Know When to Hold ‘Em

Leaning into the space, I walked confidently into the cave-like structure, which was actually the tunnel leading to the Star.

The Star’s name was Kenny Rogers, who I had first heard sing a plaintive song about losing the love of a woman after a crippling war-time injury in Vietnam. The band was the First Edition, and the woman called Ruby. Kenny’s signature gravelly voice, pleaded to his love, “Don’t take your love to town”. She did, to the sound of a slamming door.

When I first heard him, he wore what was known as a leisure suit, with broad lapels. His hair had already begun to go salt-pepper and he curiously wore pink-orange tinted sunglasses, much more attuned to the more psychedelic song of “Just Dropped In”, another fave of Dave.

By the time of my charge into the tunnel, he had left the group and gone solo, as a country-pop singer. He had a string of hits, a number of killer duets with a variety of country women stars, but he was best known for a ballad, a great “story” song, The Gambler. I sang it once in a show, trying my best to imitate his whiskey graveled voice. Limited success would be a kind way of assessment.

My girlfriend had gotten choice tickets from a radio station, with seats right down front. I had learned, early on, that if you look like you know what you are doing, you can pretty well go anywhere you want. Worked pretty well for me as a priest. I went right up to Kenny in his entourage, waiting for their cue to enter the floor of the Omni. I shook his hand, welcomed him to Atlanta, as if I was an official greeter. Just call me Mayor.

Suddenly, a spotlight found my silver-haired friend and we were off together, walking through the crowd toward the stage. It was crazy as the crowd went wild, women reaching out to touch the hem of his garment, with me at his side. When we reached the stairs to the stage, I uncharacteristically wisely decided to hold back, staying on the floor for a minute, but finally returning to my seat where my girlfriend waited patiently. What a show he put on for us.

That was not my last time with Kenny. Far from it.

Many years later, after his career had crested, Kenny moved to Atlanta and bought a mansion. Not any old North Atlanta colonial mansion, but a big ass, ostentatious, nouveau riche ass mansion, with golden lions at the gate and all that. Kenny wanted you to know where the boy lived. And it happened to be near my church.

One day my receptionist called me in my office. I thought she was playing a joke on me. She said that Kenny Rogers was in the waiting area, wanting to talk to me. I could not help my response, telling her that he would have to wait. I was talking to Dolly Parton. Norma put a tone in her voice which told me I had better get serious. “Kenny Rogers is out here with his wife. They want to talk to you.” I don’t think I ever moved that quick.

There he was, The Gambler, in jeans and a casual shirt, open down about three buttons, about two buttons too much for an aging star. His young, did I mention she was young, wife was standing beside her man, lovely, straight from Central Casting. He wanted to inquire about his two young twin sons getting into our Episcopal prep school. They came back into my office, commenting on my wall-to-wall bookcases. “You read all of them?” Kenny asked. “Every one of them…. twice.” I lied. He knew right away not to play cards with the Rev..

His two sons were not old enough for our school at the time but I gave him and his wife the information they needed as well as the proper office that could take care of them when the time was right. I think I went out of my way to convey how pleased we would be to have them. I couldn’t help myself chatting him up about music, us both playing bass with mediocrity, and having some Nashville kin. It was a huge surprise, a pleasant one, to have Kenny Rogers in my office. I fought hard against my burning temptation to have him call my mom in Newnan. I had gotten her Bob Goulet’s autograph and a note when I wound up with him after his show in Minneapolis. But here I was, a priest in the saddle. It would not be kosher.

I thought that might be it, maybe my only chance to meet him. but I was wrong. I ran into him several times in early morning, both of us alone at the Waffle House on New Northside Dr.. He was more than kind, and shared some stories about the early days, which you know I loved.

On the last time we were together, he seemed to shift mood in the middle of the meal, between his pecan waffle and hashed browns. He asked me about my faith, how I had grown up South of God, and why I had chosen the Episcopal Church. I told him about the sense of presence I felt as a boy at communion, on the rare occasion that we “observed” it, maybe four times a year, “quarterly”, whether we needed to or not.

I told him that I remembered vividly those Sundays, coming into the “church house”, seeing the altar table down front that was normally bare, but on that day, covered with something that looked like a white bedsheet. It appeared as if it were covering a body laid out on a table, like I had seen on Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare. I came to know that it actually covered a series of trays stacked with individual communion glasses, filled with grape juice, and plates with small Saltine crackers. South of God communion, by God.

In spite of the uncomfortable formality, and the underlying feel that these folks did not know what they were doing, there was a sense of the Holy for this boy-child. Rather than being lectured from a podium “about” a distant God, or listening to music sung by a robed choir, or one particularly bad soprano or tenor, I was asked to participate. My spirit, even as a child, was engaged.

I sensed God’s presence in a way that caught my senses and imagination. I filed it away in my little scientist mind, that faith is about experience, not just learning facts or passive listening. It still is for me, I told Kenny.

It took me a while but I told him that I eventually learned that this holy meal was the last thing Jesus did with his disciples, to break bread and share the wine, promising them that when they did that in the future, he would be with them. Kenny seemed to lean in a bit. He surprised me when he reminded me of the other thing Jesus did on that last night with his disciples. He washed their feet, to make the point that they should be servants. I shot back that the church seemed to like the bread and wine a good bit more than the washing of feet. He laughed, knowingly and said, “Ain’t that the truth!” I later wished that I had asked him what made him say that, but it just didn’t seem right. That was the last time I talked to him.

It seems funny now, looking back. Here in my office, I have a favorite album cover next to my desk. It’s the album, Kenny Rogers the Gambler. It has Kenny, pre-facelift, staring straight ahead, standing at a card table, with a vest and string tie. He has women at his side looking up lovingly, wantonly. It’s a great album cover, from back in the days when that was an art. It’s my mother’s record. I took it before the estate sale, along with the Red-Headed Stranger, her two favorites. The old vinyl is still in the sleeve, with a coffee cup stain I am willing to bet is an imprint of my mom’s favorite cup, filled with Maxwell House coffee. I’ll make that bet, right now.

Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Good advice from my friend, the Gambler. I took it on more than one occasion. Funny that it was not on a train bound for nowhere, but a booth at a Waffle House that I sat across from that man, and listened to his talk, looking for an ace that I might keep. His words haunt as I go on down the line. Every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser. The best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.

After my long Lenten article last week, I thought you might enjoy a good story. It was prompted by an ad I heard on the local St. Simons Island public radio station promoting a Kenny Rogers exhibition at the amazing Booth Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, near where a country strain of my kinfolk have resided. I hope it made you smile….and think a bit. See you at the Waffle House…covered and peppered.

Lent: The Pause and A Nudge

It’s Ash Wednesday, so what the hell are you going to give up?

That’s the way it was when I first entered the catholic orbit of Christianity: What you going to give up? “Hip” priests morphed the gig by going all Robert Schuller positivity and reframed, “Lent is a time to “take on” something new in your life. What are you planning to “take on” during Lent?”

Through forty years of life in the Episcopal church, I have come away with a few wisdom insights in the season known as Lent.

First, I love Ash Wednesday. Maybe it’s the residual Baptist South of God in me, but the Litany of Penitence (pp. 267-269, Book of Common Prayer) is one of the best liturgical forms I know. It leaves no doubt, as the coach says in Remember the Titans., You are kneeling in the goo that is you, perverse, self-centered, forgetful of the other….in a word, human. You are requested to take a good look in the mirror, and if you do, you come away with the recognition that there is work to do. Serious work.

Secondly, Lent gives you a playing field, boundaries, of Forty Days. Within this structure of time, you commit to a plan of self-examination and improvement. You look honestly at your weaknesses, or as they say in the business world of spin, your opportunities for improvement. Lent gives you a spiritual SWOT analysis, google it if you are not familiar, but that would point to one of your weaknesses, or opportunities for improvement. Forty days.

Thirdly, you get to decide how to spend these Forty Days. No government agency is monitoring it. It’s up to you. If you have a spiritual director, he/she may help you structure the time, prompted by their familiarity with your gifts and issues. But they will not, can not, should not monitor your work. For, my beloved readers, you can lie about how it’s going, what you are doing. Don’t ask me how I know this. I am writing after the season finale of Euphoria and I’m feeling a little Rue here.

To make it a Jungian quaternity, let me say fourthly, it is a time of creativity. It’s not giving up chocolates, or alcohol if you are an Episcopalian. That’s for Dry January. How’d that work out for you? Rather, it’s an opportunity to grow. And you might remember my 3-D model for growth:

  1. Grow in depth: dive beneath the surface of the waters of your existence. What are you dragging behind you, what’s weighing you down? What values do you hold deeply that drive, or pull, you forward?
  2. Grow in width: expand the range of who counts, who matters in your world. Who are you consciously or unconsciously excluding from your circle? How do you need to widen your view to include more of God’s Creation?
  3. Grow in height: commit to learning something new about the world we live in. What trail of knowledge did you stop following? What curiosity beckons from your soul when you quiet down long enough to listen?

For me, I make Lent a simpler time, intentionally building in pauses, and nudges. That doesn’t sound overwhelming or scary, does it? It is simply going to use this playing field of Lent, only Forty Days, to try on a bit of self-reflection which leads to self-awareness. And it’s only for Forty Days, so it’s manageable. You can do it! (hear it in my amazing imitation of Adam Sandler’s voice)

So here’s my suggestion in simple terms. You are wanting to set up a system of pauses in your regular day, so you are prompted to STOP, Pause, and reflect. This is called a discipline. If that word scares you, or offends you, simply call it a plan. No big whoop.

Let me preemptively answer your question, dear reader: Why should I do this? What’s the added value to my life? Good question.

My favorite Jungian interpreter is analyst, James Hollis. One of his famous images is of human types getting up in the morning. At the foot of the bed resides two gremlins: fear and laziness. Both gremlins try to convince you to stay in bed, not venturing out into the world.

The Fear gremlin seeks to convince you that the world is a scary place, and anxiety is the natural response to such a threatening environment. Better to stay where you are, where it is safe and comfortable.

The Lazy gremlin is more reassuring in tone, things are fine, no need to roll out of that bed you researched and paid so much for. Take it easy. You can get to these illusory demands tomorrow, or the next day. What’s the rush?

When I first heard Hollis use this image in a lecture, I laughed out loud, for like Larry David in his observational humor, it’s like holding up a mirror to my life. The truth seems undeniable, and my native defense mechanism was to laugh at myself.

But after the laughter abates, what insights might I grab from this brush with Truth?

The first thing I think about is the pace of life, of how fast things are happening, coming at me. The old, worn-out phrase of drinking water from a fire hose seems a bit dated, though still takes me back to the idyllic setting of a sandlot in the summer, playing ball, taking a break to drink from those ubiquitous green lawn hoses that tasted of rubber, but were such a supernatural gift as a young kid. A firehose takes me to news films of black protesters being sprayed by officials to stop their march in Alabama, with enough water pressure to knock them off their feet, sending them sliding. I still recall the men in the old Lee Street barbershop laughing at the sight, slapping their knees. Two images in tension.

However, the firehose is no longer adequate to the “overwhelm” most folks are feeling. Remember back to when you needed to contact someone, you would write a letter, mail it, wait for a response in a matter of days. The operative word here is WAIT. The convenience of email promised to speed up the contact process, and it certainly delivered. However, no one figured on the cost of the overwhelm, the flood of emails. Just one day out of the office literally floods my life with backed-up emails even though I have a prioritization app in play. What is one to do?

My first “overwhelm” came as I took on the role of Canon Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Philip, at the time the largest Episcopal parish in the United States, around five thousand parishioners. The pastoral care had a reputation of being good when it worked, but spotty and inconsistent. Coming from academia, such a huge number was not in my wheelhouse of expertise, so I enrolled in a Covey training program, which was basically time management on steroids.

I loved it, for it gave me a handle on how to overcome the “tyranny of the urgent” that seemed to plague my work. It was a good start to actualizing a system of managing my day, my week, my month, my quarter, my year, my long-term plans and goals.

I wound up teaching the system I evolved to new clergy in the Diocese of Texas as they moved from seminary to their first parish assignments, which can be a rather torrential flood of new work and relations. Many of those students tell me some twenty years later that it was the most practical and helpful training they received. Maybe they are just being nice to an old broken-down priest, but my hunch is that they are telling the truth. Being a parish priest is one of the last truly “generalist” jobs, as one has to do a lot of things well, and managing time becomes critical.

Currently, I coach a number of executives in healthcare as well as a good number of clergy from a variety of traditions and situations. It is my favorite time, giving me the thrill of coming alongside leaders actively engaged in influence, organizing, thinking, communicating, and caring: in a word, leading. When I finish a coaching session, I get the sense I am contributing to the world and am right where I need to be. That’s a good thing.

In this time of “overwhelm”, the rapid change associated with pandemic presenting a variety of new challenges and disruptions to leaders, the need for organizing one’s self is ever more pressing. Add to that the intensity of the work in clinical settings, the record amount of work that seems unceasing, the need for some help is flagged in a variety of ways.

I try to start people SLOW in the installation of a process. People who are already a bit compulsive tend to latch onto any system and outrun the horses. Those who tend to be loose with their schedule may chafe at structure, so I let them wade in slowly. Each person is different and presents different needs, so I wind up customizing a system, plus encouraging a continuous state of improvement of the way that best meets their style, while yielding productive results.

I personally began many years ago with the simple Daytimer system that my friend and colleague introduced me to. It was basically a calendar that I would carry around in a small pocket portfolio. It was an introduction, or rather, an initiation to adulthood, taking responsibility for showing up to where I said I would be.

As I said, as my life became more complicated, so did my system, moving to the Covey organizer that organized by weeks, using blocks of time, and paying attention to the variety of roles one played on life’s stage to make sure one was balanced. The system implied values that one would use in the planning one did. This was my basic plan I used and taught to my students and those that I coached.

Three years ago, one of my goals was to assess the plethora of “organizers” that were flooding the market. I bought almost every system, trying them out and seeing which ones worked, which ones were flexible for customization, which ones were rigid, which ones too complicated, which ones too simple. My personal preference for balance tended to skew my assessment.

I was impressed with the Daily Planner, put out in quarterly books by Michael Hyatt. It is a robust system using quarterly and weekly planning in a convenient single-book format. I have introduced many of my coaching clients to it, and its “ready to go” form is appealing. I used it myself for a number of years.

I wound up going back to my favorite steed, to a loose-leaf format of the Franklin-Covey group, as I keep the current pages in my binder, moving them to a storage notebook for each year. It allows me to add specific sections and forms that are aligned with my work, and to keep my old leather binder by my side. It also allows me to play by developing my own sections, not tied down to a pre-decided format. Everyone to his own taste, said the farmer as he kissed his cow… wisdom from my Texas grandmother.

It really matters less about the format than the fact that you have some system you are working.

The key basic components are to develop the habit of a Pause. How and when you do that is up to you and the variations of your occupation, lifestyle, and personality. Some people have developed a habit of beginning the day with a thirty-minute Pause to review the day ahead, making decisions as to how to approach the work to be done. Some add a significant Pause at the end of the day for a time to review what significant things happened, pausing to list and then journal. Others use that time to plan the next day. The key is to build in a Pause, or series of pauses, to pace your day, your life.

One of the most helpful developments for me was to develop the habit that I scientifically termed, The Big Pause, an homage to the Big Bang. It’s a once-a-week time set aside to review the past week, but most critically, to plan the coming week, employing Covey’s notion of scheduling blocks of time. The “tyranny of the urgent” never goes away. So to increase the odds of my getting to the “big” projects I am working on, I schedule blocks of time in one-hour increments. I literally “write” or draw these blocks in my organizer schedule to protect that time for the focus I will apply. These prove to be the Nudges that re-mind me of my commitments in the swirling vortex of my real life.

So here we go into Lent. Figure out how you are going to structure your Pauses. Then, design how you are going to have Nudges that will trigger your response. This will definitely improve your self-awareness, and may improve your productivity.

But, for those of you who share a Christ orientation, it is an opportunity to “get busy” in amending your life toward that of the Christ. Just before I posted this article, I came upon a quote from St. Athanasius. He said, God became man, so that man might become God. He was talking about the process of development that is a part of being intentional in your life.

Looking to the horizon of your daily experience for opportunities for compassion, care, even love. Being ready to go “the extra mile” in your relationships. Searching for those who might need an embrace of inclusion, those who feel isolated, though you have the gift and burden of knowing that this person is a child of God.

Forty Days of Lent. As I remind people, “forty” is a Hebrew idiom for “a long damn time”. It’s actually the amount of time that Jesus was said to have spent in the wilderness, facing three tempters. You and I have our own particular and peculiar tempters, demons that distract and confuse. But, thankfully, we have our own set of Angels who comfort us, encourage us, minister unto us. You can enter into this desert, wilderness time of Lent with confidence.

I hope you take advantage of this time of Lent. Forty Days to try on a Pause and a nudge.

Do it “your” way, but do it. Blessings.

February 23rd

My mother died on February 23rd. A son doesn’t forget that about his mama leaving this world.

It was unanticipated. She had health issues but I was caught off guard.

The call came early Sunday morning. They were taking her to the new Piedmont Newnan Hospital. I jumped in my Tahoe, headed down I-75 to the Connector, then veered right on I-85 to Newnan. She was dead before I got there, so no sweet cinematic goodbyes. Just a corpse in the Emergency Room on an exam table. Her jaw was dropped, as dead people do. The look, I will never forget as it had none of the life, joy, and mischief that normally ran loose on her face. As I am writing this, I remember a moment we had a few weeks before, with her holding court, with her mouth “set” in a way that dared response. That was the woman that shaped me into the mess I am. That was the woman that loved me through a loss that knocks many out. That was the crazy-ass woman that I shared with my contemporaries who enjoyed her as their senior high Sunday School teacher. That, that was my mother.

It hit me as I climbed in my car to go to Newnan that this was the anniversary date of my ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. February 23 is the Feast Day of St. Polycarp, a martyred bishop in the early church. Bishop Judson Child ordained me on that day, in transition to being ordained a priest six months later. I remember taking note that Polycarp waited until he was is his nineties to be martyred, which I thought was incredibly smart strategic planning for his career. Since that day, I had been paying particular attention to the servant model Polycarp embodied, reviewing my own commitment to that passion and evaluating how I was doing as a servant to others as I always wanted to have that attitude as a central part of my leadership. Now, February 23rd would be associated with my mother as well, as she too incarnated a spirit of servanthood to her children, biological and education related.

On Feb 23, 2020. Ahmaud Arbery, a local football star at Brunswick High School, is running in a neighborhood called Satilla Shores, two miles from where he lived with his mother. As he ran, he noticed one truck, then another, began to follow him, yelling at him, threatening him, saying they were going to blow his f***ing head off. Finally, after five minutes, seemed like five hours to him, he sees a truck parked in the middle of the street, blocking his way. Seeing a man with a shotgun at the front of the truck, Ahmaud veers to the right to go around on the opposite side. As he nears the front of the truck, the man has raised his shotgun to a shooting position. Ahmaud makes a fateful decision to turn and face the shooter, who responds by firing the shotgun, hitting Ahmaud in the shoulder. Ahmaud reaches forward, and the shooter fires another round of buckshot, designed to bring down a deer, into Ahmaud’s chest, sending him onto the asphalt to bleed out, with no help rendered by his attackers. They just watched, mouthing a few racist comments about their prey. Sunday, Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery dies from these two shotgun blasts. The shooters have accomplished their mission: a black man is no longer running in their neighborhood.

Two years later, February 23, 2022, I am writing this article. I had been at the State trial in the previous months of October and November. I sat with family members, huddled with the community members who came to the Glynn County Courthouse lawn, gathered with local clergy who were praying for peace, watched the national media buzz, as the trial took place.

I made new friends with Miss Annie Polite, an 87 year old activist, born in Brunswick but spending her teaching career in New York City. And, I came to know my new best friend, Zack Lyed, an eighty three year old self-styled preacher, who grew up in Brunswick as a boy, but kept on learning in Vietnam, Morehouse, and anywhere he happened to land. He scares most folks to death with his learned rants, but I know an ally when I see one. I have not laughed as hard and felt as deep as I have with Zack for many moons. It’s good to find a brother.

A jury of all whites except one black convicted all three killers, sentencing the shooter and his father to life in prison without parole. The third defendant who helped in the chase, and ironically provided the video footage which made the conviction a slam-dunk, got a life sentence but with the possibility of parole. Had there not been video evidence provided by his phone, I am one of many people who think these three might have walked away free. This would have been the repeat of the performance of an all too frequent narrative in the Gothic South of a bunch of rednecks chasing down a black boy that they think “done wrong”, as they kill him, either by lynching with a rope, just so’s all can see, or in this case, the blast of a shotgun.

Not this time.

The verdict came down before Thanksgiving, which was a joyous moment in our community, ‘cept an empty place at the table where Ahmaud would have sat with his family.

The sentencing occurred a few weeks later. I confessed that I was troubled by the sheer celebratory reaction of the crowd at the courthouse when the life sentences were rendered. People were cheering, laughing, high-fiving. It seemed out of place to me. There was one black minister who was in his black preaching robes, dancing and waving his arms wildly in enthusiasm, like he had won the 20K on Family Feud. My problem was that I was left sobered by the trial, for this young man’s life was cut down viciously, his promise of life stolen. I identified with the parents, whose loss of a son could not be assuaged by a sentence, no matter how severe. Their son was dead, gone.

What I missed was that in times past, not too long ago, a crime like this, with a black being killed by a white, would simply “go away”. No one would have to face judgment, no one would pay the cost of the crime, simply because it was a black person. That, dear friends, is the historical reality we carry around with us, whether you happen to like it or not, whether or not it makes you feel uncomfortable or not. That is why the shouting, and the celebrating took place….because that thing we brag about, justice, was actually made a reality in that moment. The white killer did not walk away. The black man received justice, just like our laws have promised but sometimes did not deliver in the Jim Crow South. It was reason enough to shout, holler, even laugh. There was joy in the camp that evening. It was meet and right so to do.

It’s Feb. 23rd, in the year of 2022. These three killers faced hate crimes in the Federal Court, to assess the action to see if race was at the core, or “heart”, of the murder. This trial was much shorter, with much less national press presence, but it was incisive to the level of racist hatred in the hearts of all three of these men.

To be honest with you, that was not much of a surprise. These three looked to me like they came from Central Casting of a John Grisham murder in the Southland movie. But what caught me was that these are my neighbors. They go to the grocery store with me, they eat barbecue at places I go to, they drive on the street with me. I was stunned by the level of foundational hate they expressed toward blacks. They even tipped their hats to the sexual nuance underneath that would be found in a Harper Lee novel, or an Emmett Till documentary. Frankly, I was floored, leaving me reminded of the place of race in our land that I hoped, prayed, was in the past. Foolish mortal.

The verdict this time is the same, guilty on all charges, with life prison terms.

Today, on Feb 23rd, 2022, we are gathering at the very place where Ahmaud was chased down, shot, and left to bleed out. We gather with members of Ahmaud’s family to try to bring some comfort, two years after the killing. Clergy from a variety of traditions will mark this time with prayerand hope for the healing that may come. We will sing, and pray, and say some words, as we continue to try to make sense out of all this, to wrestle some blessing from this tragedy.

That is a good thing, a necessary thing, to mark the moment. But the real issue is what are we to do now? Here in Glynn County, we are continuing to meet around dinner tables, real and cyber, to talk about our experience of race in our lives, our feelings, our hopes, our fears. I have done this before in Tyler, Texas where we made good progress, but the going is slow, sometimes painful. It is modelled on the reconciliation model of Archbishop Tutu in South Africa. Now, it’s time to do it South Georgia style, which will have its own particular and peculiar flavor and vibe. But, it is work we must do.

We remember Ahmaud on the February 23rd, rejoicing with our cry, led by Miss Annie “Justice for Ahmaud”! We gather together, embrace to offer comfort, raise voices in prayer. But on Feb. 24th, we must get up and begin the work again, to help this country live up to its promises for ALL people.

Life is like a Box of Chocolates…that the Heat Melted. We are all connected.

I tried not to be offended when she called me “Forrest Gump”.

A colleague of mine was standing in amazement as I was recounting my time with Tutu.

My story was prompted by the death of the Arch, as he was known. We were at a meeting of a group of organizational development (OD) coaches, gathered to plan an exciting retreat/learning format in the post-pandemic.

She said, or charged “You are Forrest Gump! You know more famous people than Forrest Gump!”.

Stupid is as stupid does.

Her comment prompted me to conjure my own take of Forrest’s best-known line that he learned from his Mama: Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

There is deep truth there, obviously.

In a nano-second, my take was: Life is like a box of chocolates…that the heat melted. We are all connected.

I said it more as a “wish” as opposed to a description.

The division that we are experiencing is not the first time in our nation’s past. As a Civil War student, I often wondered what it was like to live in a time of a conflict, when brother squared off against brother, all over an issue that had the power to divide. Now, I think I know.

I rewatched the Ken Burns Country Music documentary. One episode was dedicated to the raucous year of 1968, marked with racial riots, political assassinations, and cultural conflict. The divide was profound, extending into the conflict over the war of Vietnam. We emerged from that, but I’ll be damned if I know how. I am desperately trying to figure out how do you pull a country out of a death spiral as it loses altitude and spirit quickly, with the ground rapidly approaching.

The heat of the moment seems to be causing the delicate mixture of our country to separate like that of an emulsion gone bad. The culinary chemical magic that holds together two or more substances, yields to the heat as the oil and water divide. In the culinary world, it’s known as “breaking”, and it’s a mess. In a marriage, it’s known as a divorce. An irreparable split that will not recombine. Usually.

One of the recalcitrant legislators from my home state, actually had the temerity to call for a “divorce” within the country, which should be gathered up with her other idiotic rants about Q-Anon and such. I would say that she is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but she doesn’t even qualify for the identity of a common utensil…like a spoon. Early on, her colleagues would laugh at her disruptive antics, but now they are finding her appealing as she is aligned with some of the crazier portions of her party. This is not a good sign. Now, you can catch her accusing her enemies of using “gazpacho” tactics. I would double-dog-dare Flannery to write a character of her kind and keep it believable.

Perhaps we are like a box of chocolates that got over-heated, the heat causing us to separate. This image of emulsion caught my attention and sent me to my culinary shelf, looking for some help. Julia is my go-to, but Jacques is the master of technique. Virginia Willis is my teacher who I could call for a quick word, with a Southern accent and sense of humor. Alton Brown appeals to my theatrical whimsey, and lives in Marietta. But time to go to the real science dudes. You remember “science”, right?

Michael Ruhlman’s The Elements of Cooking provides a literal dictionary of culinary terms. “An emulsion is a homogenous mixture of two substances that don’t naturally combine, or, more precisely, a suspension of one substance within another…Understanding the chemistry of an emulsion is useful in making them, maintaining them, and repairing them when they break. A fat-in-water emulsion is composed of countless microscopic bits of fat separated from one another by sheets of water via an emulsifier, such as those in egg yolk. The water keeps the countless particles of fat from grouping together, which is what happens when an emulsification breaks (ironically, breaking is actually a coming together) p.119.

Ironic, indeed.

In thinking about our Union as an emulsion, we are bound together by an idea of respecting the worth of every person, regardless of differentiating adjectives such as race, gender, or religion. Truth is, we have been in a process of making that real, with many stops and starts. That was a political ideology that provided the birthing cry of our nation, and was an emulsifying agent that held diverse backgrounds and perspectives together.

That carried over in the Anglican faith tradition as even there we struggled with the lofty sound of such an affirmation. In 1979, wrestling with the fullness of equality in the ordination of women, my American version of the Book of Common Prayer was intentional in our hopes, putting it the vows that all baptized persons affirm. I love the way we framed it in our baptismal rite. One is asked to commit to respecting “the dignity and worth of every human being”. The truth is that this has been an aspiration that we have stumbled on and fallen over in our attempt to achieve in reality. A number of folks seem unwilling for us to look squarely at this journey toward justice in our land, acknowledging our historical messiness. But their unwillingness to face this historical reality does not change the facts. It’s just basic history, not conspiratorial strategy.

The “juice” that keeps us together is this drive for democracy that would value each person’s dignity and worth, which finds pragmatic expression in the right to vote in our decision-making. Again, our country must face the checkered past of withholding the vote from those we don’t think deserve it, repeatedly played out for those who don’t look like us. It is damnable that a country founded in “unalienable rights”, lives with a history, a tradition even, of denying those voting rights. We are a history of contradiction, as the very author of the famous word of independence was a slave owner. From the get-go, we were birthed out of slavery but somehow willing to admit, at least in our rhetoric, that we were better than that. But it is simultaneously admirable that we have been willing to learn, though the cost was high with bloody conflict, even lynchings. Anyone who wants to deny this checkered history, written indelibly, in stark black and white, is trying to break the emulsion, the secret substance that has held us together.

What seems to be the catalyst to this break we are currently experiencing?

Ironically, the very means by which I am communicating with you, social media, is a significant culprit. The emulsion breaks as we glob on to others who are “like” us, like-minded, or more accurately, like-prejudiced. We roll easily, downhill, to sites that confirm our views. Algorithms are formulated to tickle our fancy and throw us fish as if we are seals in training. Social media has bifurcated a diverse population with native diversity into amalgams of conservatives and liberals, red and blue. We glom together in thought covens where we conjure images of our “enemies” that baste them in contempt, the ultimate separator.

In the past, our common commitment to the Union kept the primary identification as a citizen of this country front and center. It’s not been easy with a steady stream of strangers coming into our country, Irish, Italians, Jews, Mexican. But that was our goal, the very statement on the statue that greeted folks coming into the New York harbor, with the promise of a future, together.

Now, we break and then form globs of people who will not force us to think critically, to deal with the diversity that defines us. It was the base of our original mixture, am emulsion, immigrants from all over this planet, each bringing a gift of differing perspective. Now, the diversity is just too much work, so we opt for the magnetism of those who agree with us, because it’s easier. It’s simpler to fall into the dualistic world that most folks seem to prefer. This kind of simplistic thinking merely acts “as if” the world is not complex, when you only have to pause, look closely to see the complications that go with life on this planet. But we opt for the simple. It is a fatal flaw that history records without prejudice. But we don’t want to do the hard work of study.

The quote of Oliver Wendell Holmes nails this for me. I have lectured on it, preached on it, whispered it, attributing it wrongly to George Santayana. I probably even proclaimed that Hemingway uttered it on his boat, Pilar. But it was Holmes, before Larsen ever came up with his cartoon.

He said, “For simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity of the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.”

In our consulting practice, it’s one of the slides in our PowerPoint to make this clear. I always use a scribal gloss by saying “on the Far Side of complexity” for it seems to make the connection with people better, and makes the spatial dimension clearer.

I sometimes throw up another quote: To every complex problem, there is always a simple solution….and it’s always WRONG. There are various versions of this basic statement. “There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.” “There’s always an easy solution to every human problem- neat, plausible, and wrong.” You get the point.

And it’s attributed to a variety of folks, from humorist Mark Twain, to business guru, Peter Drucker. Who knows, who cares. The Truth is in the rocks and stones, in our blood and bones. It grabs you by your heart, brain, and soul, screaming its truth. Life is complicated, and when we get up in the morning, we are faced, as James Hollis frames it, with two gremlins at the foot of our bed: fear and laziness, both conspiring us to remain in bed, reclining. Just…taking…it…easy.

In fact, we are facing one of the more complex times in our history. Some urge us to turn back the clock to a past that never really was, but seemingly offers us the seductive illusion of safety for me, and my kind. Others offer visions that lack the reality of planning and execution. Saying “it’s complicated” does not get us out of jail free. We must pull ourselves together and commit to work harder, with one another, WITH one another in this mixture called community. That’s easier to say than to do.

I went to a meeting here in Glynn County the other night. It was refreshingly mixed with races, economic position, and occupation. We talked honestly with one another about a variety of subjects including healthcare, economics, education, environment as close as the air we breathe from a smokestack we can see, and race, which again is on full public display in a Federal hate trial in our district.

People found the courage to stand and express their opinions. People disagreed with one another without demonizing the other. We had moments of pain, of laughter, of tears, of celebration. There was a spirit present that smelled of hope, of making progress together. That hope, seemingly missing in action for a time, acts as the emulsifying agent, to bring us together again, This was democracy in full, messy force.

As I left the meeting, an almost full moon shone over the historic, might I say, romantic marshes of Glynn, and I had a feeling of possibility, even in the wake of problems, violence, and contempt. I am ready, again, to go to work to make our community, our country a better place for ALL people. I was schooled in the black-white emulsion of Atlanta’s civil rights drama, learned how to make it real in the fresh mix of Latinos, blacks and whites of East Texas, and now I find myself in, of all places, south freaking Georgia.

Just call me “Forrest”.

My Nobel Prize

Will Spong was one of my best friends. He was a priest, a professor at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, a superb musician, a synthesizer of ideas, and a dreamer with the capacity to imagine an alternative future. He also had the gift of courage, a capacity I find seriously lacking in the current church, but that’s another column.

Will had the wild look of a Muppet puppeteer, not unlike Frank Oz. The old image from the band, War, in 1970 with the song “Spill the Wine”, that of a “long-haired, leaping gnome” came to mind often when I was with him. He had a rare capacity to be present to the other person, which is why he was a popular therapist and spiritual director in the Austin area.

He and I were thrown together when I was brought on the faculty at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest as an Adjunct Professor to bring my experience in faith development theory as well as my work in leadership. Will and I began to conspire immediately as to how we could fix this broken world.

I have to admit that Will took the lead early on in terms of shaping the world to our favor. It involved a parish in the Austin area, St. James. They were beginning their search for a new Rector. For you unwashed masses who do not know the thrill of the arcane nomenclature of the Anglican tradition, “Rector” is one of those words that you will find Episcopalians throwing around right regularly, making them feel superior to the uninitiated. It simply means pastor, actually the lead or senior pastor in a congregation. Guard that word, “rector”, with your life, and be careful how you pronounce it. Rectors are sensitive about such things, which is amusingly appropriate.

St. James was a parish in the middle of Austin. At the time it was predominantly black, with many professors from the small Texas university close by. That’s a joke, son, said Foghorn Leghorn. In the Episcopal Church, it was midsized and therefore, according to my bishop, not in the appropriate flight path for my career as an Episcopal priest. However, Will had big plans.

In his mind, I would come to St. James, bring him on as an assistant. We would both teach at the seminary, but begin a Clinical Pastoral Education center there at the church. Most CPE clinical training takes place in a hospital setting. It is the historical tradition, affording this student intense experiences of relating to a broad wash of people. It is a fine model, training many young ministers, including me. But, those of us in the world of theological training find that it was often difficult for CPE students to transfer the learnings from the clinical hospital setting to the work of the parish. When you think hard about it, you can see the issue at first glance. Will had the idea and dream of combining the two, building a program where the student has some exposure to the clinical setting of a hospital, but also in the daily ministry of a parish, hopefully making the connections more easily and integrated for long-term development.

Will actually envisioned us as a dynamic duo, he mentioned “Butch and Sundance”, which made me laugh, but I secretly loved it. I am not sure how he parsed the two in terms of who was who in that classic duo, I just wanted to be the one that wound up with Katharine Ross. For you careful readers, here she is again in my psychic archetypes. Noted.

To get the ball rolling, Will secured a difficult appointment for me to serve as the keynote speaker at Laity Lodge, a famous retreat center located on the Frio River in Texas, built by grocery magnate, Howard Butts…aka Piggly Wiggly. My hero and friend, John Claypool, had served in the capacity of keynote presenter a few times, before he became divorced, thus disqualifying him in this pool of shamanistic presenters. I actually stayed in Madeline L’Engles’ cabin, a famous Christian writer.

There were two churches in residence for this weekend conference, a Presbyterian church, and St James. You see that Will is always thinking, just like Butch. You can call it strategic…. or sneaky, your pick.

In evangelical circles, such well-known conference speakers are regarded as gunslingers, voices and brains to rent. Butch had brought his gunslinger, Sundance, to bring his trick pony, faith development, to dazzle the folks with psychological lingo, deftly comingled with theological terms, and critically, biblical words, dusted off for modern consumption. The Kid was just the man for the job. Reach, pardner!

Will had made sure that the main leaders of St. James would be on the retreat at Laity Lodge. So, it was up to me to bring the goods and fulfill the plans. I had done such retreat work for twenty years, so this was not my first rodeo. In fact, it was my most comfortable venue for my stand-up routine of faith, although the panache of Laity Lodge gave me a few moments of imposter’s syndrome, but I got over it after the flowery introduction of the director. I got the distinct idea he might have been trying to reassure himself as to my bona fides as he had risked inviting The Kid from Tyler by God Texas. At least, he convinced me.

I spent the time redefining the image of faith, suggesting the normal human developmental process of growing in faith, and then making the practical connection by employing my secret weapon, stories. It was a high moment in my career, made even sweeter by my time at table with these people from Austin. I was on a high as I made my drive back to East Texas in my K-5 Blazer.

Back at Christ Church in Tyler, I got a phone call from the Senior Warden, another Episcopal word which is the name for the Chairperson of the Board (Vestry) of St. James. He said they would like for me to allow them to place my name in the “search process” to become the Rector of St. James. I want you to pause for a minute and think of all the Episcopal nomenclature you are picking up. You’re welcome.

The Seach Committee showed up the next week at my very white parish in Tyler. They did not go unnoticed in the sea of white. I was proud of my ushers and parishioners for making them feel at home, but the questions from the Christ Church members were immediate. What are these folks from Austin doing here? Being from Austin was probably more disturbing to East Texas folks than the fact that they were black.

The readings for that Sunday liturgy were right in my sweet spot, with the Gospel of Mark, my sugar stick, right in front of me. I am normally proud of my sermonizing, as I put a lot of work into research and then, imagining a connection for folks to grab onto. But this particular Sunday, I was good. I was so good, I had to take notes on my own damn self. We had lunch afterward with the four committee members, with them asking questions about my theology and vision for what church might be. We concluded the day with a good feeling on both of our parts.

Monday night, I was home for dinner and had moved into the den. Our home phone rang, back in ancient times when we had landlines. I took the call at my desk, the one I am sitting at now as I write. It was the Search Committee on a conference call from Austin, led by the Senior Warden. After some typical pleasantries, the Senior Warden told me that they had voted and unanimously decided to call me as their next Rector. We needed to make arrangements for my family to go down to Austin, to worship in a Sunday morning service to get a feel for the place, but they were excited to extend the call to me.

I thanked them, told them how honored I was, and would talk with my wife, setting up a time to visit St. James. Then, I hung up the phone.

I wept. The tears may still be lingering on my desk. It had been a long time since I cried like this, from deep down in my soul. Not simple tears of joy, but of deep connection. For a white Southside boy from Atlanta, this was monumental. It was my Nobel prize, to be engaged, to be honest, and be accepted, valued, embraced. It was quite a moment for me, definitely on the highlight reel of my life.

Looking back on it, it is even more important in terms of how I lived my life, the decisions I have made. After visiting the parish, a talk with my bishop, I made one of the most unselfish decisions of my life by saying “no” to this opportunity. It definitely disappointed Butch and his plans for our ride into history.

It will require another column to explain why I did not accept this wonderful offer to go to my favorite city on the planet, Austin, partner with one of my heroes, and serve a faithful and courageous group of committed disciples. For one who could be criticized for being opportunistic on most occasions, this was perhaps my most difficult decision, one that in all candor, I regret.

As I do the elder work of life review, this is at the top of my list of regrets. In that review work, I see the amazing consequences of small decisions on the course of one’s life, but the effect of pivotal decisions is staggering if we dare look. But the psychic relief comes with the realization that this is just the way life is. As we used to joke in Texas, “You pays your money, you take your chances.” Texans are tricky when they philosophize, sounding simple in the deep waters of Truth. Maybe that’s why I miss Texas so. There has to be SOME reason!

By the way, this is an example of how I “fill out” one of my chapters that made the list on my “Chapters of My Life”. It’s an exercise in playfully describing a moment of experience in time, remembering specific pieces of life being “seriously playful and playfully serious”.

Watching the Olympics, I marvel at the motion and movement of these fragile humans, frozen in a mid-air leap and twist. Sometimes they “stick” the landing perfectly, sometimes they fall. But they are “all in”, having worked uncountable hours, minutes, seconds to gain their skill. Then, they fling themselves into that precarious moment we know as human experience, carrying inside those childlike souls who somatically know the thrill of joy and wonder. It is a symbol of what we do every day, unnoticed, unscored by an expert panel of judges, but judged nonetheless. We watch the drama in motion of life, feeling both our awe and connection.

And we smile. And what, for God’s sake, is that tear all about?

Can you tell me?

That’s My Story

Last week, I cited a famous line about writing: It’s simple, just sit at your typewriter and bleed.

I am so grateful to those of you who took the opportunity to affirm my bleeding, although one old friend lamented me breaking the illusion that it was Hemingway who wrote it. But the work of writing about writing, “meta-writing”, gave me the gift of recalling something I learned a long time ago.

I was working as the assistant to Jim Fowler at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. My work had me interviewing a broad variety of people about their life history, the fancy term for an interview on their psychosocial history. I would generally begin a three-hour interview by asking for a chronological overview of their life story. That was the fun part, at least for me. I was always surprised at the variety of stories, the intriguing twists and turns of what each person has experienced in this thing we call life.

My trouble was that I became fascinated with these stories, rather than moving on to the the “real” part of the interview which dealt with ascertaining the cognitive structures the person was employing to make decisions about their life, specifically the way in which they were able to make decisions around ethical issues. Were they trapped in a conventional framework of answers that had been passed down from sources that were accepted but largely unexamined? Were they caught in the conflicted tension between competing sets of values? Had that tension resulted in placing this person in the dreaded “vortex of relativity”? Had he/she moved through that vexing vortex to a self-critically chosen frame of reference? Was this person able to use the structure of reason to assess the moral question that was pressing? Had the person been able to achieve an integrity of thought on the far side of the complexity of the problem presented? This was the stuff of careful research. You had to force the process of reasoning that would reveal the “how” people were thinking, not being seduced by the “what’.

This interview would be transcribed and then assessed by a group of researchers trained to identify the cognitive structures being employed. Were there points of evidence around the use of formal operational thinking? Was the logic employed dichotomizing in a strict determination of right and wrong in a binary way or was there evidence of dialectical thinking that found tension in the decision-making process. What level of cognitive functioning did we see at work?

Again, it’s important to note that this is not about “content”, that is, philosophical or theological reasons given for one’s thinking but rather the “structures”, how one is thinking about the moral question addressed. Simply put, it was more about the “how” people thought rather than the “what”. These questions were fascinating to my research colleagues as we tried to prove the truth of our theoretical work of identifying normative, progressive cognitive stages that people move through in their development. My problem was that I was more fascinated by the stories they would tell in the process. As a result of my predilection, my interviews, following the same guidelines as my colleagues, would go for almost twice as long as theirs.

This thrilled the team of folks who transcribed the interviews, making me the least favorite of the research interviewers at the Center. But more importantly, it gave me a clue as to where my real passion resided: stories. I found myself veering off-script to ask probing questions that might look beneath the waterline, to pull back the curtain to see who or what is actually running the show. This tendency made me an expensive research interviewer but a hell of a sleuth in getting at the real story. Asking the probing questions has served me well in my work as a therapist and coach….not so much as a structural cognitive researcher.

As a part of my work at the Center, I was asked to be a part of the design team of events we would hold at Emory and at various sites. In one particular project, Jim asked for me to come up with an activity for the very beginning of the event. In design lingo, he was looking for an “ice breaker”, intended to get the participants engaged with one another and, most importantly, within themselves. I came up with an exercise that came to be known as Chapters of My Life.

We would begin the exercise by prompting the participants to imagine that they had been asked to write a spiritual autobiography. We asked them to review their “life story” in a chronological approach, naming each chapter within that continuing narrative. The project was for them to write down eight to twelve chapter titles that would give a sense of the flow of their lives. After a time of reflection, writing the chapters down on notebook paper, we asked them to give their “autobiography” a title that captured the “feel” of their life.

Then, we wanted them to transfer this work onto the infamous newsprint that educators bring with them to such events, using a wide variety of colors of magic markers. We told the participants, upfront, that we would then ask them to read the chapter titles in front of the group, with NO explantory comments, nor questions asked from the group. Simply read your chapter titles, followed by the naming of your story with a title.

In introducing the exercise, I would “prime the pump” by showing my own chapter titles, which modeled the creative imagination we were wanting. “Abandoned…Yet Loved”, “Grace by Adoption”, “Doctor, Lawyer, Tribal Chief”, gave them some examples of what we were looking for, as the chapter titles were images of that time in your life. I would always pause to tell them of an early participant from within a certain religious denomination, that will not be named (think United), whose titles took this form: “Early Childhood”, “Childhood”, “Late Childhood”. Nervous laughter among the troops ensued. That was not what we are looking for. Rather, we were looking for rich, vibrant, descriptive titles.

Finally, I would admonish them to work on their own, that there would be plenty of time to talk with one another, but this was not that time. I would pause and say dramatically, “No Cheating!”. I would quote Woody Allen that it was cheating to look deeply into another’s soul……this was in a galaxy, long ago and far away, when Woody was popular, and it played well with the groups at the time and got my point across.

And so, it began, I would remind them of the process as they thought deeply in reflection, and then wrote the Chapters of My Life down on paper, transcribed onto the newsprint, and then hung on the wall.

When everybody had finished, I would gather them in a group, standing in the middle of the room. I would lead the group to one corner where one of the participants was asked to begin. That person would read each chapter title, with no comment, allowing no questions or clarification, and then offer the “title” for their life story. Then we would move as a group to the next piece of newsprint, repeating the action until we had gone around the circle, giving everyone a chance to read their chapters and title.

You will remember that the genesis for this was to serve as a mere “icebreaker” to kick off our week’s work. It turned out to be much more.

We moved in a circle, around the room, each person reading the chapters and titles. As we moved around that primal circle, not unlike the fire in the middle of a primitive camp, a sense of the Holy arose. Each life told a sacred story, full of intimated hope, dreams, tragedy, and death. Often tears flowed, voices cracked as memories flooded the room. Participants felt an existential connection with other members of the group as we shared our experiences and the basic work of homo poeta, humans being meaning-makers, making sense out of our lives by constructing narratives, stories. We were standing on Sacred, Holy Ground.

Let me assure you that this was a surprise to our design team, especially me. It felt like a kind of revelatory moment as we touched something deep. It became a highlight of the week’s work, prompting deep dives into each chapter, and rich, appreciative sharing.

Never looking a gift horse in the mouth, I threw a saddle on the beast and rode it for most of my career. I learned a great deal in this accident of design, about the power of story, and the sacred space of sharing it.

I have used it with pastors needing a pause, and a “refresh”. I have used it with seminarians, in the middle of their coursework and in transition into their first parish. I have used it with boards of directors, and all types of groups, even churches. I even used it once with a group of nurses whose spirit had become so depressed that it was lower than whale poo. It has never failed.

So, for grins, you might, in the middle of this crazy time in our country, give yourself a gift. A pause for the cause. Take a moment to:

  1. Write your chapter titles for your life, in chronological order.
  2. Try to capture the “feel” or the spirit of that time in your life with the chapter title.
  3. Give the “story” of your life a title that names where you have been.

You don’t have to share it with anyone. It’s yours, your story. But, you might want to, as it brings the communal spirit into play, which introduces another dimension. But that’s your choice. For it’s your story, a wonderful, amazing testament to the life you have lived. It may grant you a secret wish of seeing a trajectory that is embedded in your life that will allow you to sense where you need to go next in this wild, crazy, precious life. I hope you find this process intriguing, enough to invest some good time and energy in reflecting and naming the chapters of your life. If you do put in the time and energy, I would enjoy hearing about the results. Enjoy.

What’s your story?

Just Sit and Bleed!

Intrigued by the process of writing, I often find myself, late in the afternoon, reading about the art of writing, as recorded by writers.

One of my favorite quotes, for a long time, was attributed to Hemingway.

When asked how he writes, he reportedly responded that it was easy. “Just sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”

As much as I love the quote, and wish to God it was Hem, it was actually not said by Papa, but by a sportswriter commenting on the work of cranking out a weekly column. Regardless of the source, the insight seems true to my experience, although most have evolved from the clunky typewriter.

My means of writing has varied.

The implement of destruction has changed, at least for me. I had a Smith-Corona typewriter when I was in college that I lugged to the dining room or library in my fraternity house. I wrote long-hand in my graduate days, relying on my good friend, Susan Ashworth, to decipher my handwriting, and pound out my work.

I was one of the first people on the planet to have a portable computer, a Compaq beast that resembled a Singer sewing machine. Lord, “portable” was debatable but much more versatile than the industrial models that sat in the basement of the Cathedral. I have since used Dells for my bleeding although I do have an ultra thin Surface that I carry with me at times, just for sport.

These days, my Dell resides in my home office, sitting on my Texas desk, connected to a large screen monitor as a concession to my waning vision. Books stacked threaten to overtake me, my stereo system provides my musical bed for my time at work, varying from the Dead, to Joni to Emmylou, to Trane, and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Eclectic is the operative word, though my son, Thomas’ music brings me my biggest smile. It’s a fine environment in which to work.

The other morning, I jumped up out of bed, ready to write.

I’m lying. I did not jump, not even “rolled”. My wife had left the house early, so there was no early morning repartee. I moseyed out of my bedroom toward the kitchen for a cup of my Death Wish Strong Coffee. The Best. I took the filled large copper Yeti cup and ambled to my office, sitting down at my Logitech keyboard, ergonomically arranged, and began to write.

About an hour later, my wife got back home. I could hear her because the door to my office was open. I heard her call my name, “David”, with some alarm.

“There’s blood all over the hall.”

I paused, wondering if I had killed someone. And then, in a Hemingway flash, it came to me. I remembered hitting my toe on a wooden piece that connects the kitchen floor tile with the wood of the hallway. I recalled almost instantly, that I had hit that small piece in my slog to the office, momentarily threatening my progress. With coffee in hand, I remembered the surge of pride that I had not fallen down, nor spiled the magical elixir. Rather, I was upright, at least in my bodily position, and moving forward to my goal.

I looked down to see that my big toe on my left foot had a small gash on the front edge, and I was bleeding onto the floor of my office. Papa’s attributed words came to me in an instant, like one has upon waking from a dream. I laughed to myself that I was fulfilling this aphorism. I was bleeding as I was writing, literally, if not literarily.

After I doctored myself, the way my biologist mother would have been proud, I came back to the desk and began a slowed pause, to ponder this moment. How is writing like bleeding?

Of course, “writing as bleeding” was pushing the notion of an organic connection with the work of writing, sharing one’s thoughts with others. Surely, writing should come from one’s innards, but there are all kinds of bodily fluids that may flow. I will spare you my thoughts on those, but I imagine you are filling in the blanks. But blood, blood gets to the heart of the matter. I have tended to love the notion of “life blood”, which captures the essential nature of pouring one’s self out. In writing, one becomes clear that there is a cost, and I know it for a fact. But, there is a pleasure that mixes with the pain, somewhat like birthing. To create usually has a cost, as well as a gift. A mixed blessing, which seems to be the only one I know.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about writing recently. Prompted by one of those ubiquitous “profiles” that one is asked for, I was surprised that my lead in “who I was” was that of a writer, not priest, therapist, or coach. It made me pause, which is a dangerous thing to do.

Writing has always been a part of my life, from writing essays in honors English for Ms. Hinkle (Katharine Ross, the Sundance Kid’s girl) who I was hoping to impress: to columns in a sports page in the Tri-Cities “suburban disturber” (my dad’s name for the local paper); to music reviews in an entertainment magazine in Texas; to my weekly column in a church publication. I have always been writing SOMETHING. And as I mentioned a while back, my boss, Dr. Lancaster, used to say: Sometimes I have something to say, and sometimes, I have to say something. Spot on, Bill.

And then there was sermon writing. I loved that part of my work of being a priest. Following my ministerial mentor, Carlyle Marney, I made a vow at my ordination that I would never enter the pulpit unprepared, and I lived up to it…at least one vow pristinely kept. I enjoyed the research into the background of the Scriptures appointed for the day, and it’s connection to a particular liturgical season. I loved the challenge of seeing a new way to look at an old horse, to make the beast run, even gallop. Bringing the sermon “home” to show what difference it made in one’s life was the payoff pitch. Sometimes, I am sure that I missed that crucial moment, but it was not for a lack of trying. I cared, really cared, to make that connection.

The proper question comes as to “why?”. Why did I care so much? What was my motivation?

To attempt to deny my ego’s part in the equation would be foolish, particularly to those of you who know me. It was an opportunity to show both my learning, but even more, to show off my creativity. I revel in my greatest gift, and burden….my curiosity. It’s my only super power. There’s nary a rabbit that I will not chase, as I said for good and for ill. But I took pride, using that slippery word advisedly, in my creative way of connecting things, the old with the new, the past with the now. Ego is a part of it, but not all of it, not the heart from which the blood flows.

There is a sense of art in sharing with other human types my experience of our common world. When I read a writer, I am overhearing his/her description of their encounter with the world, their observations, their feelings, their wonder, their fear, their hope. It’s a moment of connection with another person who is, like me, bound by our individual perspective, but is valiantly attempting to communicate with the “other”, another being who shares this world.

When I sit down at my desk, I am trying to dive deep into my soul as to how I am experiencing life, in both the light and the darkness of human Being. My persona is obviously in the frame as it is a part of my identity, constructed in the effort to make it through the day. But in diving deep, I touch my shadow, the unconscious part of my Self, that I natively try to hide. And I bring my memory, an objective reality that receives my interpretive spin that is unavoidable, trying to wrestle with its amorphous form to find and forge meaning, even purpose.

When I come clean, most of my writing springs from stories. It’s a Southern thing. I fell in love with storytelling, listening to my grandfather. That became more intentional and structured as I became a cognitive developmental researcher at the Center for Faith Development. I interviewed a variety of folks about their lives, recalling the events of their life, and then pressing them to share the meaning, the coherence, the thread of trajectory that runs through their personal narrative. Every so often, I get a feeling that, when I am writing, I am conducting a self-interview, asking myself the same probing questions I previously asked others in an academic research setting. It seems only fair. And I am trying to be honest, allowing the blood to pour.

I’ll end this foray into the art and work of writing by noting a quote that I KNOW to be of the man, himself, Papa Hemingway. It hangs over my desk, along with his picture. Howard Thurman, MLK, Bobby Jones, and Jesus share the space…how’s that for a team.

Hem’s framed words come from A Moveable Feast. It’s his advice to any writer. It comes from his reflections on his time in Paris….. France, not Texas. It’s the reassurance, the self-coaching he would give himself in the pregnant moment, pondering his work while looking over the rooftops of Paris. “Do not worry. You have written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

I say those words occasionally, like a prayer. As he knew, it’s easier said than done. For there are voices that holler from the cellar of your life that remind you of your failures and lapses of courage. “You, a writer?” they laugh. And current voices that warn you of saying too much, of revealing past secrets and current tensions. Keep your voice down!

But fortunately, there are those balcony people, like Papa, who call you higher, to your aspirations, your passion, your greatest self. They urge you to dive into the deep end, write of the experience you know, daring to risk connecting it to the thing we all know as our life. It starts with one true sentence. And that requires bleeding.

King for a Day

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. is a day I dedicate to the prophet every third Monday of January.

I was too young to know him, but know and knew some of his lieutenants. And I met and knew his momma and daddy, heroes themselves. In fact, I went to visit the King family on that terrible day when Mrs. King was shot and killed at the organ of Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was on my birthday.

I have read everything that Martin said or wrote that I can find. I was just gifted with a book entitled The Radical King, edited and introduced by my man, Cornel West. I used this volume for my annual reading of King’s powerful Letter from the Birmingham Jail. It nails me every time, bringing tears and resolve, my criteria for greatness. I am participating in a group here in Glynn County, on the coast of Georgia, that is reading this book, remembering Martin’s prophetic words and looking to make it real in our own day, our own community. It’s good to be re-minded, to sense the call from his truth.

On King Day, I always recall an interview I gave to a reporter who came to Tyler, Texas during a time of racial crisis. A black grandmother had been shot and killed during a botched drug bust by the Smith County Sheriff’s Department. The Texas NAACP decided to bring it’s annual meeting to Tyler, to highlight this travesty. This announcement prompted a local Ku Klux Klan group to get a parade permit for the same weekend. It was a disaster ready to happen. A church member brought me a copy of John Grisham’s book, A Time to Kill, a book that I read overnight and now sits on my desk. Businesses boarded up downtown windows, expecting violence. Citizens took a convenient weekend getaway to Dallas, or a quick vacation to the Texas coast.

A reporter from the national paper began the interview by asking me “what did you do to get “sentenced” to coming to serve in Tyler, Texas?”

I laughed, the way you have to laugh, when arrogant reporters who don’t understand the situation, ask a stupid question.

“It’s not like that. You need to understand something. My grandfather helped to integrate the Atlanta police department. My parents worked to get Andrew Young elected to the Congress of the United States. But I was too young to march with Martin. I would pray at night to God, asking why God had birthed me out of season? Why couldn’t I have been born earlier so that I could have taken my place in line beside Martin and the movement as he marched for civil rights?……And God heard my prayer, and sent me to Tyler, Texas.”

The reporter included that quote in her article, which made me understandingly popular with the Tyler Chamber of Commerce.

Many times on MLK Day, I was at Ebenezer. However during my Texas sojourn, I actually marched in the first MLK Day parade in Tyler in 1991, gathering downtown and marching up Broadway to the Roman Catholic Cathedral. My close friend, Rabbi Art Flicker used to kid me about “teaching him how to march in an MLK parade” by holding up a bull’s eye target. On that cold January morning, you could see the silhouettes of the SWAT team on top of the buildings as we gathered to march. There had been threats to our safety.

A few years later, I was the keynote speaker, bringing my Atlanta cred to the event, even though the black singer before me upstaged me. I remember quipping as I began to speak, that I felt like Dennis Menke. Dennis Menke has to stand in the batter’s circle while he watched Henry Aaron at bat.

Regardless if I am in Atlanta to attend the ceremony in person, or have to watch it live on a television feed, I am present to the moment. I do have to say that in my younger days, I loved watching the older politicians and ministers who were stuck on the podium. Particularly, the white folks who had no clue that this thing was going to go on for a while. You could see them get fidgety when their biological clocks were ringing, maybe ignorantly having a few too many cups of coffee prior to the service. No coffee for this white boy on MLK Day. That’s the only blessing when I can’t be at Ebenezer in person. Unlimited coffee and bathroom access!

I am happy, proud even, to dedicate the third Monday in January to remembering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. My whole day. I read speeches, books, sermons, maybe write like I am now, always pausing to attend to the service. It is a re-minder, a refresher to the ethical call that Dr. King brought as a voice to our community, to our country, reminding us of our high ideals and aspirations, linking them to our spiritual values.

Some folks forget, some were not around to know that Dr. King was not popular in his day. You could expect that white folks would get upset by the social justice demands that he could make, both with the domestic demands around civil rights and fair wages, but he also began to point out the imperialism of our country, its outrageous military budget, and our involvement in the Vietnam war. He also lost popularity among those blacks who thought non-violence was too passive a response to inequality, and still other blacks who got anxious with his insistence on justice. A majority of black citizens disapproved of his opposition to the Vietnam war. Oftentimes, King found himself opposed by black religious leaders who wanted to maintain the status quo due to their own economic self-interests. But Martin consistently found the courage to set his chin forward to the prize of democracy and human dignity embodied in the right to vote.

A point made by Cornel West is that we have domesticated Martin King to a more palatable form, that is easier for folks to take, much like the pussy cat we have made of Jesus, rather than the roaring lion of justice. We prefer the cute Baby Jesus, cooing in the manger, as opposed to the Jesus who is turning over the tables of the money changers. Have we forgotten the radical King as we make him presentable to the home crowd? When you take the time and energy to read King, and situate him in the context of his speaking, you find a radical advocate for the beloved community. It is galling for senators who quote Martin on a convenient day with little at stake, but fail to rise to the occasion of courage by safeguarding the right to vote for ALL people. Shameful, as if that sentiment still exists in politics these days. Expediency and protection of one’s literal seat is the coin of the realm.

I was thrilled when I heard that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, had been asked to keynote the annual event. I knew he would be good but did not know just HOW good. Curry has used his tenure as PB to push our church as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. He had made it plain that the general marching order for the Episcopal Church is to follow Jesus in his message that Love is the Way. I would refer those of you who have missed the boat, train, and treat, to pick up Bishop Curry’s book, Love is the Way, as a glorious way into the soul and spirit of his passion.

On this day, he took that theme, but played at the variation tuned to our present moment in this country. He pressed for REVIVAL, that is, coming back to life with the common values of our country, namely loving one’s neighbor, regardless of their race, ethnic background, religious tradition, sexual orientation, or, God help us, political party.

Curry got all radical asking Republicans to love Democrats, and Democrats to love Republicans. He quipped that Independents get the chance to love everybody! Love everyone, even if you don’t like them.

Now, this is not new stuff. It’s part of the Hebraic Shema, to love God with all one’s heart, beginning with the centrality of God’s presence in our existence, expressed in Jewish foundational Scriptures and in their daily prayer. Jesus, grounded in that tradition, claims that foundation and radicalized the implications, including loving one’s neighbor, pulling out the admonition of Leviticus. He goes even further with his parables to blow out the full expression of love as even extending that to one’s enemies and praying for one’s persecutors, literally mind-blowing.

Let’s be honest. It simply makes no sense to most reasonable folks. In a transactional world based in the reasonable mantra of quid pro quo, this for that…. such talk is crazy talk. But in the Kingdom of God, it is THE way. The way, Jesus taught. The way of love that Martin took to the streets, even to a bridge. Loving ALL people.

And here it is, and you are not going to like it if you are still with me. They killed Jesus for it, for parading it in front of the religious and political rulers. They shot Martin for it. “They” still aren’t real high on it, because it means they are no longer in control.

Love is the way, even to the radical note of loving your enemy. That’s a high note most trumpets just can’t hit.

Bishop Curry pushed this notion of returning, reviving this basic commitment to love God and neighbor. He pulled out all the stops, brought out all the poetic lines from hymns, even did a Delta commercial, as he deftly knew he was in the Jerusalem of Atlanta. He even danced a little, and for an Episcopalian, that’s taking it to the limit. Michael was “all in” on this thing called love.

And I was moved. Tears rolling down, lips quivering. The preacher, channeling Martin, got to me. And that’s a good thing. But the question is, are we going to hear the call, really hear it so that our narrow perspective of ego is exploded out to the Other, the Neighbor, the Enemy? Can we dare say ALL?

Each Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we remember the Dreamer, and his shimmering Vision of the Beloved Community. And every third Monday of January, the existential question is posed anew: Will you carry that Dream forward? Every third Monday of January, there is King for a day, but what about Tuesday…and Wednesday?

Justice for Ahmaud

I am writing this on January 7th, the day after Epiphany. It was the day of sentencing in the trial of the convicted killers of Ahmaud Arbery.

Having written extensively throughout the trial, it seems like the right thing to do in bringing the story to its conclusion.

I went to the courthouse this morning for a prayer vigil held by the clergy of Glynn County. I then went and watched the sentencing process on an online feed from the courtroom.

It was wrenching to hear the mother and father of this 25-year-old man who was killed on Feb. 23, 2020. February 23 sticks in my mind because it was my ordination date to the diaconate, St. Polycarp’s feast day. He’s my kind of martyr….he waited to get into his 90s before getting killed as a martyr for the faith. And February 23rd is the date on which my mother died. So the 23rd of February is highly valenced in my soul.

As you would imagine, both the father and mother expressed a deep love for their boy, a young man with so much promise. They fought through emotions to express themselves to the court and to the defendants they faced as to the cost of this act of chasing down their son who was running through the neighborhood, and then shooting him with three shotgun blasts, killing him on this neighborhood street. I can not begin to imagine their pain, though I tried my best to empathize with those feelings.

After they had expressed their pain, it was time for the attorneys of the three defendants to offer their best shot in bringing sympathy for their situations. I tried hard to listen to these attorneys who did their best to defend these three men in their trial, and who now faced the Herculean task of squeezing some understanding as to why they should not be punished to the fullest extent of the law for their deed of murder. I was surprised at my own upwelling of feelings for these three. Their lives are basically finished due to some bad decisions made on a winter’s day, “driveway decisions” is how the prosecutor described it. I think of the cultural prompts that all three of these guys had been receiving through most of their lives. The scary privilege that sometimes goes with law enforcement folks who assume they are still “the law” even when they are no longer in that role. What made them think that running down this young man in a truck was the right thing to do? And for that lapse in judgment, Ahmaud’s life was taken away.

As the statements concluded, Judge Timothy Walmsley took a moment to pause before he rendered his judgment. He prefaced his sentencing with some thoughtful remarks as to how he saw this case, this murder. He empathized with Ahmaud’s parents, noting the pathos in the loss of this promising young man’s life. Throughout the weeks, I was struck by the judge’s appropriate professionalism in managing this high-profile trial. But he seemed to yield to the moment, amazingly human in the moment just before pronouncing judgment.

Judge Walmsley almost seemed pastoral in his demeanor as he made a point to speak to this particular time in the community’s life. Here, I am thinking of the community in concentric rings, extending from the town of Brunswick, to the State of Georgia, to our divided nation, to our fractured world.

The judge framed his statement in an unconventional move, something that reminded me…of me, that is, something crazy that I might do from the pulpit to drive a point home.

He said, ” I do want to put that time period in context, and the only way I could think to do so- it may be a little theatrical, but I think it’s appropriate. I want us all to get a concept of time. So what I am going to do, I’m going to sit silently for one minute.” And so we sat in silence for one seemingly endless minute.

The judge clarified that this one minute period of silence was only a fraction of the five minutes that Ahmaud was running away from his pursuers, chasing him down with pickup trucks, with a pistol and shotgun, yelling threats at the young man, to “blow his f***ing head off”. The silence was deafening, and seemed to go on forever, giving those in the courtroom an experiential moment of empathy.

When the minute ended, the judge said slowly, “When I thought about this, I thought of a lot of different angles, and kept thinking back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores.” This is a grand example of emotional intelligence, namely an empathetic moment of perspective-taking.

Judge Walmsley went on, “I read somewhere and I don’t remember where it was, that at a minimum, Ahmaud Arbery’s death should force us to consider expanding our definition of what a ‘neighbor’ may be and how we treat them. I argue that maybe a neighbor is more than the people who own property around your house. I also believe that assuming the worst in others, we show our worst character. Assuming the best in others is always the best course of action.”

The judge then rendered his verdict, sentencing the shooter and the driver, son and father, to life without the possibility of parole. The third defendant, the driver of another truck who served as the camera operator, was also sentenced to life, but with the possibility of parole.

The judge, as did the community of Glynn, tried to redeem to loss of life that took place when these killers took the law into their own hands. Trying to wrestle a lesson out of this tragedy, the judge sounded like a teacher of mine I once heard on the side of a mountain, talking about loving your neighbor like you would love your own self, that is, seeing the other, the neighbor, as connected to you.

After the trial, there was the ubiquitous press conference in front of the courthouse. Various folks spoke, but my attention was on the parents who had sat through repeated images of their son being gunned down with three shotgun blasts, watching him fall to the pavement, seeing his body on the asphalt oozing the lifeblood. They had to sit through the black and white photos from the morgue exam table. Through it all, they showed dignity and restraint, but with an insistent demand for justice for their son. In front of this crowd gathered in support, they said they finally got it, justice, that is.

I stood to the side, watching, listening. My new friend, Ms. Annie Polite, stood beside me. She had been there every day from the beginning. An 87 year-old black woman, a native of Brunswick who has spent her professional career in New York City, had moved back to her hometown. When I asked her, she said she was an activist, with a particular passion for education. But for these long weeks, she was here at the courthouse, usually the first one to begin the chant, “Justice for Ahmaud!”. She didn’t have a megaphone. She didn’t need one.

I must confess that I was initially bothered by the jubilation in the crowd. My own mood was somber, with the deep sense of pathos for a young life stilled by the worn-out Southern gothic story of a black man chased down by rednecks in a pick up truck. I am tired of this story. I’ve heard it too many times.

But then, I looked to the courthouse steps and caught sight of a robed black minister with doctoral chevrons down his sleeves. He was clapping his hands, doing a dance that would rival my man James Brown. His face was beaming with a smile that would light up the night, as he looked heavenward, saying repeatedly, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”

That was then I got it. Why jubilation is in order, “meet and right so to do” as we old Anglicans say. This represented a reversal. Folks who had been downtrodden, denied their rights under the law, made to feel like second class citizens by a culture that pushed them down and to the back of the bus….this verdict was a symbol of America paying up on a promise made too many years ago, a promise too long forgotten. I know I only caught a bit of the joy, but it was powerful stuff. Enough to bring a smile to my face, and perhaps restore my hope in this country that seems to be foundering on the old rocks of denial of our democratic principles and our original sin of slavery.

In that moment, as the sun was setting to the left, over the East River, I was able to join Ms. Annie, propped up on her red rocker walker, in chanting that mantra of both demand and hope: Justice for Ahmaud. Justice for Ahmaud.

Post Note: To listen to the actual judge’s voice, Go to the podcast, Buried Truth by my friend, Hank Klibanoff, in the third season, and the most recent post, Killers Sentenced. Available at most podcasting sites. https://www.wabe.org/episode/killers-sentenced/

Home By Another Way

To forget your lines in a dramatic production is unforgivable. But it happens…or should I say, it happened.

I was a senior in high school and had been asked to take the role of one of the Wise Men in a musical production. I only agreed because the coolest teacher at Briarwood, Phillip Hood, was going to be playing one of the other Wise Dudes….Mr. Hood was black, and he seemed to be my ticket to cool, if there was any chance in hell. I studied his moves, how he interacted, his style. We didn’t have many models for cool at my high school. So I signed on.

I had rushed to the school for the dress rehearsal, right after finishing a golf round, so my mind was still gnawing on the last putt I missed. That is where my mind was, at Canongate Golf Course, when I made it just in time to be at the procession of the Wise Men.

We were to enter from the back of the gym, process down the left side to the front where the stage was set. We had the three gifts: a Georgia clay brick, covered in gold foil; a wooden box that was to bear the fragrant frankincense; and the large suspicious green bottle of cologne that was purported to hold the precious myrrh, though I was thinking Polo.

After the long processional walk, with spotlights upon us, a prefigurement, a proleptic moment for my future, I had the first line: The star over yonder stable is.

I had practiced my lines- I was “that” guy who you could count on to get it right. Even with the missed putt pounding in my brain, I got this! No problem.

Except as I followed Mr. Hood into the gym, my mind must have wondered as I wandered. Instead of the intended line, my brain free-associated with Shakespeare and I suddenly became Romeo, not Melchior at all. This is what came out of my mouth: The star over yonder window breaks…..

Mr. Hood, a.k.a. Balthasar, turned his Afro-topped head and began to laugh, and everyone else joined in. At that point, my mama’s teaching kicked it in, as she said that when folks are laughing at you, laugh along, as if you meant to do whatever it was they were laughting at. It proved to be a good strategy on that particular night, at least in the moment. Just call me Forrest.

But I did not, mean to do it, that is. I was mortified. I was in the tender time of being an adolescent who was still negotiating the Copernican revolution that I was not the center of the universe, I was one among many. And the scariest thing that was happening intrapsychically was that it was breaking into my consciousness that all these “others” were looking at me, watching me, determining if I was “cool” or not.

The whole incident did not take but a moment, but it seared itself into my memory. I have wondered since: How is that? Why is that? Our brain, our memory is such a funny thing in terms of what gets remembered and what simply flutters to the floor of our mind.

What’s interesting to me is how each January 6th brings up that memory for me. It’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the last of the twelve days of Christman in the Western Christian calendar. If you are moving the figures of the Nativity like a chess set, the Wise Men are finally arriving at the manger to present these symbolic gifts. I can’t think of the Wise Men without remembering that fateful moment when I forgot my line. On the night of the performance, I nailed it. Gold costume on, sweating like a porcine runaway, my bronze make-up perfect, spotlight focused, I said my lines perfectly, chastened by my lapse of concentration the night before. I thought I heard Hood, snicker when I got the line right, but I was probably just my imagination, projecting, aware of my stark lack of cool, glaringly apparent.

But in spite of getting it pure perfect, why does the memory of the slip-up dominate my Jan. 6th epiphanic memory? I have thought about that, not only about the crazy way I was wired from birth by my parents, but from my church with its puritanical perfection, and the culture of my portion of the American Dream. It was the illusion that one could and should be perfect.

Every Jan. 6th, on the Feast of the Epiphany, I think about that mistake, caused by a lapse in my attention. Although, I have to admit that the events of last January 6th with the insurrection at the Capitol, now may trump my memory in the future. Those moments of violence and acts of ignoring the law may in fact rid me of my slip, even as unforgiveable as it was in my young, impressionable mind.

That scene of the Wise Men came back to my mind last Sunday as we listened to the infancy narrative read from the Church’s tradition. It prompted the priest to talk about those wise men. Picking up on the tradition, the priest reminded us of the symbolic meaning of the three gifts given to the infant Jesus. The gold denoted power, the frankincense was a reminder of the priestly presence, and the myrrh pointed to the prophetic role, but also a connection with that of death as it was used in the ancient embalming process. This trinity of gifts combined in a divine Venn diagram: the kingly power, the priestly presence, and the prophetic call, but interestingly framed in the context of death.

The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel account that included the Wise Men, or Magi, in the birth narrative. There’s no note as to there being “three” wise men, only extrapolated for three gifts named. In case you’ve been missing in action from the Baby Jesus birth story, it was written in the 2nd chapter of how the Wise Men had come searching for the infant that prophesy had foretold. They went first to Jerusalem asking about this promised child that would become king in the future. The current king, Herod, got nervous with the questions. Herod sent them on their way to find this special child, and charged them to return to tell him when they found him so that he, himself, could pay homage. Of course, he was fearful of losing power, like most rulers are, and he planned to squash it out. This is an old, repeated story plot, which was recently played out on our own stage of democracy,

In the story, there’s good news/bad news. The Wise Men do follow the strange star in the sky to a place in Bethlehem where they give the Baby Jesus those three gifts. But these Wise Men are hip to Herod, and rather than follow Herod’s nefarious plans, they outsmart him by going “home by another way”.

“Home by another way”. I love that phrase. It sounds subversive in my ears, as they would not fall sway to the powerful King. James Taylor wrote a moving song about this story, Home By Another Way. I commend it to you. It’s appropriately found on JT’s album, Never Die Young. Take a listen as an Epiphany gift to your own damn self.

Oh, yeah. The bad news. Herod is enraged by the subversive wise guys who did not bend to his power. He ordered the male babies killed, and the Church has remembered them as the Holy Innocents, which should remind us of how power gets used by self-possessed rulers in order to stay in office….oh, I meant to say, keep their kingdom. The innocent get the short end of the night stick throughout history. Same as it ever was.

So what are we to do with this story in 2022. I want to take a prompt by the Wise Men to be a gift-giver that honors the people we love. But I am wanting to follow their lead by going “home by another way”. Rather than gold or other gifts that we can order through Amazon, what is something that I have in my possession that is of value that I might give? What valuable treasure do you have?

For me, it is my time. I can become intentional in presenting my time to others, being present to them as a gift of my being.

An old high school friend that I know is isolated due to health, I can call and give him some time. A former parishioner has just lost his best friend to death, I can call and simply listen to him tell stories about his friend and grieve. A person is hurting from a job change, I can invite them to go for coffee.

The gift is my time, my presence, being with an “other”. The giving of that gift will demand giving up something of value, my time. Rather than hoarding time, pressing it for productivity, what if one might find the alternative, the subversive, “the other way”. I am finding it strangely fun and joy-producing in giving my time away, freely and generously. Give it a try to manifest your joy in this season of Epiphany.