Pause for the Cause

One of my close friends died this past year, Elgin Wells,  a noted Atlanta musician.
We grew up next to each other on a lake in East Point, both of our dads worked for Delta Airlines. Elgin was a good bit older and went to a private school, what is now called Woodward Academy. He went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Elgin may be the most talented person I’ve ever met,  a superb musician on multiple instruments, a fine vocalist, and he even built his own electric violin, just to play the haunting Icarus, by Paul Winter. He performed all over Atlanta, notably a jazz club at the top of the CNN building called Max’s. He was a favorite at Ray’s on the River, overlooking the famed Chattahoochee.

I would often take dates to go hear him, and he would dutifully make time to come over on his break and chat up the young unsuspecting woman, playing up my street cred with her, even asking if I would sit in during the next set. It was a Southside freeze-out that I loved to play.

Elgin introduced me to jazz, notably Horace Silver through Song For My Father, which can still bring me to tears. George Benson’s jazz guitar, Quincy Jones’ soulful writing, Paul Desmond, Trane and Miles, just to name a few. He was part of my education and was a patient prof..

He died this year practicing for an air show in China. Elgin and I had talked prior to shipping his aerobatic plane to China about his excitement for the show….he loved to fly, particularly  the demanding aerobatic maneuvers that pressed the limits of precision. We also talked of his love of teaching music to hungry students, like the ones to came to my friend, Eddie Owens’ Red Clay Foundry in Duluth. He was so gifted and felt a calling to pass it on, and he did with enthusiasm and boundless support. I am particularly missing him on this gloomy day, listening to some plaintive Trane.

Elgin’s band was called Extravaganza, which tipped his hand to his deep need to entertain. He was going to “bring it” every time he took to the stage. He usually had a great supporting cast, sometimes with Doc Samuels, a killer bassist, Professor Bennie Goss on keys, and the tastiest drummer,  Jimmy Jackson. An amazing constellation of talent, I always wondered why they did not go further up the entertainment chain. Now, I think I know.

Elgin had a signature way of introducing a needed break for the band’s performance. He would say, with that winsome smile of his that I am seeing as I write, “Time to take a pause for the cause!”. And then, they would take five, or ten, or fifteen, depending on the crowd. But then they would get right back to work, bringing their magic in order to trip the light fantastic.

A pause for the cause. I am trying to do a bit of that after Christmas. It’s what I normally do this time of year. Between the craziness of tag-teaming family Christmas gatherings and the festive beginning of a New Year, I take Elgin’s lead and make a pause for the cause.

For me, it takes the form of a full 24 hour period when I review the year, the goals achieved and the misses. I prefer to do it in solitude which forces my focus and puts distractions aside. I try to look with honesty at the goals I set a year ago, assess my progress, and note my own failures, asking a pressing “why”.

The review is important as it brings a self reflection that I value highly. But I value the planning for the new year even more. I write down the major goals I have for the coming year, adding the specifics, the timelines, and metrics by which to measure my progress. What will it look like if I am successful? And, what is the cost of failure?

I also assess my balance. Where am I overly functioning in my life, and where might I be under-investing my time and energy? I do this work with others that I coach in running healthcare systems, serving as ministers and priests, doing business, and leading organizations. To be honest with oneself is problematic, particularly when you suffer with the illusion that you are, indeed, courageously honest. It requires the “third eye” of another who I will use to review my own review, to keep this dealer honest. And so, my coach will visit the work of my “pause” to insure I am not just kidding myself.

I will take a pause to assess my relationships, namely, my family. How am I doing with my spouse; how am I supporting her growth, or inhibiting it.? What goals does she have, what dreams, what fears? I had some good time with both of my children at Christmas on the island and did some thinking as to how my role has changed. What do they need in this particular time in their development? What about my other relationships: my  brother, my fabulous sister-in-law, my nieces and nephews, my close friends, my colleagues, the people I coach, guide, and support? I will discuss all these with an old therapist friend who has observed my trajectory of self through time to check my course.

Finally, I will assess my personal mission statement which makes explicit the values that I intend to live out in my existence. I love having a mission statement that I keep in front of me every day, beginning when I wake and reviewed before I sleep. I find this helps me stay on True North even when pressures and busyness lurk. And for this review at the end of the year, I visit my spiritual director  who asks the tough questions of my soul’s healthiness, a spiritual proctoscopic examination, sans the tranquilizers. It always grants me a sense of being clean as I begin afresh in a New Year.

And so, I encourage you to take your own pause for the cause. Mine takes place usually at a Trappist monastery, in my cabin in the Cherokee woods, just to be suggestive of the spiritual dimensions I am pressing against. But it has happened on a cross country flight, in a Marriott hotel room, even in my own study. The place is not as crucial as the time dedicated. Make the time for your SELF.

Take a Pause for the Cause…which is you.

Magic to Do

Music is magic for me. It is the secret elixir that brings spirit to the ordinary, especially potent when I am in the very space where it is being performed. Music infuses the normal with the effervescence of enthusiasm. Live music does that magical alchemy of transforming time and space into a dynamic  moment of bliss. My friend, Eddie Owen, has made a career and changed a city, powered by that insight.

My love affair with music began with the Southern gospel harmonies of my childhood, sitting with my grandfather watching Gospel Jubilee early on Sunday mornings. That harmony would find its way into the Memphis soul of Elvis and Stax that just made people move. I was tied at the  ear to my beloved Philco radio and my Japanese transistor that broadcast a wide variety of music, from rock to classical. Country and bluegrass were also part of my pedigree out in my ancestral west Georgia. Coming to it naturally, music was in my soul from the beginning, but live music quickened my spirit regardless of genre. It’s one of the places I find that magic happens. Watching Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce knows about the magic trick of music. When I get to listen to my son play his music on stage, like this weekend, I am transported to heaven. The magic is palpable.

It was in college that my friend, Tom Greenbaum, introduced me to a new form of music, trio jazz. with his own inimitable style playing the Baby Grand in our fraternity parlor. In addition, he opened up a new chapter in my musical life as he hipped me to the music from the Broadway musical, Pippen, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, who had previously written Godspell. The story is about a Prince ma,ed Pippen, the son of Charlemagne, who is in search of his identity, his life purpose…not far off from my own quest at that time in my life. Timing is everything.

In what serves as Pippen’s overture, Magic to Do, the cast suggestively asks the audience to suspend their sense of reality for the next couple of hours in order to enter into the life drama of this play. The cast literally implores the audience to “Join us” with an enthusiastic call. Actually they are asking for something much more exciting: heighten your awareness. Tune into the magic that surrounds you. Lean into the mystery that is breaking in over your head.

The lyrics: Join us….leave your fields to flower; Join us……leave your cheese to sour; Join us……Come and waste an hour or two! Magic to do.

I was lucky enough to see the original cast with the amazing Ben Vereen as the charismatic storyteller/trickster. Bob Fosse was the choreographer for the original production….can you say “jazz hands”? If you are so inclined, google “Pippin” and “Magic to Do” for a treat and observe the superb staging. You will thank me, much as I thanked Tom.

This song, “Magic to Do”, became the opening song for our jazz trio, which seemed only appropriate. While we relied on Tom’s Sheldon-like eidetic memory of the Sinatra catalog to power our group through the requests for songs I had never heard of, “Magic to Do” had a lilt, a suggestive power to begin our engagement with a sense of wonderment and upbeat promise. With Tom noodling the melody, Mark Jones laying down the rhythm, and me, playing little bass and delivering a winsome personality, there was indeed magic to do.

These moments in life are worthy of notice. Moments in live music, particularly if you are playing; pausing in the mystical silence of nature; catching a whiff of ethereal air from the sea or an incense censor; the intimate touch of the loved other: all contain the possibility of magic, a moment of breakthrough from the normal to the sublime. What’s your special place to sense that magic, those “thin spaces” where the boundary between the ordinary and sacred merge.

Are you able to see magic these days, or are you numbed by the busy blur of activity? Are you able to see what’s going on around you? Has the drive for rationality and sensibility lulled you into the sleep of normalcy.? In this chaotic time approaching Christmas, are you catching glimpses of the magic around you?

Every so often, magic seems to break in on me, not due to my careful planning or scheduling, but by what one might say is sheer accident. Others might look at the same facts but come up with a providential cause and effect in play. I tend to simply enjoy the moment rather than ascribing the “woo woo” effect, but that’s just me. But, and make no mistake, I love it when the magic happens, whenever it happens, however it happens.

Just the other day, a moment of magic broke into the normal. My wife was on her way to a gathering of her high school girlfriends.  They do it every year, with a time to catch up and share the latest in the days of their lives. Mary was meeting her friend in a church parking lot just outside the perimeter of Atlanta in order to car pool to their friend’s new condo in Duluth, northeast of the city. Mary had stopped at a gas station to fill up her tank with gas. After she had fueled the intrepid Highlander, she was surprised and dismayed to find that her car door had locked automatically. Her keys were there in the seat, along with her cell phone and her purse. I do not know what words she released as she realized  the fullness of her predicament, but I’m pretty sure it was encapsulated in one syllable.

After assessing the situation, she began to run through a check list of what she could possibly do to save the situation. She was about a mile away from the designated rendezvous spot with her friend. She did not remember the phone number for her friend as it was safely stored in the memory of her iphone. What in the world was she going to do? She spotted the attendant and thought maybe he would let her use his phone. When she explained her situation, the young man, named Jose, offered a simple solution: “take my truck”. Not knowing my wife as a justified, sanctified, teacher-certified, respectable citizen, this young man responded from his heart with compassion, perhaps mixed with a little foolishness.  “Take my truck.”

And there it was, on a Saturday morning in Sandy Springs: Magic. The gift of a human being acting like one. Imagine that! Extending himself across boundaries of the normal, this person gave of himself in an act of care. Rather than the typical, “not my problem”, a simple but profound act of compassion. “Take my truck.” Magic to do.

Now, I won’t bore you with the details of how Mary extricated herself from this bind other than it all worked out after Jose did a little magic. Mary and her friend made it to the gathering in Duluth where more magic could take place among friends gathering. And when she offered Jose a twenty dollar bill for his kindness, he refused. Insisting that he take the twenty, Jose responded with a magical phrase: Pay if forward. And the magic continues…

Do you witness moments of magic in your normal, hectic life? Are you looking, taking the time to notice those random acts of care? My bet is, if you think about it, you can remember some magic that has come your way, some moment in the ordinary when the spirit breaks through. And you might hear Jose’s magic mantra: pay it forward. Magic to do.

Gifts: A Lesson in Perspective Taking

My mother was the best gift giver on the planet. By that, I mean, she had an uncanny way of figuring out just what the person wanted as a gift. I always think of her at this time of year as I am racking my brain to choose “just the right gift” for those people in my life that I care about. Year after year, she would come up with the perfect choice for each person in the family. It was amazing, even baffling.

For awhile, I thought it had something to do with her being a witch! A witch? A Biible-teaching Sunday School teacher at the local Baptist church? She was a godly woman, in the complete Southern sense of the word, but she told me when I was a child that she was a witch. I later figured out her strategy which was to convince me of her supernatural powers, just enough to lodge the thought in my mind that she could see me at all times, in all places, to perhaps dissuade me from doing something that might get me in trouble. It’s the old trick of making kids think that Santa is watching you and making a list of who has been naughty and nice, as a cheap method of behavior modification. That gets extended cosmically with the notion that God is watching, got an EYE on you specifically. Later, some folks carry that over to a sense of being watched by the government or other threatening entity. I’ll leave that alone, but for me, it was the mere suggestion that my mom was a witch, which was enough, to keep me on the straight and narrow.

That strategy worked on me for awhile until I learned from my therapist that what my mother was doing was introjecting herself into my unconscious so that her voice would always be in my head, whether I was at a social gathering, driving alone on a highway, or at the Clermont Lounge. She was there with me, inextricably in my head. Psychoanalytic theory tells us that is the super ego, and it cost me several thousand dollars to get clear about all that and gain some freedom from its tyranny.

It would have been cheaper if I had just asked her. And I did the day after Christmas one year. “How do you always choose the perfect gift?”. True to form, she replied, “I am a witch!”. I  quickly explained to her my knowledge of psychoanalysis, showing her the receipt from my shrink, and that her ruse was up. She smiled that way she would when she was putting up with my pretense to know more than I did and said, “It’s all about perspective taking”. Okay, I’ll bite. What does that mean?

She explained that perspective taking is the talent of getting in the mind of the other person. The motivation is to understand the world of the other person. It’s as traditional as the old Native American wisdom of walking a mile in the other person’s moccasins.  It’s the gift of seeing the world through another person’s eyes. It is taking the other’s perspective, that is, their way of viewing the world. My mother, who had probably learned from her own mother, had the gift of perspective taking and she righteously applied it to selecting gifts for others.

I learned later in my academic study that there is, in fact, a cognitive skill that can be developed, and even measured, as you consider other people’s view of the world, transcending the limitations of your limited point of view, or perspective. By really focusing on the wants, needs, and interests of the other, one is given a clue as to what make him/her “tick”, why they do what they do, why they think the way they do. Perspective taking. No witchy trick, but it does border on magic.

The sophisticated way of describing this skill, or power, is called empathy, that is, feeling what an other person feels. It means considering the full reality of the other person, and simultaneously suspending, momentarily, the tendency to impose my own way of seeing the world on the other person. Projecting “my view” or my emotions onto the “other” is one of the most prevalent “misses” that occur in the messiness of human relationships.

In business, perspective taking has found its own place. There has emerged a whole discipline called Emotional Intelligence, pioneered by Dr. Daniel Goleman, who has experimented and documented the human ability to treat other people with respect and value. In the workplace, it means that you treat your coworker in ways by which they feel understood and taken seriously. This is particularly true in supervisory relationships where power issues impinge and seek to impose a hierarchy of values on the worth and value of people. Emotional intelligence means that you have “people smarts” in that you treat the other people in the situation with care. Emotional intelligence gives you the important self awareness that you are just one person in the community of others. There are words used to describe those folks, such as caring, thoughtful, respectful. And as I have learned in coaching leaders, there is one particular, distinctive word in the English language that describes those folks who are lacking in the skill of perspective taking……and I will let you fill that word in. I am exercising my emotional intelligence!. Or maybe it’s my mom’s witchy way, unexorcised in my head.

Think of those people in your life, your work environment, or social setting that seem gifted in this human skill of emotional intelligence, or as it’s come to be called in short-hand, EQ. Now, think of those people who are disrespectful, people that act without regard for you or others. And now, the bonus question: how do people think of you? A person who is gifted in perspective taking of others, or one who is stuck in a limiting perspective of self? Your EQ makes all the difference. Business has learned the this has a huge effect on the bottom line.

I have worked with numerous executives who have left a wake of bloodied relationships and broken teams due to a severe lack of emotional intelligence. As I coach them, I sometimes wonder if their mother didn’t teach them these skills. Did they just forget, a bad case of social amnesia? The good news is that one can develop emotional intelligence, and one can increase one’s ability to take the perspective of others. I’ve seen it happen…even without going through the magical incantations of becoming a witch. It’s called perspective taking.

I find Christmas to be a good exercise in perspective taking. Thinking about what might be the “perfect gift” for those you care about is a good way to exercise your empathetic muscle. What to get my island-girl daughter? What would bring a smile to my Nashville musician son? What about my entrepreneurial brother or my fabulous sister-in-law? What would make their Christmas a little more merry? The act of imagining is a gift in and of itself as it gets you out of your own self, to exercise perspective taking.

Now, what might my wife, Mary, want? What would make her happy, or a Merry Mary? Let’s see…..a Fender Stratocaster guitar or a new set of Titleist golf clubs?

Remembering

For me, music always has been a trigger for memories. I was listening to one of my favorite songwriters, Mac McAnnaly, the other day.  It took me back to a time in my life when I lived with five other guys, all who were divorced, except me. We called the place Menagerie Farms, for apparent reasons. We would sit around, drink beer, get depressed, and listen to Gordo Lightfoot, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, or Mac. Mac told the most truth I knew at the time, all about my love and hate of things Southern. The boy could turn a phrase to the point of my envy. I remember one line in particular about love and marriage: Don’t be swearing on the Bible, cause anything’s liable, to change your opinion on love. Man, I wish I had written that line. I sure knew some folks who lived it.

This weekend, I was with some fraternity brothers for our annual December gathering. I try to get as many folks as I can to come back to Atlanta, to remember our days in the Sigma Chi fraternity at Emory in the 70’s. Each year, a different collection of my menagerie convene, each year a variety of stories get remembered, a new set of embellishments take center stage. We meet at Manuel’s, the quintessential neighborhood bar, on Friday night. Margie Maloof is always kind to set aside the renovated Eagles Nest for as private a place as any group can get in Manuel’s. On Saturday night, we gather for a great meal with spouses/partners to celebrate our friendship through time. It is a highlight of my year.

This year, Jeff from New Orleans, reminded me of a favorite story that occurred during one rush meeting I chaired. It spoke to both the pain and comedy of our embeddedness of being in the South.  Speaking of the South, Peeler, from Mississippi, reminded me of a particular brawl we started and then escaped at Denny McClain’s old bar in the basement of the Georgian Terrace. Peeler’s medical license and my priesthood ordination might not stand up to the details. Luckily for us, phone cameras had not been invented, social media not even imagined.

There are a few memories that I wish were on film, fresh for remembering. But the colors would have certainly faded by now, lacking the embroidery that our memories have stitched to the mere facts. As I learned in Texas, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. It’s so much more fun to listen to the tales retold, in a Mississippi drawl or a New York clip. How rich to hear those old stories regaled by old friends, some bald, some bent, some battered…..but friends spanning decades.

We always bring up the cooking and mothering of Ethyl and Pearl, the painting the E lion, a football championship with a pass from Rob to Deuce, to Phillips over the middle for a last minute touchdown. Streaking at Agnes Scott. And there were the host of girls/women who claimed and claim a place in our common mind.  Sweethearts past, sweethearts present. Good times we shared, hearts broken, dreams followed, deferred, or altered…..or in my case, altared. It was Jim, from Florida, who pointed to a truth that was evident to all but needed to be said, “There is something about this group that transcends the years.”

That “thing” is our shared experience, of learning how to be a person with an identity all our own, of mastering a bank of knowledge under pressure, of struggling to be a friend and learning about loyalty that transcends genetics, to looking for love in all the right and wrong places, to testing our world view to see if it stands up to the exposure to the new, the different. How consequential it was to go to this particular school, in this peculiar culture, at this consequential time. And deciding, in whim or wisdom, to be with this group of folks who will share this defining time. What a long strange trip. I feel blessed.

I had a great weekend. Saw some folks I had not seen since graduation. Talked to my Baton Rouge friend about guitars and thrilled that he found the perfect Martin at Maple Street. Encouraged by a classmate who had gone through the same physical therapy I am enduring. Connected with one of my favorite human beings who shares my love of Big Sky and Montana. Gave thanks for a brother who passed away this year, bringing a smile of gratitude for his being and presence. He had planned to be with us last year, but the rare snow event kept him away. It’s a reminder that life plays for keeps, particularly as we clock more trips around the Sun.

Remembering.

In this season, my hunch, memories will emerge for you. Through music that transports you back to a special time. Memories, through gatherings, planned or unplanned. Smells. Visuals. Prose or poetry. All can spark your memories. Enjoy them.

Let me suggest you take the time to remember. Pause. Allow a silence in your day to flush out hidden memories. Write. Journal.

Reach out to someone who is far away, in space, in time, or both. Give thanks for the gift of relationship that is in close proximity. Take the time to give thanks for the very gift of life, and all it brings. As St. Ferris of Buehler reminds us: Stop.  Take a look around. Things are moving pretty fast. You just might miss it.

Why Mindfulness?

So when I began this blog, South of God, it was the beginning of the Advent season, a time to prepare for Christmas. Not by finding and buying just the right present for that special person, be it a grandchild or lover. Not by decking the halls with greenery. Not by planning a feast by consulting fave cookbooks and family recipes. Not by retrieving boxes from the attic or basement filled with treasured decorations from the  past. All that may be part of your Advent past, and it generally brings good emotions of connection, perhaps even joy, as you “get ready for Christmas Day.”

However, I was thinking more about the spirit of Advent being a season of preparing one’s soul for an inbreaking of light into darkness, of looking to the horizon of our lives for growth, development. And for me, I have trained myself to use this season as tuning my heart for surprise. What might happen that is new, fresh, enlivening? I want to suggest that these days before Christmas might be a time for quiet in the middle of all the busyness of the season. My friend, Betty Barstow, wrestled me into thinking of it as counter-cultural, which, of course, appealed to my native spirit. Imagine that, silence in the face of busyness.

It occurred to me that in that sense, Advent is sort of a microcosm of my life throughout the year, trying to find an oasis of centeredness in the pressing fray of activity that impinges on my life. Is it possible to be centered in the midst of the whirlwind, not only in this particular time of year, but throughout my year.

For me, I was given the gift of centering one year by a Trappist monk who lives at a monastery about an hour east of Atlanta. Tom taught me a method of prayer that had been around for centuries but had been repackaged by some modern monks as they rebranded it as Centering Prayer. It used a simple two syllable word for a mantra by which one focuses one’s breathing: breathe in, breathe out, in a natural rhythm, in and out. Centering…. as natural as breathing.

Now, there’s a bit more to it than that, but in its essence, it is merely ceasing one’s busyness in order to center. In the Centering Prayer method, it is suggested that one does that for twenty minutes twice a day, naturally in the morning and evening. It’s been my discipline since college, or should I say, my practice, as I have had to work hard to find that center in certain seasons of my life, while at other times, it comes as easy as breathing.

For some time, I have been teaching this method to others who have desired to find such a center in the midst of their whirlwind. I have taught seminary students who were looking for a center in the vortex of relativity introduced by serious critical study. I have taught centering to people transitioning into their first parish job, inundated by endless demands on their time and insatiable needs of the people who they are trying to pastor. And in the parishes I served, I taught all sorts of folks who found themselves longing for a center, a calmness, a peace that orders the craziness of trying to make sense of the world, their world in particular. In my recent years, I have been training folks in healthcare, executives, physicians, nurses, and other members of that special team of folks who know the unrelenting push and pull of urgency. I have found that all people need and desire a centeredness that gives peace and connection, even in the blurring rapidity of change in their particular and peculiar whirlwind..

This whole centering thing has become rather  popular. It has completely secular form that goes by the name of mindfulness, which sounds less exotic than meditation. It is a simple thing, this slowing down to be present to the moment. Some wags have called this popular wave McMindfulness, or drive-through meditation. That gives me a good belly laugh, and I like the fact that it takes some of the esoteric shimmer away from what I sense is a natural thing available all human beings. No magic here,  no “woo woo” panache that draws the curious. Rather, mindfulness speaks to the deep need we all have for that Center than is beyond the passing activity of our life.

So where to begin, say you were interested in using this season for something new, something fresh, something promising. Let’s begin with motivation, and those promises those whispers of improved lives.  There’s a bunch of research from science that you can source if you need convincing. I’ve been a part of a group that studies this phenomena using f-MRIs to see the actual biological changes in brain chemistry as a result of meditation. I am convinced of the pragmatic, good results for those who meditate through time. But I am more convinced by the actual cases of people I have worked with to change their lives to a healthier outcome. The benefits are focus, deeper sleep, less anxiety, better oxygen intake, and a happier mood, just to name a few.

I suggest you start slow to see if centering might be of use to you. I recommend a series of five minute pauses in the day, whenever you can make it happen or take advantage of a break. I normally encourage folks to schedule a time that can become a regular practice. Those in healthcare have chosen to “grab five” at the start of the day. Some “take five”, Brubeck style, at lunch. Others find the end of the day works, while others make a simple five pause whenever they can. Whatever works for you. Just do it, to coin a phrase.

Here’s the simple routine: 1. Sit comfortably. Rest your hands on your lap, or desk. Close your eyes to avoid distraction(no woo woo magic here) or keep a light gaze to the space immediately to your front. 2. Begin by taking a minute or so of deep breaths, as they occur naturally, unforced. 3. Do a check of your sense of relaxation, beginning with your face, then, on down your body, with an inventory of how  you are feeling. 4. Maintain your focus by sensing and being aware of your breath for the next three to five minutes. 5. End your centering with an offering of thanks, for something specific, or for the gift of the time of being centered. That’s it. You are on the road to an improved centeredness.

Be assured that when you begin, unless you are a meditation Mozart, you will find thoughts entering into the silence, intrusions as to what you should be doing, pricks of reminders of things that would claim your attention. Simply let them go and return to the breath. This is what Buddhists call “the monkey mind”, with the monkeys jumping from tree to tree, with one intent: distraction. Simply return to the breath. I promise, over time and practice, the monkeys calm down and the center will hold.

So, there it is. Something perhaps new for you to try on for size during the next month. If you have questions, feel free to send a question my way. Five minute of peace, not distracted, centered. Blessings.+

 

Advent: Getting Ready

It should not have surprised me, but it did. I remember putting the CD disc into my Tahoe’s Bose stereo because I simply couldn’t wait to get home. Driving down Peachtree Street, Paul Simon began this album with the driving beat of an acoustic guitar on the first cut on his new offering, one I had anticipated from my patron genius on a album entitled with the curious phrase, So Beautiful or So What.

That first song shocked me with its theme, not at all what I was expecting, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”. A contemporary Gospelish  song, set in the context of the busyness of the Christmas season, exhorting one to “bear it in mind”, to get ready for power and the glory and the story of Christmas Day. As he sings the lyrics, talking about how crazy life gets in this tinsel-tangled time before that magic day in December, he interjects a black preacher man exhorting those unaware that one needs to get ready. And in a traditional “call and response”, the preacher calls so there is no mistaking: Get ready, ready for Christmas Day!

Now, I know. Christmas is a cultural holiday that pulls all into its powerful wake. It is all about the commercial reality of a boom time for merchants, selling goods to make a profit at the very end of the fiscal year. I’ll never forget my visit to an sporting goods/outfitter in Tyler, Texas, to visit my friend, the owner, Alan Haynes, Alan was hosting me for a festive holiday lunch. I asked him, as innocently as I could muster, how was business. Alan, with a twinkle in his eye, responded with the Texas humor I came to love, “Business is great!  I only wish Jesus had a brother born in June!” He was getting ready for Christmas Day…… but with a green tint.

Getting ready. Within the Christian community, the four Sundays before Christmas intentionally are designed to help us prepare our souls for the new time of birth, symbolically incarnated in the birth of the Baby Jesus. The season of Advent. That’s the drill for those of us in the Christian tradition, but it was chosen by the early Church to coincide with the seasonal Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year in terms of the Sun’s distance. It is about the coming of Light into the Darkness, symbolized by adding a candle to an Advent wreath, culminating in four lights ablaze, with the punctuation of the lighting of the Christ Candle on Christmas Day. Getting ready.

Approaching the season of Advent, merchants like Alan aren’t the only ones who are busy. Clergy tend to get a  “deer in headlights” look. They are busy planning for the press of time due on the onrushing Christmas festivities that come with the influx of visitors to ogle the cute Baby Jesus. There are “end of the year” concerns with money, both closing out the financial giving that may define the shape of the parish, plus preparing a budget for the coming year. In certain denominations, end of the year reports and performance evaluations loom. Add to that, there are a never-ending procession of social events, some fun, most not, where the pastor is expected to attend if not perform a functional role. A group of clergy that I meet with regularly have named this time of Advent as a “whirlwind”, intimating the blinding, circling chaos of activity. Finding a way to be centered in the midst of the whirlwind seem to be the trick. Get ready.

Certainly this is true for all folks in the busy seasons of life, especially this time around Christmas. How do you stay grounded in the craziness of life? And when life serves up some unexpected twists and turns without regard for your particular and peculiar situation, how does one keep one’s centeredness? How do you stay balanced?  This is something that faces us all. I am going to be writing of some of the ways I have found to be useful in my peculiar whirlwind with the hope it can be helpful to you, particularly in this season of Advent, getting ready for Christmas Day.

One of my basic and central disciplines for staying centered has been that of journaling, that is, writing down what is going on in one’s life, one’s mind. Journaling may be my most basic method of advancing my personal quest for increasing self-awareness, even in the distractions of business and busyness. It really is as simple as writing down what is happening, how you are reacting to those events, and noticing the hopes and fears that may emerge. Come to think of it, that is what I listen to when I am listening as a therapist, coach, or spiritual director. It captures what my old professor, Dr. Chuck Gerkin, wisely told me to look for in my life and in the lives of the people I was trying to help: what’s going on?

Journaling has been a constant in my attempt at being self-aware in my life. I was introduced to the general concept by a high school teacher who encouraged me to read Walden, the journalings of Henry David Thoreau as he lived alone in the woods, seeking to discover himself, to clarify his identity. For me, it meant keeping a composition book, writing down stray thoughts, verse, quotes, and wonderings.  I actually have a few of those early journals and am amazed at my descriptive entries, even though I was a little short on perspective.

Later, I came across Ira Progoff’s method of depth journaling as we hosted him at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University in Atlanta. Progoff developed a method of journaling that would cross-reference each day’s journaling with specific additional journaling on dreams, expansions on themes, hopefully  leading one into a depth that is not possible by mere daily posting. I found it incredibly helpful during times of critical decisions as I was making my way through life. Dreams emerged, which I could correlate with happenings within my life, and in fact, recurrent themes predominated. The Progoff method, called the Intensive Journal method, can become ponderous, particularly if one has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I can’t help but have images of Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, journaling as to his various bodily functions. Unlike him, I tend to keep my journaling simple but see value in the variety of methods that have emerged.

The plan I am offering to you as you enter this season of Advent is a simple one. First, set aside a dedicated journal in which to write your thoughts. It can be a simple notebook you pick up at the local. pharmacy or a moleskin type journal available at specialty shops. I have noticed a plethora of new offerings of a variety of formats, such as the Daily Focus Planner, the simple Panda Planner, the Monk’s Journal, just to name a few. These are helpful, suggesting areas of reflection, but one does not need a fancy format. Just get a notebook and begin. Set it aside in a place that is secure and not liable to be opened by others so you can write your thoughts in the rare air of freedom, with an assurance of confidentiality.

Set aside a time, a regular time where you will commit to intentionally record your thoughts and feelings during this season. It can be early in the morning before the day goes into full-tilt boogie, or it could be at the end of the day as you becoming settled for a review of your day. It can vary, perhaps out of when it is convenient, but I have found the regularity of a specific time to be helpful. For me, I tend to use the morning, jotting down notes from any dreams of the past night, agenda for the coming day, feelings about the day ahead. You make the call. This is for you. But I encourage you to give it a shot over the next thirty or forty days and see how it goes. Get ready.

For starters, let me give you a few simple prompts:

  1. Begin the journal entry by recording the date, the time, the weather, the feel of the space you are in. This is useful for future tracking.
  2. Jot down your general feelings, thoughts that are emerging/
  3. Record any dream that may remain in your memory. Don’t fret if there are none.
  4. List three things for which you are grateful on this particular morning.
  5. What are the growing edges of your life? Where do you feel that you are being called to grow?
  6. Be still, quiet, silent for a time. What thoughts, feeling emerge. Write them down.
  7. Are there areas calling you to explore? Are there lights of hope on the horizon of the future breaking in?

It’s that simple. You don’t need to complete the above list every day. If one topic seems to call for more attention, give it. Go with the flow. Don’t over-complicate it at this point. Just commit, and then do it.

After you’ve done it for a week, you might reread your journaling on Sunday or Monday to see if there are themes. Make a separate journal entry for that.

With dates attached, you can revisit  your thoughts and musings months or years down track. I have looked back at my journaling from significant times in my past and found it helpful, even transformative. But that’s down track. Let’s get started NOW. Get ready.