Making friends has always seemed easy to me. It’s part of my nature it seems, to reach out quickly to those I encounter. In my heart, I don’t think I am natively an extrovert but you couldn’t tell if from observing me. It’s what is enigmatic about me, and what confuses some. How can someone who is so outgoing be so intent on seeking solitude?

I am quick on the uptake to reach out to those that I find sharing in my space. I am sure it was drilled into me by my mama to make others feel welcome. Maybe it was a defense against my own loneliness, making friends as insurance against the gathering isolation. Truth is, I love my solitude, but on my terms, when and how I want it. Yep, I figured it out in therapy that I was a socialized extrovert, an introvert that school and church taught me to work the crowd in order to get my value confirmed. That turns out to be a blessing and curse, a true dialectical tension in my soul.

So, I have a lot of friends that I have collected, people that I have met along the way. I keep a list actually that I review weekly. These are the people that have meant something to me at various moments in my life. I look at the list on Sundays and actually pray for them, each one by name. I don’t know how the cosmic lottery works with this prayer thing but I do it nevertheless. I name them singularly, with a prayer of blessing.

I remember my childhood friends, from Lakewood Heights and Carriage Colony. My neighborhood crew that resembles the cast of Sandlot still plays ball in my mind. The characters from College Park, Adams Park, and Lakeside that I played golf with in the hot Georgia sun. And the caddies in the caddy shack with their homespun wisdom are part of the cast of actors in my memory.

I count the folks who went to Emory with me, particularly my fraternity brothers. Living with them in the fraternity house taught me a lot about friendship as well as leadership, learning how to share space and time with people with differing talents and temperaments, and yet bonding over certain values, some holy, some perverse.

In reflection, a lot of my friends came out of church settings. The first was Oakland City Baptist where my grandfather took me to be a part of the “old men’s class”, called the Friendship Class. I would help my granddad lead the singing, which for those of you not versed in psychopathology is termed premature identity closure. My fate was sealed. These old men loved on me, and gave me a passel full of surrogate fathers. I found that I always “kept” an older man to serve as a mentor figure to point the way through the fog. It’s becoming harder to find that older person these days as I receive the blessing of years.

Dogwood Hills Baptist was where I learned about the darkness associated with religion, and the tell-tale gap between what we say we believe and how we live. In the sixties, it was most present in racism as our pastor was fired due to his stand on opening the doors of the church to blacks. Most of my friends were of my age, who shared the confusing journey into sexuality and what to do with ourselves. Sunday school, choir practice, Wednesday night suppers, and summer retreats were more about socialization and testing boundaries than true religion, but soul work nonetheless.

My crew at Decatur First Baptist changed my world. I took a job because of a maverick Baptist preacher, Bill Lancaster, who had the audacity to speak truth into tough, pressing social issues. My friend and roommate, Wendell Brigance, had a spirit of adventure and a love of life that was infectious, and pushed me to get real with my platitudinous religion. I had the best team of youth sponsors that joined me in trying to assist in the development of young people and of college students. And the kids I worked with were the best, looking back on those halcyon days. Decatur shaped my sense of church, and more importantly, community.

Same is true for the parishes I served. They became the treasure trove of friendship and collegiality that would make my time worthy. St. Luke’s in downtown Atlanta, the Cathedral of St. Philip, Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, even my Waterloo at Holy Innocent’s, in the East Cobb suburb of Sand Springs brought me many fine people to play with and interact.

My thinking today about friendship were prompted by two moments last week. One was a phone call from my best friend in Tyler, Texas, Dr. Dan Toney. The other was a call from the son of one of my best friends, Ron Lane, who had died after a struggle with cancer.

Dan called to tell me that his mother had died. Mama Toney, as she was known to me, was just a few weeks away from her hundreth birthday. She had been the organist at her home church in Cooper, Texas for a long time, from back before Jesus was a carpenter in Nazareth. Dan loved his mama, that has been clear to me since I first came to know him. He had cared for her in the latter years like a faithful son should. The call was not a surprise, I mean, she was OLD, even older than me. It would have been probably more of a surprise if he called to tell me she was still alive. So, the call was not a shock.

The thing that touched me was that my old friend Dan, who I love like a brother, would pause in the wake of his mother’s death to reach out to me. It was a sign of our deep connection that transcends time and space. It was a moment of meaning that happens rarely, but affirms a depth of linkage that affirms the power of the past, the magic in the now moment, and the promise of the future. That call from my old friend meant the world to me and caused me to smile, even in the face of death. I caught my breath in the wake of that call, thankful that I had such friendship.

The death of my friend, Ron, was one that was expected. His health had been in decline for some time. His family had gathered for an anniversary a month or so before and gave us an occasion to talk of his life and his expected death. He was eighty five years of age, by the damn calendar, but his spirit was timeless. He had a youthful verve that defied carbon dating, as his childlike enthusiasm rocked the people who shared his space. It came as no surprise to me that he was made “King” of his retirement residence as he has the type of personality that attracts others. He was one of those people I think of as “mayor”, a person whom attracts groups and provides a center of gravity that holds things together.

As a part of Dogwood Hills, he was one of the first adults that treated me like I was a person, not just a kid. I got a profound sense that he valued me and my being, which is a priceless gift to afford to a stumbling adolescent. Ron made me feel like I counted, that my thoughts were of value. He did this mostly by listening, which conveys value. I learned that truth from him and it’s what I tried to do with the kids I worked with in my ministry. He was my model.

I have three specific memories of Ron. The first was when I was in college. Ron invited me to join him at his favorite bar, Clarence Fosters, naturally located on fabled Peachtree Road. I remember him ordering his favorite drink, a Brandy Alexander, which felt so sophisticated to me as I ordered my obligatory 7&7. Ron had that kind of exotic air, like I was meeting Tennessee Williams for a drink to discuss the literary landscape. Faulkner, Flannery, or Faith were possible subjects for our conversation, a different agenda than most of my fraternity talk. Again, the gift was the accord given by time and listening, our talk around things that mattered. It was holy space that I valued, and then tried to recreate with others throughout my life, but it started there.

The second is a trip to the Southern Baptist conference center, Ridgecrest in the mountains of North Carolina. We were “forced” to stay in a hotel off site, “no room at the inn” as the story goes. It allowed us a pool and the opportunity to share a bottle of wine, which forbidden on the holy ground of Ridgecrest. T. Lee Stephens, our Associate Pastor, Ron, and I had come to attend a curriculum conference to look over possible resources for Christian education. As we arrived, we found the wine inventory to be quite limited at the Mini Mart, so we wound up with the WORST bottle of wine ever produced on God’s green earth. It was made by Gallo, if I am not mistaken, but it was a terrible type of sweet wine, Ron’s choice, called a Pink Chablis. This was horrible, but it became our signature gift to one another through the years at momentous times in our lives, such as my wedding, Lee’s coming to work with me in Tyler, and Ron’s retirement. It’s not that easy to find these days, which only proves that the universe does indeed bend toward a moral goal.

My favorite memory is from a time when I was leading a youth retreat at Folly Beach. One of my counselors had to bail at the last minute leaving me a small group leader short for the week. I called Ron and asked if he could fill in. In a Baylor Bear heartbeat, he said “yes” and flew into Charleston to come to my assistance. I picked him up at the airport in my green CJ 5 Jeep, with the proverbial rag top off. Ron threw his duffle bag into the back and down the highway we flew for him to meet my kids, his new best friends. Turning to the side to fill him in as we drove, I witnessed the unceremonious flapping in the breeze of his toupee, a sight that did not last long as he removed it before it flew away into the humid Charleston air. That is a memory that I can not “unsee”, thank God.

I have been asked to eulogize Ron at a memorial service at his Episcopal church a week from now. Preparing for that moment, my memories of Ron and other friends have been dancing in my mind. I have no doubt that I will fail in conveying his essence in the words I craft in the crucible of my writing about this marvelous mystery of a human being. But I hope I can capture just a breath of the grace he gave to me, the grace all of my friends grant as they give me the precious gift of connection called friendship.

I am most grateful. Gift, indeed.


To write “one true sentence” was a nugget, a commandment if you will, that I took from an American writer. I am reminded this week, watching Ken Burns’ work on country music, of the homespun poetry of songwriters who weave a story that nestles truth. Writing has always been a love of mine that, like any lover, demands my best energy and attention. This past year has allowed me time to work on two manuscripts, one on my theory and practice of leadership and another on my stories of being a priest. My love demands time and focused energy, but it’s a labor of love and soul satisfying.

But I also am enjoying spending a good bit of my time coaching. This is a new means of delivering care and help to others, assisting people in developing both professionally and personally. Coaching is often thought of as something one does for athletes in sport, but it has a more general application to coming alongside a fellow person and assisting them in doing whatever they are wanting to do. This new means and mode of helping others has my attention.

I have been coaching all my life, be it a youth soccer team, young couples preparing for marriage, or training freshly minted clergy who are beginning their careers. My work of helping people grow began formally as a psychotherapist, working with individuals who had hit a rough patch in their road, or were looking to be more intentional in their negotiation of a transition in their life. This therapeutic work with individual persons was a rich part of my life, being entrusted with the sacred stories they brought to tell me where they had been, why they are as they are, and where they want to go in their future.

Extending that work to couples when I served as Canon Pastor at the Cathedral, I enjoyed helping young couples prepare for marriage in a workshop format as well as working in couples therapy sessions. For many couples, it was after “the fall” that happens predictably as the illusion of having married the “perfect” person wear off, or having the so-called “dream” marriage break down in a variety of ways. The couple comes in seeking to repair the break and get their relationship back on track. It’s hard work, but incredibly important. I was able to do some creative work, dealing with families and the dynamics in play as they seek to be a healthy unit of care. But the individual person seeking to grow was always my favorite within the context of the intimacy of the therapeutic alliance.

I began work as a consultant early on in my time in priesthood working with congregations that were troubled. Facing the daunting reality of change in leadership at the Cathedral, I studied the discipline of change management and applied it to the specific transition happening at the largest Episcopal parish in our country. The lessons I learned through that change I later applied to my work at Christ Church, Tyler and to the change we were enacting in the Diocese of Texas. Change and transformation has been the theme that has been the consistent focus in my work, in people, in marriage, in families, in congregations, in organizations, and even in cities.

The last decade, I have worked specifically in healthcare in the work of transformation, using a turnaround model developed by Dr. Robert Miles and employed by my firm, Galloway Consulting. I have worked with CEOs and various C suite leaders to transform the work of health organizations to become more adept at delivering higher quality care in a more efficient and less costly way. This remains a most challenging work that my colleagues and I strive to make a significant contribution to our nation’s effort to do better and be more responsive to this human need of healthcare.

In this work, I have used a method called coaching, in which I come alongside a leader to assist him/her in the work and art of leadership. I had added to my expertise by training in the discipline of coaching, becoming certified by the leading organization of coaching, the International Coaching Federation. With that, I have been teaching the discipline of coaching as well as consulting with others who are training to be coaches.

The coaching I do is a bit of a hybrid model, bringing both a coach specific process that relies on the native gifts of the client to set the agenda and direction of the work, as well as bringing my specific expertise to inform that process in concert with my client. It’s a much more practical work as it assists the real life work of my client in the present moment and in his/her plans for the future. I believe in the modality of coaching as an excellent way to address the way people can develop as human beings in their personal lives as well as in their professional work.

One of the things I value about coaching is that the starting point of the work assumes that the person has all the answers within the self, needing some assistance in becoming more aware of those gifts and then deciding on how best to use them. This is the key: coaching assumes that people are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. Unlike traditional psychotherapy that has a starting point of fixing or managing pathology, coaching assists in the person’s native ability and instincts as to where he/she wants to go. The coach helps the person decide how to get there. For me, this is exciting work.

Presently, I am enjoying the variety of clients I am engaged with in coaching. I work with the CEO of a major healthcare organization in planning the effectiveness of his leadership, the evolution of his team, and his own life as a husband, father, and person.

I am working with a wide variety of clergy who are looking for ways to be faithful pastors and leaders in this most challenging of times. I do this both for individual clergy, but in a group context as well as we support and challenge one another in the context of a community. One of the gifts I am able to bring to this work is an independence from denominational structures that may have specific agenda and limiting perspectives.

I am working with a variety of non-profit leaders who are seeking to grow their organizations. As a former leader of a non-profit, the landscape of leadership is particularly challenging with the use of volunteers as major resources in the life of the organization. I have learned a lot from working with non-profit boards that must be faithful to fiduciary concerns while simultaneously desirous of being creative in their responses to the needs of their communities. The area of leadership has always been a source of energy and fascination, continuing to energize my spirit.

I am working with older professionals who are negotiating an impending retirement. How do they “end well”, setting up the next chapter in their lives for continued enjoyment and personal development. Having been in my own process of ending and new beginning, this is an exciting new piece of work for me.

I have been working with persons who are in transition from one career to another. For years, I worked with folks who had “first acts” in one career that left them “dry” and wanting more meaning. These intrepid souls dig deep, finding the courage to move into a new venture that promises to be more satisfying personally. This can be dangerous work but also exciting to assist in the birthing of a new life of passion.

Another birthing of sorts happens in my old world of working with the stories of those who are seeking to grow spiritually into a life that is prompted by the Spirit, calling one into a new way of being. I have done this for years as a spiritual director for clergy, even monks, who are wanting to grow as faithful persons, but now I am finding myself doing this with “all sorts and conditions” of folks, notably lay people who now find their life structure is providing a new found freedom to break out of the moorings that have constrained them in the past.

This work of coaching is claiming my best time and energy these days. I still write, and hope to keep doing that with a passion to meet that Hemingway challenge of writing that “one true sentence” from which all good work flows. I am sure that Ken Burns work will inspire me as he exposes the truth of country music: three chords and the truth.

If you are interested in finding a coach to help you move more intentionally into the next chapter of your life, I would be happy to help you find the right coach. Just drop me a note here or write to me at . A good coach can be the catalyst that will propel your story into a new chapter.

South of God?

Dreams can become nightmares if you are not careful. I shared two significant dreams over the last two weeks, dreams that pointed the way in my decision making. I continue to pay attention to my dreams, my inner work of reflection, and journaling. And meditation provides a centering that I would hate to be without in my life. But, I also have valued the power of good old fashioned reason in terms of making decisions. De-ciding mean literally killing off some options for one’s life, a necessary fact of life. Saying “No” to somethings frees you to say a big “Yes” to your passion.

Today, I want to walk you through a long process that I went through in making a life decision. It has both reliance on focused and careful attention on the outer world as well as openness to promptings of the inner life. I am also hoping to to answer some questions that some readers have asked, notably one: why South of God? Where did you come up with that odd title?

Obviously, I grew up in the South, even though Atlanta is a bit of an oasis, an island, or a isolation cell, depending on your perspective. The South, like it or not, is the context of my thinking, my starting point. I mostly treasure my Southern heritage but have also recoiled when I am brought face-to-face with its atrocities. South is where I am fated to begin my story.

So South of God. How did that phrase emerge? I had completed my college, seminary, and my doctoral course work. I had spent time as a youth minister in a great community of Christians, South of God, that is, Southern Baptists, according to my mentor, Carlyle Marney. I had even tried going as an associate pastor to a South of God, Higher Than Roman Church, Northside Drive Baptist which was Jimmy Carter’s church when he was Governor. It had all the trappings of Catholic worship, but not the spirit. I used to kid the members that they were a bunch of Baptists who were looking for a church that did not clash with their Mercedes. It was quite tony, on the edge of the Buckhead disttict of Atlanta. And while I loved the people and the setting, there was just something missing.

For some time, I longed for a sacrament-centered worship with the weekly Eucharist providing a spiritual grounding. I won’t bother you with historical or theological reasons here. It was what I  intuitively knew I needed for the road ahead. Of course, the natural answer was the Roman Catholic Church. Since I had some familiarity with the Trappist monks and Ignatian spirituality, I hesitatingly  entertained Rome as a real possibility.

As I seriously studied and investigated the possibilites, interviewing a number of priests and even a bishop, my doubts about this course emerged. After a brief flirtation with the Roman Church, I became clear that this boy was not going to be able to fade the celibacy clause in the contract of being a priest. Soon after making this decision, I met my wife. Her name was Mary. Now, I can’t begin to tell you the massive amount of grief my Trappist monk friends and Dominican priests gave me when I told them I was in love with a girl, a maiden, named Mary. Of course you are, they laughed.

With that decision made, where might I live out my life in ministry? Maybe I would teach in a seminary…you didn’t have to be a priest to do that. I was well on my way to that. All I needed was to find a community, a place to worship.  I had been attracted to the Episcopal Church by some television broadcasts from a downtown Atlanta Episcopal Church, St. Luke’s. There was cherubic-faced priest who would talk about Jesus that was familiar, that made sense, that made me feel connected. His name was Tom Bowers and he had started a revolution downtown, making the city more humane through the presence of the church.

His assistant, Father Charlie Sumners, led the Folk Mass, playing his guitar, leading the congregation singing, Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog. Besides helping him drink his wine, I found a spirit of joy that had been missing, all centered around a communal celebration of the Eucharist, or as it was known in my South of God past, holy communion.

My wife, Mary (remember her from the monks) and I decided to try on this new way of worship on and enrolled in the Confirmation class led by Dan Matthews, who followed Bowers at St. Luke’s, and presented a winsome picture of the Christian faith. He had surrounded himself with an awesome group of talented, bright priests who made Luke’s an exciting place to be. I later accused Dan on “skewing” me by leading me to assume that all Episcopal churches had bright, courageous clergy.

Mary and I quickly became a part of the community at St. Luke’s, worshiping on Sunday, sitting on the  left side, halfway down, right behind the Girardeau’s, Jean Cobb, and Doc Willis. The fresco at the front of the church became an operative image for me, that of the Good Shepherd, who leaves the ninety-nine in order to find the lost one. I loved that radical notion of God’s love and it was what St. Luke’s was incarnating in its ministries in Atlanta.

I found myself doing clinical work at the Training and Counseling Center there and working with the street people that St. Luke’s fed through their daily soup kitchen. It may have been the most creative time of my life.

After a year in the parish, I expressed my interest in exploring a vocation to the Episcopal priesthood to Dan, my Rector. There was a highly structured program in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta to help one make that decision, at least that was the party line that they told me. Truth was, the Vocational Testing Program was a nine month process that could weed out the folks who should not be ordained and inflicted upon the good people of the Episcopal Church.

It consisted of four quarters, just like a football game. At the end, the supervisors would decide who could go on to seminary to train to be a parish priest. And, they would help the folks not approved for seminary to find a way to exercise their ministry as lay people in their home parish.

The nine months were the most rigorous and taxing time I have ever gone through. Part of it had to do with the stakes on the table. Every person who entered the process had talked to their local priest about their sense of being called to ordained ministry. They had gone through a local committee process of discernment in which one’s fellow parish members asked the tough question: why in the world do you want to be a priest? And then ask a tougher question of themselves: can I see this person as my priest? So after this, a person’s desire to be a priest is made public, which is sort of a precarious place to be.

After the parish approved aspirants, a fancy name for “I want to be a priest!”, one would begin a process of discernment, experiencing a structured series of activities that are designed to raise pressing issues that are relevant to life in the priesthood.

The first quarter was comprised of being in a hospital, visiting sick people with a badge that said Chaplain. It was a highly structured time of being in an institution with some necessarily strict rules. Each week, you would meet with your fellow aspirants along with two  supervisors who would ask pressing questions about your motivation and note the issues that arose internally. This quarter was designed to discover how one dealt with institutional structure. Would you lay down in compliance, would you rebel, consciously or unconsciouly, or would you find a way of being that both respected the structure while moving gracefully within it?

The second quarter was just the opposite. Rather than structure, the aspirant was asked to create his/her own urban experience. How might you experience the reality of the city that might press your level of comfort? What could you do to help you understand the urban setting in a fresh way? Unstated, the quarter was asking the question of how you deal with freedom. Could you be creative in the context of ambiguity? Many people decided to go into the night life scene of Atlanta to see what might emerge internally. Some orchestrated a ride in a police patrol car. Some went to strip bars or to a trans show bar, such as the infamous Sweet Gum Head. I did it all. I even spent a night on the streets of Atlanta without any ID or money. Time of your life, huh kid? said Guido the Killer Pimp.

The third quarter was a little more expected. We were to spend time in a parish other than our own. We were to negotiate with the local priest as to our function, teaching a class, administering communion, leading prayers, something that would let us “try on” the role of a symbol bearer. I decided to return to my home town of East Point to the Episcopal parish of the Resurrection, which was just down the street from my home church, South of God. The priest allowed me to preach which proved to be a touching moment and time of affirmation of my gifts. For other aspirants, it was  a profound moment of discomfort and painful awareness that this just didn’t “fit”.

At the end of the third quarter, the supervisors announced their decision as to whether the aspirant got the approval to go on to seminary. Those who did not get the approval took the time to figure out how they might reengage their ministry back in their home parish. The supervisors gave me their approval so I was able to move toward ordination in the Episcopal Church. But one of the supervisors gave me a worthy comment as to what she saw in me. She thoughtfully offered the thought that she could easily see me in the role of a prophet, that is, one who stands on the edge of the faith community, a person in the margins, reminding the Church of the needs of the world and calling them to be faithful. She paused and then offered another insight, which rang in my mind and soul for some time: I wonder about you being a priest, because a priest’s role is to stand in the center of the faith community and gather them. She had read my mail.  I had allowed her to see my soul, and she called it right. It was to be my perennial issue, seeking to balance the priest/prophet identity. Her words haunt me.

Truth is, nothing prepares you for the work and life of a priest, but this process gave me a clearer sense of vocation, a call to that life’s work. It has formed my notion of “calling”, or vocation, as a “fit” between one’s particular and peculiar constellation of gifts with the current needs of the community. For me, it is a pragmatic thing, a functional definition of my role within the church, although the symbolic dimension is undeniable. All the words in this sentence are carefully chosen and refined, but seem true. It gave me the courage and resolve to say a “yes” to the call I had wrestled with in my life. The life I chose to live gave me both a blessing and a limp.

This was how I made the decision to become a priest in the Episcopal part of the Church that attempts to follow the Christ. I have been able to serve the street people of Atlanta, the wealthiest elite of Atlanta, the swaggering Texans of Tyler, and the cocooned suburbanites. They have taught me volumes about the human condition and even more about my self. I have found and claimed intellectual freedom in my time, as well as a profound dependence on the Spirit that resides in Creation and connects us all. It’s been quite a ride for this pilgrim treading the path of faith in this world. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

But, make no mistake, I come from the Southside, that is, the southside of Atlanta, and of course, South of God.

Look in the Mirror, My Friend

I’ve been focused on dreams during the last few weeks, recounting a few, and teasing out a basic way to track them and your inner life. Thanks to so many of you who have shared your dreams and your intent to try on journaling as a method to center your life.

Be kind to yourself, as moving into this discipline is often daunting and frustrating. Just trust the process. If you forget to journal, gently return the next chance you get. When I start to beat up on myself for not being faithful to the promises I made to myself to do this, to do that, I remind myself of an admonition of a Texas friend of mine: Don’t be so hard on yourself. That’s what we’re here for!

Last week, I shared a LONG dream with three parts, the longest dream I have ever remembered, although other persons seem to do that regularly. I point you to a book by Robert Johnson, Between Heaven and Earth, in which he included numbers of dreams that are lengthy. Those interested could dive into Carl Jung’s own memoir, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections for a rich journey into the inner world. My lengthy, three part dream occurred on the night before my ordination to priesthood at a holy space in my life. You could say, the bases were loaded.

The dream I want to share today is much shorter, compact, but actually more consequential. It happened one night when I was ending my seminary education and was trying to decide where I wanted to go to pursue my doctoral studies. I had been working with Jim Fowler, a leading figure in the psychology of religion. He had taken the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget, and the extension of that work into moral reasoning by Lawrence Kohlberg, and extended it further into how people make sense out of life, that is, how they come to have faith, or not.

Fowler maintained that faith is a human universal, that is, we all have it. Pause and and wrap your mind around that for a second. Do you think it is a natural thing for people for have faith? By that, Fowler is pointing out that faith is a way of seeing the world as a trustworthy place, not necessarily filled out with religious images and stories, but an orientation to life. For Fowler, faith is what humans do in answering the basic question of what is the nature of the world in which we live and how we live in it. This is true of all human being be nature of living.

He went on to postulate that there are predictable stages of faith that we move through during the course of life that parallels our the development of our cognitive structures, that is, the way we know the world. He dedicated his life and his research at the Center for Faith Development at Emory to articulate six stages and then did cross-cultural research to validate this theory. For more depth, go to his seminal work, Stages of Faith.

Fowler came to Emory after completing his doctorate at Harvard and teaching there. He had filled out some of his theory about how we come to faith during his work at Interpreter’s House, a retreat center for ministers at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. That work was led by Dr. Carlyle Marney, a noted Baptist minister who had been an huge influence in my life, affording me space to live and think beyond my cultural limitations.

Fowler and I hit Emory about the same time and I found myself naturally drawn to his work. In fact, my “life question” had become the perplexing query: why do some people have faith and others do not? I was curious, with a self interest driving my quest: Why do some people sense the presence of the Divine, even in the face of great tragedy? Why do some leave a gaze at the reality at the universe and intuit a Creator, and others do not. What’s going on with all the variety of religious experiences that people talk about? What am I to make of the highly choreographed ritual of a formal religious setting as well as the free-form dance of a Pentecostal tent meeting? These questions more than fascinated me but were existential in nature, given my own experience: what was I going to do with God, a reality that was infused in my Southern way of life? What do I make of this?

So, here I am with this pressing issue, and along comes this tall, bearded man with his own considered idea of what faith is. The timing was perfect, synchronistic perhaps. Fowler was looking for a hungry, ambitious student and I was looking for a mentor. It was a natural connection, made “in heaven” as they say.

Jim Fowler had developed a doctoral program that would focus on the faith development theory as well as the wider field of the psychology of religion. He talked with me early on about me being one of the first students in that program as it was set to get underway after I had graduated from seminary. The Woodruff grant that came through for Emory would not only fund my doctoral studies but also pay a stipend for me to serve as his graduate assistant. It sounded promising and yet there was a rub.

I had been a Baptist student at a United Methodist seminary. If I planned on staying in the Baptist stable of horses (leave the quip of “asses” out please), it made sense for me to do my doctoral work in a Southern Baptist seminary in order to render me kosher. I had made an earlier significant connection with Dr. Glenn Hinson, a professor at Southern Seminary in Louisville. Glenn was a specialist in spirituality though his credentials were from Oxford (England, to my Elvis fans) in patristics. Glenn had a saint-like quality for me, and the thought of being his graduate assistant was more than a little seductive.

So I was entering this final year of seminary with two clear options: stay at Emory and continue this ground-breaking work with Fowler, or, go to Louisville to sit at the feet of a hero in faith.

Two notes need to be made. First, Fowler was a big man, a hulking figure that moved surprisingly nimbly through the halls. He spoke with a particular lecture style, noted for his use of hands, making his points with flair. And one other thing: he had a beard. When I first got to Emory, I had brought my baby face with me, but soon grew a beard. Although I claimed I had grown it for a part in a play, I am pretty sure it was an unconscious way to follow my leader. My size and my beard, even my way of talking with my hands, earned me the appellation of “Little Jim”, something I dug early on, but would develop a resistance to as I needed to develop my own identity.

The other thing to note is my sense of the Baptist church. There had been a recent run by more fundamentalist voices in the Southern Baptist universe that was, in fact, threatening intellectual freedom on the campus at Southern. Conservative students were known to tape the lectures of professors, attempting to expose their liberal ways to the wider Baptist world. It was ironic that these forces targeted such holy people like Glenn Hinson to face their wrathful attacks. While Southern was known as having a world class faculty and intellectual integrity, this onrush of a reactionary witch hunt colored the reality of that campus, and make me wonder how I would fare.

With these two factors swirling in my mind, I found myself torn as to which way to go. Those options danced in my head as I went to bed one night after a night out with friends at a local restaurant.

In the dream, I got up from my bed in the morning and proceeded into the bathroom to get ready for my daily trip to the library. I went through my normal shower and rituals, only then to look into the bathroom mirror. There I saw that I had shaved off my beard. I looked first in surprise, and then in horror. I had taken off a distinctive part of my personality by shaving my face. I began to weep, and woke in tears.

It does not take much to get the message in this bottle. After recording my dream and my accompanying feelings, I spoke to a couple of friends about the experience. And then, I drove to the monastery to talk with my spiritual director, whose casual laughter at the comic scene helped me to gain perspective. something Tom is so good at.

As you can imagine, the connection, or warning, seemed clear. The facial hair was a clear link to Fowler and his work. The warning seemed to urge me to be careful in letting that go. It urged me not to take the expected path, but to intentionally choose where I should invest my time and energy. It would not be the last time I would have to make that kind of critical decision.

I made my decision to remain at Emory and Fowler, prompted by that dream. I feels odd to admit that now, though I have always said it, half jokingly, but absolutely. Something from deep inside was telling me, warning me, to be careful in giving away my soul.

Truth is, dreams are rarely clear. The images bring multilayered meanings and are only suggestive. However, they are important to pay attention to, and I have made a point to “tend” to them to see what insights they may bring.

How do you “tend” to dreams? One suggestion is to take the images that are in the dream and begin by free associating, writing down all reflections that may come to mind. Let me put an emphasis on the word “all”. Try not to censor any idea that comes and just write it down for further reflection. The notion of “playing” with those images has worked for me, prompting me to move into a deep reflection on what is going on in my present context, what things in the past might the image recall to mind, and to what future might the dream point.

Let me encourage you to try it out for the next few months. Try to remember your dreams. I once heard one person suggest that one make a statement or a prayer before going to bed, that you would remember your dreams from the coming night. Write the dream down upon awakening in a journal that is private. And then invest the time in rereading the dream later, processing it in a time of wonder and curiosity.

Some people find that a “trusted other” is valuable in this process, such as a coach, a therapist or a spiritual director. Others find it helpful to meet in a group that shares their dreams and collectively reflect on the image. Or you may feel more comfortable doing this dream work in solitude. Regardless, why not open up to the inner life that may whisper wisdom. Let me know how it goes.

Dreams offer us insights into our inner world. Sometimes the messages seem clear, and others seem like clues to the workings within our deeper self. It is easy to become overwhelmed by busyness in our outer lives and activities that we miss what’s really going on. As my patron saint, Ferris of Buehler, reminds us: In life, you have to slow down sometimes, and pause, or you might just miss it.


Don’t Tell Anyone…

For the last few weeks, I have been writing about dreams, and my process of journaling about those dreams and my inner thoughts. I want to tell you about the strangest, funniest, and most perplexing dream of my life. Tellingly, it came to me on the night before I was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.

I had gone on a day retreat to the Trappist monastery I call “home” in Conyers, Georgia, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. I had been hanging out there over the years, including regularly meeting with my spiritual director, a senior monk. It seemed natural for me to be in retreat there prior to my ordination. I would spend the night in the retreat house and then return to the Cathedral in Atlanta for the ordination ceremony.

That night, my dream had three parts, or as my therapist would later say, a triptych, referring to a three paneled object of art.

The first part found me in a line of monks dressed in the traditional hooded robes that monastics wear. It was a long line processing into a space that had all the familiar appointments of the Trappist monastery in Conyers, but it was set in a maritime forest, much like the lush greenery of my beloved Cumberland Island. The gray robes were in contrast with the lush green of the forest, a distinction that I would play with later. I remember that the wind was a wonderfully cool breeze as we walked in, bending the foliage gently to and fro, suggestive of the name given to the Holy Spirit monastery.

As I arrived at the front, I went and climbed into a pulpit on the right. I stood there in the pulpit and looked out. I did not say a word. I was just there. Silent. I had no anxiety or nervousness, but just felt centered, at peace. I stood quietly in that position until the dream shifted.

The second part of the dream found me walking with my best friend, David. David and I had worked together at two churches in Atlanta and had both followed a path from the Baptist church into the Episcopal church. We had played music together, notably “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young along with some Eagles tunes, with its daunting harmonies, pushing both our guitar and vocal skills. We also shared the infield duties on a local church softball team, trying to manage our way through the fierce competition that was anything but Christian. He is the godfather to my firstborn child and has shared many times with my wife and me, namely a Willie Nelson 4th of July concert where I almost lost my life in front of the stage watching Linda Ronstadt. What I’m telling you is that we were connected by more than a highly valenced first name.

In the dream, David and I were walking in what I recognized as Six Flags Over Georgia, something we had actually done in younger days as youth ministers. All of the familiar amusement rides seemed to be in place with the Scream Machine, the Runaway Mine Cars, the Sky Buckets that would transport you to various parts of the park. But the place that got my attention was a theater called The Chevy Show. It was a geodesic structure where you would sit on benches and watch a 3D movie of new cars Chevrolet was bringing out the next year, along with some jazzy futuristic designs. It was popular not only for the entertainment with the new high tech video and sound system but more importantly, sitting down in air-conditioning as a respite from the Georgia summer heat and humidity.

In front of the Chevy Show was a sign with a clock, indicating when the next show was to begin. In my dream, this familiar sign said that the next show was to be on the “Oceanic Experience”, and the lecturer was none other than famed oceanic explorer, Jacque Cousteau. I quickly told David that we needed to be there for this. He agreed.

We went inside, the dome overhead with the screen in front. People had already started assembling, seated as they do in reality, in rows of pine planks, perched on metal posts, arranged in a semicircle.

On the sides of the structure were contoured green felt forms that reminded me of pictures I saw as a kid of the Mercury astronauts capsule seats. David and I found our forms and strapped in. I remember thinking that our backs were literally against the wall. A note here: David was also in the group of folks who were training to become priests…so the form fits!

The lights dimmed, indicating that the Chevy Show was beginning. The entire building seemed to simulate a rolling wave, much like the feeling one gets being on a boat on the sea, appropriate to an oceanic experience. Suddenly, at the front, a man in a khaki uniform stands and begins to lecture about the ocean. But is was not Jacques Cousteau, as advertised, but Chris Collins, the head of the maintenance department at the Cathedral where David and I worked. Chris began to lecture about the ocean, and as he did various sea creatures would rise up from the floor, gently moving up and down as if they were swimming in the sea. A dolphin, a sea turtle, a sea horse (odd), a shark, and a octopus were part of the oceanic menagerie on display.

I wanted to get a closer look and so I unbuckled my seat belt and moved toward one of the creatures, the dolphin. As I got close, I saw that it was coming from a hole in the floor, attached to a pole that mimicked the wave movement. I got down by the hole, and peered inside and saw a series of intricate gears. like that of a clock, moving in circles to drive the action. I looked up and saw Jacques Cousteau, THE Jacques Cousteau sitting on the bench nearby, with his traditional watch cap on. I said to him in exasperation, “It’s not real!” to which he nodded and said with caution, “Don’t tell anybody!”.

Suddenly, the whole building seemed to be moving, inverting the space so that the people on the rows were hanging upside down, and I was tumbling. End of secord part of the dream.

The third part of the dream was my friend, David, again, and Woodie, another co-worker at the Cathedral. We were in my green Jeep CJ5 which I had at the time, and we were crossing the top of a ridge in what looked like the North Georgia mountains. Woodie was riding shotgun and David was in the jumpseat in the back. As I was looking down into the valley, I saw a cabin, lights coming from the window, and smoke coming from the chimney. Woodie saw the cabin and remarked, “Ralph (her husband) and I have a cabin just like that.” I turned to her and looked intently as I said, almost reverently, “Woodie, don’t ever lose that!. End of dream.

Three parts of a dream: a pastoral nature scene, a simulated oceanic experience, and a warm, comfy cabin in the woods. I wrote it down upon awakening at the desk in my retreat room. After breakfast, I shared it with my spiritual director and another monk friend that morning. I told the dream to my wife that afternoon. I took it the next week to my therapist and we played with it for the next few months.

What comes to your mind when you read this message in the bottle from my dream? Before you read some of the material I unearthed, what does it trigger in your mind and soul, beside the diagnosis that this is one troubled, conflicted soul? What strikes you about this dream? Take a few moments before you move on. Pause and reflect. Which of the three parts grabs you attention? Which of the three troubles you? What makes you smile? What questions come to mind? Pause, if just for a minute before moving ahead. Invest a moment in reflection. If I were producing a television drama, like Yellowstone, I would stop now, creating tension to be resolved while my sponsors manipulate your mind. If it were a reality show, I would tease you with possibilities for “the most dramatic ending in the history of this show”.

Tempting to make you wait for a week. But, no.

So much rich material here to mess with. There is the naturalness of the “cathedral in the forest” which begins the dream and seems to fit my Druid tendencies. My mystical experiences of connection have come mainly in nature settings where the reality of Creation breaks through my isolation and ties me to something larger than myself. In years of working with people in their spiritual experience, I know this is not uncommon. What was unique was the juxtaposition of being in a pulpit, but rather than bringing worth by my thinking and my words, I was simply there in my being. There was a peace that felt so satisfying that seemed to be native to my soul. This was counter to my experience in my early life where my very worth was weighed by the profundity and erudition I could display in my sermonizing. That performance art had a high price of anxiety that I carried with me all week as I prepared, and peaked when I climbed into that pulpit. How different this was, not producing “something”, a sermon, but rather merely and profoundly, being, just being. I have had that scene repeat at various moments in my journey on this earth, always valued by me, merely and profoundly.

The middle portion of the dreams is chocked full of symbolism. The “oceanic experience” is the very term Freud used to describe religion, and so it was fascinating that it was the title to the show I was attending. My therapist noted that the key to dreams is sometimes the “joke” that is implied. In this dream, the clearest twist was that rather than have someone who had been an ocean explorer speak, it was the head of maintenance who stepped up to deliver the lecture. Clearly, religion gone bad is when people merely talk about and describe a religious experience rather than actually experiencing the Spirit themselves. Looking beneath the floor to see the workings of a machine, rather than real life, could be a warning of what may be ahead of me in my future role in the church as a priest. I was not an innocent, having witnessed the sausage being made in the bureaucracy of the church, but I had much to learn of the politics, drama, and treachery. And how curious to have ole Jacques caution me to keep this truth to myself and not to share it. What was I to do with that word?

Finally, the last part of the dream seemed to re-mind me of the base out of which all things proceed, that is, the relationships that provide the spirit that animates all things. Woodie and Ralph were a couple with whom I spent Friday after work at a Scottish bar, the Piper’s Roost, where we sat at table and shared food and drink…a real communion in my book. As one who was newly married, I admired the life Woodie and Ralph had and the quality of their relationship. It seemed to be an inner wisdom that was urging to pay attention to my primary relationship that is so easily compromised in the busyiness of church.

I worked with this dream specifically for months, turning over the images and looking underneath for life and insights. It turned out to be a powerful prompting from my inner life about what to value, what to watch for, and what to hold onto. How I managed that journey, with these insights in tow, are part of the work that I do these days as I hit this time in my life when reflection and review take a priority.

My point in sharing this dream with you is to encourage you to note the dreams that come to you while you sleep and your defense structures are down. In those unguarded moments, what images come to the surface? When you dream, why not write them down and spend some time wondering what message may be in the bottle?

This is the only three-part dream I can remember, as most times, my dreams are much shorter. Remembering the dreams, writing them down on paper, and then investing the time and energy in playful seriousness, probing the images for the truth they may hold….this is worthy work. It is a part of being a human on this earth. What truth about yourself and this world has come to you?

I will share another dream next week, a much shorter one, by which I made a life-changing decision. In the meantime, dream on.

Dream, Dream, Dream….

Last week, I recalled a dream that was prompted by my learning of a friend’s diagnosis with late-term cancer. The dream was transformational as it called me to reorient my attitude toward reality, and I was unusually wise to take that message seriously. This week, after several questions from readers about my process, I decided to describe my way of playing ball with my dreams and other promptings.

From early on, during college, I began a process of journaling each day. It be began when a professor walked into class and put a simple question on the blackboard: I am…… He asked us to spend the next fifteen minutes to write down whatever came to mind. He tellingly used the world “invest” as it conveys the sense of value implied in setting aside one’s limited time to look within. Back then, time seemed cheap. Like my peers, life seemed unlimited, time would go on and on. Later, when winter comes, the notion of time takes on a new dimension of scarcity. There is only so much to go around in this wild, crazy life. “Invest” takes on an urgency in tone.

But the professor was trying to lead us with his words as a tonic against our careless notions of time: he implored, invited us to “invest”. This time was to be a reflective process of thinking about one’s self. He asked this group of mostly freshmen to ask a basic identity question, writing down identifiers of who one thought one was. He offered some direction in terms of setting aside time to think about how you see yourself, how other people see you. He encouraged a type of free-association, jotting down whatever floats to the surface of consciousness, not judging them as good or bad, just writing on the page in front of you.

This proved to be a method I have used all my life. I call it journaling. Although I have evolved a process after years of research and practice, encountering the rigorous discipline of Ira Progoff and his Intensive Journal method, and the free-wheeling style of writers who use their journal to surface fresh material, it remains, at heart, a simple process. This journaling, which I have written about here in South of God, primes the pump as it situates one between the conscious awareness and the inner world of the unconscious. Between those two worlds that are within each human being, there is a threshold that is permeable in some of us, and quite segregated, even highly defended in others.

Tending to the connections between the inner world and the outer world is the overarching topic of a book I pulled off my Jung shelf. It is called Balancing Heaven and Earth, which is the memoir of noted Jungian analyst and writer, Robert Johnson. I have been moved by his transparency in relating his life journey, his insights, his blindspots, and his wonderings. Most fascinating to me are the moments of life he names as “slender threads” where connections are made that seem to come from the “beyond”, moments that seem to be guided by some transcendent force. In my early work in South of God, I termed these moments as “twists of fate” as opposed to the defining moments in which we have to decide our course. Most of those moments for me seem to only be seen in retrospect, or in the rear-view mirror of reflecting on one’s life. I tend to make those assertions of “guidance” much more slowly than Johnson, but he was older and wiser when he was writing. Perhaps there is hope for me yet.

One of the things Balancing Heaven and Earth does is relate actual dream content, a dream that one has that is a message from the inner world with some symbolic hint as to what may be going on. Johnson has a rich dream life and is generous in sharing elaborate dreams with his readers. I have had some rich dreams as well in times when decisions were on the line, dreams that I took seriously in determining my path for the future. I will be sharing a few of those in the next few weeks in the hopes it might prompt you to begin paying attention to these messages from your inner world.

But first, let me give you what I promised: a method.

I keep a journal, which I keep dated as I go, writing a time stamp at the top of the page. both the date and time of day. In my swirling world, I like to keep my journaling in one volume so I can 1) get to it quickly and 2) know exactly where this soul material is. I began by using those composition books used in college, easily picked up at the drugstore or office supply. I’ve gone through some elaborate models with formats built in. And I’ve built my own using the latest from productivity purveyors. These days, I am back to where I began, a simple composition book, in homage to T.S. Elliott.

In the journal, I simply record my thoughts in the present moment. I try to note what is happening in my life, so that I can refer back to how I reacted to events in my life, trends of mood at certain times of day. If I had a dream the night before, I will record that first, trying to get a bare-boned description of the dream, capturing the narrative in its most basic form. Later, I can fill it out with dimensions that I missed, forgot, or avoided.

I record in the journal in my first few moments after waking, and then throughout the day, ending with a kind of recap of the day’s event. This free-flowing schedule works for me and my personal quirks, but others seem to find a much more structured method more productive. Here, my pragmatism kicks in. Whatever works is the way to move forward.

In times of intense decision making, or emotional turmoil, I have been known to be much more intensive in my journaling method, going back to the Progoff method. If you are looking for that intensity and careful structure, I recommend the books Progoff produced in order to get a ready framework.

In my everyday journaling, after a significant dream, I will set aside a time to focus on the content and the feel. Either in the flow of the daily journal or in a set aside section dedicated to expansion, I will play off the dream content, with free associations, musings, wondering, with no notion that it will yield anything but additional thoughts. Every so often, the image of Alice chasing the proverbial rabbit enters my mind, and most times, I get a small chuckle, if not a full guffaw. I frame this whole enterprise in the words that my teacher gave to me: playful seriousness, serious playfulness. The implication is both balance, intention, and joy. Wrapped in a spirit of exploration, it works for me.

And so, why not use this Fall, for me always an inviting time of beginnings, to begin a practice of tending to your inner life. It begins with the act of the simple “pause”: to stop in the middle of the action of your wild, crazy life and reflect. To gaze both inside at what is going on within your person: your identity, your roles, your hopes, your fears. Take time to write flowingly or jot quickly the things that come to mind.

Then, pause for another moment, as you reflect on your context: your relationships, your community, what’s going on in your world and note how you are thinking and feeling about the world you are living. Again, it can be a fluid flow of descriptive words or a spackling of words and phrases. Inside and outside, what is going on? What does the surface of your soul look like: calm and serene, choppy, or stormy?

Finally, could this be a time to attend to your dreams? Could you prompt yourself to dream by quietly inviting your dreams to come as you go to sleep? Would you be attentive enough to record your dreams upon awakening? And can it be worth your time and energy to reflect on what you inner self may be trying to tell you? Like my early professor prompted, might you invest?

I’d love to hear your response and decisions. I will be relating to you a few dreams that have come to me in the past in hopes it might be helpful.

Brave journey as you cast off from the safety of the summer harbor, and move into the deep waters of the Fall.

Go and Grow

At a point in my life as a priest, one of my colleagues, another priest, Father
Gary Garnett, received word that he had lung cancer. It was in an advanced stage, with no medical hope. He shared the news with me in my office at the Cathedral, leaving us both in a pool of tears.

It was ironic, because Gary had stopped smoking, adopting a healthy life style, began to work out, especially on an old Schwinn exercise bike that I can still see…not exactly a Pelaton! He was on his way to health…or at least that’s what he thought.

I had met Gary years before. As a young, newly ordained priest, I often was the scheduled Celebrant at the daily Noon Eucharist in Mikell Chapel. The schedule gave each resident priest, called a Canon, one day a week to celebrate the rite of Holy Eucharist, a fancy Episcopal term for communion or Lord’s Supper for Baptist south of God.

I thought it was so generous of the other senior priests to “allow” me to celebrate on their assigned day! Little did I know of the motivation behind their generosity but I was thrilled to get the opportunity. Almost every day at Noon, I would celebrate the Holy Eucharist in that small, intimate chapel tucked beside the massive stone Cathedral. I felt like I was the luckiest priest in the world….or the most blessed (sounds more holy!).

For a number of days, I saw this distinguished looking man, graying hair, with eyes, attentive, with a sparkle, black readers perched on the end of his nose, held in place around his neck with a black cord. He was there, day after day for about a week, which made me wonder, in the immortal words of Butch and Sundance: who is this guy?

Like any bar, we had our regulars. Elizabeth Dickey who lived behind the Cathedral in the high rise retirement facility, Cathedral Towers. She was a cousin of the writer, James, but preferred not to talk of him, just saying, as she laughed nervously, he was a rascal. Phil Sapero who was around the Cathedral any time the doors were open. I was never sure of how he make a living but he was faithful in his attendance.

Elizabeth and Phil were like salt and pepper shakers in my life. Elizabeth always had a good word of encouragement, Phil would offer his latest complaint at the drop of a hat. Phil was always half a second early in his liturgical responses, as if to say he was just a little ahead of the other communicants in his personal holiness. Elizabeth who suffered with Parkinson’s, silently, was about a half a second late in her responses, with a kind of stutter. This irregular cadence kept a young priest on his toes in terms of keeping the rhythm of the rite right! Syncopated liturgy is not pleasing to the nostrils of the Most High God, or at least that is what Bishop Child taught me.

So Gary stood out from the regular crowd that shuffled in. I would always stand in the back, after the Eucharist, to greet the worshipers. It provided a great pastoral moment to check in with folks, what was going on, what was on their hearts and minds. With Gary, it was a perfunctory hand shake and polite hello for many days until I finally was overcome by curiosity.

“I’ve noticed that you are here almost every day for about a week. What’s up with that?”….a shrewd pastoral move I learned from fellow Southsider, Kenan Thompson.

Gary disclosed that he was, in fact, an Episcopal priest. He had been a “a fast track” priest in North Carolina but had “burned out” in the tornadic life of a parish priest. He had left the church, went into the antique business. I did not know him well enough at the time to ask him as to what the difference was! I asked him to join me for lunch, a daily offering of food at the Cathedral by two other players in my personal sitcom, Lamar and Christine. He joined me and told me his story, a fascinating journey of faith and self discovery. It was there, over a carefully weighed salad, that a new friend entered my life.

We continued to have lunch on occasion during the next season, with me finally asking him if he would like to celebrate the Eucharist with me at the Noon service. His eyes lit up like a Tiffany lamp. As we celebrated the Holy Mysteries together at the altar, I sensed his deep spiritual connection which flowed through his presence at this ritual action that, for many priests I had observed, had come to be a pedestrian routine. There was a naturalness, a flow that came easy, but a sense of awe that pervaded his being.

Long story shorter, we slowly increased his presence around the Cathedral with me getting him on the regular schedule of weekday celebrants. I had learned such graciousness from my elder priests! I was able to hire Gary to come onto my pastoral staff as the Pastoral Visitor, visiting our parishioners at the variety of hospitals. He became beloved by those he visited when in extremis in the hospitals as well as the Elizabeth Dickeys of the world. He was a good man, a faithful priest, and a fun guy to be around. He became one of my closest friends and valued colleagues.

So it was peculiarly hard to hear his death sentence. I went home that night very upset, at that time, self-medicating with single malt scotch. When I eventually fell asleep, I had a peculiar dream, one that was rare for me, very distinct. I dreamed I was standing alone in the same chapel where I first met Gary. Except the chapel setting was positioned on the side of the mountain in my beloved Pine Mountain area, Dowdell’s Knob to be specific, a place where FDR would picnic, a place where my grandfather would take me as a child.

I remember being in tears in the dream, a sadness deeper than the ocean of salt water tears. I looked up to the sky and cried out a damnation directed toward the Almighty that I knew dwelt there. “Damn you for letting my friend Gary die. It’s not fair!”


And then in a deep basso profundo voice, with a Southern drawl, of course……He sounded just like my mentor, Carlyle Marney, He said a simple sentence of reassurance that I reckoned was from on High: You let me worry about Gary, and you go grow roses.


That was it? I was expecting a bit more. No ontological explanation, no epistemological argument. Just this simple sentence that was distinctly remembered when I awoke.

I have to say I was gifted by a serenity that even Glenlivet could not give me. There was a calmness that was real, peculiar in the face of my previous sense of upset. I got the part about giving Gary’s fate to God, trusting in God’s grace to ferry him across the river of transition. I had given that pastoral admonition to many who has consulting with me about the vagaries of life. Trust is at the heartbeat of a living faith. Trust Gary to be cared for by God. Check. Got it.

But what about roses? I had no history of roses other than wearing them on Mother’s Day at a Baptist Church to proclaim that my mother was alive. It was a fine unquestioned Southern custom that was just one of many. But grow roses?

I can’t remember the exact sequence of events but I took the godly admonition seriously enough to consult expert rosarian, Burl Brown, as to how to grow roses…and, as he framed it, how to do it right.

Basically, Burl said the key was to amend the soil. I live in a part of the country that is known for its red clay. Good for making pots but not so much as a soil for growing plants. Burl advised me to dig out the clay in my proposed rose beds, about three to four feet down. Are you kidding me? Do you really want to grow roses, Burl asked.

Install French drains. What the hell is that? Add a soil mixture of sand, peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and a special super secret mix of additives that if I tell you, I’d have to kill you. The alchemy of rosarians is magical and mystical which seems that it should leave you with a cosmic high. It does not. It leaves you sweaty and smelly, and not of incense.

Burl told me that a precise, predictable amount of water if critical. He counseled me to install a drip irrigation system, with scientific timer, individual tubes that would measure the number of drops of water to each plant. Wow. Amazingly, I installed it and when I turned it on for the initial watering, my house did not blow up. Good so far.

What about disease? In the humidity of the South, black spot is just waiting to ruin your gorgeous perfect roses. And insects love roses, LOVE roses. The amateur answer: pesticides, more accurately known as poison. When you have to wear gloves, a face mask to limit the inhalation of carcinogens, you might get the message that this is some dangerous stuff. And it is. Burl was clear this was to be avoided, that I was to be an organic rosarian. This is possible if you choose your roses carefully, prepare the beds, amend the soil, fertilize properly, monitor the water. Your roses should thrive. And you, you will experience a self-satisfaction, a pride that is remarkable. Being an organic rosarian, you will feel special, a cut above. But I already felt that. I am an Episcopalian.

That year I grew some amazing roses. And my thrill was taking them to share with my staff, particularly Gary.

But the real lesson was hidden immediately but revealed in praxis. All the hard work which my friend Burl had prescribed was simply living life. Of preparing with care the things you could, tending to the things given to your charge, caring for them by properly giving them what they need, and enjoying the beauty right there in front of you. That was the secret I discovered. Taking care of the little plot of ground that has been entrusted to you so that things can grow. For me, the word that captures that clear attention is FOCUS.

It proved to be true in relationships, in parenting, in leadership, and in living. Advice given in the flow of a dream, delivered with a Southern drawl.