Your Bliss is What You Miss

Please forgive me for making a side allusion to Hall and Oates and their hit, Your Kiss Is On My List. It’s a catchy song that is embedded permanently in my psyche, for reasons that will be undisclosed. In a recent dive back into my Jungian pool, I was reminded of a phrase that ruled the day for a nano-second, right around the time I was ordained as a priest, mid-eighties. It was “Follow your bliss!”.

It sounded like something Yoda might teach a young aspiring Jedi. As I plunged headlong into my pursuit of priesthood, with little certainty that it would work out, it felt like I was following my bliss, whatever the hell that was. I felt the passion for a life grounded in the Spirit, making a difference in the world. It had the sense of “bliss” to it, not at all a logical career path that might have been proper and expected, and approved by my dad. Could I make a life that was “spiritual” without going into a cloistered monastery? Since I had discovered celibacy to not be “on my list of the best things in life”, could I blaze a trail of my own, keeping the monk in me alive while experiencing a broader scope of life, the kind I experienced on a Las Vegas turnaround? I had taken a few roads and flights chasing, if not following, my bliss.

The phrase about bliss was coined by Joseph Campbell, a professor of comparative religion and mythology, as he was interviewed by Bill Moyers in a PBS series entitled The Power of Myth. As Moyers pressed for clarification of the deeper meaning of life, Joe mentioned teasingly “follow your bliss!” That simple phrase formed his advice to college students he was teaching. During advisory sessions with his students on every fortnight, Professor Campbell would try to lead them in identifying their deepest interests, and then encourage them to follow. Stay with it, he would advise, and don’t let anyone throw you off that path. I don’t remember having an advisor with that kind of Jedi wisdom. Rather, just tallying up my hours for my major so I could satisfy my requirements and still graduate early.

To press his point, Campbell told a story of a pregnant moment when he overheard an exchange while sitting at a restaurant. A family of three was sitting to his side. A young boy, Campbell described him as “scrawny”, around twelve years of age, was sitting, looking at his food, as young people sometimes do when they are not crazy about the fare of the moment.

The father, still dressed as a businessman just home from work, sternly tells his young son, “Drink your tomato juice.”

And the young boy responds directly from the budding-adolescent script, “I don’t want to.”

The father escalates the encounter, raising his volume and sharpening his tone, “I said, drink your tomato juice!”

The mother jumped into the fray, “Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.”

The father looks at her, and says, “He can’t go through life, doing what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to do in all my life.”

For Campbell, this was a powerful moment that was revelatory as to this man’s personal predicament, but transparent to a fate shared by many who are captured by “the system”. The system can be anything: a business, the corporation, the university, a prescribed career path, one’s social setting, and might I add, the Church. It can be a cultural pattern of life that is embedded in society that one unconsciously “buys into”. And why not? The seduction of money, power, and self-worth is a powerfully seductive cocktail of identity.

A system is an organization, formal or informal, that operates as a culture of assumptions, values, taboos, and rules that offer you a sense of identity. You “belong” and enjoy the gift of identity and value it confers, although the price entails checking at least a piece of your individual freedom. The value of being a part of something bigger than you is high, and some people will go to extreme lengths to “fit in”, including checking your mind at the door. The promise offered is that your worth will be conferred by your connection, but the cost, undisclosed in the moment, turns out to be high.

Most of us make this expected connection, which helps you find your way in the early days of life, providing guideposts along the path, like the white slash marks on the Appalachian Trail. And this works in the first half of life as you seek to master your particular craft, whatever that happens to be. But, at mid-life, a couple of wayfaring strangers begin to knock at the door of your soul. One is Death, who whispers, or yells, that He is coming sooner than you think. Your time is limited, in fact is ticking down, you are one day closer to your death. Cheers!

The other uninvited visitor is not so rude as to taunt you with an unpleasant reminder. His mode is more subtle as he asks an important but troubling question: is this worth it? Is the life you are living worthy of your best energy and time? Or, should you make a change? These are existential questions that drill down to your core, the heart of your being. Some simply can not answer, for it would cost them too much. Others nibble around the edge, playing with the questions, going to a seminar or retreat, just to say you did. But some, some take a bite out of the apple, diving deep into the questions.

I have worked with all types of folks who have hit this mid-life moment. Popularly, it was called a mid-life crisis, which prompts some to buy a Corvette, buy a ’59 Stratocaster, or look for that trophy spouse. It’s called a “crisis” and that oddly gets it pretty accurately, as “crisis” literally implies a decision has to be made. Specifically, it begs the question: do you want to continue on the path you are on, or do you want to make a course correction?

Sometimes, the person finds that he/she only needs to do what he/she is doing but just in a better way, one that includes more of the inner Self that had been left behind, or repressed in service of being a part of a “system”. This “shift” can be made incrementally, using the freedom of some experimentation that allows one to “try on” some new, fresh ways of being without selling the farm. I have assisted several attorneys and physicians “reframe” how they were doing their work. They self-describe themselves as “sick” of being a doctor, or lawyer, as they wistfully remember a dream deferred. My tack is to playfully wonder if they might be able to keep being a doctor, or lawyer, but to do it in a way that took their whole being more seriously. Many wound up not having to leave their profession, just adjusting the direction a bit differently. I am happy to report that many found their bliss, as one lawyer stated it, he rediscovered his bliss, the very reason he pursued his deepest value, justice, as he applies his learned skills in working with the poor. In the wake of recent events, that feels like a hell of a good choice.

Other times, the press for change is so strong that the old “system” is felt to be too stultifying of one’s true Self, demanding a more radical action. Complete severance of ties may be contemplated as one looks to the horizon for a new direction, a new life. This deep disruption is demanding on the person, not to mention those whose lives are attached the this person’s life structure and commitments. But I am a witness to the “resurrection power” of bringing life to the dead when bliss is pursued and a non-authentic self is abandoned. I sometimes refer to this process as “truing up the Self”, bringing one’s being and doing into alignment with one’s bliss. ‘Miraculous’ is a word that comes to mind. ‘Scary’ is another word that seems to apply, begging for the exercise of courage that had seemed to have been hibernating in a domesticated lull.

Living an inauthentic life is all too common. I once used the word “zombie” to describe this condition, preaching on my home court of the Cathedral in Buckhead, long before The Night of the Living Dead. The reaction, positive and negative, was swift, telling me that I had struck close to the bone. It prompted many life-transforming dialogues, which is part of my particular and peculiar bliss.

As I said, this normally comes at mid-life. Jung defined that as the point at which one was aware that the time you had left to live was less than what you had lived. For some, this is a simple math problem, for others, it dawns when the black balloons turn up on one’s birthday. For me, it was a feeling down deep that I could not shake or deny.

Back in the day, 35-40 was the normal marker for mid-life, but this seems a bit artificial to me these days. Some people are wired with expectations for several careers, not just the “one career path”. Many young people who consult with me are planning on several phases and “acts” of their career, with absolutely no notion of staying with one company throughout their life. It will be interesting to see how such a planned path will go and the fruits and issues it may yield.

And, many seniors, who might be considering retirement, are creatively pondering a new path, sometimes pursuing more explicitly the “bliss” they might have missed. One friend, trained as an engineer, has longed for more ways to express his deepest passion for artistic expression. After some planning, he went all “Johnny Paycheck” on his firm, telling them to “shove it”, politely, of course, and is launching a new career that promises to give him more agency in how he spends his time as well as opening up the scope of his canvas of expression. You should see his eyes dance as he dreams and plans. Life abounds. Spirit is released. Bliss is experienced.

Following your bliss isn’t just a slogan for hipsters. It’s an attitude. It’s a mindset. I saw my mother find that in her painting as she moved into her senior years, having relinquished her teaching of biology to raise her two boys. That was a common path in the “system” of her day. When the empty nest liberated her time and energy, she courageously leaned into life with enthusiasm picking up on her lost love of art. She thrived. She grew. She found her bliss.

You are never too young, never too old to tackle this work of finding your bliss. For Joseph Campbell, he tried to get his students to wrestle with this goal right from the get-go. For others, it may come late, prompted by a nagging, gnawing intuition that there is more. But we are wired for the experience of bliss.

Unfortunately, you can be too tied to a style of living that seems to make it impossible to take risks, to try something new on for size. I have seen people dig deep for courage and take the leap of faith into the unknown future. It’s amazing and inspiring to witness, and I have had a front-row seat for many persons’ flight into bliss. It’s been a gift to me as I try to do the same.

To close, I have a story that was told to me at a recent spiritual retreat, trying to make the point that Joe Campbell made forty years ago. It really isn’t a story at all, though it is implied. A tombstone in Boston reads like this:

Here lies Effie Jones. For her, hell held no fury. Born a virgin, died one too. No hits, no runs, no errors.

I hope you laughed as hard as I did. Life is not about playing it safe, fearfully avoiding doing what one wants to do in your heart of hearts. Rather, it is an invitation to a dance of joy, realizing you will fail and fall along the way, but trusting the capacity to learn, rebound, and leap into a new way of being. This “way of being” leans into the future as you celebrate the journey, savoring the taste of life. That feels like a glimpse of bliss to me.

How about you?

Up At Four in the Morning

What is it that goes bump in the night?

In my house, it may be the icemaker, that deposits a new round of icy cubes just when the house is dark, settled, silent. Bang.

What goes bump? Normally, not Neil Young. But something woke me at 4 AM this Monday morning to find Neil Young on Showtime cable, in a documentary of a concert in Nashville at the famed Ryman Auditorium.

Why I woke up early will be a part of my wonderment for the rest of this day. For now, it proved to be a gift of sorts, reminding me generally of the role of music in my life and particularly, this epic concert over a two day gig in 2005. My son, Thomas, gave me a copy of the documentary one Christmas and it became part of the soundtrack of my life. I was immediately impressed with one song Neil did with Nicolette Larsen, titled Comes a Time. One line of poetic lyric landed squarely on my psyche: “This old world keeps spinning ’round, it’s a wonder tall trees a’int laying down, Comes a time.” What an apt description of my world at points.

One fine day, some years later, my phone rang. It was was my son, Thomas, calling from Nashville. He was inviting me to his upcoming gig, playing a pre-concert for Neil in Nashville, giving me a chance to see one of the most energetic shows of my life at the Ascend Amphitheater, as Chris Farley would say, down by the river.

Synchronicity is an odd thing, something I am studying in Carl Jung’s labrynthian theory. I am slow to ascribe cosmic connection to what may just be coincidence, but this seemed a bit strange, even to me. Just last evening, I came across a recording of Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl, which is a song that hooked me on Neil’s artistry. My friend, Alan Jackson, played it for me on his cheap record player during my freshman year at Emory. I had made fun of Neil’s voice in the past, but in that song, I caught a whiff of his soul, as he sang for his group Crazy Horse, driving the signature one note solo with a repeated D note.

Prior, I remember as a 7th grader going on the safety patrol trip to Washington, D.C. being fascinated by the plaintive lyrics and feel of his work on For What It’s Worth by the iconic Buffalo Springfield. Neil and I have quite a history, so being with him in Nashville was a culminating experience. To wake to him this morning prompted my reflection, random as it is, on the soundtrack of my life. Like me, my music memory will be inconsistent but spirited. My taste is wildly varied, eclectic to be sure, but always sensitive to the role of spirit underneath the beat and tone.

One of my first strong music memories was when I was emerging as a hormonal adolescent, discovering the primal force of music, alongside my emerging sexual drive. I remember sitting in Roger Hasting’s downstairs room, listening to Elton John’s live 11-17-70 album, still my favorite production of this artist. Later, I would sit at my piano and try to bang out those chords, sequestered in my basement so that only my dog would bear the pain of my learning.

Paul McCommon and I had the fearful honor of selecting the band for our Junior-Senior Prom, as we were the officers of the Junior class. My fear was palpable, that Keith Melton, the President of the Senior class, would not like the band that we chose, and would kick my young ass. Taking that abject fear in mind, our common (get it) taste was for horn bands, namely Chicago, the silver second album that I listened to constantly. Terry Kath’s guitar solos, and killer, tasty horns dominated my junior year. And of course, Colour My World, was the classic slow dance song of adolescent dreams., although I preferred the bad boy Stones’ Wild Horses for its plaintive soul. We booked Thrasher for the dance that was held at the Atlanta Progressive Jewish Club, which now houses the Turner Broadcast Network, visible from the Atlanta Connector. Look for it on the right, as you are heading south, next time you are sitting in traffic. Good news: Keith liked the band, and I later booked Thrasher, with a Freddie Mercury looking lead singer,twice at Emory. He was awesome on the cowbell leading off on Honky Tonk Woman.

My senior summer, driving my badass midnight blue Firebird Formula 400, I lived off of the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks, playing in my 8 track, stuck on Jumping Jack Flash, and my favorite for unknown reasons, Sympathy for the Devil, introducing me to the E blues progression. I remember specifically a moment of pulling into the golf course where I worked with Sympathy turned up to 11. All was “right” with the world from my vantage point on that day. I was ready to launch. Freedom was in the air, although so close to the airport, jet fuel smell intruded.

My soundtrack in college veered toward more folk rock, remembering the Eagles bursting on the scene with Take It Easy. Jackson Brown, Crosby, Stills, Nash….and later Young were some of the mainstays, though odd adds like Gino Vanelli might find its way into my eclectic juke box mind. The iconic Layla haunted me with Duane Allman and Eric Clapton’s killer guitar solos. However, reverence must be accorded to Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon. Many nights, watching the blinking red lights from the WAGA television tower outside my Emory dorm room would dominate my psyche. A sophisticated Steely Dan also wandered into my consciousness.

A strange thing happened in my fraternity house that sent me down a new path. We had a baby grand that would lend itself to my banging chords, more often than not, Sympathy, or some other three-chord rocker. Or it might yield to Kevin Getzendanner’s attempts at Elton’s riffs. But a new day came for me when Tom Greenbaum showed up from Shaker Heights, Ohio to master the 88s on that beer-soaked piano. I joked, but was probably correct, by saying Tom’s parents put him on piano instead of Ritalin for his hyperactivity. He had memorized the entire Sinatra catalog of songs, and introduced me to a classic live album, Sinatra at the Sands, with the Count Basie Orchestra. Unbelievable. Under My Skin did exactly that.

Then, Tom introduced me to the inimitable Oscar Peterson, who I had never heard of, although my mother and Clint Eastwood had lured me into piano jazz with Errol Garner’s Play Misty for Me. On a bet, we got a trio together, Mark Jones on “Wipe Out”drums, me on muddy acoustic bass, and Tom driving the train on keys. We spent many evenings in the parlor playing, having way too much fun. Someone would request a song, Tom would tell me what key it was in, and then, off we would go in a cloud of dust. I do remember playing the entire list of songs from Pippin, with Magic To Do serving as our spirited break music. We played at the Prado, where I would later work as a bouncer…such is the training for a priest. who’s going South of God.

In seminary, I lived in a house with a covey of divorced South of God ministers. Everyone was depressed, so we drank a lot of beer, listened to Gordon Lightfoot, and partied to Jimmy Buffett. Somewhere along the way, Willie Nelson came into my musical mind and he decided to stay. That was an odd add to my repitoire, that is until I discoverd my deep roots in Texas through my McBrayer grandmother. Later in Texas, Willie and a whole bunch of Texas songwriters took over my head, and I was lucky enough to hang with a few. My genetic code has the Caribbean beat, the Nashville twang, and the Texas heat blended in a mongrel mix. My son claims some of that juicy fruit in his songwriting as he lives out my unrequited dreams in Music City.

I give you all that jumbled, eclectic background to tell you about my current soundtrack, and it’s a strong one. You can thank me later.

It emerged for me last year as I was driving to the courthouse here in Glynn County, Georgia for the Ahmaud Arbery trial. I would leave my home on St. Simons Island, cross the causeway to Brunswick, take a left on Highway 17, hang a right onto Gloucester into downtown. During the drive in, and on the drive back home, I would play a particular album. It was by my current favorite artist, Jon Batiste.

I had learned of his genius watching him lead the band, Stay Human, on Steven Colbert’s late night show. He is unmistakably from New Orleans, growing up in a legendary musical family, natively bringing that Delta soul and bayou accent. But Jon was trained at Julliard and has a broad range of chops that is astounding. What’s exciting for me is that he is only beginning to blossom as an artist and one can only imagine where he will take this profound gift.

The album I listened to, my soundtrack, is called WE ARE. It was named “Album of the Year”, winning one of his three Grammys just a few weeks ago. As he received this singular award, he seemed genuinely surprised by the honor, but took the opportunity to opine of the role of music. “You know I really, I believe this to my core, there is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor. The creative arts are subjective and they reach people at a point in their lives when they need it the most. It’s like a song or an album is made and it almost has a radar to find the person when they need it the most.” That was clearly the case for me an this album.

I was impressed with Jon’s attitude as to his art. “I like, thank God., I just put my head down and I work on my craft every day. I love music. I’ve been playing since I was a little boy. It’s more than entertainment for me. It’s a spiritual practice.” I know a bit about that.

Jon’s sincerity and spiritual depth is winsome. His work “found” me when my move to a new locale was fresh, leaving me with a sense of isolation, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic that squirreled us away in our singular homes. The societal stresses even reach into the island culture where I reside, and the starkness of racial division was made pungent in the wake of the murder/lynching of Ahmaud Arbery by three self-appointed vigilantes. February 23rd, in the fateful year of 2020 was the date, months before my move to the area, so the news was fresh. The trial of those three took a year and a half to come to trial.

Going to the trial daily, joining the Glynn County clergy in supporting the family and the community provided me an opportunity for work with which I was familiar. I thrive in the honest-to-God community that makes up the ethos of a small town. But the concommitant cost and stress was recognizable to me early on. Southern gothic scares the hell out of me, after reading Harper Lee and Flannery.

Batiste’s album became my therapy, as I prepped for the extraverted work of gathering with the group outside the courthouse. And, it provided me the calming depressurization on the way back home in the afternoon. It was Jon that rode alongside me daily, boosting me with a deep sense of joy, lamenting the pain of suffering and loss, urging the commitment to “tell the truth”, and rocking me with the brave assertion of freedom. It kept me going, inspiring me as I moved through this tough time.

I commend you takiing a listen. The album is packed with a variety of styles, but each song has a common feel of a “spirited soul” that is who Jon is at his core. I double-dog-dare you to listen to the song Freedom, and not move your bones, even if you are ancient like myself. I am sure that people who were riding alongside my Tahoe, crossing the causeway, thought there was a wild man loose in Golden Isles as I was rocking it on the road. And they would be right.

So, Jon Batiste, with his Delta blues infused jazz, injected with a bit of Gospel, aligns well with my soul. It helped me through a rough patch of transition in my existence. And truth is, music has always functioned like that for me. Negotiating developmental transition, moving through challenging times, music has provided me a base for my soul’s progress. In my planning, I schedule time for music to infuse and enrich my soul, feeding me spiritually for the work and life that I live. It can be Ralph Vaughn Williams, Emmylou Harris, or Charlie Parker. It’s like a vitamin, a nutritional supplement that gives me what I need to live with verve and commitment.

I hope you will take the time to listen to We Are, and see how it moves you. It may not be your proverbial “cup of tea”, and as Jon would say “that’s alright!” But my be;iief is that we all need to find ways to soothe the soul, particularly in the troubled times we find ourselves in. I encourage you to reflect on where you get your “juice”, and then be intentional about taking the time to get your soul fed. Truth is, you are responsible for the care of your Self. No one else will do it for you.

One of the lyrics of Jon states it well: In this world with a lot of problems, all we need is a little loving. Thank you, thank you, for your love.

Indeed.

Is It Worth It?

This is a vexing question that shows up in my soul every so often. “Is all this really worth it?”

It is deemed an existential question that gets to the heart of the matter of our being. It comes predictably as we complete a major project, or approach the end of a portion of our life, when we take a natural breath, that allows us the proverbial pause, and the question arises.

For me, most recently, it came during the conference of which I was a co-facilitator.
We had been working Saturdays, giving our precious “downtime” to gather, imagine, and plan. It culminated in a four day conference that was held online, connecting clergy from Seattle to Boston, from Austin to Warsaw, Poland, not Indiana. It involved forty hours of time on Zoom, going in and out of presentations, individual exercises, and processing our work in pairs, triads, and small groups. It demanded everyone to be unusually “present” which was the “secret sauce” for the alchemy of this process to work.

With participants from all over the globe, time zones were problematic. For me, it meant beginning at 11 AM in the morning and pushed me until 9 at night. Around 6:45, sans dinner, my brain was sending survival signals to my willing soul. What the hell are you doing?

That was when the question arose, without a proper introduction: Is this worth it? Are the hours and energy you are laying down worth it? Is this just another grueling commitment to a project of which you are an inexorably dogged victim, or is this worth your very best?

Let me pause to say that such questioning, in and of itself, is worth it. I am known to question value at most turns, and that habit has allowed me to reconsider some commitments that needed to be amended. Wasting my time is something to which I am resistant. I have made tough decisions to curtail my investment when I determined that the benefit accrued was not worth the cost. The term “New York minute” comes to mind, thinking about my willingness to stop my commitment when the cost to reward ratio is low. And the question seems to rise often on my horizon. Again, is it worth it?

When there is the promise of making a real difference in the life of a person, my answer seems to tend toward the positive. Participating in the transformation of a person, a relationship, a family system, an organization, a congregation, a village or city, or larger….. such an opportunity seems to command my being and undergirds my commitment. Just don’t ask me to “play at it”, merely going through the motions. Homey don’t play that. That is to say, I am no longer willing to give my time and energy to activity that merely fills my schedule. I want it to count. Make a difference.

That’s nothing new for me, as it has shown up on any personality assessment that I have submitted to: a thirst for meaning, a deep desire of making a difference. The change in me has been that, through time, I have sharpened my discernment of worth and value. It has actually liberated me from saying “yes!” to everything people put in front of me, which is a good thing for all concerned. I have become, thankfully, more discerning.

I said “yes” to the idea of investing my time, energy, and creativity to this project, the Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive, because I have been committed to the continuing development of clergy throughout my career. It “fits” the overall trajectory of my life, and it gave me a connection to a group of fellow creatives who dreamed of doing something good through transformative interchange. So I signed the contract, handed my heart over, and off we went.

But, if I am being honest. I did not recognize the cost fully. My enthusiasm can sometimes get me out over my skis.

And, as I was deep into one of those days, the little angel on my left shoulder whispered, “Are you sure this is worth it?”

I have written everything in this piece of writing in order to set up a moment of affirmation: IT IS! It is worth it.

When we wrapped up the final session of the four day conference, we went around the group, getting their reflections on the considerable investment of time. Each one offered a moving testimony as to how the design we used led them to some deep insights about themselves, transforming their image of what it meant for them to continue in the work of serving as a leader in the church. I had a sense at the end of the event that it was all worth it, which is good stuff.

It brought to mind a concept that I have used for years. It’s called “psychic pay”. It’s not like the Cash Money that the O Jays talk about when they sing about Mean Green, the Almighty Dollar. I’ll wait while you remember the lyrics and that badass bass line. Cash money, y’all. That’s what I’m talkin’ bout. No, getting paid for your work is a good feeling, and pays the bills. But there is this other thing, “psychic pay”, where your soul cashes the check. It’s when you do something that is aligned with your greater purpose. You know it when it happens. And, you know it when it doesn’t, which may be why so many people have left jobs, the Great Resignation, that not only did not pay them well in terms of dollars, but was seriously lacking in providing the essential and meaningful psychic pay.

It’s this “psychic pay” that drives my life. When I review my life, it always has, probably always will. And I feel pretty good about that.

Many times, it’s work-related, when I get the somatic sense that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing. My “doing” is aligned with my “being”, so that my energy, my juices, are flowing. My hope is that you know what I am talking about here, that vibration of your soul when you know that you are in the right space doing the right thing. It doesn’t have to be a monumental act, with fireworks and bombast. It can be a touch, a hug, a glance, a call, a word. But you know it when it happens. “Psychic pay”.

We gathered a week after the conference to check-in, to see how it was going, how our participants were reentering their lives as they attempted to plug-in fresh insights. One particular participant, a woman, had come to the first session cautiously, which is probably wise. But for her, there was a deep fear that prevented the expression of her self to others, particularly men who were in authority. During the four days of the conference, we observed the emergence of a strong, but sensitive person who found her voice and presence in a new way. Coming to the check-in, she told of her initial approach to her “boss” and how she had been able to be present in a new way, out of strength and presence of self. She smiled, giggled a bit, as she described this encounter with a person who had previously “shut me down”. The face of the person who was now speaking to the group about this interchange looked completely changed, transformed. It was as if she became her true self, not the fearful scared little girl that presented on the first day. When I saw the transformation, I had a moment of “psychic pay”. The work we had done together made a true difference in her life. That is connected to my “greater purpose”.

My colleague, John Scherer, has another way of talking about this special moment. He recounts the biblical narrative of Creation. After God has done the heavy-lift work of creation, the text says that God looked at the Creation and then said “Tov!”, the Hebrew word for “good”. God declares, “It is good!”. Tov actually means more than a simple affirmation of goodness. It is an exclamatory statement recognizing that what one is witnessing, seeing at a deep level, is just what was intended, just right, to quote Goldilocks. It is a profound YES! to this moment, when everything is firing on all cylinders. A bright shining moment. One for the ages!. That’s what I’m talking about! Tov!

In Jewish culture, affirmation at the witnessing of a union of two persons in marriage results in a heart-felt expression, Mazel Tov. When you have done something, especially created something, and you witness what you have made, which is expressing the deepest dimension of your being, that is Tov. An affirmation emerges, flows from the depth of your soul. It’s a kind of pride, connecting you to that moment of creativity, something we share with God. We just might be led to shout “Tov!”, even though we might be South of God. For me. my “psychic pay” is tied in with that experience of Tov, joined at the hip.

Work is not the only place we get “psychic pay”. This past Monday evening, my son, Thomas, sent me the master tapes for his new album. There are seven songs that he’s been working on for the past year. He has put his heart and soul into the writing, performing, and the production of this new album. I put on my studio earphones, as he requested, and I listened to them sequentially, as he requested, making notes. I had listened to most of them singularly as they evolved but this was a moment that my son gifted to me, a sneak peek, or listen, to the master tapes, after all the production work. As I sat listening, I was filled with pride for my son’s artistry, his creative writing of lyrics, and his courage to follow his dream. That provided a moment of father’s psychic pay. Tov!

In past moments, I have gotten that rare “pay day” when I got to see him play live on stage, watching him and his bandmates make music together. I am moved by his courage, his brave face. But my pride swells particularly when I catch him smiling while looking at a bandmate across the way, engaged in this magical, collaborative thing called music. For me, that’s as good as it gets. Psychic pay. Tov!

Same with my daughter, Mary Glen, as I see her with her husband, Michael, and they exchange looks of love across the room, or at the table. Their playfulness, their joy in sharing life together, reminds me of the joy that is in the weave of life, the joy every parent wants to see in the face of their child. Additionally, through time, I have been allowed to watch my daughter move gracefully in the world. Mary Glen has the capacity of deep relationships with her friends, as well, as she cares for them through joy and pain, crisis and celebration. That gives parents a sense of satisfaction as you pray to God that they will find a deep joy in their living. Psychic pay. Tov!

I count myself fortunate to be spending my time these days working with a variety of folks who are making their way in their careers. One is the CEO of a large healthcare system who has transformed it into a responsive organization by strengthening it into a culture of accountability. I have worked with an engineer who is transitioning out of a job he hated in a toxic system into a life-giving business that matches his deepest self. I am working with a young clergy person who is trying to figure out how to be a servant in the Church without losing his soul in the process. I am working with a priest who is wanting to close out his career by “ending well”. And I am working with a retired priest who is trying to write a new chapter in his life. I get the privilege of coming alongside these persons in their sacred journey, helping them along the way as their coach, their guide, their companion. Psychic pay, Tov!

This is the work I do each week, along with my writing. I have to tell you that most days, I end up smiling to myself that I am doing exactly what I should be doing with my time and energy, living out of my greater purpose. To have good work, to work with people that I truly love and care for……that is what I call a blessing. I am most grateful. As I said, it is my psychic pay, and to answer my own question, it is very much worth it. Mazel tov, y’all.

I

Go Grow Roses….

Telling this paradigmatic story of my journey through life, I got back in touch with some deep truths that have come my way. I have told this story before, in sermons, in this column, but this time it was to a friend and colleague during the recent retreat I was co-leading for clergy. It feels right to tell it again, as a re-minder to me of a deep truth that was given to me in a particularly painful moment. Plus, it’s a hell of a good story.

I was serving as the Canon Pastor at the Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta. Part of my duty was to celebrate the Eucharist (holy communion for those of you South of God) every noon in our lovely little chapel, with usually ten to thirty people who would show up, whether they needed to or not.

Elizabeth Dickey, the cousin to Deliverance’s James Dickey, almost always was there, a resident at our retirement facility, the Cathedral Towers. She was so faithful, one of Dave’s Faves, but always about a beat behind in her articulating the words of the liturgy. She sat in the same pew every day on the lefthand side of the chapel.

Another parishioner, Phil Sapelo, was also there most days, sitting on the front right pew. Phil was a bit overbearing in his opinions, even before the current culture wars, and was one of those people sent by God on a special mission to train me in my spiritual discipline of patience. He was always about half a beat ahead of the normal rhythm of our liturgy, which made the service a bit tricky for the celebrant. “Cacophony” would be too strong a word, but “disjointed” barely approaches the feel of confusion,.

One day, I actually broke down and tried to train them, like an orchestra conductor, to be conscious of that rhythm, and it worked for a minute, but soon we returned to the syncopated liturgy. It turned out that I was more of a conductor on a train, headed for the proverbial train wreck. I smiled, and accepted the lesson in my early days of priesting.

During my time, I would notice the people who showed up for this service. For some, it was a daily habit that provided a structure to one’s day. Many times, it was a moment of convenience as one was out shopping and just dropped by for a spiritual pause in their day. Other times, a crisis had occurred and the person was literally on their knees, seeking guidance. It was an opportune time for me as a priest, to greet the person at the door in the back, giving them an option to engage. And some would take advantage of the moment, while others would scurry back to the world, as I honored the unique role of the Cathedral to provide a safe space for transition, a moment of liminality, a valuable pause in our social network.

Early on in my time beginning to take on this duty, I noticed a handsome, distinguished older man, who sat midway on the right side. He wore a black blazer, not the more common navy with brass buttons. His glasses were perched on the end of his nose, with a cord around his neck, securing his spectacles conveniently.

He was there almost every day, but whisked out before I could greet him. Finally, one day, I rushed to the back and caught him. going against my normal rule of leaving people alone who wanted their privacy. I said that I noticed his regular presence and was glad to see him. He introduced himself as Gary Garnett. I asked if he would like to grab a cup of coffee, an old Episcopal ploy. Over the steaming cup of coffee that Christine had made, he surprised me by telling me that he was an Episcopal priest. He had been a “fast track” priest in North Carolina. He had burned out and had left the parish ministry, something I was beginning to understand. He went on to tell me that he was gay, and had partnered with a man with whom he had a business. We continued to meet weekly, exploring his original calling to priesthood, the things he loved about the work, and the things that made that role problematic, eventually causing him to curtail his formal exercise of that office.

It began with a simple offer. Would you ever like to celebrate the daily Eucharist in the chapel? His eyes lit up, like I had flipped a switch. And so it began. He began to take a day in the weekly rotation in the chapel. Soon, I invited him to provide a limited number of hours, serving as our hospital visitor, as he would drop in on parishioners at Piedmont Hospital. To cut to the chase, I wound up asking him to come on my pastoral care staff, as he became a full-time priest on the Cathedral staff. Truth is, Gary became one of the most beloved priests at the Cathedral, using his considerable pastoral skills while visiting folks in the hospital, Plus, he did not have to deal with all the administrative “stuff” that I had to mess with. It was perfect for him. and he thrived.

Gary became a treasured colleague, but even more a friend. I would often end my day by going to his condo on top of a building behind the Cathedral. We would sit in his roof garden, enjoying the view of the Atlanta skyline, sipping spirits, and solving the problems of the world, the challenges of the urban reality of Atlanta, and the Cathedral in particular, even the rhythm of the chapel liturgy of Elizabeth and Phil. Actually, we often found that it was humor that helped us make it through the times. It was a holy space for me, a place of communion.

One day, Gary came into my office, shutting my door behind him. Through tears, he told me of a diagnosis of lung cancer that was advanced. He would undergo treatment but the prognosis was not optimistic. We prayed, sat in silence, and then talked until closing time.

That night, I had a dream during my sleep. It was vivid, different from most of my dreams, but it was not the first elaborate dream I had on occasion. My witchy grandmother McBrayer once told me that it ran in the family, this dream “thing”. She admonished me to pay attention. She said her father, John Columbus McBrayer, had had a dream of the death of his wife when they lived in the black dirt soil of Waco, Texas. And the vision he had, of her dying during childbirth came to pass. My grandmother said that she also had dreams that pointed to things coming. I remember her telling me one day, as an impressionable little boy, “Pay attention to your dreams! It is God speaking to you!”

Now, science and the Enlightenment had knocked most of that mystical stuff out of me. I prided myself in my scientific perspective, although I had begun to play with the role of dreams in the unconscious as explored by Carl Jung. It still felt spooky to me, but I had experienced strong intuition and had a tremulous dream on the night I was on retreat at the Trappist monastery before my ordination to the priesthood, which I have recounted here in South of God. But this dream was different.

So this particular dream happened the night after Gary told me of his cancer diagnosis:

I was standing on the ridge of a small mountain, overlooking a valley. It reminded me of a location on Pine Mountain, at Dowdell’s Knob where President Franklin Roosevelt would picnic on visitation to Warm Springs. It was a place my grandfather would take me as a boy.

The sky was dark and stormy, the way it gets in mid-Georgia during the summer months. Tornado time. I was standing on the mountain, shaking my fist at the sky, and I was screaming/crying: Damn you, God! How could you do this to Gary? He’s found himself, recovering his sense of vocation, serving as a faithful priest, loving Your people, and now you are going to strike him down? I don’t get it. This makes NO sense. Gary does not deserve this. Damn you!

In my dream, a kind, even-toned voice came from the sky:

David, you let me take care of Gary, and you go grow roses.

That was it. What the hell did that mean? I woke up, wrote down the dream on a pad I kept by the bed, and reviewed it the next morning. In fact, when I awoke in the morning, I thought I had dreamed about writing the note down, but there it was, this vexing dream content of my outburst at the Almighty, with God’s quiet reply.

What was I to make of this? I called my Trappist monk spiritual director who grew bonsai trees in the monastery greenhouse. I never will forget his laughter when I told him, he was trying so valiantly to not laugh at his young perplexed friend. I asked what he thought, and he responded, “If I were you, I’d grow roses!”

The story gets even more strange. I called up an old church member from Decatur who was a renowned rosarian in the Atlanta botanical world. I didn’t feel comfortable telling him about my dream. I simply asked him to tell me how to grow roses….my admirable habit is to consult the best.

Beryl Brown began to tell me much more than I wanted to know. First, you dig out the Georgia red clay from the beds where you are going to plant the roses, three to four feet down. You install French drains to help with the moisture. You amend the soil with peat moss, sand, and perlite. You install a drip irrigation system to precisely water each individual plant. As he is droning on with his masterful lecture, I stopped him and asked him if all of this was really necessary. He paused at the end of my question and I imagined the contortion of his face. “You ASKED me how to grow roses. I am trying to tell you!” he said, with no attempt to disguise his disgust.

Got it. Three to four feet, huh. Really?

So I ordered 70 bare-root roses from Oregon. Dug out two beds, one by the side of the house, the other in my Peachtree-Dunwoody virgin forest backyard. I built a raised bed out of railroad crossties. Amended the soil as prescribed. Planted these things that looked more like sticks than bushes. Installed a drip irrigation system that, to my utter surprise, worked! My house did not explode with water shooting out my chimney, as I had imagined. And, the plants began to grow just like the man said. Beryl even gave me a secret tip, a mystical concoction of alfalfa pellets, water, and other secret ingredients that I would have to kill you if I told you. I mixed it up in a large rubber trash can, witchily stirring the brew with my granddad’s old boat paddle. The smell would knock you naked, as my old friend Ron Lane would say. But, by God, or Beryl, it worked.

Roses grew abundantly. I worked hard, caring for my roses, leaving Gary’s fate to God, learning to trust in a new way. It was sacramental, as I experienced a visceral reaction to the sweat, muscle soreness, escaping blood, and earthy smell that was a part of my piece of Eden. I would carry roses to the staff at the Cathedral, especially Gary, giving me an occasion to express my love for him. It was quite a season for the roses, and for me.

I wish my story had a fairytale ending. The chemo took out some of the cancer, but exacted a terrible price on Gary’s body, though his spirit remained valiant.

In the middle of this cosmic drama, I received a call from an amazing parish, Christ Church, in Tyler, Texas, curiously known as the City of Roses. Surprisingly, I accepted the call, took my young family across the Mississippi River to my grandmother’s native soil, and began to do the hard work of growing people in that part of God’s Creation, staying a decade in the fields of East Texas.

As I left Atlanta for the Rose City, I said my goodbyes to a fine colleague, and even better friend, the Rev. Father Gary Garnett. We both knew that day, it would be the last time we would see each other, as we shared an embrace. Our farewells were watered with tears, but I was able to give my friend, Gary, one last red rose, knowing that the God who gave me an enigmatic charge, would take care of His end of the bargain. It was off to Texas for me while the journey of my friend was drawing to a close.

Go grow roses. Oh my.

A Passion for Transformation

It’s impossible for me to tell you how exciting it is to witness a life being transformed, with dreams emerging, passion flowing, and eyes opening. The experience rivals watching the birth of my children, which makes sense as transformation is much like a birth. Messy, some pain, but the promise rules the time and space.

This week, I am involved in a gathering of people who happen to be minister types: clergy, priests, pastors., oh my! They are a strange lot… I should know. They fascinate me as they talk about their call from God, some boldly, some hesitatingly, some with a whisper. The group I am working with this week come from a variety of traditions: Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists South of God, community churches, and, yes, even Episcopalians.

The event is called a Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive and is meeting over the course of a week. It has clergy with varied experience: some who are just getting started, fresh to their first congregations; some who are mid-career; some nearing the finish line; and others who are retired, looking for their next chapter. They come voluntarily, not sentenced by their adjudicatory boards or bishops. No, they come looking for something: clarity, fresh winds for their sails, inspiration, a word, perhaps. But they have come of their own volition.

The ingenious format for this gathering is the product of my friend and colleague, Dr. John Scherer, who has been doing this work for almost forty years. John began his work as a Lutheran pastor, but he morphed into a leading consultant in the field of applied psychology and organizational development. In the past, John’s work was mostly in the business sector, engaging folks from the corporate world, inviting them to discover the spirit that is within each person in the work they do.

I attended an event thirty years ago, in Idaho, with a bunch of corporate types, me as the lone priest among the heathen. It was a life-changing experience for me as I clarified some of the things that were driving me to do what it was I was doing, as well as to face up to some of the parts of me that were getting in my way. Literally in the shadow of a white-supremacist militia camped in the beauty of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, I found a freedom that I had somehow lost along the way.

It was so powerful to me that I invited John to Tyler, Texas to do his thing with my Leadership Foundation of New East Texas, a project funded by the Pew Trust. Within my mix of Latino, black, and white leaders, who were training to lead in our quiet but conflicted East Texas town and region, John introduced some of the parts of this process, notably the notion of presence showing up with 110% of who you are. The effect on my group was marked as we were about the task of building the capacity of each of our participants.

And a few years later, I asked him to come to Atlanta to my new parish and offer a shortened version to some of the leaders of Coca Cola, Lockheed, and other major Atlanta corporate players who were members of the congregation. It happened to include my brother and his emerging group of healthcare consultants that became Galloway Consulting. John’s ability to invite engagement at a deep level was remarkable and his presentation skills were on full display there in Atlanta. John always delivers the goods, right on time for most folks.

John has worked with a variety of organizations with the intent of connecting folks to the deep Spirit within them. He has a bold approach that pushes one to come home to your true self. He is not hawking a typical self-improvement guru line, but rather, an abiding sense that you have everything that you need right inside of yourself, right now. The surprising good news that he delivers is that you don’t need to change yourself, but rather, come home to your Self. It’s a rich process of diving deep into who you are and rediscovering the passion and gifts within.

John offers five questions that form the structure for the work.

The first is “What is confronting you?” The work begins in the present, in that “now” moment, asking you to face the main thing that is confronting you in your life. He uses the imagery of a tiger as the creature that is engaging you presently. Playfully, John asks “If you are confronted by a tiger in the jungle, what would you do?” Naturally, your first instinct is to run. But, that is not a wise move, for the tiger is trained through the evolution of a predator to run you down and eat you for supper, a tasty treat. Counter-intuitively, you must face the tiger, not running, but looking directly at the person, issue, or situation that is confronting you. Adding reality to the mix, John reminds one that facing your “tiger” does not mean that you are going to survive, but at least you have a shot.

This “tiger” image captures the feel of the whole event: playfully serious, and seriously playful. It is so profound that I have a photo of me confronting my Tiger sitting on my desk from an event twenty-five years ago, It makes me smile as I glance at my figure, leaning into the exercise, and my “tiger”, sans my gray hair. There’s always a tiger prowling.

The second question is “What are you bringing?’ which invites you to explore your history, the blessings and curses that you have gathered in your life journey. This is the question that asks you to come clean about your presumptions, biases, and assumptions about the lay of the land in your world. How are you conditioned to see “this” and not see “that”? What are you missing in the scan of the situation that is facing you?

The third question asks “What is running you?” This may be the toughest question to face as you look to discover your default position, that is, how are you programmed to live your life, unaware of the standard operating procedure that drives you. You are asked to look at how you were trained, consciously and unconsciously, to live life. Who taught you to be the “somebody” that you are? Who is the “person” that you present to the world in order to get what you want, or crave? And, what part of yourself have you put in “cold storage” because you fear it would render you unacceptable, or lead to rejection. The polarity work of Barry Johnson is introduced as a way through the forest of tension that exists within each person, as one is given a model of working with the polar opposites that have vexed our lives and leadership. The promise is to become more aware of how you have been living in an automatic mode, with the promissory hope of becoming able to expand your repertoire of behavior intentionally.

The fourth question asks “What calls you?” This is a promising opportunity to look deeply within and see the particular and peculiar gifts that are inside of you. Some gifts will be familiar, while others you will discover, perhaps for the first time. Still, other potential gifts are locked away, dimensions of your Self that scare you and evoke anxiety and fear when considered. The quest is to become aware of who you are and your deep needs, the needs of others that compose your world, and a connection to a greater purpose that is worthy of your best energy. This is what John calls the “sweet spot”, and when you are there, you know it. The “sweet spot” in your Goldilocks moment: it feels just right!

Finally, the fifth question poses the challenge: What will unleash you? I love the feel of this question, and anyone who has labored under the constraints of a system that holds you back from your full-tilt Self, knows what “unleash” means. It’s exciting just to say the word. This involves the commitment to move from what was an “automatic” life to an authentic life that includes all of the richness of your true Self. This is what is meant by transformation, which is the goal of the process. It includes some letting of what was, accompanied by the pain that accompanies new birth. Transformation requires the deep desire for a new possibility, along with the willingness to “not know” the exact shape of the future. Finally, one is asked to lean into this new way of being with openness. What I am witnessing in these participants in the SLDI is a sense of liberation, a newly discovered sense of freedom, that one person described as “taking flight”! God, I love this work.

John has designed an experiential way of engaging these questions that is not a mere “head trip”. It involves the whole person: heart, mind, and soul. The process demands a lot from the participants, including honesty with one’s Self and others; a willingness to enter into intimate, collaborative dialogue; an exercise of curiosity; the courage to ask the deep questions; and a trust in the process.

As I said, John has been offering this process for executives for years in the corporate world. But about a year ago, we began to talk about a process that would be designed specifically for those who exercise leadership in the faith community. A team of clergy and lay persons began to meet every Saturday for almost a year to think through how we might fashion this experience, tuning it for this rare breed of person known as clergy. This current week, we are proceeding through our initial cohort group, testing and trying out the design, to make sure it is the best we can provide. It’s been a dream of John for years, and I sense his excitement it rolled down the runway, taking off into open air, as we bring this idea to flight.

As for me, it fits a lifelong passion for personal and leadership development for clergy. It began with my awareness of Interpreter’s House, a three-week process for clergy, designed by Carlyle Marney, my theological mentor. Marney was assisted in this work by a young Harvard graduate student, Jim Fowler, who was chasing his dream of understanding the mystery of faith and how that develops through time. It was in this funky mix of listening to ministers tell their stories around a fireside that the nascent forms of faith development emerged.

It was that relationship to Marney that initially drew me to Jim as he came to Atlanta to teach at Emory. As I was pursuing my doctoral work under him, I joined the staff at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University. Using Marney’s idea, but employing our faith development theory, we developed Pilgrimage Project as a week-long process for spiritual growth and awareness for clergy. I later developed a transition process for clergy who were moving from seminary to their first parish. This was in the Diocese of Texas, with my colleague, the Rev. Kevin Martin. I have been using pieces of all these modalities in my coaching of clergy over the years. In many ways, the SLDI work feels like coming home, again.

Getting a chance to work with John Scherer and the team gathered of Mike Murray, Kathy Davis, and Terry Rogers, is a dream come true. This group is an incarnation of the word “collaboration” and brings to reality the spirit of creative interchange.

The dream for this Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive (SLDI) is that it will provide a fresh modality and process for continuing education for clergy. It is not the typical seminar of new, trendy ideas, nor a workshop of training in a technique. Rather, it is an intentional, experiential engagement that clergy can decide for themselves to enter, for clarification and discovery of their gifts for leadership and ministry.

Our independence from any denominational agenda allows us to be free to focus on the development of the person in whatever way the Spirit is leading. It is my prayer that it will evolve into a process that will be life-giving for the Church and the world.

If you are interested in future events with the SLDI, you can contact me at drdavidgalloway@msn.com. John Scherer’s book, Five Questions, is available through Amazon.

“Don’t Screw Up My Easter!”

Moving from Baptists South of God to the Episcopal Church was a scary time of adjustment and risk, but I knew I was headed home.

After serving as a minister in two progressive Southern Baptist churches, I felt something was missing. I came from a history of stellar pastors, such as Carlyle Marney, Estill Jones, John Claypool, Bill Lancaster, and Tom Conley. Excellent scholarship, superb preaching, and vibrant personalities, these five pastors cut a fine image of what a pastor could be. But, four of the five were known for being “mavericks” within the tradition. And if I stuck around, I probably would follow their lead and become a maverick myself.

I had observed these guys from afar, as well as close up, and admired their courage and independence. But, I also knew the price they paid. I wanted my independence, but I also wanted to be a part of a community where I experienced a sense of being “at home”, not always playing the role of rebel. There’s a definite art, maybe even a trick, to keeping these two goals in a balanced, polar tension. But that was my intuition as to what I needed and therefore my heart’s desire.

Through my educational and training track, I surprisingly found myself at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, working in the counseling center and working with the homeless ministry at a time when psychiatric hospitals were turning patients out onto the street. My experience at St. Luke’s Episcopal, Atlanta gave me an experience of a community where I felt that sense of “home” where you are known and loved. I found both intellectual curiosity and honesty, with wide birth given to all ways of thinking. Inclusive rather than exclusive, Luke’s went out of its way to be invitatory to all sorts and conditions of people. For me, that was more reflective of the vision that Jesus had presented as the coming Kingdom of God. Luke’s pressed the bounds of what it meant to be Church, intentionally engaged in transforming the city of Atlanta. And the broader Episcopal Church was deeply embedded in the sacramental tradition, while intellectually free, following Truth wherever it led. I wanted some of that.

I began to explore the possibility of making the Episcopal church the base of my personal faith as well as the field for my work, whether as a lay person or as a priest. I began to inquire how I might make that move as my new wife and I began attending the worship of St. Luke’s on Sunday.

My first bishop was a form-setter in the church, Bennett Sims. Bishop Sims heard my story and my desire to be an Episcopal priest and responded enthusiastically, He offered a vision of my moving quickly from my Baptist ordination to priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. I was so excited.

But then I was introduced to a scary creature in the Episcopal Church known as “order”, or as I had come to know it as “bureaucracy”. There was a “meet and right” order to things, a process, I was told. The Chairman of the Commission on Ministry told me in no uncertain terms that I would have to go through about a two-year process to see if it was in the cards for me to be a priest. It’s hilarious that I was cast in the role of Chairman of the COM twenty years later. Irony follows me like a dog.

After I was told that a “hold” was placed on my process, I chaffed at the reins being pulled in on me. I made an appointment with the person who was in charge of the “process”, Caroline Hughes (later Westerhoff). She graciously listened to me review my seminary work, my doctoral work, my experience in two churches, and my clinical experience, as I piled them up high in front of her. I strategically added at the end that two other bishops had offered me a quick path that would forego this extensive “process”. At the end, she furrowed her brow ( a look I came to recognize, and eventually love) ‘splaining to me “how it was” in the Diocese of Atlanta. She concluded by saying that she understood the “rush” of a young man in a hurry, BUT, if I wanted to be a priest in the Diocese of Atlanta, I would have to go through the process.

The “process” at that time had two components. The first was sitting with a committee from your home parish who would help you explore your call to the priesthood. If this committee recommended you for pursuing priesthood, you would move into the second phase, the Vocational Testing Program, VTP we called it. There you would go to nine months of meeting with peers who were also seeking the Church’s blessing to move on in the process. The group would meet weekly with two supervisors, one clergy, one lay. My lay supervisor turned out to be Caroline, a gift that I had no idea just how great it would be.

I decided to go through the “process”, but with a critical self-understanding as to it being my own intention, claiming my own volition in going this route. It was MY decision. No one was forcing me to go through this process. I wanted to be clear with that so that I did not waste any time and energy rebelling, consciously or unconsciously, to the process. I wanted to dive into the process with everything I had, not hold back a pound, as Rudy Ray Moore might say.

And that is what I did. I have written about the process in another post if you are interested. It was one of the more transformational experiences of my life, with me receiving the imprimatur of my group, my supervisors, the Commission on Ministry, the Standing Committee, and finally the Bishop. Did I mention anything about “process”?

So that is the setup for my brief story around Easter.

As a newly ordained transitional deacon on Feb. 23rd, I was designated to have a special part in the Easter Vigil liturgy at the Cathedral, serving Bishop Judson Child, who was now the Diocesan Bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta. The deacon is designated to chant an ancient hymn called the Exultutet, which recounts the mighty acts of God in redeeming the people of Israel, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, sustaining them through the wilderness, leading them to the Promised Land. It connects that Exodus journey to the Paschal Mystery of Christ going through death through crucifixion, waiting in vigil for three days for the cosmic redemption of death with the Resurrection. The Exultet is gorgeous poetry set to a series of tones that climb up and down the scale, a challenge to even an experienced singer. And yet, I was the one scheduled to do this, in front of God, a thousand of my closest friends…. and my mama. Lord, have mercy.

I began back in Advent, five months prior to the big day. I would go each morning to the organ in Mikell Chapel and play the notes of the Exultet, singing along in a slow chant, searching for tone and pace. Bob Simpson, the Choirmaster gave me time to coach me, generously giving me his skills in the vocal arts, pushing me for precision, but encouraging me along the way with reassurance. Sometimes, I felt like Bob was observing me as a drowning man in a roaring sea, as he encouraged me to keep at it, don’t give up! Gurgle.

The night of the Easter Vigil arrived, and I was a nervous wreck. I had gotten to the Cathedral early to go through the chant one last time. I put on my vestments early. I could not tell if the weight of the vestment was from the cloth-of-gold fabric, something we bring out on high feast days, or if it was just the weight of the moment. Probably both.

I was pacing, something I never do, but pacing, trying to gather my thoughts, using my old tricks of meditation to calm my young self down. Other clergy were slowly gathering, speaking softly, appropriate to the moment of this Vigil. And I continued to pace.

Suddenly Bishop Child appeared, with his gold cope (cape) and staff (crozier). I have never met another person who loved being a bishop more than him. It was his joy. I was so anxious that I would not do well, my pacing increased as he came into the vesting room, ready to go. He had taken on a father-like role in my life, having sponsored me, ordained me, and then mentored me in my formation to the priesthood. He provided funds for me to go to Sewanee to study with the leading liturgical scholar in the Episcopal church. I owed him big time.

He obviously picked up on my nervousness. He approached me on my right side, grabbing the sleeve of my vestment in his hands, pulling me toward him, firmly. He was right in my face, sort of like the proverbial Seinfeldian dreaded “close talker”.

I will never forget the pregnant moment. He looked at me piercingly with his eyes and then he said: If you screw up the Exultet, you will screw up my Easter. Don’t screw up my Easter!

Dear reader, know that I am cleaning up the specific word he used. It was shocking to hear that word come out of the Bishop’s mouth, particularly with the backdrop of this most holy day.

The effect of the message was first shock, and then hilarity. He and I both were laughing deeply, breaking the tension, I imagine, for both of us. It was true, at least for me. My nerves receded, I was able to be really present, ready to chant that Exultet like it had never been chanted before.

Truth is, Bishop Child knew me, the way I was wired, and took the time and energy and focus and risk to give me what I needed. He knew exactly what he was doing, and it worked.

We talked later about it, and he laughed as the characteristically rubbed his hands together as if the director of a play that went just as he planned.

As you can imagine, I think of that moment every Easter, particularly at the Vigil. In that moment, I sensed the hilarity of the disciples in the surprise of the resurrected Jesus, of life emerging from the tomb of fear and resignation.

But, more importantly, I knew intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, that I, indeed, had found my home. What a blessing it was that day, and continues to be.

This Easter season, I would wish that for you, wherever you are lucky enough, or blessed, to find it. Blessings.

An Invitation to a Holy Experience

This is Holy Week.

From Palm Sunday, remembering the triumphant parade into Jerusalem, the gathering around a table, the ignominious public execution of Jesus, the “empty” day of waiting, to conclude in an Easter celebration.

The Church goes to great lengths to bring those historical events to those of us who find ourselves removed by hundreds of years. The genius of Holy Week is to put us in the middle of this mystical drama of life, death, waiting, and new life. As designed, it is experiential.

We owe a woman named Egeria for her description in letters to her friends of the events she was observing in Jerusalem. When I was researching this material, back before the Copernican revolution, she was thought to be a Spanish nun, who traveled as a pilgrim to Jerusalem to be there for the week that has come to be known as Holy. The time period is around 380, but little detail is known of her. She writes a description of the festivities and observances of the week in detail, giving us a glimpse into the detail and feel of the time. Liturgical scholars of this past century, looking to enliven and deepen this time, were gifted by her writings, as they attempted to return to a more representative version of the events.

Palm Sunday begins the week, remembering the hopeful entry of Jesus, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Pilgrims for the Passover lined the way, waving palms, wondering who this one was who was passing by on a donkey. One of my first memories of a poetic image was that of “even the rocks and stones sang”, which was to indicate the cosmic level of excitement. And so the Church reenacts this pregnant moment into celebration in the now. Palm Sunday.

But the Church plays a sneaky trick….not the first. As soon as we have paraded with Palms into the worship space, while singing a robust hymn, there is a head-jerking shift. We overhear the story of Jesus’ sentencing by Pilate, the Roman governor, handed over by the religious leaders. It would not be the last time politicians and religious leaders conspired together in the quest for power. We listen to the Passion narrative, often read dramatically, as we come face to face with Jesus’ death. “And he breathed his last.”

The Church engineers this with a specific goal and conviction: You can not get to Easter without going through the reality of the Cross and Death.

Why does the Church insert the Passion narrative into this festive moment of a triumphant parade. The Church simply is being realistic. You might not make it to Good Friday services. It’s Spring and the weather is almost perfect, unless you’re in the wake or path of a Texas tornado. I was once in a tornado immediately following the Good Friday service, knocking down a tree beside the church, along with our power. It was out for a day and a half, causing us to do the infamous liturgical scramble. Not a pretty dance, I assure you. But power was restored right before the service…..a utilitarian resurrection.

Or, as Easter usually occurs providentially with the Masters golf tournament in Augusta. Was it Bobby Jones or God who had first dibs on Spring? For a Masters pass, I would readily opt for Bobby! Watching the Masters with resplendent greens, the fuschia of azaleas, and the stark white of the dogwoods, every golfer’s heart is tuned to go practice, and play. The golf sirens may call a wandering soul to the golf course, foregoing Good Friday on an Easter weekend. I know this all too well. Hell, they used to pay me to go to church on Good Friday!

Palm Sunday shifts to Passion Sunday to get you ready for Easter. What begins with a joyous hymn of proclamation ends in silence as you file out, just like those early disciples.

The rest of the week is filled with a variety of liturgies that remember the events in the last week of Jesus’s life. The point here is to offer you entrance into the existential and cosmic reality of Jesus who is making his way from carpenter to Christ. The question is whether or not you catch a glimpse of the historical Jesus, and at the same time grasp that he is you.

Maundy Thursday refers to “mandare”, Jesus’ command to recall his presence whenever we gather. He used ordinary objects, bread and wine, things used in his Hebraic rituals that he grew up with. And it was at a meal, one of the basic things we humans do in our life. On this particular Thursday, we recall those actions with Jesus, with holy communion taking center stage.

It’s odd to me, funny on some days, painful on others, that the Church majored in the meal of this night. But, the Church seemed to forget the other powerful symbol when weary desert travelers would gather for a meal. They would wash their feet, cleaning up for the upcoming meal. Often this menial chore was done by a servant for the house. And yet Jesus turns it around, as he washes the feet of his disciples, making the point that “service” is the mark of following the Christ, servanthood is the way of being in the world. Ponder why this was not part of the main liturgy of the Church. I have a few guesses, one in particular, but I’ll let you ponder.

In the renewed liturgy, most traditions have added this to the Maunday Thursday liturgy, though it tends to be “merely” symbolic. I remember the Bishop of Atlanta washing the feet of one of the young acolytes to make the point. I once went all Cecil B. DeMille, washing the feet of my good friend, Ledell, the black janitor of the parish. It’s debatable as to the effectiveness of such a symbol. But who knows? The sower sows the seed, and you just don’t know what will bear fruit. I rode that parable many days during my ministry. Who knows? It speaks of a humility about the efficacy of what we do, the seed we have sown, but also a recognition of the complicated nature of this life we share. Even Jesus faced that reality, as some received his good news of the Gospel, while others simply never got it.

In some churches, the opportunity is afforded to anyone in attendance to wash the feet of one’s neighbor. It’s somewhat of a logistical nightmare to make this happen. Can you say “pantyhose”? In fact, most times when I have participated, great lengths are gone to in order to emphasize the “voluntary” nature of this part of the ritual. What do you think this says to folks? We prefer comfort to transformation. And it’s way too intimate for most of us.

The other piece of Thursday that seems to miss emphasis is the event of Jesus in Gethsemane. He is seen in existential isolation, as his friends/disciples are sleeping as he prays to have this “cup” of suffering and death pass him by. To me, this is the crux of the whole drama. Jesus has to DECIDE that he will accept what is waiting for him. He has a sense of the suffering that is ahead, but he is not a puppet. He has free will. He chooses. This is crucial for his identification with our humanity, fully human, fully alive.

I often think of the only stained glass window in the church I grew up in, Oakland City Baptist Church, located in southwest Atlanta. The window was at the front of the church, depicting this moment of which I write, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, kneeling at a rock, portrayed in scripture as sweating blood. This scene is found in more churches than just about any image. And, I am not puzzled by it, for it is our common predicament. Most of us do not face an actual Cross during our lifetime, though it is symbolic of death, which we all share. But the tension of decision, of deciding, is a part of the fabric of human existence. It’s there where I first got connected with this person, Jesus, this archetype, Christ. Funny that the critical symbol of my faith was in my infant/child’s eye. Why would the Son of God be seen struggling? That was my child-like takeaway early on, a question that drove me for a while.

Good Friday is observed traditionally between the hours of noon and three o’clock, the hours in which Jesus hung on the cross in his Passion. Again, the Passion narrative is rehearsed. In some churches, a cross with the corpus, the body of Jesus, is brought into the room, with an invitation to come forward to kiss the feet of Jesus. It is a somber time. At the Cathedral, we would keep the full three hours, with readings, reflections, and meditation. Again, without an embrace of the reality of Jesus’ death, it is difficult to find the true joy of Easter.

Holy Saturday is a quiet day. The liturgy is bare, sparse, as we wait, like the original disciples who did not know what was to come. I try to grapple, wrestle with this day, because again, this is the human situation as I know it. Waiting, unsure, leaning into the future, hopefully with faith.

My favorite tradition that Egeria helped us recover is that of the Easter Vigil. I first experienced it at the Trappist monastery in Conyers. We met after dark on Saturday in a nearby field for the “lighting of the new fire” of Easter. There, the Abbot went au naturale, using flint to spark the new fire in dry pine straw. He would then use this fire to light the Paschal candle, symbolizing the Light of the World which comes into the darkness of death. The symbolism is primal, and powerful. I would pause to note that I have actually witnessed a priest use a Bic lighter to replace the flint in lighting the first fire, with no thought of the symbol. Lost in translation!

The Paschal candle is processed from the field, the faithful following the candle, to the darkened church, bringing a single light into the pitch dark of the space. Its flickering is poetic as the single flame emits a surprising power to interrupt the finality of darkness, dancing on the ceiling and side walls. As the members enter the space, this is the very definition of experiential worship.

Once everyone is in place, the ancient anthem of the Exultet is chanted, rehearsing the history of salvation from Exodus to the Resurrection of Jesus. This is a hymn of history and hope. Scripture readings follow, as the congregation sits in candlelight. At the conclusion of the readings, the Celebrant stands with a prayer. The lights, if done right, explode “on”, full tilt brilliant in what was darkness, again an experiential moment of participating in this holy mystery.

The Celebrant declares loudly: Alleluia, Christ is Risen! and the congregation responds, The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

It is Easter! The joy of that moment is amazing. It is the pinnacle of this architecture known as Holy Week, with its intention to bring you into an experience of this story. I often thought of myself as an “architect of experience” as I planned carefully and creatively as to how we would present this liturgy each year. There was no higher calling in my work as a priest. And I loved it.

I hope you will look to find an Easter Vigil service near you. Some churches offer it late Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, or early Sunday. The contrast of light and dark is the driving imagery, but the liturgy itself carries the moment.

Forgive me if I stop here. Sunday morning Easter services are joyful, full of pomp, orchestras, timpanis, brass, spendid choirs. Sometimes, it’s a family command performance, which precedes a big lunch. All of this is good, but can become mere performance. Cadbury eggs, Peeps, and bunnies compete for your attention.

As a preacher, I looked at Easter Sunday morning as “prime time”, that and Christmas as my biggest opportunity to be invitatory as to the value of a spiritual life. And so, Easter Sunday was important and got my attention. I worked hard to craft a sermon that was joyful and accessible to the casual visitor. It was another kind of challenge. However, it paled in my personal experience of Easter joy found at the Great Vigil.

It’s the middle of Holy Week, so I hope you will consider leaning in with a bit of expectation, not just mailing it in. Easter is all about connecting us up with the basic mystery of life that we all embrace: Life- Death- Rebirth….a transformative ride that we can embrace.

I wish you a joyful Easter, full of joy and wonder, as we celebrate new life, and rebirth. Spring is certainly cooperating as our stage manager. All that is left is for you to show up, and be present. I pray that you experience Easter this year. But if you miss it, remember that Thomas shows up next week for all of us who show up late to the party. My patron saint, Thomas.

Blessings.+

Not Quite Like a Bicycle

Thank you to so many kind people who kept me in their minds, hearts, and souls as they knew I was leading the worship this past Sunday at St. Athanasius in Brunswick, Georgia.

If you took the bet of me falling, you lost.

First off, it’s not quite like a bicycle. There are parts of the liturgy, the normal process of prayers that are stitched into your soul. A bodily sense of “this follows that”; phrases and sentences that have been etched on one’s heart, lodged in one’s mind, that surprisingly come back on the tip of one’s tongue, silver or tin. But there are slight variations in each parish, where there is a particular and peculiar custom that has been accreted onto the procedure that can trip one up. That happened to me on a couple of moments, but that was okay. The people of St. A’s were so gracious to me.

Secondly, the gift of the day for me was the preparation beforehand. First, it gave me a chance to spend a couple of hours with my new young clergy friend, DeWayne Cope. He graciously gave me time to walk through the service a week ago, to get me familiar with the “particulars” of which I spoke. I remember trying to learn “the way” of Christ Church’s liturgy after many years at a Cathedral. Moving from an aircraft carrier to a PT boat is an adjustment, but a happy one. And St. A has its own style, one that I love but slightly unfamiliar to me. Father Cope was so kind as he tried to familiarize me with the moves of this dance.

More importantly, it gave us the sacred space, sitting in the altar area, with no one around other than God, to talk about this profession we share. What a gift that was. This young, bright, committed priest who is in his first parish, fueled by a zeal for the work of the church, or what could be. I am betting that, other than his mother, I am his biggest fan. This gave us a chance to get real with one another, in the way clergy do when they get the opportunity for intimacy. By that, I mean putting aside the posturing that often occurs with clergy, comparing your measurements and metrics so that you wind up “bigger and better” in the assessment. I’ve played that game before, and now have the freedom not to play. Homey don’t play that!

No. Intimacy means sharing the passion, hopes, and fears of your heart with an “other”. There’s no pulling of a punch, no holding back. It’s rare.

Intimacy means sharing the deep thoughts of your mind with another competent person. You risk telling others of your wonderings, your imagination, your reflections without fear of dismissal. The other may not agree, but there is no sense in devaluing of the other’s concept.

Intimacy opens one’s soul to the other. A holy moment in which your journey is shared and valued by an Other, in the context of covenant with THE Other, God. It may be telling your story, your trajectory through time, this particular Holy Now that you find yourself in, or it may be scanning of the horizon as to what you are wondering about the future.

Intimacy is all of that, and it is what happened between DeWayne and me. That time, was brought about by his invitation for me to “sub” for him, and my desire to help a brother grab a break before Holy Week. That contractual transaction became the means of a spiritual connection.

Come to think of it, our time in the sanctuary area of the altar of St. A’s was what I do in spiritual direction with clergy, spiritual seekers, and spiritual refugees. And it is the gift and burden of this time in my life. I am grateful.

Thirdly, this experience afforded me a reason to move beyond the daily Bible reading that goes with the Daily Office, which is a part of my priestly vows, but also a part of my rule as a Third Order Franciscan. This week, I was messing with and being messed with by a portion of Scripture about Mary and Martha. When I am studying “for my life”, a.k.a. preparing for a sermon, I am a rigorous explorer. I had forgotten both the pain and the joy of that prep work. In the end, I was blessed by the labor of my research, learning more about the Gospel than I had previously known.

The original story of Mary and Martha, the one that is most familiar, is found in Luke. It’s the one where Martha is bitching about how lazy Mary is. They have become sort of the Odd Couple of the Gospel, Felix and Oscar. Bert and Ernie, Spock and Kirk. The Mary and David, to bring it home. Side note: this is the creative tension built in the human process to produce growth! More at another time, or see The Art of Intimacy by Tom Malone and Patrick Malone.

The Mary and Martha story, as I said, was in Luke. The story about the anointing of Jesus is in Mark and Matthew, but is the work of a non-specific woman, not named here as Mary. Also, the complainers about the spending of money that could have gone to the poor was attributed to all the disciples, not just Judas. By the way, the occurrence was placed in Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem, but it was the house of Simon the leper, not the Big Three of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Timing-wise, it was just before the final entrance into Jerusalem, and the week of what we now observe as Holy Week.

In the Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Church departs from its reading of Luke for the first four weeks, and rather, goes to John. Again, the timing is the same as Mark’s and Matthew’s, before the entrance into Jerusalem, but the place and the actors are different.

In John, the story of anointing is placed following Jesus coming to Bethany at Martha and Mary’s request to heal Lazarus. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he finds his friend, Lazarus, four days dead in a tomb. He has the stone removed from the tomb, with the crowd commenting on the “stink”, confirming that Lazarus was not sleeping but decomposing. Jesus commands Lazarus to come out, and he does, still bound by the burial wraps. Jesus says to unbind him and loose him. So this is the “backstory” to the anointing. They are rightly throwing a party for Jesus raising the dead, namely Lazarus, as a sign of what was going to happen to Jesus soon enough.

John conflates the anointing with the known story of Martha throwing a party while Mary anoints. Prattling Martha gets a support role in this story, as the focus is on Mary who anoints the feet of Jesus, giving Jesus the opportunity to point to the prefigured anointing at his death and burial. This also gives John the chance to point the finger at Judas, who is cast as the sole complainer. John editorializes about the scofflaw Judas, with this protest as just a part of his role as a thief, scoundrel. and betrayer. This is good dramatic writing by John, pulling traditions together to tell the story a bit more poignantly. Once again, this is a dark shift to the conflict with the government and religious structures just days out.

What struck me, again, was Jesus’ words: The poor will always be with you. I played with the congregation, asking if they ever thought of words that they, wished to God, Jesus had NOT said. I confessed my wishing Jesus had gone lighter with the striking of the cheek, turning to offer the other cheek, in the wake of the Oscars. Or how about the command to forgive your enemies and pray for your persecutors. That has been a tall order for me, especially when someone that you thought was close, betrays you. I mentioned that there were a few so-called colleagues, even a bishop or two, that I had to view in light of this passage. I might wish Jesus did not say those things about Kingdom living in the power of Love, as Presiding Bishop Curry pushes, but Jesus did, and I have to deal with it.

But this “the poor will always be with you” seems like Jesus is saying we should just accept this reality. That’s just the way it is, people say, but is this what Jesus intends? That’s what I have heard some people bring up in the face of our work with the poor, the structures that rig the game, and perpetuate the plight of the poor. It bothered me that Jesus would say such a thing.

But my scholarship and digging paid off. There is a passage of Scripture in the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch. in fact, the Law is contained in the first five books of the tradition. The scroll of the Torah is trotted out every Sabbath, and read from, with honor, awe, and reverence, the listeners bending their ears and souls to the Tradition. In Deuteronomy 15:11, it gets real clear: There will always be the poor present in your land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

Jesus was no doubt quoting the verse, which he had heard as a child, memorized in his formation, and studied as an adult. There is a recognition of reality, but with the admonition of an act of love in opening your hearts and purses to the needs of the poor. The ointment of nard had its function as a symbol of what is coming: anointing the dead body of Jesus at his burial, but it does not relieve us of the ethical demand to care for our neighbor. It is the basis of all the Law and the prophets.

I loved making the connection, which shamefully I had not made before. I just ignored Jesus’ “poor will always be with you” like I do with Uncle Charlie’s racist comments at the family’s Thanksgiving lunch. This unlocked it for me within the context of the Covenant that formed Jesus and provided the platform for his radical Kingdom ethic. I was a happy student that night, which should clue you in that it is not hard to make an old priest smile.

It reminded me of my first days in seminary, learning how to translate the original Greek New Testament. Accurately called Baby Greek, it began with the clearest construction in the letter of First John. It is relatively easy, compared to more challenging sentence structure and conjugations. I’ll never forget the first time I encountered it in Greek. It was so clear, so clean, right in front of you in the fourth chapter. The text says this in verse 20: If anyone says, “I love God.” and hates his brother, he is a liar, for if he does not love his brother, who he has seen, he cannot love God, who he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God, should love his brother, also.

Now, this is hilarious. As I am looking at my old Oxford Bible, copying those verses into this South of God article, what comes on the radio. It is from that Jersey boy, Jon Bon Jovi, and his powerful song, You Give Love A Bad Name. Pure synchronicity. Those of us who say, even advertize that we love God, betray that commitment by our treatment of sisters and brothers who do not necessarily fit our “acceptable” categories. We give God a bad name.

And at times, the institution of Church, with a pressing concern for our own survival, the survival of the institution writ large, behaves in a manner that gives God a bad name. In this season of Lent, a time of repentance, may we look squarely at our failures to live out of that covenant, and turn, recommitting ourselves to this radical love, which gets messy and fails the expectation of perfect religiosity.

My concluding comment is to mark my renewed gratitude for not serving as the pastor of a congregation at this time in our country. It is tough duty. And if you are someone thinking to yourself, “It’s not that hard!”, you may be one of the ones that make it difficult. I am so grateful that I can be a bearer of grace and reconciliation, without having to deal with the bureaucracy, the budget, and the air conditioning of churches. As my main man, Jon Batiste, screams, Freedom!

When I move my body like this, I feel like Freedom! That’s the pregnant line from Jon’s Grammy-winning album. Now, just for fun, what do imagine how my body is moving when I feel freedom? How does your body look when you get a whiff of your innate freedom?

We’re heading into Holy Week this coming Sunday, prepping us for the celebration of Easter. I know we tend to get a bit more serious, maybe even somber, when we are in this pregnant time. But I would follow up my question about freedom by asking you if you might approach this year’s Holy Week, in the wake of Covid, war, and cultural strife, with some playfulness.

How might the Spirit be calling you to break out in some wild act of love toward your neighbor, your community, and God’s Creation? Do you dare raise the question in your heart, mind, and soul? It’s a holy time this week when heaven is brought down to our everyday existence. Or, maybe it’s that we lift up our lives to the Eternal, looking afresh at the gift and the call. Holy Week is a special time, a threshold experience where you can more fully recognize who you are, and whose you are. I am struck again by a powerful and paradoxical statement in the Book of Common Prayer, as it describes a holy and joyful life with a prayer for peace at the conclusion of Morning Prayer “in whose service is perfect freedom”. Freedom exercised in service to God and neighbor. That says it all for me. Freedom, indeed. This prayer in the morning, re-minds me of the mindset by which I intend to engage the world. How might I be of service in the creative moment of this new day?

Blessings as you dance your way through this Holy time.

From Zoom to Room

I moved from Atlanta to St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia, right after the first surge of Covid in 2020. It was not easy getting to know neighbors in the middle (midst, for religious types) of the pandemic. But that was the hand we were dealt. Back to the Gambler, perhaps. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to run.

A surprising gift of this problem was that I was able to attend all four of the Episcopal parishes in the Glynn County area. I was able to do this through Zoom, as each one had a cyber feed of their services, forced by the shut down of public services.

Some had a highly produced feed, with four cameras and a switcher, which smoothly changed the view afforded the viewer. Sweet. Others were a single fixed camera that never changed the field. And one, my favorite, used Zoom, which meant every person “in church” also had a square where their face could appear in full glory. The priest who was leading the worship had a single camera, but you could choose to enlarge him. It was like Hollywood Squares on steroids.

The conversation before and after the service was my favorite, as the members would share stories, recipes, opinions on the primo sausage in South Georgia, and their wondering about the Falcons. I would lay back and be contented with overhearing their conversations, as they checked in on one another. It was my powerful connection with the reality of community, and I was grateful for the gift each Sunday. Zoom Church ain’t too shabby.

As I said, there are four Episcopal parishes existing in the marshes of Glynn. Christ Church, Frederica is on St. Simons and is the church we would attend when we were on vacation. It has so much history, being the church associated with John and Charles Wesley when they landed with General Oglethorpe, founding the colony of Georgia. The Wesleys were Anglican priests at the time of the landing. Later, they came up with the remarkable structure that morphed into the Methodist Church when they returned to England. Must have been a bug they caught in the marshes of Glynn.

Christ Church has an amazing cemetery where some of the leading families from St. Simons are buried. I sometimes go there, late afternoon, to feed the deer, sit and think about life, and of course death. I find a crazy mixed vibe there, a funky marsh blend of Teilhard de Chardin’s mystical connection with a warm embrace of existential reality. It’s a “thin space”, liminal in my mind, a sacred piece of ground, blessed by the lives of the saints who live there.

Sometimes for grins, I go and sit at the tombstone of Furman Bisher, the former sports editor for the Journal-Constitution newspaper of Atlanta. We keep talking about the Falcons let down to the Patriots in that Super Bowl. His tombstone, which has a typewriter engraved on it, is inspirational as I think of his fine writing, and reminds me of the fleeting nature of what we conjure and write. Selah.

There are three other parishes. Also on the island is a parish near the Villiage, the Church of the Nativity. My favorite writer at the local newspaper attends there, and he went out of his way to invite me to attend when I first arrived to island time.

St. Mark’s is the downtown parish in Brunswick, a traditional structure that reminds me of my downtown church in Tyler, Texas, Christ Church. And literally two blocks away is another parish, St. Athanasius, a predominantly black church with a rich history. It was started in 1883 as a Sunday School class “for coloreds” led by one of my friend’s ancestors who was a member of St. Mark’s. Two years later, it was formally organized as an official mission of the Episcopal Church.

The initial building was destroyed in a violent storm in 1896, but was quickly rebuilt, in new Gothic style, using tabby construction, common in the low country. It is now one of the last 19th century tabby buildings remaining in Brunswick. If you are down this way, you owe it to yourself to make a visit to this gorgeous liturgical spaces. In all my travels to such structures where God’s people gather to worship, it is one of Dave’s faves. There is a sweet, sweet Spirit there that I used to hear about as a child. “Awesome” is a popular word that seems to be over-used these days. This space is truly awesome.

I have been able to “attend” all four of these parishes during the pandemic through the magic of Zoom, providing me an interesting look at the way each parish and priest responded to the disruption of the norm. I have now been “in” all of them in person and each one has it’s own unique personality and charm. Again, if you are down this way, take your time to check them out.

Father DeWayne Cope is the Rector (head pastor for the unwashed South of God folk) of St Athanasius. He is from Savannah, and was a member at St. Matthew’s church there. He began his career as a teacher, but various people, some in bishop’s purple, saw him as a potential priest. After some encouragement and consultation, DeWayne went to seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary, and now has returned to the Diocese of Georgia to serve at St. A. as it is lovingly called. DeWayne arrived about the same time I did, only I did not have to begin my life on the island as a new priest.

I have watched his services since he began, again by way of this thing called Zoom. Imagine what churches would have done without Zoom in the pandemic. The internet allowed us to connect in spite of the mandate to hunker down. My hope is that the Church, in the collective sense, learned something worthwhile in terms of reaching out to those who can not attend physically for a variety of reasons. That would put one in the “win” column against our Covid foe. I can tell you that I could feel the community at St. A. even through the electronic signal. And the member who I could see confined to a hospital bed in his Zoom square, probably felt the same as me. St. A. and Dewayne are really something.

From Zoom to the room, that is, St. A’s in Brunswick.

I had been in Atlanta for a birthday dinner for my son, who drove down from Nashville, meeting us halfway. Our dinner was at one of my favorite restaurants, The Optimist, and it was a grand time meeting Thomas’ new friend, Taylor, and enjoying the ambiance of this amazing Ford Fry restaurant.

On the way home on Sunday, on the monotonous drive from Macon to Savannah on I-16, I tuned in on my telephone on Zoom for the service at St. A.. I was paying particular attention this morning as DeWayne had asked me to fill in for him the coming Sunday (this coming Sunday, y’all! Light some candles!). I wanted to sear in my mind “how” DeWayne did the liturgy for the Eucharist so that I could deliver as close a facsimile as possible when it was my day.

During the middle of the service, my wife stopped the car in Dublin to get lunch. They went in, ordered lunch, got it, came back out to the car. My wife handed me a huge Diet Coke, thank you Jesus and my benefactor, Mr. Woodruff. And then my daughter shoved some package of food at me while I was concentrating on watching DeWayne’s manual actions of celebration at the altar. I wanted to get them just right. With my daughter’s insistent push of this package of fried gastronomical delights in my face, I became irritated, and responded in a very non-Christian way. I will let you imagine my expletive. I did not go all Will Smith on her, but I snapped back with some words that were hurtful. My wife later commented, as only a spouse can, that my reaction was truly ironic, seeing as how I was watching a church service on Zoom. Point taken, and given. There was no grace to be had for my poor showing sitting in the back of the Highlander. I was not even given a chance of offer a compensatory speech. Guess this is the closest I get. At least my outburst was not televised. Too soon?

That was Sunday. Today, Wednesday, I met with DeWayne to go over how I am going to manage on Sunday. I’ve been around the altar from back when Jesus was boy, but this Sunday will be the first time to serve as celebrant at an altar in a church since tearing my quad tendon. Most of you know, I tore my tendon, had two surgeries, the first by an Emory friend. When that failed, I was referred to the surgeon for the Atlanta Falcons. When people ask how the surgery went, I respond, “Did you see the Falcons play this year?” Nuff said.

I am going to hope that I don’t mess up too bad this Sunday, as my mobility is an issue. “Nimble” is a word that I love, and how I would have once described my movement on my sailboat. Today, not so much. I suggested to DeWayne that we could raise money for the church by having a betting pool on “when” in the service I will fall. And a side bet on how many times! “Broken bone count” would be gauche, a bridge too far.

Seriously, I am honored to be asked to “fill in” at this wonderful parish. And pleased that I can help a brother out by giving him the day off on a vacation with his family.

As I work with a variety of clergy as a coach, I am struck by what a difficult time this is to be a pastor. Many are honest in admitting to being distressed, a bit overwhelmed. In our deeply divided country, how do you maintain relationships across these divides while maintaining your integrity? How does a pastor say anything with any bite, for fear of it being identified with a right or left position? With social issues swirling within the so-called cultural wars, how can one negotiate the sensitive skins of folks that line up on opposite sides?

I remember when I was Rector (careful how you say that) of Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, we were a mostly Republican parish. Half of my church had George H.W. and Barb on speed dial. The Bushs would stay in some of my members’ homes. What was I to do when we went to war in Iraq with Desert Storm? Those are tough times for pastors who care about their parishioners, while also holding their own opinions, hopefully informed by the Gospel. This is not a new tension for ministers. Even Jesus found himself in tension with the Roman government, as he pushed Kingdom values over and against prime loyalty to Caesar. So, this tesnion should not be unexpected, but it seems to rub against our native preference for comfort.

I got lucky, or blessed, depending on your cosmology, that some of the Greatest Generation, who were the parish leaders at Christ Church, stood behind me and my right to have my own beliefs and opinion. When I was pushing the envelope hard on race relations, upsetting some in the community who wanted me to be a “nice” hush, or some who wanted me to get the hell out of Dodge, the Greatest Generation had my back and let me, and my detractors know that they were with me. Sadly, that generation is gone. Long gone. Gone.

The Boomers, my generation, is a group that was schooled in consumerism, even, and perhaps especially in religion. We live out of a rather loose affiliative style. “What have you done for me lately?” informs our sense of loyalty, and seems ready to go with a “better deal” if we can find it. I have seen people change churches because of preferences in programming and style. A loyal church person who will “stick” when there are disagreements is a rarity these days. This makes a pastor’s job worse than in the past, where every week is a referendum on your tenure. The pressure is high on clergy today and is prompting many to leave a calling that they have invested in with blood, sweat, and many tears, I am working with my best energy to help them find good reasons to “stick”.

It makes me relish my role as a priest free of such political burdens. I can say, and have said, pretty much anything that is on my heart, mind, and soul. I’d like to think I exercised that freedom even before I cut free from the institution. I know some of the members of the parishes I served feel that I did, some happily, some not so happily. My man, Carlyle Marney, taught me to tell the truth, the best that I knew. I can say that, like Merle’s mama, I tried.

This Sunday, the lectionary throws me a fast ball on the outside corner, Mary and Martha. Will I serve up the standard sermon on the differentiation of the two, or press for some new insight, or as Chuck Yeager used to say, “push the envelope”? I guess we’ll find out on Sunday.

That is, if I don’t fall on my way down the aisle in the procession. The betting windows are open.

What are YOU Doing?

Turning the focus onto you, I am repeating the question my friend put to me last week: What are you doing with your life?

Responding to that simple question that he asked me caused me to remember an old mantra I used in the past: Stop, Pause, and Reflect. Not a bad thing, as it alerts you to some imbalance that may have crept into your life. How much time are you spending in activity, and how much are you investing in reflection on what you are doing? Most of us tend to get busy and forget to take time to reflect and build our self-awareness.

Lent, of course, affords one a time to correct this. It offers those who attempt to pattern their life after the Christ an opportunity to hold up the spiritual mirror to get a look at how they are doing. Recently. I was listening to a young woman talk about her “listening to God” and how that was the way she got direction for her life. I was reminded of how easy it is not to hear correctly, to hear what we want to hear, in a word, using God to confirm our prejudices. I asked if she minded me asking her a question about this process. She gave me permission, so I asked her about how she uses her community to explore the insight she has heard from God. Might such an engagement with other people of faith be helpful, to clarify, to question, even to challenge her position. She seemed surprised at my suggestion, like it was a fresh way to approach God. But to her credit, she was open to trying on this new way of thinking about listening to God.

For me, that is called discernment. It can be with a spiritual partner, or as we call it, a spiritual director, one who has been trained to ask questions of clarification. In the past, spiritual directors could be heavy-handed, insisting that their way is the “right way”. Thankfully, that kind of spiritual imperialism is mostly a thing of the past. Most spiritual directors are trained to listen well, to ask questions that clarify and get to the heart of the matter so that one is more prepared to make some intentional spiritual decisions.

In fact, I and most spiritual directors I know view the work as a “partner”, one who comes alongside the person who is seeking to gain clarity as to direction. This is a very traditional model. I have a spiritual director who I have been seeing regularly for over forty years. He is a monk, and quite wise and schooled in various modalities of prayer and spirituality. And, thank God, he has a great sense of humor, which is required for working with me.

He has been my regular “partner” and knows the “longview” of my trajectory as a person. But I have also engaged other people along the way for direction. When I was in Texas, I had a spiritual director who was a hermit, living by herself at a Catholic retreat house. I could only see her once a year as she lived in a desert region of Texas where I would go during Lent. But in that intensive time, she was particularly gifted at helping me to see my “rough places”, specifically my need to develop my ability to be receptive. I value greatly what I learned from her.

Nowadays, I have a fellow Franciscan with who I am in regular contact. I am with him every two weeks in a group we share, but try to focus in on my journey in a spiritual direction session about every quarter. These moments, these pauses, allow me the gift of having someone else take a look at what I am doing and how I am doing. I give away, that is, grant them the authority to ask me hard questions, to push me a bit. But, I also am grateful for the times in which they are the means of grace in my life, affirming me, reminding me of God’s love regardless of how well I am doing or how much I am mucking it up. Grace….it’s a good thing.

Anyone can be helpful to you, as they are bringing another perspective to the field, hopefully adding an “other” perspective. However, I have to say that I am particularly thankful that my spiritual partners are well trained. They do not fall into the temptation to “fix” me, nor do they go all “rah-rah”, telling me how great I am. This comes from training, so while friends are helpful, they may not be up to the task to, as my Scottish grandmother used to say, “calling a spade a bloody hoe!” Clarity and clear-eyed comments give one the mirror that any person desperately needs. If only I could see myself as others see me. You can’t. Get some help in lifting that hefty mirror of self-examination.

One other piece about this spiritual partner, which some of you will not like, as it runs counter to our cultural notion of marriage. I often hear of married people referring to their spouse as their “soul mate”, and I get that. However, it can be tricky, dangerous even.

Partners in marriage tend to be too “close” to be helpful, in that your lives are so intertwined that one’s self-interest may get engaged. I am needing a person who cares for me as a fellow-creature, but one who does not depend on me or has an agenda for me, like a spouse normally does. My growth, my development, may become problematic for one’s spouse as it may make demands that push the envelope. When Mary and I are talking about decisions that affect our household structures, we both come to that decision point with agendas that are clear. Hopefully, in the dialogue between us, our perspectives and values become clearer, allowing us to make a joint decision. When one is dealing with one’s spiritual soul, it is best to be able to have someone without a dog in that fight so that the exchange can be as free of bias as possible. Someone who has specific training is able to avoid some of the pitfalls of being heavy-handed or too directive.

My therapist, and teacher, Tom Malone, used to tell me that the reason I paid him so much for therapy is that he refused to tell me what to do. He said, with his Irish sprite spirit, that I should go to the street corner of Peachtree and Piedmont Rd. and ask the next ten people what I should do. He said he would wager that all ten would have an opinion. He would not. That’s why you pay me, he said, taking my check.

Truth is, as he reminded me, I had a bad habit of looking to attach myself to someone who would give me great affirmation in exchange for my soul. When I was young, I was “needy” in that way, for a lot of reasons you don’t need to know, in the clinical world it’s called overdetermined by our family history. But he broke me of that habit by caring for me with no strings attached. No promises, No expectations, which was a great gift to my psyche. It freed me to be my Self, not tied to approval. Handing over your soul to anyone, regardless how caring, is too high a price. It is one of the great temptations in the spiritual journey. Ask me how I know this.

One other thing about this thing of discernment as to what you are doing or are figuring out what to do. I have found a group discernment process particularly beneficial. Rather than just relying, and putting the burden on one person, I have found trusted groups particularly helpful in that there are more perspectives in play, by definition.

My model for this is the Vocational Testing Program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, fiendishly put together by Caroline Westerhoff. This was a mechanism, or as she would call it, a “process”, by which a person could discern whether or not one should serve as a priest. One was asked to engage in a series of activities that would expose your reaction to structure, lack of structure, chaos, pain, difference, authority exercised over you, you exercising authority. Hey man, I am just getting started. It was a bear. But it gave you a chance to see yourself as you were interacting with others in a variety of settings. Your fellow participants, your peers who were in that same process, helped you to see hidden dimensions and motivations in your actions. It was different than seeing a therapist or spiritual director as an individual caregiver but had a power that allowed me that rare opportunity to see myself as others experienced me, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. It changed my life.

Here, I am borrowing from my theological mentor, Carlyle Marney, who suggested that real church, not institutional church, is where you can submit your images for what it means to live faithfully for correction. That stuff is in short supply in the church as I see it in this country, but it IS out there if you have the persistence and courage, that word again, to look, and listen.

So how are you doing in Lent? It may just be another season of the year for you. You may not be a follower of the Christ and so you have no prompt for keeping Lent. But if you are reading this, you are a human, and therefore it would do you well to up your game of being aware of what you are doing, and who is doing you.

I hope you will take the time to Stop, Pause, and Reflect. What are you doing with your energy, your gifts, your time, your resources? How are you being spent as a person in this one crazy trip of life?

Get a free prompt from the historical Church, who, around Springtime, a natural time of rebirth and new growth, drops a question on people who will attend and lister: how are you growing? How are you living? What are you doing with this precious life that is particularly and peculiarly yours? Taking the time to pause, reflect, and answer may just help you get an insight into this thing we called life.

I don’t have an agenda for you other than for you to be aware, and live your life the way you decide. But, I am pulling for you, hoping for you to get in the game, on the field, ’cause we need you. The Dalai Lama calls it enlightened selfishness, as it ultimately helps us all. And God knows, we need it now. Blessings in this time.