle looks up in the sky and sees an eagle soaring. Something inside of him is moved by the sight, and the story becomes the path of self-discovery of who he really is.

Charlie’s overall point is that the chicken-eagle story is really our story, our narrative, which keeps us scratching rather than soaring. The key insight is that we are born with the ability to embrace the world in which we live and to creatively learn how to develop as persons as we are transformed in the process.

As infants, we have native curiosity as we see our world and want to explore it. We immediately reach out with our bodies and senses to discover this world that is around us. We learn to walk and to talk, as we practice our skills of being in the world. This is the Creative Self, which has intrinsic worth, as he/she goes about taking in this wonder-full world. In fact, a sense of “wonder” animates us into interaction with others and even internally within ourselves as we seek to understand just what is going on here. This Creative Self is within each one of us and animates a process that is embedded in Creation itself, Creative Interchange, designed to empower our continual development as we interact with others.

This is a natural process that we are natively endowed to undertake and progress in our development. However, something begins to interrupt this process. It’s been referred to as socialization, which begins with parents, extends to family, and eventually to teachers who have an agenda to teach us the “right” way, the appropriate behavior in our culture so that we can survive and “fit in”. The reality is that this intervention disrupts that natural expansive drive to explore, as it teaches us habituated behaviors that offer some sense of control, with a promise of safety. This forms the Created Self which responds to the outer authority, imposed or imagined, as opposed to our inner drive. Various personality theories use different language and terms to describe this process, but it comes down to the limiting of the Creative Self as it yields to outside pressures of the social group.

This pressure is part of a process that runs counter to the Creative Interchange process. It trades on the notion that your worth is not intrinsic, but is up for grabs. This question of value and worth is at the heart of what gets in the way of our Creative Self. Charlie has termed it the Vicious Circle which is a reactive process triggered by our internal questioning of worth. It occurs when we buy into the illusion that our worth comes from the outside, bestowed by others, rather than a given, or more poetically, a gift.

The Vicious Circle begins with us trying to “earn” or gain our worth by what we do, namely our performance. We are “trained” by various people and systems as to what behaviors bring worth to our being, and conversely, what behavior takes that worth away. Remember: in the Vicious Circle, our worth is up for grabs.

This creates a “cage” in which we exist, or more precisely, a cage in which we are kept. We know that we are in the grip of the Vicious Circle when we experience anxiety, hostility, shame, or blame. We feel rejected, discounted, judged, attacked, or scared when this happens, as these emotions clue us into the dynamic that is going on in our consciousness. We can identify the demand or expectation that we have failed to deliver on, which prompts feelings of inadequacy. Our worth is “on the line”. Truth is, for most of us, some unrealistic ideal of perfection is operating just beneath the surface of our Created Self, driving us to unrealistic expectations and opening us to a vulnerability of worth. The key is recognizing the cycle that we have allowed to be installed in our psyche so that we can interrupt it. Easier said than done.

For me, the key notion here is the differentiation between consciousness, which is a function of the left hemisphere of the brain, our analytic capacity, and that of awareness, which is part of the more wholistic right brain function that sees the connection with all things, all being.

This left brain-right brain dichotomy is the subject of voluminous research in neuroscience over the last few years. One of the leading researchers is Dr. Iain Mc Gilchrist, a British psychiatrist, who has stated clearly that our Western society has overvalued the predominance of the left brain which scientifically drives us to slice and dice the human in an attempt to get to the smallest part we can, with the promise of better understanding of who we are. No one would argue that the scientific endeavor has been wasted, as it has allowed us to see the parts that make up the whole. But McGilchrist pushes that in that rush to analysis, we have been reductionistic, forgetting the whole in which the parts live, move, and have their being. This gets complicated as the debate rages around which hemisphere of the brain should be valued the most. Perhaps reactively, Gilchrist argued that the left brain, which had been pushed to the side in our rush to analysis and scientific rigor, should be the favored function, as we have traded our soul for the price of data and the illusion of certainty and control.

The truth is that the side of the brain we favor, consciously or unconsciously, calls the tune of how we frame the game we are playing. If we emphasize the left, analytic brain, we are focused on control as the Created Self is in “survival” mode, funded by fear. If we favor the right, wholistic brain, we are open to our curiosity and willing to explore the world we are given as the Creative Self, secure in our intrinsic worth. As an Anglican, my heritage is that of the “via media”, the middle way, trying to balance the two sides in an artful dance. I see the value in both ways of going at the world, and pray for the ability to hold the two in what I call Creative Tension. Suddenly, I am reminded of the colloquial quip of folksy Texan, Jim Hightower, who said that the middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos. I would playfully add Anglicans.

Let me make this tension real by bringing it home to my world. In my work with clergy participating in the Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive (SLDI) we use an exercise developed by my colleague, John Scherer, referred to as “peeling the onion”. It is a surprisingly simple process, with deft results, sneaking up from behind, revealing a depth of insight in terms of how we are wired. I joke that it like two years of Jungian analysis in one hour.

We begin by asking the participants to list 8-12 characteristics that they would want someone to use to describe them as a person. What character traits would make you proud to hear being referred to your being. After they complete that task, we then ask them to list 8-12 characteristics that would be cringe-worthy if they were described in those terms, aspect of personality that would be devastating to you if you heard it. If you want to try this on, pause here and make your own list.

I’ll wait.

Okay. The list of positives begins to get at your persona, that is, the mask you developed over time and now wear to get what it is you want from the world. It gives you a glimpse of how you present yourself to others so that they regard you well. The bonus question is “what is it that you are wanting?” or more powerfully stated, what are you craving? An even deeper dive asks: what is your addiction?.

More than a few clergy types have admitted that, most of all, they want to be loved. Perhaps that’s why they signed up to do this particular job with the unconscious hope that they would receive that love. And yet, the work of being a clergy person often puts one at odds with the popular culture, which makes the person vulnerable in several ways. Some clergy, in a moment of rare honesty, even admit that they hope to be “adored”. We all have our reasons for why we do what we do, right?

The negative list names the aspects of life that are particularly threatening to one’s sense of being. Often for clergy, top of the list is “selfish” which would be antithetical to the servant model of ministry that Jesus taught and incarnated. You can guess some of the other characteristics that show up on this list. We call this list “the Shadow”, and we spend a good bit of our life trying to avoid, suppress, or deny these characteristics that we see as negative.

The surprising part of this exercise is that it is in the Shadow where we can identify some opportunities for growth. By the time we have hit mid-life, we have pretty well maxed out the skills of the persona, our “good side”. However, we may have missed out on some bets by not developing some skills that we have neglected because of our fear of not “fitting” the persona that we are selling to our world. In a rush to not appear “selfish”, we may have ignored the needs of self-care, a problem that vexes many of the clergy I know.

For me, at the top of the list that we call the Shadow, was controlling. I did not like being micro-managed, controlled, and certainly did not want to do that to others. My psychoanalyst would say that it came from my struggles with a controlling mama, but that’s another story, and another couple of thousand dollars. The trick we try to teach these clergy is to put a “rheostat” on the Shadow aspect that we have been avoiding and to turn the intensity down. For “controlling”, my “turn down” was to be directive. I could tell the people that I supervise where I wanted them to wind up, without micromanaging the details. It was a major breakthrough for me coming to this insight when I first submitted to the Onion exercise. When I got back from my original experience of this format, my staff threw a party in that I would finally be clear about what I was hoping they would accomplish in their work. Instead of being vague, being evasively laissez-faire in style, I would be clear, relying on their talent to figure out how to get there. This insight changed my supervisory approach and made a world of difference in my effectiveness as a leader.

This exercise helps people to look reflectively on their Created Self, which is the egoic vehicle we construct in order to survive as we go through life. This vehicle is effective and valuable as we move into life. But eventually, it hinders our growth and full development as a person of creativity and joy, living out of protective fear rather than curious wonder. It enables one to see the “game” that one has been and is playing. It frees us to reflect upon how one may be trapped within the cage of a Vicious Circle, stuck in habituated patterns of behavior that dead-set on striving to “earn worth” and avoid rejection. We experience a prompting to soar rather than merely scratching in the dirt. We recall the joy and wonder of life as we look to the horizon in hope. It opens the possibility of rediscovering the potentiated child within and then reconnects with the spirit of one’s Creative Self. The awareness of this Creative Self liberates us, unleashes us to engage the world in joy and wonder, like that curious child we once knew.

This is a process that is not easy but is doable, especially when approached within a community of folks that are willing and able to interact with authenticity and understand appreciatively. It’s what I was trying to describe last week when I wrote about the Tent of Meeting. My hope is that this season of Lent, of self-reflection and awareness, may prompt our Creative Self to reemerge from our winter’s sleep, just as the flowers do in Spring, filled with life and possibility. Blessiings.

The Tent Of Meeting

It’s odd. It gives me pause. 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 play with 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 Interpreters’ 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. Marney used to joke, as he welcomed the participants: Welcome to those of you who decided to come, and to who were “sentenced”!

These ministers and priests would “come aside for a while”, 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 very 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?

I am currently working with a cadre of colleagues/friends who share of vision of such a gathering. We began with minister/priest types, gathering together to engage one another about leadership in the church. Folks have come from a variety of traditions, some freshly minted in ordination, others who are planning for the end of their professional work in ministry, most somewhere inbetween. We call it the Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive, a four-day event that we have been doing online. We engage intensively around several existential questions that concern the soul of a person, learning experientially about our Self and our connection to the world, with a sharp eye on authenticity. For me, it is the embodiment of a “tent of meeting”.If you are interested in taking a look at the format, drop me a note and I will send you the brochure that will give you and outline, and then we can talk., The folks who have gone through the process have found it transformational, and that is what makes me smile.
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.

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Tell Me About Your Faith

What is your faith?

Some people respond to that pregnant question by offering me a list of intellectual, rational propositions that they say they believe in. Belief is a part of faith, traditionally referred to as “faith seeking understanding”. But faith is more about a core orientation toward life, not just a list of beliefs.

Some people respond by proclaiming their connection to a religion. Or they may even differentiate further, naming their particular flavor in terms of a denomination. It might be the tradition of their ancestors or may be a newly discovered “take” on what they deem as the “true” religion. As it was popular a few years back, some have a sense of “I found it!”.

But for me, when I say “faith”, I am asking you a question that lies close to the bone. It’s not a mere intellectual belief system that one embraces, or struggles to hold on to with a death grip. It has more to do with both heart and mind. It’s called trust.

I remember my days in seminary when we students would battle into the night over some minute theological nuance of the meaning of a particular biblical verse, or argue about a fine distinction in some concept. I had one particular theological partner who was adamant about the “rightness” of his position, so proud that he would not even entertain the possibility that there might be something for him to learn. We could go way into the night in such sparring, but he would always conclude our encounter with a patent line: “That’s okay, Galloway, you just keep believing your way, and I will believe God’s!”.

Those of you who have read my articles know how important this question of human faith has been for me. Observing the faith of my grandparents, up close and personal; going to the family gatherings “in the country” of west Georgia that centered around heart-felt Gospel songs; attending church weekly; watching my business-minded dad tear up when he sang The Old Rugged Cross; growing up in the social matrix of my youth group; witnessing the deadly conflict over race in my home church when the pastor dared to “open the doors” of the church to people of color- all this led me to deep questions as to what is going on in this thing called “faith”. My world seemed suffused with it, as ubiquitous as fluoride in the water.

Early on, I was fortunate to study with a person who also had been captured by questions of faith, a true explorer of the realm of faith, Dr. James Fowler. Although his Ph.D. at Harvard was in ethics, he too was fascinated by the human phenomena of faith. He had worked with Dr. Carlyle Marney in his ground-breaking transformational design that engaged ministers and priests to reflect on their lives and how they made sense out of their experience. It was called Interpreters’ House, providing a three-week intensive process of thinking and reflection. This proved to be the experiential foundation of what would come to be known as Faith Development theory, as Fowler posited six stages of cognitive structures that humans can move through in the course of their development.

I began working with Jim in 1978 as he came to Emory, and founded the Center for Faith Development to continue the research into his theory and to apply it in the practical work in congregations. Jim’s theory had been circulated among Christian educators for years in the now-extinct form of mimeographs. Finally in 1981, it found expression in a Harper Row book entitled, Stages of Faith. Jim begins the book by unearthing the common ideas and images of faith, noting the differing dimensions of belief, religion, and trust.

As we continue in the season of Lent, I thought you might enjoy/appreciate some of the existential/spiritual questions he gleaned from ministers talking about their stories in the retreats at Interpreters’ House:

What are you spending and being spent for? What commands and receives your best time, energy?

What causes, dreams, goals, or institutions are you pouring your life out for?

As you live your life, what power or powers do you fear or dread? What powers do you rely on and trust?

To what or whom are you committed in life? In death?

With whom or what group do you share your most sacred and private hopes for your life, and for the lives of those that you love?

What are those most sacred hopes, those most compelling goals and purposes in your life?

Where do you find an experience of awe in your life, a sense of connection to/with something larger than your self?

These are not coffee hour “chat” conversational questions, but rather get at the heart of the matter of what faith is. Let me encourage you to read back through the previous paragraph, pausing with each question, pondering your honest response to each. Within these seven questions, there is plenty to last you through the weeks of Lent.

I hope these questions that I dared, as a 24 year-old doctoral student, to ask seasoned ministerial veterans, prompt your reflection. To be honest, these questions for me at the time had no deep ring of profundity. What did I know, so fresh to the Garden of life?

I do now.

Asking these questions in the context of a weekend retreat at a parish, or posing them in a formal research interview over the course of three hours, the gift for me was listening to the variety and sameness of the answers. I could piece together the narrative string of events in people’s lives and discern the struggle for it all to make sense. I would lean into their wrestling with competing values that tried to claim their loyalty and best energy. I came to see and appreciate the deep mystery in each person that I talked with in those hours of interchange. Each person is trailing behind them a history of events that happened TO them, and decisions that they made in a moment, as well as a narrative of how they came to be in the present moment. Mystery, indeed.

I am still trying to do that work in the coaching and spiritual direction that I do. And, I bring those questions to the people that I work with in the continuing formation work for clergy. And. I engage those questions myself, seeking to understand my crooked paths, stuttering steps, wayward habits, and the story I tell as to who I am, and why..

I would invite you to “seriously play” in engaging those questions in any way that you want. Just try them on for size. One question might grab you, and press you to answer. Still, another might catch your curiosity and offer a delightfully free run at self-discovery. You might choose to journal, writing down your thoughts for later reflection, or you may just ponder to yourself how you are living this amazing life.

They are good questions, powerful questions from around fifty years ago, but still pertinent. My sense is that it will yield good fruit for your sense of soul in this seasonal time of renewal. Blessings.

Nurturing Awe in Ashes

What is the goal of our nurture of children?

Once they have pushed their over-sized, brain-enlarged head through a reduced-sized pelvis (reduced by the questionable innovation of walking upright, see Upright Citizen Brigade), they now face the world, of which they know nothing. But, their (our) “ace in the hole” endowment is that they (we) are gifted with an Original Self, potentiated to explore and engage the world with sensory reception. They have spent nine months or so in a watery environs only to be pushed through a toll-charging birth canal, from darkness into a stark light. The first of many surprises.

What is our intent when we take them home to begin our work of parenting?

I remember for me it was a prayer of survival, as we loaded our young son into my SAAB for a trip from Piedmont Hospital in tony Buckhead to our bungalow in trendy Candler Park/Lake Clair. If I am being honest, what did I, we intend? And the party line would be: whatever he wanted to be! said with sincerity and bridled enthusiasm. But the unconscious truth, and the societal values, not to mention grandparents’ dreams, were mixed, at best.

Nobody says this, and it probably “goes without saying”, as they say. We wanted our child to grow up to be a productive member of society. That implies “fitting in”, finding their place in society, being well-adjusted to the demands of the world, adaptable to the myriad of changes that are a part of the lay of the land of being humsn. So, we nurture this newborn for months, years, in order to give him/her the best shot at survival and then hopefully to move into our society to find his/her place. And the major work of socialization takes place when they leave the nest of home, not for college, but primary school in our education system, which is beginning earlier and earlier with burgeoning pre-schools.

I got to thinking about this on the Saturday morning prior to Ash Wednesday, 2023. That’s the day, the Church will take ashes, hopefully properly prepared by torching the palm frons from last Palm Sunday, but probably bought from some religious supply store. The priest will take the ashes with her/his thumb, trace the sign/symbol of the Cross on your forehead, while saying, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.


Let’s try that over, from the top. Little more peppy, a slight intonation of optimism. Can I get an editor in here to bump up the script? Not liking “dust”. Is there something fresh, with a bit of quantum juice on it? Maybe a little sarcastic humor, delivered with a Sheldonesque ironic twist? Places everyone. From the top.

Actually, the drama is superb, perfect, blindingly to the point. And the script, straight to the heart. Or as my Scottish-genetic grandmother would say, calling a spade a bloody hoe.

You, mortal, are bound to die.

There is no escape. As my mother would press, How do you like them, apples? Not much.

Remember your death! A spiritual mantra of monks in past and present, a spiritual challenge to those longing for immortality. Memento mortem tuam. Memento mori. I did not need four years of Latin for that. My image of a monk, sitting at his writing desk, with the skull of a prior monk who once sat and wrote at same desk comes to mind. Ash Wednesday rubs our nose in the humus of reality, not to shame us, as stupid human tricksters, but to literally “re-mind” us who we truly are.

I seem to misplace that fact regularly.

I suffer from lots of maladies. Did I mention my quad tendon? But at the top of my list is my amnesia. I forget who I am. I forget lessons that Life, and others, have taught me. And sometimes, I even forget the basics, like: I am on the clock. I only have so many days in this garden to do whatever it is I am going to do. I seem to have to be re-minded often. Reality is an acquired taste, as some recently-minted philosopher from Friends quoted from his recovery group. Ash Wednesday will take no prisoners in this human existential wrestling match.

And so, we begin the Forty Days of Lent, preparing us in the Christian faith for Easter, a hope that runs through the middle of the hard contours of Death with a trumpet blast of hope at the end of the ritual.

Normally, we ask people to give up something that they value, perhaps inordinately so. Such as chocolate. Desserts. Liquor or wine. Or maybe swearing, using profanity. What about that anger that boils below, your impatience? I am giving myself away.

Some younger clergy friends I know, tell me that they are giving up social media for Lent. Theoretically, these disciplined and difficult amendments of life are intended to free us up from these distractions so that we can focus on our spiritual life. Often, it feels more like the display of physical feats of strength like that of Festivus in Seinfeld. But I hope you do better in your Lenten pursuit of growth and transformation.

For me this year, I am going to be intentional in my taking time for awareness of what is going on around me with the hope that I will experience awe, that is, an awareness of my deep connection to the vastness of the reality that I live within. It is so easy to miss in our, my, preoccupations and distractions. A Lenten discipline of intentional focus on the present moment, what Howard Thurman called the Eternal Now, in order to catch a glimpse of wonder, of awe.

Back to my starting question: What do we intend when we attempt to nurture and develop these young humans that have been entrusted to us, fresh from the birthing process? What is result we are looking for? To transpose the old Covey maxim, what “end” do we begin with?

Last week, I spent time relating the genius insight of psychology professor Dacher Keltner in his new book, entitled Awe. One of the more incisive insights comes near the end of the work as he addresses the impoverishment of our children of their native sense of awe. This is what launched my reflection on our intent in nurturing our children.

Studies and research have demonstrated children natively are gifted with curiosity and wonder, leading them to simply, and profoundly, experience awe, as they sense a connection with the larger world, reality. This natural gift leads to better performance in their continuing development.

However, Keltner notes that “one of the most alarming trends in the lives of children today is the disappearance of awe. We are not giving them enough opportunities to discover and experience the wonders of life.” He offers a laundry list of deprivations of such engagement. Art and music classes don’t survive the budget cuts. Free-form times of recess and lunch are replaced by drills to boost the all-important scores on “achievement” tests. Teachers are forced to “teach to the test” rather than engaging students in open-ended questioning and encouraging the creative process of discovery where the “unknown” is the center of attention. Every minute in the classroom is scheduled, human interaction minimized, and teacher/child ratio is growing. “It’s no wonder that stress, anxiety, depression, shame, eating disorders, and self-harm are on the rise for young people. They are awe-deprived.”

Time out for a Galloway side trip.

I grew up in public schools where I was fortunate to have some of the best teachers who gave me attention and encouragement in my development of curiosity and exploration. I think of Mrs. Ruby James who took my interest in earth science and sent me off on a quest that led to a love of geology. Or Mrs. Eason, whose enthusiasm for biology was infectious, not the bad kind, but fueled my questions. And the whole raft of English teachers, in the honors program encouraged my exploration of classics as well as contemporary literature, a passion that still drives me today. Or Mr. Phil Hood, a person of color, who clued me into some historical and sociological realities that I was missing in my white cocoon. Or Pam Allen, with her distinctive voice for the North, who hipped me to politics, national and international, and lit the flame of my love of democracy and its inherent tensions. Mrs. Day, our librarian, who went out of her way to introduce me to legendary Dr. Benjamin Mays of Morehouse, a life-transforming moment. And notably, Mrs. Melvin creatively crafted a way for Tom Elder and Pat Whaley, my partners in crime, to go to a junior college class on law, designed for law enforcement. Even more, she stormed the barriers to get me the week to witness famed F. Lee Bailey try a case in Clayton County. And got a group of us into Ft. Mac, now Tyler Perry’s studios, to watch the trials around misconduct in Vietnam. What a stunning cast of characters that would make one hell of a sit-com. Why did I not write that?

But all that creative exploring was set up by an amazing cast of elementary teachers who took time with me, nurtured me, encouraged my native curiosity, even when it didn’t fit lesson plans. I remember walking into my fourth grade class at Mt. Olive Elementary in the Spring, my family having moved to East Point, an airport suburb of Atlanta. I saw a lone bespectacled student, David Montgomery, standing in the back of the classroom, in the midst of beakers, test tubes, and wires. He was conducting an experiment, electrolysis, that resulted in a resounding “pop” as he carefully ignited the sequestered oxygen derived from water piped in from the water plant on the Chattahoochee River. As I took my seat in Miss Watt’s class, Debbie Horne and Cheryl Smith sitting to my front and behind, I knew that I was in the right place. Later, David Montgomery, the Master of Oxygen, and I, Master of Time and Space, would drive over to Emory University together for an academic tour, and would start college together the next Fall.

My native curiosity and drive to explore were encouraged by this education system. And for that, I am grateful. But I am also aware of the way that my education trained me to be a “good boy”, compliant, in-line, controlled. My report cards would testify that I was a good boy, did not talk in class unless I raised my hand and was called upon. Always an A in conduct, which my mother would remark upon proudly, as she had raised a well-behaved child that would not disrupt order. It was not until I reached the end of my junior year in high school, that my compliant, Creative Self, seemed to rebel, pushing back against the onerous totalitarian rules of a particularly capricious teacher. She would appreciate my word usage, but not me.

I took this side trip to note the tension between nurturing the Creative Self, prone to explore, push at the boundaries, driven by curiosity, and the Created Self that is made to “fit in”, react in respectable patterns that do not disrupt. It’s not an easy call to artfully balance this tension in the dilemma of creativity and conformity, both for parents and for systemic education systems burdened by the numbers of students, and the need for uniformity.

Keltner emerges again, this time to quote an early environmentalist, Rachel Carson, who was asked to care for her nephew of 20 months after her sister died from cancer. She grew him up, playing on the Atlantic coast beaches and the wonder of the Maine woods. Carson wrote: “the true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” She ponders the possibility of supporting “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation of things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

It was a pleasant shock to me to discover an article that she wrote in the Women’s Home Companion, entitled “Help Your Children To Wonder”. She offers a plan to provide a life of awe for children, a plan that seems applicable to adults as well, even worth looking at for Lent.

First, she suggests finding awe and wonder in our senses. Nothing radical here, just slowing down and taking the time to look around. Look up into sky; observe the clouds like you did as a child. Listen to the wind, the sound of nature that surrounds. There you will discover anew the gift of “living music”, as she poetically writes “insects playing fiddles in insect orchestras.” Having lived and meditated by the marshes of Glynn, I know those fiddles, and other members of the orchestra.

Secondly, trace some sound that you hear back to its source. Open your mind to the vastness of the world and take in the complexity of connection. Observe the systems of nature as they happen. Open your eyes to see afresh the wonders of the world, this Creation of which you are a part. Look for inter-connectedness.

Thirdly, avoid the “work” of analysis, our trained tendency to label and classify, reducing your experience to words. Try to simply be. Take in the sensory data that is coming to you. Imagine you are seeing something for the first time. Enjoy. Or savor.

Fourthly, mysteries open us up to systems that get lost in our analysis of slicing and dicing. Watch the change of seasons, the end of winter and the subtle and sometimes shocking emergence of spring. If you are on the coast, watch the tidal change. Attend to the changes as Creation awakes with the sun peeking over the horizon, when the noon sun is shining, and as the world darkens and shadows lengthen.

Hopefully, as we enter this Lenten time of reflection, we will encounter the epiphanies, the manifestations of Mystery that surround us, joining ” those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” Carson ends her essay with a quote from Otto Pettersson, an oceanographer who studied the tides, the fluctuations and life in the sea. At the time of his own death at ninety-two, he observed, “What will sustain me is an infinite curiosity as to what is to follow.”

So as I publish this on Tuesday, Mardi Gras day, before Ash Wednesday, I am doing it two days earlier than my normal day of Thursday. Just seemed like a good idea, that some may read it and decide to attend an Ash Wednesday service. Some parishes are even delivering “drive-through” ashes, and I trust the intent is good and holy. But there is something about the litany of confession, the corporate pause to acknowledge brokenness. However you choose to enter into these Forty Days, formally or informally, religiously and/or spiritually, I hope you take a pause for the cause of you and your being in this world we share. Blessings. +

Awe Full

Last week, I wandered around the topic of “wonder”. This week, I turn my attention to “awe”.

When was the most recent moment when you experienced “awe”?

What prompted the sense of vastness in your soul? For me, it tends to be nature, always has. The sounds of a whitewater river. A panoramic view from the top of a mountain. A storm offshore. The pounding of waves on the rocks. Walking in a maritime forest. Looking out on the seemingly endless ocean. Gazing up into the star rich sky at night. Smelling the pungent whiff of the marsh.

These all trigger within me a feeling of awe. How about you?

In my serendipitous wandering around, reflecting on the Creative Self, that imaginative, curious exploring self that is nascently present in infants at birth, it connects the various separate components that make up the stuff of our lives and weaves them into a sense of the whole. Sometimes that sense of the whole clues our whole being (heart, mind, and body) into the vastness of reality. We experience this with goosebumps, we feel it with a warming of our heart, we tear automatically, and we grasp a sense of our connection to and with the All.

Again, synchronicity broke through with a chance noting of a new book to be published. The title, “Awe” grabbed my attention, and its subtitle, “The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life” set the hook. The author is Dr. Dacher Keltner, a professor at UCal, Berkeley, who has focussed his lifelong study and research on human emotions. The linkage of science and the emotion of awe reeled me in from my Jamesian depths. I pre-ordered the book…I never pre-order a book.

When the book arrived a week ago, I devoured it. First, I appreciate his multidimensional approach which took seriously three perspectives on awe: the science of the neurophysiology that occurs, the culture’s way of archiving our collective sense of awe, and finally the personal narratives, or stories, of how we experience awe.

And here was the money-shot for me: how does awe transform us? “By quieting the nagging, self-critical, overbearing, status-conscious voice of our self, or ego, and empowering us to collaborate, to open our minds to wonders, and to see the deep patterns of life.” That sounds a lot like the dynamics of Creative Interchange and the role of the Creative Self.

He goes further: “Why awe? Because in our distal evolution as very social mammals, those individuals who united with others in awe-like patterns of behavior fared well in encounters with threats and the unknown. And because of the more proximal calculus of thriving in the present, awe brings us joy, meaning, and community, along with healthier bodies and more creative minds.” Sounds almost as promising as a local personal-injury lawyer’s TV advertisements: “we don’t get paid until you get paid!”. But what if it is, in fact, true? Dr. Keltner has done the research and proffers scientific proof of the benefits of connecting with one’s sense of awe.

In recent years, our study of cognition and reason, to the neglect of the role of emotions has changed. We have sought to understand and measure the role of emotions that are built around helping humans to accomplish the fundamental tasks of life, such as fleeing danger, avoiding toxins, and finding nutritious food. To begin with, the science of emotions attempted to map anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, and joy. The varying emotions had been recognized via facial expressions studied by anthropologists. Next, they moved to self-conscious emotions such as embarrassment, shame, and guilt. Finally, the studies moved to positive emotions, such as joy, amusement, gratitude, love, and pride.

Dr. Keltner, along with Jonathan Haidt began to study the emotion of awe in 2003. They followed the former students of emotion by articulating a definition: Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world. “Vastness” can be physical, as you stand next to a large tree. Vastness can be temporal as a laugh or a scent takes you back to the sounds or aromas of your childhood. Vastness can be semantic or thoughts as you experience a sudden “coming together” of thoughts, wondering, and explanations that form an epiphany of a coherence of meaning. Vastness can be disruptive as it reveals that your current understanding is lacking. Awe is about our relation to the vast mysteries of life.

Keltner has gone on to offer a taxonomy of awe, eight wonders of life that draw a person to an experience of awe.

The first is the experience of witnessing a moral act by another person or group. Last week, I mentioned my surprising encounter with a young man who came out of nowhere to help me load an oversized bag into my car. He was not being heroic, in fact, it was a simple, thoughtful act of compassion. But for me, it was an experience of awe, deeply moving, that I have told to anyone that would listen to an old priest.

The second is the sense of awe that one gets when you are part of a crowd, what Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence”, a kind of buzzing and crackling of life force when people merge into a collective self, a tribe, or an oceanic sense of “we”. This can happen in religious gatherings, civic events, family reunions, and sports events. It is based on a sense of connection of the people gathered into something bigger than one’s individualistic ego.

The third wonder is nature, my fave! It can be in cataclysmic events that remind you of the sheer force of nature. But, it can be in the simple observation of the natural world, in a sunset, the babbling of a stream, a starry night, or a gaze at the moon. Sometimes, it is a sense of connection to a plant, a particularly winsome tree, or an animal. Such objects, sharing our existence and space communicate a common sense of being that brings awe into play.

The fourth is another favorite, music, as it transports people into new dimensions of symbolic experience through sound and rhythm. It can be induced by a collective experience of performance that seems to bring people together in spirit. My study of the Grateful Dead is a rather pregnant example of such a collective moment of awe, sometimes prompting the odd kinetic expression of “spinning” in a trance state. My own experience of watching my son play a concert of his own songs, joined in joyful exuberance with his bandmates has meant many moments of awe for me. A smile that breaks out on his face in the middle of a solo brings me a deep sense of awe. As I have said before, it is a father’s psychic pay!

The fifth source of awe is visual design. Magnificent buildings, intricate architecture, all may inspire a moment of awe. Haussmann’s grand boulevards in Paris, a Mayan pyramid, the graffiti of Barcelona, can bring about a connection with the larger reality of the human family.

Coming in sixth place is spiritual and religious awe. These are the stories of ccnversion and tranformationn that occur in a religious context. I find Keltner’s definition of “spiritual” a bit narrow as he speaks primarily of mystical experience. But he does point further: “We shall see how often the sensations that arise during mystical awe, and all encounters with the wonders of life involve touch, feeling embraced, a warm presence, and an awareness of being seen- clues, perhaps, to the deep origins of the emotion.”

Stories of life and death evoke awe, the seventh wonder. To witness that moment of birth, with new life emerging is perhaps my most vivid experience of awe. And then, to be there at the moment of death. when the human transitions from a breathing physical being to some other form of existence. As a priest, I have had the gift/burden of being present to that sacred moment, yielding another kind of awe. Keltner profoundly tells of his own experience of awe as he is present at the death of his brother, Rolf. His description of his grief and an abiding sense of Rolf’s presence even after his death is worth attention.

The eighth wonder is what he calls epiphanies. These are breakthrough moments, where all of a sudden, one perceives some essential truths about life. In these moments, disparate facts, experiences, and beliefs come together in a revelatory disclosure of truth, that feel “given” to you by a transcendent source not of your own making. Even those who are not “religious” or feel particularly spiritual, report those “breakthrough moments” when thing seem to just come together, making sense out of this existence.

I end today’s ramble, returning to the promise of awe. According to Keltner’s study, this human emotion allows us a moment of respite from our ego strivings, our anxieties, to merely and profoundly “be” in this time and space. Awe offers us the gift of reconnecting to our sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves, our siloed ego that feels alone. Here is this scientist’s conclusion: Awe integrates us into the systems of life- communities, collectives, the natural environment, and forms of culture, such as music, art, religion, and our mind’s efforts to make sense of all its webs of ideas. The epiphany of awe is that its experience connects our individual selves with the vast forces of life. In awe, we understand that we are part of many things that are much larger than the self.

Keltner promotes an active attention to this capacity of awe. In a rather practical way, he suggests that we intentionally attend to the present moment, tune our senses to take in the world, the being that surrounds us. Becoming mindful of our being, rather than our default mode of routine and automatic replies. To be alive, to be aware, sensitive to the moment, the time and space in which we live, move and have our being.

So, as I move toward my tradition of Lent, forty days of focused reflection, normally tuned for repentence, this year I am going to be focused on attending to my experience of awe.

To be sure, next Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, will come and put my soul’s nose down into the humus of my humanity, reminding me of my brokeness, my selfishness, my deceit, my double-mindedness, in a word, my sin. There is perhaps no better litany, or taxonomy/catalog of our sin that leaves no stone unturned. One completes that litany of confession with a clear sense our need for repentence, redemption and grace. And, typically, we are set in mind of the need for discipline, and foregoing the things that get in the way of our relationship to God. My training will, no doubt, kick in and I will do some of that self-flagellation during and following the Ash Wednesday liturgy.

But, this Awe thing has broken through my domesticated, routinized, contol-based religiousity, re-minding me of my native capacity for awe that connects me to my neighbor, our creation, and the Spirit. I am committing myself to being open to my sense of awe, intentionally, for the forty days of Lent. Not attempting to fabricate, make it happen, but simply being mindful of this capacity, this gift of awe, being open to it by attending to the present.

I highly recommend getting this book, Awe, by Dacheer Keltner, and reading it during Lent, as you prepare for a profound sense of Easter awe, if you share the Christian faith. Or, get the book and read it in order to open up your capacity to experience awe as the rebirth of Spring breaks in upon us. It’s as if Nature herself is in on the show.

Let’s get full of Awe., y’all.

I Wonder As I Wander

Last week, I gave a brief review of a central concept of philosopher Henry Nelson Wieman, namely the Creative Self. This is a crucial component in his larger theory of Creative Interchange, that is, our capacity to interact authentically with an “other” or others, synthesizing our different perspectives in the hope of producing a creative result. Having just watched the clown show of the reactions during President Biden’s State of the Union address to Congress, Wieman’s proposal may seem like more of a pipe dream. However, in this time of mutual contempt, authentic, appreciative engagement seems more than timely than ever. It could be a matter of life and death. I signed a promissory note to spend my next several week’s worths of articles on this concept. Here’s my first payment.

To begin with, Wieman proposes that we are all intrinsically given the capacity to learn creatively at birth. We natively are endowed by our Creator with wonder and curiosity that propels us to explore our world. This is the Creative Self which is made for interaction with other people as we seek to collaborate in the living of our very lives. While we are blessed by this creative capacity, we are, at the same time, forced to encounter the socialization process of our parents, our culture, and our education system which is aimed more at control than creativity, resulting in the retraction of the Creative Self, and the resulting domination of the Created Self.

This short-circuits the natural process of creativity, intended for us by our Creator who has shared that spirit with the Creation. Rather than seeing our connection with the whole, we are literally schooled to think in terms of our individual self, the Created Self, thus losing our sense of connection, wonder, and mystery, as we fall into a rather pedestrian existence based on various metrics by which we measure our success.

It’s been a remarkable time of synchronicity in my life as I have been studying Wieman with a small group of colleagues, some who are long-tenured scholars of Wieman, and others, like me, who are new to this rodeo. My personal guide has been Dr. Charlie Palmgren, a fellow Episcopal priest, who introduced me to the discipline of Organizational Development (OD) in the late 80s as I was trying to understand the process of change, specifically in congregations, and precisely at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta where I was serving.

Charlie actually knew Wieman, having studied with him, and has tried to put Wieman’s notion of Creative Interchange into practice in the business world. He has provided me guidance as I try to work my way through Wieman’s books by sequencing my reading. But Charlie has also dropped other books on my head in the process. The most challenging book(s) has been the work of British psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist. His two-volume book, The Matter With Things, has been following me around for the last quarter, giving me a run for my money as I try to understand his genius mix of psychology, philosophy, and spirituality. I am just beginning to ford the river of a section he entitles The Sense of the Sacred.

McGilchrist offers a healthy caution to those who see the pursuit of God as merely an intellectual endeavor of the mind, as we accumulate conceptions and propositions about the “Ground of Being”, an academic code phrase used for God. “The primary response is not intellectual. It is awe ad wonder- not mere curiosity, which motivates us to find out more information, more knowledge (valuable as that is), but wonder at the immensity of what we must recognize that we can never know. Yet that very wonder is what we increasingly lack.” It’s as if he is speaking directly to me, right between the eyes, which is where the brain is said to reside and have its being.

I am the product of the educational system which took my native sense of wonder at the Mystery that I encountered in Nature following a summer thunderstorm in the dawning of my adolescence. There on the top of my front yard hill, standing by two outcropping of granite, the sky crackled, with an orange tornadic color, the leaves of an oak seem to take on a vibrating, golden sparkle. The air was amazingly fresh and clean from from the rain. I knew that I sensed something, saw something, felt something in my budding adolescent body. I know that some of you will be tempted to postulate that it must have been a hormone-induced psychotic episode, but I will ask you to cut me some slack.

The words “awe’ and”wonder” come to mind, and align with my experience. It prompted my wondering about this God that I had heard about in evangelical preaching, but my feeling was not fear or terror, but connection and fascination. It prompted my interest in this thing called God, although the stuff I had learned in Sunday School did not make much sense to my natively tuned scientific mind. It became my undeclared quest and question: who/what is this Mystery that I encountered in the late-afternoon in East Point, Georgia, specifically, on Charles Drive? What is this experience that humans, and I, have with this Divine Presence?

As McGilchrist warns, I spent many years chasing “knowledge”, trying to accumulate an understanding of Scripture, mainly in the quest for the historical Jesus. In time, thanks to my Old Testament professor, John Hayes (who also pitched for my South of God softball team), I plumbed the Old Testament seeking to understand the native faith of Jesus and how it informed his views. I studied the early church, the development of creeds and canon, the rise of the Roman Church and its subsequent institutionalization, the reform of the Protestants, and the radical reform of my own Baptist tribe. In time, I even found a developmental psychology adapted by a Harvard theologian to provide the imprimatur of science to give my faith the veneer of science that I desired. I would have become what McGilchrist warned of except for three timely interruptions.

The first was a rock opera that appeared as I was in high school, Jesus Christ Superstar. Although it portrayed Jesus in a deterministic light, with his destiny planned by God, it did make the story, the drama, more accessible than the stained glass version that I was raised with. This was a very human Jesus, who could get angry, struggle with authority, religious and political, and be sexually engaged. As others were drawn to the Jesus freak route of simplistic apologetics, I was whisked into the deep end of the pool of philosophy.

The second interruption was also a drama, Godspell, which was a transposition of the Gospel of Matthew set in a hippie-like community of disciples, using the form of a musical. It was more about a Jesus who spoke of the radical demands of the Kingdom of God that is inbreaking. It showed a human Jesus who struggled with the cost of following his vision, even unto death. My own involvement in the play as a cast member brought it home even more profoundly as I experienced the awesome magic of a community, even without a thunderstorm.

And finally, my experience of getting to know a group of six Trappist monks made the reality of discipleship very real and alluring. Their very eistence and being confronted me with the possibility, and perhaps necessity, of a radical response to Jesus by the way one lived one’s life. As I have mentioned before, I was part of a group of Southern Baptist New Testament Greek scholars who met with the monks to translate the Gospels from the original Greek text. I had been invited by my pastor, which gave me an opportunity to experience the beauty of sacramental worship, which would become my pearl of great price as it afforded me an experiential way to connect with the Mystery. The monks also taught me a form of contemplative prayer that centered my frenetic life. That was almost fifty years ago and I am still close to two of those surving monks.

These three things helped to balance my academic training and gifted me with a continuing sense of the Mystery that underlies my intellectual props. McGilchrist quotes one of my favorite rabbi/scholars, Abraham Heschel, as he notes the decline of a sense of wonder in our culture:

Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish from want of information, but only from want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder. Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his highest incomprehension. The greatest hindrance to such awareness is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of what is. (God in Search of Man)

The Creative Self has the native capacity to perceive the Mystery that surrounds her/him. The Created Self has learned to slice and dice experience and the world into the smallest pieces possible, in the promise that will yield a more adequate understanding of reality. In that reductionistic quest, the Created Self loses the capacity to perceive the connection that exists between the parts. While our culture has promoted the value of the analytic to the exclusion of wonder and connection, McGilchrist has noted the pressing need to recover the right brain’s gift of seeing things whole, connected at the heart of their being.

I have experienced that sense of connection throughout my life, with the thunderstorm being one of the most dramatic moments. But there have been others.

Sitting in front of the Tabernacle at the monastery, sensing Christ’s presence.

Listening to Barber’s Adagio on my headphones while walking through the dunes on Cumberland Island.

Watching someone pass from life to death while in a clliinical setting.

Eating a peanut butter sandwich from St. Luke’s Soup Kitchen, while a bottle of Mogen David wine is passed among the street people of Atlanta, in the woods off North Atlanta, while a man named Blood presided at this informal Eucharist.

Observing the solar ecliipse at my cabin on a white water river.

These are just a few of the moments of wonder that bob to the surface as I ponder my magical, mystical tour of this world.

And, justt today, another. From out of the blue.

I was leaving Atlanta for my trek to the Georgia coast. I had tried to load everything in my expedition bag, with wheels on the base, so that I could make it in one trip from my apartment to the car.. I had failed to calculate how heavy it would be when I got it ti my Tahoe. I remiind you that I walk with a cane which makes carrying any bag problematic. I was struggling mightily with the unwieldy bag, when an “angel” appeared out of nowhere to assist me. He is a resident of an adjoining building in our complex, and was already in his car, readying to leave for work. Instead, he saw me, got out, walked up the lot to inquire if I could use some help.

I will not publish my response but will merely say I was overjoyed by his kindness, his compassion. He got said bag into my car, and I thanked him, introducing myself. He said that his name was Haman. He looked to be Middle-Eastern, speaking with a slight accent. He quickly left, getting into his blue Mustang, and departed. I got into my car, paused as I considered his act, and broke into tears. It was a moment of wonder and awe.

The wonder continued for the rest of my trip. Watching the budding trees along the southbound highway, hinting at a coming Spring, a renewal of life. It’s been a long, hard winter.

Noting the “fall line” south of Macon, with the landscape change, the Ocmulgee River runs, as the piedmont stretches to the sea.

Sighting a patch of daffodils strangly blooming in the highway median, as if someone plopped them down from on high as a surprise.

The low country, with its unique look, the seductive mix of tidal marshlands, streams that seem to promise the ocean, and the smells pouring in with my windows down and sunroof open.

The joy of crossing the causeway onto my island, marking points in the landscape that hailed to me, welcoming me home.

Moments of wonder.

After a long, cold winter, it seems meet and right so to do: to tune my Creative Self to scan my environs, to catch a whiff of wonder, to grab a glimpse of awe. Maybe your Creative Self has been prompted to resuscitate in the time in front of you, this pregnant present moment.. Might a resurrection be in order?

My heart, which must be connected to my Creative Self, is strangely warmed, even though I am not a Methodist. But I am on the island where the Wesleys first landed. My first stop was their Christ Church, sitting on a bench in the amzing church graveyard. which paradoxically spoke to me more of life than death.

So how’s that for wonder?


Recovering the Creative Child

When I am reflecting on my life, I find the most pleasure in remembering moments with my children.

Let me pause to emphasize that I am limiting this assertion to my two as honest-to-god children, just beyond infancy. This is not a commentary on their adolescence, with late night calls from the police, or summons to meet with the vice-principal of the school where I was board chair. Those have another special place in my memory.

No, I’m thinking about their magical time as children, still fresh from the birth canal, before they have been shaped by parental and societal guidelines for “proper” behavior. I have photos, but more powerful, mental images of how their pure spirits lived, moved, and had their being in this wondrous place of God’s Garden, before the emphasis of being good, behaving properly cut into that natural, innate gift of joy and wonder. I can see it in both of their faces as I sit in my office, pounding out this article. The sheer joy, the expectant curiosity, the awe of discovery.

Two moments stand out. The first is one that I have written about before. It was my son at the age of three, coming to my study to ask me to take him outback to the “garden”. The garden was a formal springtime garden where azaleas were putting on a show that would put Disney to shame. The problem was that we had a pool in the middle. Mary and I both had warranted fears about children falling in before we could get them to swimming lessons at the Y that coming summer, The two doors that were inviting entrance into this fantasyland were both double-locked so that inquiring kids could not go without an accompanying adult.

When Thomas asked me to take him, I was in the middle of writing a piece of correspondence. His interruption distracted me and I asked him why he wanted to go outside. He looked up with an innocence long gone, “I want to see what God is doing.”

Checkmate. Off we went to the azaleas, the jasmine, the bees, the smells, ubiquitous pollen, and the birds. Paradise right in front of me and my son. Indeed, the Garden. That’s a powerful image that thankfully stays with me, more so these days as I have made more time for contemplative presence in the numinous world of nature. Simply being.

At about the same age, my daughter went with the Galloway entourage to the Wheeler Rodeo, just south of Tyler. It was the first time we went as a family: the four of us, my wife’s sister, Roz, in from Atlanta, plus my others two “sons”, Wynn and Turner Brown from across the street. It was, as they say in Texas, “a big time” and we had it in spades.

There’s nothing quite like an honest, down-home rodeo. Everybody had a great time from the opening parade of the American flag carried by a cowgirl mounted on a palomino, to the cowboy prayer asking the Almight to spare a moment to keep things safe, to the breakneck speed of barrel racing, and the piece-de-resistance, the bull riding. These “cowboys” were regular folks who worked at WalMart or a the grocery stores during the week, who grew up with rodeo, and get their fix on Saturday night. It’s a real as it gets, sometimes painfully so.

My daughter, Mary Glen, was fascinated by the animals, namely the livestock. Her normally large eyes were enlarged by wonder at all of the animals. I have two pictures of her that bring a daddy’s smile. One was when she saw her first Longhorn steer, causing her to strike a pose, her hands imitating the steers horns. And the other pose, has my entourage, standing in front of the Wheeler Rodeo sign, with Mary Glen poised in front, in a sassy side-pose with her cowgirl boots on, hands at her hips, looking like she was willing to take on the world. It sits on my desk to remind me of her spirit of which I am so proud. She just called me after getting back from a weekend trip to Cumberland Island, and I am reassured that her capacity for joy and wonder is intact.

Those are two of my favorite moments. But the paradigmatic story of my experience of my children took place with my first born. I was fascinated with Thomas’ development, having spent years working in the study and research of developmental psychology. Now, I got a chance to observe it up close and personal. The key moment was when I was sitting with him in our living room in East Atlanta. He had been prodigiously crawling for some time, but on this day, he decided to try to stand up. He pulled himself up by grabbing the side of the coffee table in our living room. And, in a flash, a revolutiion occurred. There he was, standing, holding himself up with one arm, the right if I am remembering correctly. He seemed to be enjoying this moment, or maybe that’s just my projection.

All of a sudden, I watched him let go of the table, and was standing on his own, listing a bit to starboard and then to port. It seemed like an eternity, but he finally leaned a bit forward, and then put his right leg out to catch his fall. It did not last long for his next step put him off balance and he sort of plopped unceremoniously in a pile. That’s one small step for a baby….and his/our world was transformed.

What I remember are two things. One, he was smiling, seemingly pleased with his experiment in motion, his first step. And second, I had a sudden insight that the act of walking is actually a controlled fall. One leans forward, trusting that one’s leg will be there to stop the fall. And then you do it again, and again, and again, as you walk. It was a “Eureka” moment for me.

It was odd that I had to learn that again in physical therapy, after my quad tendon tear and subsequent two surgeries. The atrophy in my legs after mandatory bed rest left me extremely weak. My physical therapist introduced a walker with which to begin my relearning, but then moved me to a cane, as I learned to walk again. My fear of falling was profound but the image of the controlled fall returned to my memory. I had to find that childlike trust and willingness to learn again. And the joy of recovered mobility, though limited, returned me to some child-like joy.

Allow me to take those moments, those windows into the childlike wonder and play into my current reality.

The sandbox that I play in these days is a group that meets every other week to study the process theology of Henry Nelson Wieman, a philosopher who lived after the first World War and into our Viet Nam era. The group has been made up of mostly old men, with a number of maverick ministers, priests, and shamans, a silly engineer from Flanders, a freshly-minted Old Testament PhD scholar, a Roman Catholic scholar from Poland…..a menagerie not of glass if ever their was one. We gather, after reading portions of Wieman’s work on a process called Creative Interchange, to see how we might promote its presence in our world that desparately needs transformation. And every so often, we break out and actually experience Creative Interchange in our gathering.

I spent a month of South of God articles trying to explain what Wieman thought about Creative Interchange. It is a vexing problem to try to briefly explain in a short article the blooming genius of a seminal thinker such as Wieman, but fools rush in…I gave it my best shot, trying to at least name the human attributes that mark the spirit of Wieman’s project, those being trust, curiosity, creativity, tenacity and authenticity. The basic process is four-fold, beginning with authentic communication, followed by appreciative understanding, moving then to synergetic integration, concluding with committed action for transformation. You may be thinking to yourself, this is describing perfectly the marvelous work of our current Congress! What’s the big deal?


Our current way of relating to one another is far from this process that Wieman is describing. Rather than appreciative listening, we bifurcated partisans hold one another in contempt before we even begin an attempt at dialogue. But as I catch a whiff of my own cynicism, I am reminded that Wieman himself was writing in the shadow of the rise of Nazi Germany and after the explosion of two devastating nuclear bombs. And yet, Wieman had the audacity and courage to forward the notion that the Creation and each of us is wired from birth for Creative Interchange.

Recently, as a part of our process in the group, we challenged one another to write a one-page description of this process. This is what one of out members put forth in the first paragraph: “Creative Interchange is a concept developed by Henry Nelson Wieman, a philosopher and theologian of the 20th century, which refers to the process of engaging in open and honest dialogue and collaboration in order to generate new and creative ideas that lead, when implemented correctly, to innovative solutions to problems.”

Not bad for a silly engineer from Flanders. Except it was not his. He had been listening to the hype of Artificial Intelligence, namely in the ChatGPT app that everyone is talking about. He “asked” it to write a one-page paper on Creative Interchange, and the product is what he forwarded to us without disclosing his devious Belgian plot! In our meeting, he “fessed up” to his caper, and we all got a good laugh. In theological gatherings like this, I “fess up” that I am always looking, searching, pining, for a good laugh. Thank you, Johan.

For me, one of the key aspects of Wieman is his concept of the creative self which is present in every infant, native to the territory of being human. This is the playful, the imaginative part of the human infant which is present at birth. The infant naturally explores his/her environment, looking with awe and wonder at the world around him/her. Ir sees connections, and senses connection to this world where he/she finds oneself. Jesus once said that if you want to see the realm of God, you must become like a child again to enter into that experience. I think he was talking about the creative self which can be recovered.

This is distinct from the created self which is what happens to children as they experience socialization, both from their parents and from the wider society. Psychologists talk about this in terms of the development of an ego, that is, a vehicle that gets you around in the society in which you experience pressure, sublte and forceful, to conform in your behavior, to be a “good” girl or “good” boy. We all handle this transition in different ways with the bottom line being survival, and an attempt to get what we want/need, such as acceptance, affirmation, love.

In this process, we construct a Persona, a mask, that presents our self to the world in such a way that gets us what we desire. That desire is what my colleague, John Scherer, says is our addiction. We have to “have” it, our fix. It can be as simple as “pleasing” the other, which becomes an addiction that severely truncates one’s growth and authenticity, as you spend your time and energy being a pleaser to others. Many professions are built around this simple need to please. Or your addiction can be more demanding, such an addiction to being “adored”, a malady that some ministers I know suffer from. My wife says that she knows one in particular.

This is a process that begins early as right/wrong are proffered as “the way things are”, most powerfully presented in the educational institution. It’s a duality that is taught and trained in us who live in the West. It’s a dichotomizing logic that drives our way of thinking and relating, the “in” and the “out”. It’s our way of parsing the world. We are socialized, and begin replacing the free creative self with the compliant created self. The creative self could be said to be put in cold storage, out of concern for one’s safety and survival. You simply can’t control that creative self.

Developmental psychology tracks the process from childhood, to adolescence, to young adulthood, to mid-life, late adulthood, and death. The created self, the ego, “manages” the transitions, secures the future, plans for retirement, while the creative self exists subterranean, sometimes whispering from the dungeon a faint reminder of joy and wonder. This often occurs in mid-life as one becomes pregnantly aware that the time you have left to live is less than what you have lived. This stark remembrance of our mortality has been said to drive spiritual longing, but often we quickly put it away as folly, just a passing fancy not worth our time or energy.

Wieman’s push is for a recovery of this creative self, even in the middle of our distraction of busyness. Again, he reminds us of our connection to the Creator, as our deepest identity, as sharing in creativity. He asks us to rediscover the ability to experience awe in our daily existence, to practice presence, “really being there” in the moment, rather than mailing it in, or doing our “routine”. He suggests that we have the capacity, innate, to return to our own creative self as we wonder at the mystery of this life we are living, a corrective for many of us who have opted for auto-pilot.

This recovery, which is what it is, takes courage. It demands piercing self-awareness, and an authenticity that may feel foreign, even threatening. But the promise is a recovery of the verve that was in your original self, curioius as to what is going on, fascinated by the possibilities, willing to explore, tenaciously grabbing the present moment to experience the fullness of being, not some pawned knock-off version meant to quiet you down. To recover the creative self- that is your mission, should you decide to accept it.

It’s February 2, Ground Hog Day, and I have come our of my hole in the ground, and I have seen my Shadow. And so, for the next few weeks, I will be diving deeply into this creative self and sharing with you my insight through this odd medium of a blog. I hope you will join me on the wave as I attempt to catch and ride it in joyful wonder. It’s a little scary. We might lose our balance and fall off. It’s a big ass wave, if you turn around a take a look. We might wipe out. But the ride seems exciting and fun.

Surf’s up.

The Stories We Carry With Us and That Carry Us

A while back, I engaged in a two-hour phone call with an old friend of mine who is a minister in Minnesota. Like me, he emerged from the Baptist womb of the South, with all the blessings and curses such a spiritual genetic code allows. Bob got a heaping helping portion, given that his father was a Baptist minister. I missed that rodeo, although a Southern Gospel quartet is hidden in my closet.

We have lots of common connections and share a questing spirit to find what is true. Bob landed in the United Methodist Church while my spin took me into the Episcopal church. We both found that sacramental worship was lacking in our heritage, and sought to fix it by studying, experiential learning, and finding a liturgical community in which to make our home.

It was great fun reviewing our common experience of the Candler School of Theology vibe that we both shared in the late 70s, and early 80s when Emory had arguably the finest theological faculty in this country. This stature was thanks to a windfall Robert Woodruff gift and some deft leadership by President Laney and Dean Waits, attracting and retaining world-class scholars. Rather than serving as a farm team for Yale and Harvard, the monies allowed us to keep the stellar teachers in the stable. I count myself as the fortunate one for that gift, and therefore put an obligatory Coke product on the lectern when I speak. Coke, Tab, Diet Coke, and at one point, a blue-tint, green-cap Dasani…the evolution of my shameless sponsorship.

As a side note, I spent my first year of doctoral studies living in a Buckhead mansion with Mr. Woodruff’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Jones, as she had a habit of hosting young, very poor Emory grad students. That would be me. This happy circumstance allowed me to share the dinner table with Mr. Woodruff and to thank him personally on several occasions, to which he was most gracious. An Atlanta visionary that I admired, I am sure that he did not fully grasp the depth of impact he had on the wider world’s theological landscape.

In our phone conversation, Bob and I took the time to tell our stories to one another, to update the record from our prior entries. Twists and turns, victories and defeats, we caught up as to where our journeys had taken us, both having experienced long, strange, trips. It was a satisfying time on the phone, reminding me of the inherent power of story that we sometimes lose in the brisk memos of email and the clutter of social media. Our stories bear the weight of our souls as we seek to make sense out of what we have done and what has happened to us.

I made a habit early on of collecting these things called stories. It began informally by listening to people talk around a fire, at a table, or in a room, listening to the narratives that they told. Stories are part of my Southern ethos but more deeply, a work that all people share, of constructing a narrative collection of events that tell where we have been and what we have done. Clearly, there is a particular and peculiar style of the Southern story that formed me in my listening and telling. While in Texas, I learned of an old adage: don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story. My wife and kids know that I can embellish, or make a story pretty, or even better, dance. I like to think of it as adding color, sort of like Percy Garris in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But the story is the underlying form I learned from my grandparents, elders, and my tribe.

Moving more formally into research, I listened to and recorded people trying to make sense of human existence as they told their stories to me as a part of my work at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. Interviewing people for three-hour lengths, transcribing, analyzing… it remained at its heart a process of listening to stories.

Later, I followed my teacher, Chuck Gerkin, listening to people in a clinical setting as I attended to the “living human document” they presented in telling their stories. It took me to listening to homeless folks on the streets of Atlanta as well as perched penthouse persons in the deflective shimmer of Buckhead. And I continued this in my priesthood and clinical practice over thirty years, paying attention to the contours of meaning they weave into their stories. Everyone has a story. They drag it behind them, use it to present a “front”, an elaborated persona, a reason for the way they are. And some will even tell it well.

Recently, I have begun a gathering of clergy who meet to talk about how it is going in their lives, how it’s going at the churches they serve. We meet regularly to share our stories as well as pregnant moments of interruption that threaten the cohesive frame we have come to rely upon for identity.

I conceived of gathering these people using an online platform, Zoom, it’s called. However, the form of our gathering was wrought many moons past. Years ago, the Bishop of Texas had asked me to meet with young clergy who were in transition from their seminary studies to their first parish assignment. Canon Kevin Martin, from the diocesan staff, joined me in the project of helping the young clergy use that first year in the parish to learn some good habits. And, not to crash and burn.

I loved working with Kevin. He and I come from differing theological positions but share a common desire to make the church a more effective presence in the life of our community. He and I would meet with these folks once a month for nine months, a natural gestation time. We would gather at the holy space known as Camp Allen, the diocesan conference center in Navasota, just northwest of Houston. It involved a lecture/teaching/training on Thursday afternoon, with case-studies on Friday morning as we talked about their placements. But it turned out that the “gold” was the night time, spent in a circle, spilling a little wine, and talking honestly with one another about our stories, and how priesthood was fitting into that continuing narrative. It remains a highlight of my life.

I would begin with a “check-in”, with two pregnant questions: How is it with you? Or How is it in the place you are? I had gotten the questions from my mentor, Carlyle Marney, who famously led a previous gathering of ministers known as Interpreter’s House, which occurred at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. I had studied Marney’s method, and used it to design a retreat format for clergy while working with Jim Fowler at the Center for Faith Development at Emory.

The format that Marney used was quite simple. The first week, he gathered the group of ministers in a circle as they told their stories, how they came to the ministry, and how it was currently going in their place. This primitive gathering was the initial step. Marney called this “throwing up”, as you literally told your messy story, with the content spilling out onto the floor, for everyone to see and smell. It was revelatory, especially for ministers and priests accustomed to hiding behind sacred personas.

The second week involved some fresh input from a leading thinker in the world of Christian faith, usually intended to push these ministers beyond their pastures of comfort. Allowing them to ponder deeply, ask the questions they brought to the fire, and most importantly, applying to their own lives, this was the crucial time in which the ideas, wonderings, and hunches percolated.

The third week was critical. It was a time when they would make plans for how they might take these fresh insights back into the communities from which they had come, or fled, or as Marney would say, had been “sentenced”. Some would make action plans, others would talk of internal changes, and some would make vows. Some would find the courage to leave the formal bounds of ministry and find fresh, honest work. Marney’s independence from ecclesiastical structure freed him to encourage the person to find their own way, without the constraints of institutional agenda. Many were inspired, some were unleashed, and still others were saved.

My colleagues and I took Marney’s genius and spirit, and condensed it, distilled it. Marney would have loved the word “distilled”, I think. We scoped it down to one week. We kept the idea of “throwing up” but put it within the vessel of a small group rather than a large group in order to maximize “air time”. Small groups of four went through the five day experience together.

Our input was a deep remembrance of a central image of passage-making, utilizing both the Exodus motif and the Paschal appropriation of the Exodus story by the Christian church. How does your story fit The Story? What was your “burning bush” encounter of calling? How was your journey? How have you been in exile, enslaved? How were you freed, liberated? What did your wilderness feel like? What were the contours of your desert? Just how dry was it? How long did you wander? What promise did the “new” offer you? What might the Promised Land look like for you?

And, the week-long experience kept the context from which they had come and to which they would return in mind, granting a pause, a silence for thinking and reflecting to occur. We called it Pilgrimage Project, testing our design with only clergy, using cohort groups of similarly experienced ministers, three years out of seminary, ten, twenty, and thirty years of parish experience, with the postulation that there would be similar issues in play developmentally.

It wound up being published and used not only with clergy but in parishes and other gatherings of faithful people. Truth is, all people have stories. I have used it in the back of my mind as I have worked with all types of people who have been trying to make sense out of life, going through particular transitions, and looking for new beginnings. This image of pilgrimage provides the paradigm for the work I do.

How might you tell your story? What would be some of the things you would note as to the beginnings of your journey that set your direction? What significant choices did you make along the way? What surprises came in the process? What gave you joy, what brought grief? How does the trajectory of your story form the way of your future? What are your greatest hopes and fears? What limiting beliefs do you hold onto that no longer serve you well? What do you need to let go of? Where is your growing edge?

To transpose a line from poet, Mary Oliver: what do you have left to do with your one, wild, amazingly crazy life?

I love my work of being with people as they ponder these deep questions and make plans to make the most of their journey on this good earth. It is a wondrous adventure. I do most of my work now in the context of coaching and spiritual direction, though I drag out my old therapeutic couch on occasion. Regardless of the modality, I love listening to those stories and joining in the play of imagining a future.

I was reminded the other day of the famed opening prayer for worship in Judaism: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. It starts with Shema…listen… Listen…LISTEN! The first word is the admonition To Listen. It all begins with listening.

Take the time to listen and reflect on your story. Your self-awareness might uncover some patterns, some saboteurs that perenially get in your way. Your past doesn’t necessarily determine your future, if you choose to make some changes. That’s never easy, but it is possible. You can choose how to write your next chapter. What springs to your mind and heart as you imagine the next chapter of your life? What beckons you from the horizon? What feels ‘unfinished’ that pushes you into the future? What is waiting for you to make your move, to decide, to begin anew, to complete?

You might carve out some time, an hour, a morning, to reflect. Maybe write your thoughts down on a piece of paper or in a journal. Try to capture the feel of where you might want to take your story, what might be waiting for you to do. It begins with a prompt of your Spirit, a whisper from your deepest Self, a vision from your Soul. And the wisdom urges you to do a simple thing, though made difficult by distraction and numbing busyness: Listen. Listen.

MLK: Much More Than A Day

Every January, I take in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ceremonies from historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sweet Auburn Avenue in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia.

I dedicate that day, the third Monday of January, to remembering the life of Dr. King. Since no longer serving a parish, I try to dedicate the long weekend, to reread his academic work, his sermons, and read about his life. This year, I purchased a copy of his doctoral dissertation which is included in his collection of papers. It is a comparison of the theology of Paul Tillich, the first systematic theologian that I studied seriously, and process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman, a person that I have dedicated the last three years of my life to studying, particularly his process of creative interchange which I have written about here. King’s assessment of the two side-by-side has been revelatory.

But I confess, I prefer his sermons. Although academically trained and rigorous in scholarship, it is the heart of the pastor that touches my soul. I sense his deep pastoral care for his people while addressing more significant societal issues of race, poverty, and militarism.

Back in the day, when Dr. Joe Roberts was the pastor of Ebenezer, having succeeded Daddy King, Martin’s father, I could get a good seat just by walking in. Joe was my preaching professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. He took a special “liking” to me, I think because I was South of God at a United Methodist seminary. He did me the great favor of personally introducing me to Howard Thurman, the mystic godfather of the civil rights movement. He was always a welcoming, sponsoring spirit. Later, after my move to the Episcopal priesthood, I was able to introduce his genius to my new world of high liturgy.

When I left Atlanra and went to Tyler, Texas, there was no King Day celebration. I was able to help start the first one in the city the year after I arrived. My close friend, Art Flicker, the rabbi, and I walked arm in arm that first march from the downtown square to the Roman Catholic Cathedral for the first King Day service, noting the SWAT team on the roofs of downtown buildings providing “protection” as there had been threats.

I believe that it was the second year that I was asked to speak. It was clear to me that the invitation came to me, not out of awe at my doctoral work, or my Episcopal priesthood. Rather it was my Atlanta pedigree, having come from the city of Dr. King. And I was proud of that, working harder on that speech than anything else I had ever done. I wanted to make Dr. King and my home town proud of this boy.

Imagine my surprise as they asked an older black pastor to give a “pastoral prayer” before I was to speak. This old, deeply dark black man, with gorgeous white hair, came to the pulpit and delivered one of those LONG prayers that come from the depths of his heritage and soul. As they say, he went “on”, and on, and on. Hell, by the end, I was ready to join the Church and become a missionary! He was good, which was to be trouble for anyone that tried to follow him.

And that would be me.

Somewhere in my memory, an image emerged that just might help me make a smooth transition to my presentation. As I climbed into that pulpit, I paused, letting the place settle down. Silence, while awkward, can be effective.

I said, “I feel a bit like Dennis Menke.” I knew that only a handful of people knew who in the world Dennis Menke was. I went on. “Dennis Menke was an infielder for my Atlanta Braves. His job was to follow Hammerin’ Hank Aaron in the batting order. Imagine, every day, he would have to wait in the batting circle while the home run king took his turn at bat. That’s how I feel, coming to this pulpit after hearing Rev. Jones deliver that powerful prayer. It occurred to me that Rev. Jones is on a first-name relationship with the Almighty. That’s hard to follow!”

I got the laugh I was looking for, and maybe some sympathy for my predicament. And made a life-long friend with Rev. Jones.

I remember the outline of my talk. I used the image of an alarm clock, meant to wake us up from sleep. How sleep was comfortable, the special sin plaguing Tyler, the sin of comfort. We want to get an alarm clock with a “snooze” button on top, so that when the alarm sounds, we simply have to push that magic snooze button and get five more minutes of rest, And you can anticipate where I took this sermon, talking about alarms going off all around us, but we kept slapping at the snooze button. It was not the typical Chamber of Commerce hype, but a prophetic call. And we know what fate awaits the prophets, don’t we?

There were a number of people in town who did not appreciate me calling out the glaring issues of race and poverty in our town. Some were powerful, leaders in the community who resented this “outsider” from Atlanta telling them what to do. Thankfully for me, I was protected by the Episcopal polity which prevented folks from voting me out, as they did my pastor in the church I grew up in. I also had a cadre of people in my parish, notably of World War II vintage, that had my back in conversations at the country club and in business gatherings. To my surprise and delight, I was able to serve there for a decade, which was quite a trick and gift, weeping when I left the parish and city that I loved and grew to call home.

King Day took on a special value this year, and I am not sure why. It was the usual four-hour service, from 10 AM to 2 PM. If you are a platform speaker, four hours is a long time to hold your water, as they say. A bladder buster, Especially as one ages. I get a perverse pleasure when public officials show up to “be seen”, unknowingly drinking their fourth cup of coffee as they arrive. They are in for a surprise. Watching them shift from side-to-side is hilarious, right around 12:15. Surely this is going to be over soon, they are hoping. It is not.

This year, there was the usual reading by a rabbi of the Old Testament, a reading from the Gospel by a minister, and then a reading from the Koran from an Aman. There is music provided by the Ebenezer Choir, along with solos from various members of the music industry. One of my favorite parts is the dramatic presentation of various portions of King’s words by young people from local high schools and colleges. One of my least favorites is the recognition of public officials who have shown up, but my revenge has already been noted.

It leads up to the keynote speech. This was someone that I know, attorney Bryan Stevenson, who works with folks on Death Row. His remarkable life story is dramatized in the film, Just Mercies. I had met him several times at the Carter Center and his content and delivery are superb. He has some amazing stories to tell, some confessional as he admits to the discouragement that comes his way in his line of work. The book and the movie are worthy of your time.

This day, he focussed on the systemic effects of racism, particularly reminding us of the history of racism in this country. Our reluctance to face this history, because it makes us uncomfortable, dooms us to not progress in our American dream and vision. He argued powerfully, like a good litigator should, for a renewed effort to face the hard reality of our past so that we can move faithfully into the future.

A powerful part of the service was provided by Dr. King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King who chided the folks gathered, particularly the politicians, to not just quote her father about unity, and then fall into partisan antics that divide. She said that we love the quotable, convenient King but dismiss the inconvenient King that demands change and transformation of our social structures and values. She reminded us that her father was sent as a prophet to this country to speak a prophetic word that calls for an inconvenience because it challenges us to change our hearts, minds, and our behavior. Dr. Martin Luther King, the inconvenient King, puts some demands on us to change our ways. It was a powerful call to make good the vision of Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community. Poignantly, she pointed out the hypocrisy of politicians publicly lauding the work of Dr. King and yet preventing his words and teachings to be studied in our schools because it made folks uncomfortable. Clearly, Dr. King’s blood and spirit fuels his daughter.

And so, another King Day came and went. It, as usual, was a powerful re-minder to me and others of the Dream. I took the time to reread that famous speech from the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. And then I forced myself to reread the letter he wrote to white ministers from his cell in a Birmingham jail. It chastises for a lack of courage but ends with a clarion call for hope based on King’s sense of the lay of the land of human existence. It was my biggest takeaway, prophetic and poetic:

“In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Sounds to me like Jesus’ Kingdom of God, or more pointedly, the reign of God.

Thank you, Dr. King, for making the call clear.

Are You Happy?

One auspicious day in my life, I was able to be present to the teaching of the Dalai Lama.

Previously, I had studied his teachings on Tibetan Buddhism and the practical methods of increasing one’s capacity for behaving with compassion toward other human beings through the practice of meditation. It was this pragmatic angle that first attracted me to his teaching, and his affiliation with Emory University as a visiting professor provided me the rare opportunity to receive that teaching “live and in person”.

The most important thing that I remember about his hours of teaching and answering questions was a very simple statement: All people desire happiness.

All people want to be happy.

The common connector between all people is this basic wish…I want to be happy.

The implications of that basic connection to all human beings gave me something to center myself in as I was forming my own being in the world. What if I approached each person that I encountered as having this basic need? Everyone that I come in contact with was looking to find happiness. Could that serve as a hermeneutical key as I sought to understand others? In fact, it became a prompt that drove my curiosity in engaging with people that I had difficulty understanding their motivation.

The obvious question follows: What will make one happy?

As an infant, an emerging developing being, there are some basic needs, such as nourishment, touch, and warmth. But very quickly, we are given signals from our parents, our community, and culture, as to what we need to be happy. Pause, if you will, and think back on the messages you were given, consciously and unconsciously. Initially, parental approval takes center stage. Soon, the school setting takes prominence with its own system of demands, control, and rewards. The creative child must negotiate the various spheres of experience, learning along the way what works and what does not. We call this the socialization process, resulting in the adaptive ego that provides a vehicle for our self. That ego provides us the means by which to survive this process, readying us to embark on adulthood. We celebrate the survival, but it comes at a high cost.

As a society, we have studied this childhood process extensively, with the underlying motivation of understanding how it works, how we might better the pricess, often with an underlying reason of finding out how we might control it. Jean Piaget looked to research the development of the cognitive structures of thinking. Erik Erikson boldly tried to track and stage the psychosocial interaction between the child/teen/adult within the context of community. Development is a complex mystery that we mere mortals grasp at understanding.

One particular study grew out of that rich environment of human developmental research and study, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Begun in 1938, it impressively has studied carefully the lives of 724 men over the course of 85 years. The study followed 268 Harvard College sophomores, and 456 boys from Boston’s hard-knock inner city. I was fascinated to learn that, while subjects remain anonymous, it has been revealed that John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradley were participants. While this originally was a limited study demographically, particularly gender limited, the group was added to by including spouses and later children, now consisting of a couple thousand subjects. It is currently focused in its study on Baby Boomers, the children of the original group.

The research uses questionnaires, personal interviews, medical records, scans of blood and brains. The study monitored the physical and mental health of the subjects, their work lives, their friendships, and romances. The unique piece of the study is the longitudinal style. It is the only study of such length and offers some unique insights into human adulthood.

I remember looking at the study when I was working at the Center for Faith Development, prompted by Jim Fowler who had been familiar with it during his work at Harvard. This week, the current director, Dr. Bob Walberger, released a book of the current findings from the study. The title is The Good Life, and attempts to draw out the lessons that were learned through the years of study.

The basic message is that the key to experiencing the “good life” is found simply in the quality of relationships. If you have significant relationships with people that you feel a deep connection with, you will tend to be happy, which is shown to affect one’s health and, in fact, one’s longevity. These relationships can be romantic in nature, but can be friendships, collegial, or simply social. The key seems to be your sense that you could count on this person, that they “have your back”.The defining question is: who could you call in the middle of the night, and they would be there for you? Many people simply could not name a soul.

The magic of these relationships is that they can provide a break from the normal stress of life. It allows you to return to an equilibrium even in the face of major stress. Dr. Waldinger calls it a stress regulator, breaking the cycle of fight-or-flight reactivity and the body’s response of inflamation. The data is overwhelmingly clear as to the positive health role of these close, positive relationships. Other research shows that we are currently in a time of significantly increased loneliness and isolation, rendering us vulnerable to disease. The prescription is to make relationships a priority, and invest time and energy in paying attention to the state of your relationships.

This came home to me in a surprising way during Christmas. I came down with the flu on Christmas Eve, which took me out of my normal family gathering. Not only was I physically sick, not feeling well, but I was missing out on my connections. I found myself experiencing some depression after a couple of weeks of isolation, an unfamiliar situation as I am normally with a good number of close friends daily. Most are collegial relationships but I pride myself on the level of intimacy we share. I was suddenly and profoundly feeling alone. It was not a good pace to be.

Now, as an introvert, I get recharged by taking time to be by myself. The key distinction I discovered was that I was choosing to spend that alone time. It’s what Thomas Merton talks about as solitude, as you get time to be alone with your Self and God. It is a cherished time for me, and was particularly true when I was overly active in the parish ministry. Solitude is something that I value highly and make sure that I get on a regular basis.

But, when it is not “chosen’, but is rather imposed, it feels awful. It is experienced as loneliness, isolated, disconnected. This was a powerful learning moment for me. And about the same time that I was straightening out my soul, I came across this report from Dr. Waldinger. That was a wonderful moment of synchronicity for me. I am grateful.

Dr. Waldinger suggests that you begin to address your relationship situation by taking an inventory. Who would you name as that person that you could call in the middle of the night? Be honest with yourself. Who would you include in your intimate circle of friends? Who are the people you connect with on a regular basis? Make a clear assessment of where you are with your relationships. I have found it helpful to make a visual chart of my relational matrix which has added some clarity to my current situation.

The good news is that, regardless of current deficiencies, you can improve your situation with some focus and prioritization of nurturing your relationships. Who is an old friend that you have lost touch with? Make a commitment to send a note or make a call to reconnect in the next week. Make a list of such folks and invest the time in building those relationships. By making relationships a priority, you are doing yourself a favor as well as reconnecting with people who will find value the contact and the connection. Maybe you might join me in becoming more intentional in your connections in this coming year. “Connection” is my word for 2023.

I was always encouraged by my mother to make friends with others. I think her admonition may have added that it would make Jesus happy if I was friendly to others. How odd to find out that such behavior may in fact yield the benefit of health and longevity, not to mention being happy along the way. I can almost see Jesus smiling…or is that a laugh?