Around the Table

My early years were spent living with my grandparents. My mother had moved home following a divorce, and was teaching biology at the local high school in south Atlanta, Fulton High. The fact I was around testified to her knowing something about human biology.

As she taught, I stayed at 1388 Oakland Drive with both grandparents, my grandfather having recently retired from the Atlanta Police Force. He had been Sherriff in a western Georgia county, but resigned, not wanting to arrest his brother-in-law for moonshining.

And so he came to Atlanta, working a downtown beat and riding a cop bike, a Harley, that he loved. He was the Georgia version of John Wayne, with a bit less bravado and a hell of a lot of compassion that I hope I got a dose of. He would put Mr. Dial, the next door drunk, to bed most every Saturday night, after he had tried to tame his World War memories from inside a bourbon bottle. Mr. Dial just couldn’t quite make it home, passing out on the front lawn, and on a good night, his front porch. My granddad would pick him up, put him in his bed, and never say a judging word. “He’s got a lot of hurt in him”, my granddad would offer his home-grown clinical diagnosis.

On Sunday morning, Granddad and I would have coffee…yeah, coffee, Maxwell House, good to the last drop.. Sausage and biscuit was the treat. But we had to be quiet not to wake up my grandmother. She could be hell to pay, a noted Bible teacher who could pull out a Bible verse quicker and more deadly than a Smith & Wesson .38. Then, we would retire to his den, before there were “man caves”, to watch Gospel Jubilee on WSB television, featuring the Florida Boys and the Happy Goodmans. It’s where Iearned to love harmony, and a bit of showmanship.

At the end credits of Jubilee, we would get in his white Chevy to drive to Oakland City Baptist Church. Granddad took me with him to the “old men’s class” known as the Friendship Class.

Make note: Baptists South of God name their Sunday School classes. And I noted that the names give a clue to the nature of the gathering of human beings therein. This “old mens” class was called the Friendship Class, and that was accurate. There was a men’s class at Decatur First called the “Alert Class”, which is where my father-in-law, Dr. Bill Grimes, attended and sometimes taught. I always wondered what they were “alert” to, perhaps meanderings of our pastor from the straight and narrow. And there was the Pilgrims class, a middle aged group of adults who prided themselves in following Truth wherever it led. I remember teaching them one Sunday about contemplative prayer, introducing Thomas Merton to this group of progressive Baptists. They were “pilgrims” in the best sense of the word. I recently taught, via Zoom, a class in a Presbyterian church in Austin called the Lively Class, and they were, engaged and inquisitive, living up to their billing.

The Friendship Class was just that, comprised of Mr. Barrentine, Mr. Sellers, Mr. Boseman, to name just a few retired old men that were my grandfather’s friends. I was gifted by this group of men, who adopted me as their own. While I did not have a biological father in my house, I had an ample group of men who stood-in as my paternal presence, loving on me in a way that only a Baptist Church knows how to do.

This was in the mid-Fifties, a time in the world, particularly the South of God world, that divorce was frowned upon. It clearly meant someone was headed to Hell, usually a man, a rounder. The fact that the “boys” of the Friendship Class looked past any moral judgment and loved on me was my innocent primary experience of grace in the context of Church.

On my third birthday, my mother asked me what I wanted for my party. My answer, which she reported later, was that I said matter-of-factly, that I wanted to invite “The Boys”, referring to the Friendship Class. And so that is what happened on June 30, 1957, a gathering of the boys. There was the picnic table, the redwood type. There was a birthday cake in the middle of the table, along with a punchbowl. A photograph shows me in the arms of my granddad, surround by twenty something old men, circled around the table.

Now, I don’t know what sense you make out of this but for me, it was a prefigurement of what Church would come to mean to me. A place of grace that looks beyond cultural norms and prescriptions, a gathering of folks around a table to sense a spiritual presence, there with bread in the form of a sweet cake and wine in the form of Baptist punch. It’s just not surprise what this would mean for me, a proleptic experience of the heavenly banquet of God’s love, made real for this young boy in the love of a group of retirees.

I have continued to find that in a variety of settings, some deeply religious, and some profundly secular, though the demarcation has seemed to blur, blame it on aging eyesight or growing wisdom, moving beyond binary simplicity.

A circle of folks, around a fire on the beach at Folly Beach.

A circle of brothers in a fraternity chapter room on Fraternity Row at Emory.

At a table of co-workers at Churchill Arms in Buckhead at the end of the week.

At a table of mavericks at a bar named for Hemingway.

At the quintessential Texas roadhouse, the Broken Spoke, with convivial, dancing Episcopalians.

Around the altar at the Trappist Monastery in Conyers with seriously playful monks and under the altar in the crypt as we celebrated Christmas Eve with spirited Monk Punch and alternative Baptist Punch without the punch.

A virtual circle on a Zoom call on Sunday morning from St. Athanasius in Brunswick.

Seven moments of connection.

Seven moments of communion.

Where are the places where you get that sense of connection with something larger? Dare I ask, where do you get a moment of connection with a reality that is transcendent, something bigger than your self?

I would love to hear from you, either in the questions here or in a note to my email at drdavidgalloway@msn.com.

In my new island home, I have recently found a table, where post-vax, I gathered with an old clergy friend for lunch. What was to go an hour, became three, with this meeting place feeling incredibly Holy, in spite of touristas sipping boat drinks. I am hoping this is a sign of new gatherings, new transcendent events to add to my collection. I’ve got a good feeling about this, y’all. Blessings.

Day by Day

Confession is good for the soul, they say.

So, I confess that I had a lot of trouble connecting with Jesus when I was a kid. The stories that were told to me in Sunday School seemed like good stories, but sort of like the fairy tales I didn’t buy. Maybe it was because my mom was a biologist, but I had a natural scientific skepticism early on. I wanted to see what was real, not just hear stories about some fantasy land.

I distinctly remember my friend, David Montgomery, conducting an experiment in my class in 4th grade, using electrolysis to make oxygen from water, and making it “pop” with the introduction of a flame. Fascinating. I loved the explanation of how things work, and David’s bespeckled, nerd, “science guy” act was strangely appealing.

It was eight years later riding in his Opel GT to look at Emory University, a bastion of science that drew both of us like a moth to a flame, not produced by mystical electrolysis process. Emory was where the doctor who birthed me went to medical school. Dr. Henry Stedman gave me a stethoscope to prime my pump, as well as leading our Boy Scout Explorer group on medicine. Emory was the pre-med factory that I was destined to attend.

However, there was a problem. It was Emory that prompted the national headlines that proclaimed “God is Dead”, coming from the scholarship of Thomas Jefferson Jackson Altizer, an Emory theologian, who was simply popularizing centuries of philosophy questioning the relevance of God to the modern mind.

This led the women’s prayer group at my childhood South of God church to put me on their prayer list, which I many still be on. It prompted my friend, Danny Hall, who was a year ahead of me in attending Emory, where his mother taught in the Nursing School, to bring me a copy of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This book was THE standard Christian apologetic text put out by Campus Crusade for Christ, aimed at convincing skeptics like me. I remember reading the text, “kiver to kiver”, studying the points so that I would be ready for the attacks of godless teachers and their minions who aimed to steal my soul, such as it was.

It was funny that my first night at Emory, at a party hosted by my Resident Advisor, Robert Morris, a graduate of my high school in East Point, I got into a debate that eventually got around to God, which all things seemed to do. As I was busy holding up God’s good name, I remember listening to the guy who lived across the hall from me offer several questions that rattled my cage. It was one of those damnable “meta” moments as you are debating, when part of your brain recognizes the validity of the other’s position and truth. Kevin was circling in on some of the fallacies in my tautology, but I dare not admit them. It is curious that Kevin became my roommate for my next two years at the fraternity house.

As I have written here before, the “Big Bang” surprise for me came in that it was, in fact, Emory, the place where God died, that opened my mind up to the possibility of a God that did not object to me using the mind God gave me.

Jack Boozer, an Emory religion prof introduced me to the mystical tradition of faith, as he invited me to read the classic I-Thou, by Jewish mystic, Martin Buber. He also led me into the biological cathedral of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic scientist who saw God in the process of evolution. Boozer click-baited Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus that hooked me on biblical scholarship for life, and then paraded Paul Tillich’s theology to suggest that a thinking person could also be a person of faith. This innocuous course that I took as a proverbial “easy A” on my road to medical school, sidetracked me onto a trail and trial of which I was unaware.

Let me be clear: I had been given all the Bible stories that a South of God child should be in their evangelical training. I had been through the Sunday School process of hearing the stories, Old and New Testament. I had been trained in my Sword Drills, an ancient South of God practice of competition in finding a Bible verse faster than one’s neighbor. And I had been versed in the proper behavior of a South of God teenager, being respectful to elders and not swearing, drinking, or dancing. But, the whole faith thing sort of eluded me. I had not had the campfire soul-surrender moment that many of my peers had. Religion was compartmentalized, a Sunday thing, that had little to do with how I saw life. In fact, from my scientific perspective, I had adopted a wink-and-nod method of simply listening to the stories and not asking the embarrassing questions of my starched white-shirted teachers.

That all changed with two moments from the culture, not my church.

The first was the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. It placed the story of Jesus, one I was quite familiar with, within the rock genre with electric guitars and stratospheric vocals. I remember listening to the music, the lyrics that intrigued me by the existential question that were embedded. And the basic one for me was this: Did Jesus have a choice or was he a mere puppet in the hands of this Cosmic Puppeteer? Rather than a script that was being acted out by some type-cast Palestinians, this a drama that was open and full of pathos. For me, it was the beginning of my questioning and wondering.

But it was Broadway that opened up the proverbial Pandora’s box. It was a musical presentation of the story and text of the Gospel of Matthew. It was a skeleton cast of ten, and minimalist staging. The script came from the famed parables or teaching stories of Jesus by which he introduced the radical notion of the Kingdom of God. At it’s heart was a winsome presentation of how we human beings might learn a way of love, loving God and neighbor, a captivating idea which continues to marshall my attention.

These stories were well known by me, “old hat”, as they say, but the way in which they were acted out in the community of this cast broke their meaning like an egg cracked open, revealing an inner truth. It was like having scales removed from my eyes, something that was said to have happened to Paul many years before. All of a sudden, I had new eyes to see the world.

I was taken by Godspell, first on the Broadway stage, later by a production at the unlikely locale of my local South of God encampment, led by a creative music minister, Len Willingham. Putting together a cast of high schoolers, I watched, observed, and took notes and note. My brother, Mitch, had the part of Jeffrey, which made it even more up-close and personal.

A few years later, I pulled Godspell out of my bag of tricks, as I was serving as the youth minister at a large South of God church in Decatur. I adapted the script somewhat, using a chorus to support the ten actors, and borrowed a song from the movie, not in the original play. My creativity almost got my Baptist ass sued for copyright violation, necessitating a quick trip to New York City. I could tell you how my winsome personality resolved the mess, but then, I would have to kill you. Let that sleeping dog snooze as we had a tremendous presentation with some amazing kids, in a life-changing production for many kids, including me.

With me beginning my doctoral studies, what better way to syphon off energy than to produce a touring company of Godspell. And so, I put together an all star cast of twenty-somethings, with a killer band to provide back up. I called the troupe The Southern Rainbow Company, as it was truly a dream of mine, not unlike that of my patron saint, Kermit. We went into production at the beginning of the summer, and by the end of the sweat-stained rehearsals in Carreker Hall, all members of the cast were dating one another in a veritable love fest. By the end of the Fall, with a performance at White Hall on the Emory campus, not one member of the cast was still dating….so much for that love thing. It was an act of discipline to remain on stage “acting” like we cared for one another as opposed to wanting to kill particular members of the cast. Instead of the old theater admonition “break a leg”, we were climbing the heights of “break a commandment.” We did so, every night.

Nevertheless, it was this amazing musical that brought me to a deep appreciation of the depth of meaning of the Gospel, the drama of life, death, betrayal, forgiveness, reconciliation, hope….all the stuff of being a human, seen through the eye of faith. I was and am grateful for the experience that was one of the vectors that push/pulled me into the priesthood.

Perhaps no song was more powerful to me through time than the centerpiece song of Godspell, Day by Day. It is sung by the character, Robin, who offers this three-fold prayer, capturing the words of Richard of Chichester, a 13th century bishop and saint who famously prayed to:

See thee more clearly,

Love thee more dearly,

Follow thee more nearly,

Day by day.

The song, which was the one hit to come out of the Broadway play and movie, Day by Day, became a kind of mantra for me in figuring out how to do this faith thing. It was simple, having actionable verbs, as well as profound implications.

What was incredibly odd was that when I had finished my doctoral course work, I began my clinical work at the St. Luke’s Training and Counseling Center. I was assigned an office recesses of this old Atlanta ecclesial edifice, but it was an office, MY office. There in that gray-walled room that opened onto an alleyway, I discovered a framed print over the coach where I would meet with people in therapy. That gold-framed piece had the prayer of Richard in scrolled letters, Day by Day, which I took as a moment of spiritual synchronicity, which is a far cry from my cynical scientific skepticism.

But that’s how it’s been, day by day. Friends of mine often say, “one day at a time”, and that’s true as well. Day by day.

Almost forty years later, I still begin my day with a re-minder as to my purpose, my reason for being. I try to center myself in that reality before I move out into the world of distraction and disruption, a world that is able to take my focus off my goal of being present. For me, the mantra of Day by Day, captures it. To see my purpose clearly, to love God and neighbor as much as humanly possible, and to align my Self with the Christ life in all that I do.

How do you do it? What tricks have you learned in keeping your focus, of spending yourself, investing your Self in the life you live? If you would, share it with me, either here on the site, or drop me a note at drdavidgalloway@msn.com . How have you negotiated your way through the disruptive pandemic and distracting tower of babble? What centers you? I would love to hear you strategy and tactics.

Blessings as you move through your life. Day by day.

A Week That Is Holy, A Way That is True

Within the Christian community, this is Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, remembering the actions of Jesus in Jerusalem, his Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

Within the Jewish community, it is Passover, Pesach, eight days of remembering the epic journey of Exodus as the Hebrews journey from slavery in Egypt to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

The week is set aside in both communities, the literal meaning of “holy”. Something special is happening. Of course, the Hebrew story of the Exodus precedes the experience of the Crucifixion/Resurrection story of Christ, but both have the same focus on transformation. The Exodus/Passover was clearly in the mind of the early church interpreting the events of Jesus’ life.

For Christians, the week traces the final week of Jesus’ life, beginning with the triumphal parade into Jerusalem. It continues with the remembering of special moments in that week, marking them as special, for they accentuate the passing through death by Jesus, becoming the central theme of the faith narrative: that Jesus took on the fullness of human life, including death, and showed us a way through.

The week has several notable moments that stand out.

There is Maundy Thursday, referring to the mandate to love and serve one another. Jesus ritualized this by a pregnant moment of washing his disciples feet, embodying the mode of servanthood that he calls his followers to continue. It is curious to me that the “foot washing” got second billing in Christian practice through history. Wonder why?

It is also the ritualization of the Lord’s supper, the blessing of the bread and wine as symbols of our connection to Jesus, to be remembered after he is gone. This has found various expression in Christian tradition, but tended to be central in the community’s gathering.

On Good Friday, the three hours of Jesus hanging on the Cross, suffering, and his death is remembered in a powerful liturgy, recalling his final words from that Cross.

Holy Saturday is an odd day, as we wait with Jesus in the tomb. Tradition has it that Jesus went to Hades to release the captives from death.

And Easter morning marks the resurrection of Jesus, overcoming the bonds of death, appearing to the women of his group and later, to his disciples who had fled in fear.

This is the central meaning of this Cross event. The narrative is the retelling of Jesus’ passing through death and coming out on the other side. It follows the Exodus pattern of the Hebrew people leaving the slavery of Egypt, passing through the wilderness, and then entering the Promised Land. It is a three-fold pattern that is part of our human existence, what I have called the Paschal Paradigm.

The Paschal Paradigm states that the character of life is a process, repeated throughout our life. We experience many endings, or deaths, within the course of our life. When that ending occurs, it begins a time of transition which is marked by a disorientation. The way we lived life before is up for grabs. The familiar roles are no longer true for us. And that time, literally feels like death, something has been stopped cold.

We enter into this time of transition, not knowing what is to come. It can feel like the wilderness, even a desert, dry without relief. The paradigm presses us to move through this tough time with an eye of hope on the horizon for the new that is to come.

This is more than a mere history lesson, a ritualistic observance. It is, rather, a way of being, of leaning into our lives with a faith that does not deny suffering, loss, or death. Rather, there is the call for trust and faith, confidence in a connection that will survive the reality of death.

The same is true of Passover. Jews remember the journey of faith that began in slavery in Egypt. The Hebrews are released from bondage but head off to an imagined Promised Land. Their slavery ended, which would feel like good news, but they found themselves in transit, cut off from the security of what had been, even if it meant being slaves. At least then, they would recall, they knew where their next meal was coming from, and so now in the desert, many began to wonder as to the wisdom in leaving what was familiar. Some began to “murmur”, a phenomena any pastor knows of from his/her beloved flock. “Murmur” means complaining, wishing we could be back in captivity, what was familiar, even if it was slavery. Tradition says it was forty years for the Hebrews in the wilderness. Forty years is a Hebrew idiom meaning “a long damn time.”

Jews, looking retrospectively, remember God’s faithfulness even in the wilderness and God’s deliverance of God’s people to a new freedom, across the Jordan in the Promised Land. Passover is a remembrance of this historical fact, but more, it is a recalling of a way of life, a way of faith, as God delivers us through the variety of changes in our life. It’s this history that gives them a sense of reliance on God, though the exact “how” may be unclear.

This Paschal image gives us a lens through which to view our lives. We can recognize endings when they occur. It can be the ending of a time of life, such as school, when one must now move into a more adult way of being. Or if can be the ending of a career, perhaps retirement, where things are no longer as they used to be. Some endings come in the life of an organization as leadership changes, and the culture is altered. The ending might be in a relationship where there is a tear or a disruption in roles. Or, it may come at the very moment of death, where the landscape changes for those connected but left behind. Things are not as they were before. There is an ending that needs to be acknowledge, recognized.

It has been my observation that endings are difficult for most folks to admit. There is a hope that things will remain the same, that status quo should be maintained. The disruptions are ignored, hoping the situation is not changing significantly. This denial is most always problematic as reality relentlessly presses the change that is in play. Naming the ending, or death, is a way to move on to the process of transition.

Transition seems to not be easy for us. We want to move quickly from what was to the next thing. Taking one’s time to process the loss, living in the “in between”, can be helpful in finding one’s way into the new state. While one probably does not want to take forty years of wandering, it is good to take a break and allow for this time when things are a bit fluid. My colleague, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, refers to this as a threshold moment, a pregnant space which offers the possibility and danger of creative change. This gives us time to weigh some options, seriously playing with what might be our next step or phase.

The tendency is to move to quickly, as we are uncomfortable with not knowing, of feeling “at sea”. For many people I have worked with in such a process, there is a push that may lead to a premature closure in order to resolve the issue. At times, I would use the phrase, “I want to do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong!” to line out that tendency to press for closure. Most times, this is an unforced error.

After a time of living in the time of transition, an option will emerge, a new possibility that may not have occurred to you if not for the ending that happened. Many times, one will come to see, only in the rear-view mirror of reflection, that the ending was, in fact, a blessing in disguise. That certainly is not guaranteed as endings can be incredibly disruptive to plans, imagined futures, bringing about pain and suffering that is real. However, most folks find some silver linings in those dark clouds of loss.

So this pattern of endings, transitions, and new beginnings are intimated in our cosmic dramas of the Exodus, and of the Christ paradigm. But I am suggesting that it is a pattern that is part of our very existence. Seeing those parts of a process, naming it as we go through it, can be incredibly helpful, yield fruit, and assist us in negotiating our way through the passage.

Think for a second. What are the the major transitions, the moments of change that you have experienced? Did it follow the Paschal Paradigm in terms of phases? How did you consciously decide to move through the process? What did you learn/have beaten into you along the way?

Name some of the endings you have experienced: some that were expected, predictable, and some that seemed to come out of nowhere. How did you respond to endings, deaths that happened?

What about transition times, those in between times when certainty and clarity eluded your grasp? How did you make your way through the wilderness? What blessing or blessings did you wrestle out of the encounter with the ambiguity of not knowing?

And what of the new beginnings? How many new beginnings can you name, new chapters in your life, some chosen, some imposed? How did you show resilience in finding a new way?

And where are you NOW? Where are you in this paradigm as we come to the end of Passover, and the Sunday of Easter? It’s been a hell of a year for most of us. A lot of endings, a lot of death. Transitions seem to be the order of the day as we adjust to the disruptive reality of a pandemic. Are there new beginnings on the horizon?

Could this Springtime of new birth in Creation signal a new beginning for you? Where are you as you move through this time in our common time, and in your particular and peculiar journey? I would love to hear from you, either here on my blog or writing me privately at my email address drdavidgalloway@msn.com .

Blessings as you move through this pregnant season.

Not THAT Part!

When I was midway into my tenure as the Rector of Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, I had a moment that was revelatory to me. By revelatory, I mean a moment in time that was pregnant with meaning, filled full. Such moments allow the Divine Presence to shine through the ordinary to give you a glimpse of something deeper, something transcendent. By revelation, like the title of a short story by Flannery O’Conner, it’s when Truth comes so close that you can not deny it, or at least, not easily Revelation confronts you.

For me, that has happened mostly in nature, me being a Druid in temperament. Being at the beach watching a sunrise or sunset: being deep in the Spring woods of Georgia with red buds and dogwoods blooming; driving through Big Sky country. These moments in nature break into my mundane consciousness with a re-minder of my connection to this thing we call life and the deep meaning within.

Other times, it happens for me in moments of silence, at a regular visit to a Trappist monastery; during a retreat at a hermitage in the wilderness of South Texas; or in my prayer space in my home, where I can be quiet, center myself in solitude. It has happened for me in a moment of focused reading, in which the words on the page plunge me deep into a linkage with the All. Poetry, in particular, does this for me, but it can be a good character developed, or a twist of plot where I feel connected with the flow of existence.

Journaling, which I have been doing since college, sometimes feels as mundane as writing down a shopping list. But other times, my own words and thoughts prompt a deep dive into the Reality that we all share.

Sometimes it is in a moment, specifically as I sat in front of the tabernacle in the church of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. A radiance overwhelmed me coming from the gold tabernacle where the Holy Sacrament is kept in residence between services. This particular night, it was around two in the morning, in a darkened church as I sat the the side of the altar. Those times are rare for me, but when they come, the Holy is present to me in a way that surpasses my descriptive powers.

How do you experience that presence, the deep sense of connection to all that is? How do you slip the surly bonds of duality, thoughts that divide us into good and bad, and encounter the unity of being? I know that worship is intended for such an experience, being in a place set aside, and performing traditional acts that are supposed to connect us to God. Maybe it’s just me, but that time often feels more structured, more predictable than I have found the Holy to be. But, maybe it’s because I have served as an architect or engineer of such experience in public worship for a long time.

A curious place I have found such revelatory moment has been in relationships among humans. Sometimes, it has been in moments of deep friendship through time, as the old times are remembered, and it is as if they are present in the now, anamnesis, they call it. Other times, for me, it has been in the one-on-one in a moment of intimacy, where both feel a deeper presence and bond that connects. That clearly can happen in the intimacy of sexuality, but can also happen with friends tied together by bonds of covenant that transcend the mere social convention.

But before I go getting all gooey with sentiment, let me tell you how it, that is, revelation happened for me in a most unlikely place. A bar.

Not just any bar, but the sacred place known as the Men’s Grill. This hallowed space of which I am speaking is located at Willowbrook Country Club in Tyler, Texas. No women, other than the wait staff, were allowed in the Holy of Holies, where male golfers would retire after an exhausting round of golf, to sip libations, and set the world right. It was understood that no woman, wives in particular, were allowed, reminding me of my childhood treehouse where girls, who had cooties, don’t you know, were verbotten. Same concept, much nicer digs, and much more expensive, but same gig. Dig?

In Texas, we would famously play golf in groups of five, known as a fivesome. In the normal world, golfers play in groups of four, a foursome, as it is called in Scotland, America, and all parts of the civilized world…even Alabama. But in Texas, a Republic unto itself, we played in fivesomes. Shall I bring up the proverbial adage: because everything is bigger in Texas. And I will not allow myself to make a too easy response to the brag, because I don’t shoot duck on the water, a Georgia quip.

There had been a summer thunderstorm which sent all the golfers off the course to the Men’s Grill to wait out the shower, enjoying the chance for a drink and munchies. I was with my regular group of guys: Dan, Ted, Jimmy, and Keith, four of the best human beings that I have known. My deep friendship with these four make my other relationships pale in comparison. Seriously, I wept on the day after playing my last round with these guys, as I headed my wagon, a Suburban (the national car/truck of Texas) back to Georgia. Two are them are now dead, leaving just we three musketeers that still maintain our friendship across a thousand miles and political terrain.

On this particular day, the grill was hopping, the wait staff trying to keep up the demand for beers and other liquid refreshment. It had gone on for some time, a spell, in Southern lingo, which is where Tyler is.

There was a din of noise, with people telling stories, as golfers do, unrepressed laughter, and jokes abound. That’s when he walked in.

Let’s call him Huey, because that was his name. He is big in physical size and personality. As he enters a room, he likes to dominate the room. He is LOUD. You know the type. He came in bellowing, like that bull in the lower forty, whose work is never done.

He was letting everyone know that his church, of the South of God persuasion, was looking for he new pastor. His volume level, the rock band 11, and his wildly waving arms, turned the attention of the room onto him, which is as he planned. It must be how he gets his kicks. In any case, he was ranting on about how ministers, these days, are watering down the Gospel, tickling the ears of their flock so that they would be loved and adored. He went on….and on…and on. You get my drift?

Huey said, “I want a pastor who will preach the Whole Gospel, not pussyfoot around with poetry, and such. Just preach the Word of God, plain and simple, not holding back, not watering down the strong words of Jesus. I want a minister who is a Man of God, who will tell us, straight up, how to live our lives with righteousness. Just let us see Jesus, tell us what Jesus commands us to do, and let the chips fall where they may!”

By now, Huey’s high blood pressure had kicked in, reddening his face with a crimson hue that preacher’s faces take on when they are pressing to the final point in a sermon, or finally getting to the “ask” of a love offering, or contribution to the “building fund”. He was hooping and a hollering so much that the room came to a silenced halt.

Then, he seemed be scanning the room, like a spiritual radar, straining to find his target. He narrowed his beady eyes on me. And, just like that, he focused on the “licensed” preacher in the room, putting my young ass on the spot. “Isn’t that right, Preacher?” I hate it when people call me “Preacher”. I mean, I got my doctorate so people wouldn’t call me “Preacher” or “Brother”. So now you know how to get under my skin. My bad.

“Isn’t that right, Preacher? I want a man who preach the Word of God, straight up, no holding back. The whole truth of God unvarnished, pure T-total Truth!”

As he concluded, the room was silent. He seemed to be asking me for a response, and I felt the eyes around me turn to me. I took a sip of my whiskey, a long one, and then looked straight into Huey’s eyes and said:

“You mean the part about selling all you have and giving it to the poor?”

It was as if the room was in freeze-frame for that moment in space and time, with my question piercing the balloon of his soliloquy. And then, in an involuntary moment of truth, Huey could not help himself and he told his God’s honest truth:

“Well, not THAT part.”

The term “pregnant pause” gets tossed about a good bit, but that moment WAS the quintessential pregnant pause.

And then, simultaneously, everyone in the Men’s Grill broke into laughter, for the Preacher had called his hand, and Huey had not a card left in his deck. Busted.

The moment of revelation for me was listening to Huey spout the directives of Jesus with such vigor and his admonition to those around him to “get right” with Jesus and his particular “take” on his message. And when I mentioned one particular teaching of Jesus that ran counter to his culture’s (Tyler, or Texas, or American, or Western, or First World) values, he wasn’t quite on board.

And while I joined in the laughter at Huey, the truth is at the same time true for all of us. We pick and choose among the buffet line offerings of Jesus’ teachings. Often we cling and shout those that affirm and confirm our prejudices and biases, while turning away from those that are challenging to our position, particularly those that might ask us to change.

That is clearly true of me. I remember the first time I read, really read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. I learned in seminary that this is a kind of “best of Jesus”, a collection of his greatest hits in terms of his teachings. If someone told you that you could attend a sermon by Jesus, my hunch is you would get in line. And in many ways, that’s what the famed Sermon on the Mount is. It is overwhelming to really listen to these teachings of what Jesus says about the nature of good and godly living. My hunch is that you probably wouldn’t call that rabbi to be the pastor of your church.

Further, the radical nature of Jesus’ message was made real for me in the Broadway musical, Godspell. The words are uttered by the actor playing Jesus, many coming from the portion of Matthew’s Gospel I am pointing to. The power of the play is that these platitudes are transposed into the actual way we are called to treat one another, forgiving one another, loving one another, reconciling with one another, and, God help me, praying for my enemies. As the member of the cast that plays Jesus delivers the words attributed as Jesus’ teaching, you find yourself responding, “Oh, Jesus. You have to be kidding!” He was not. This Kingdom of God stuff was a radical notion to treating ALL people with dignity and respect….even those that don’t look like you or think like you.

In the bar, on that stormy Texas afternoon, my revelation was not the hypocrisy of one bellowing holier-than-thou Christian admonitions and platitudes. I’ve seen and heard that all my life. And on occasion, I confess, I’ve been that person.

No, the revelation was how selective we can be in picking and choosing the parts of the teachings we will grab in order to confirm our bias, while dismissing those that run counter to our taste and comfort. I had never seen it so clearly present, as if it were a play, scripted to make that very point. On that day, in a bar in Texas, for me, at least, the lightening flashed…..and the thunder rolled.

We are entering the profoundly dramatic time known as Holy Week, a week when Christians across the world recount the days, the final hours, the minutes, the very seconds of Jesus’ final week leading to his killing by the political and religious leaders. It begins with Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry of Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem, and it ends with the faith moment of Easter, as Jesus can not be contained by Death, the Resurrection which we celebrate with bell ringing, trumpets blaring, and voices joyfully raised.

But between the celebrative parade and the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, there’s this thing call The Passion. Jesus who gathers his friends in an intimate circle for a final meal. Jesus, who experiences the pain of betrayal by one who was a friend. Jesus, turned over to the authorities for disposal. Jesus, who was scourged for insurrection, nailed upon a cross, sentenced to death by a leader and a mob. Jesus, who hung in the sun, thirsty for justice, drained of life energy flowing from his wounds, feeling abandoned, even by God. Jesus, giving up his Spirit. Dead. Jesus.

Once again, we come to the week we call Holy, between the joyful entry and the celebration party of victory on Easter Sunday.

And truth is, we’d rather skip that week. Looking for a comfortable Cosmic Win by our hero, just fast-forward to the end, to that great getting-up morning of Easter. We just love happy endings, don’t we?

But what about the rest of the story, the Passion. And we say, in a moment of honesty uttered by St. Huey of Tyler, “Not THAT part,” But deep inside, we know we can’t avoid the reality, we can’t ignore the pain of life, for Jesus did not bootleg his way around the suffering of the Cross. He went through it, to demonstrate to us how to do our moment in the sun of life. THAT part, that some of us know better after this year of pandemic, is part of the equation of human existence that Jesus embraced. And truth be told, it makes Easter Sunday a true celebration, not just a hollow bell ringing.

THAT part is not to be avoided, but strangely embraced, and celebrated in a true Easter faith. Blessings.

Puzzling: To Die Is To Live?

When I was the Canon Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, I was pestered by a persistent widow.

Well, not exactly.

A woman of the parish, Millie, kept bugging me to start a group for cancer patients. I continued to put her off, telling her that my schedule was slammed, which was true. I was trying to get on top of a 5000 member parish and had my hands full. Millie, a cancer patient, was like the persistent widow who continued to tug on the sleeve of Jesus, trying to get the attention of Jesus. I thought of this biblical image at the time, and preferred it to the squeaky wheel that proverbially gets the grease. She kept tugging on my sleeve, asking if we could start a new pastoral care group, focused on people facing a diagnosis of cancer.

I finally gave in, threw her a bone, that we would advertise a gathering on Wednesday night after the weekly supper, and see who shows up. I made no promises, just a meeting to measure the interest. To my surprise, and I will not lie to you by saying it was pleasant, about one-hundred twenty folks showed up and filled the room.

I may be slow, but I am not a fool. I took this as a cue to start a group that met every Wednesday night. We would check in with people to see how things were going. This created a loving, open community that had an amazing capacity to care for one another, as people had recently received a diagnosis, undergoing a series of treatments or surgeries, and the aftermath of recovery. I was struck by the palpable sense of love that existed in the group from day one, although it would grow through time.

Additionally, Dr. Matt Burrell, a noted oncologist who was a Cathedral member, would assist in the leadership, providing medical information on the various cancers and the treatments that were being employed. More importantly, Matt brought his healing spirit to the room, genuinely leaning into the relationship with cancer patients who were looking for knowledge but enhanced by the human touch of care, his compassion.

One other note is worth the time. We used a text, Love, Medicine, and Miracles, written by a surgeon, Bernie Siegal, who had discovered the role of the mind in working along with the medical technology. We would spend twenty minutes in a guided meditation to encourage people to imagine the drugs or radiation entering the body to fight the cancer. There’s a lot of science and technique in Bernie’s book that I don’t have time to unearth here, but suffice it to say that the mind-body connection is something we are still discovering new insights which assist in the process of healing. This was early in that discovery period, which some, including my scientific bias, found a bit far-out. However, my other bias, pragmatism, won the day. It was working. I would always refer people who told me of a recent cancer diagnosis to this work to encourage a good mental attitude as one fought the invading cancer.

This group would meet every Wednesday, regardless on what holiday it happened to be. It was still going when I loaded up my wagon for a sojourn to Texas.

What I wanted to lift up was my discovery among those cancer patients. I experienced a real transformation happening for many of these folks as their brush with mortality gave them a new appreciation for life. I had the opportunity to observe this as they interacted in the group, but I was able to confirm it in my individual interviews with people. The common phenomena was a shift out of what was sort of a routine day of getting up, doing what you do, going to bed, and then doing it all over again the next day. It was as if one was living by default, with no openings for a fresh breeze to blow in one’s life. After this experience, most people I talked with experienced life as precious, and found a new vigor with which to lean into the days they had, particularly the present moment, the Now.

My experience with this support group left me with a profound question: Can one get the same effect without having to acquire the diagnosis of cancer? Does it take the jarring of a death notice to shake one out of a deep sleep of routine living? I had witnessed the power that disruption brought about by cancer, and there was no doubt as to its effect.

I must pause to note that it did not work for everyone. I also watched as some people received the diagnosis as an authoritative death notice, and they responded by folding up their tents, waiting to die, resigned to their fate. At that time in my life as a quixotic crusader, I had little understanding of such resignation. Why not fight? You got to fight, right! You never give up, spoken by Coach Jimmy V. was permanently etched on my soul. Nowadays, after tilting after a few windmills and losing, I think I understand how people, beaten down through life, might see the diagnosis differently, as an exclamation point of a tragic life. I understand it better now, but I still don’t buy it for me.

I have recently taken a dive into the deep waters of Marcel Proust, speaking of a slow death. His ungodly novel, In Search of Lost Time, is seven volumes long and filled with lengthy descriptions of moments of life. In my mind, Proust is the anti-Hemingway. I had only dabbled in the shallow waters of reading his work here and there, but now, I am seeking to read the behemoth from “cover to cover” as Baptists South of God called the faithful reading of Holy Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, reverently pausing on the red letters of Jesus. Red letters?, you ask. Just what the hell Bible you been reading? I’m talking about the Bible, written by the Almighty on the day He rested, placing the words of his son, Jesus, in the appropriate red of his blood.

Now, you are awake.

So, in the wake of the pandemic, I put the Bible down, momentarily mind you, to dive into the ocean of Proust. Proust addressed the lushness of life, the present moment, the observation of the now. His description is unlike anything I have ever read, bathing, luxuriating in the richness of our experience of life. He hovers over and dives into life in a way that reminds me of my hummingbirds returning to the island, magically pausing midair, only to skillfully dart in deeply to taste nectar, to ingest the energy needed to move on to the next moment, to sustain life.

I came across a quote from Proust that teases at this insight I am hovering over this day. “I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it- our life- hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delay them incessantly. But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again!”

And Proust continues with the twist, “(But) The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of the normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this morning.”

Maybe now you understand why I am willing to dive deeply for Proustian pearls.

How is life for you these days? Has the existential threat of the pandemic raised your awareness of the preciousness of life? I keep listening to people who talk of renewed value of the human touch, to gather with family, to join with friends, either in celebration or pain. The pandemic has provided the disruption of our normal, our routine, the lulling of our consciousness. The cataclysm come. Has it given you a new sense of vigor, that Kennedy-esque word I grew up with? Are you ready to dance like Zorba in celebration of life? Or are you just hoping to get back to “normal”, the way it used to be, the way it’s always been? Or as St. Bruce of Hornsby says, “that’s just the way it is.”

It’s a question worth your time.

Monks, in their cells of solitude, would remind themselves daily in their spiritual exercises that they were mortal: Remember your death!

Christians begin these forty days of Lent, mirroring the temptations of Jesus in the desert, by placing ashes of dust on their foreheads, literally re-minding themselves that they “are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I am reminded of Nikos Kazantsakis, the author of Zorba, who also wrote of The Last Temptation of Christ… the final temptation which was to avoid his passion and opt for the normal life.

How does this question land with you today, this exquisite moment of human existence?

I am sure glad Millie came my way. And I am thankful to my fellow travelers, some that I knew deeply, that reminded me of a simple truth: Life is Gift. And as a old South of God rabbi once taught me walking on Folly Beach, You have to live it every day! Indeed.

Blessings fellow travelers. Brave journey.

Check Your Lens!

Last week, I wrote about how you are able to take the perspective of the “other”. The shorthand, poetic phrase that has found its way into song lyrics and classic books, namely Joe South and Atticus Finch, is “walk a mile in my shoes” and “climb into his skin and walk around in it”. That promises to give you a glimpse, an insight into the world of the other person. Your chance of taking them seriously as a real person, rather than as an object or a part of a transaction, increases exponentially if you do this work….and it is work.

Now, let’s turn our attention to another piece of the work of self-awareness.

I am talking about the world view we have, the lens by which we see the world.

As we come to the world as persons, we bring our biases along with us. Some folks seem to get defensive if you suggest that they are biased. Truth is, we all are….it goes with the territory of being a human. What makes a difference is whether or not you are aware of your biases so that you can guard against being blindsided by them and can keep them in front of you.

I have identified four biases that form our perspective. Our image of God, our image of the world, our image of self, and out image of the Other. All of these images begin to be formed from the moment of our birth and come from our experience of the world. Some content is “fed” to us by those who raise us, the people we interact with at the beginning of our formation. They, too, were formed and they are unconsciously passing on their values and ways of seeing the world. This is not a sinister enterprise, again, it’s just the way it is.

Even as an infant and child, we are surrounded by the culture in which we are embedded, receiving messages about what the world is like, the values that are important, how we should behave, and even more, how we should not. We are receptive, and learn not only the language but the nuances. If you doubt me, I present the classically South of God phrase that contains multiple meanings: Bless your heart. Taking a look at these images can give you clues as to these lenses that we all have, images that determine what we see when we encounter the world, and what we don’t see. These images form our bias.

Let’s begin with the image of God. I recently taught a class on faith development to a congregation in Austin, Texas, thanks to the technology of Zoom. I asked them to think back to their “Image of God” when they were children. They were good sports in playing ball with their “cyber teacher”, taking their time to remember back to their childhood, and how they imagined God to be. Many, who had grown up in South of God churches, saw God as a judge up in the sky, a kind of large parent figure who was looking down, from “up there” in heaven, to catch you doing something wrong. One person imaged a large Jurassic “eye in the sky” looking at us, with an eye out for our screw ups. Another person who grew up in the Roman church got his image from his parents’ coffee table book of the Michelangelo image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, of God reaching out to touch the hand of man. I would have loved to have gone more deeply with him as to how this powerful image “felt”, but I missed that opportunity. It was a rich exchange with a lively group of folks….that’s what they call their class, the Lively Class…..truth in advertising.

It was a gift to me to be given the opportunity to interview people about such things during my years as a researcher at the Center for Faith Development. I was able to listen to their childhood images of God, how that changed in adolescence, and how they are currenting “seeing” God…..or not. The insight in all this conversation is that our images change, they develop, alter, or if I can use the dreaded “C” word, CHANGE.

Just for grins, how has your image of God changed? How are you thinking about God these days? How do you conceptualize God in this time of COVID? What sense do you make out of the way God is or is not present in the world? Is God active in the world, and if so, how? These questions tend to surface our image of how we see God and how our lives are affected by our image.

This image of God affects our image of the way we see our existence. The Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, notes the power of the image we have of the world, of our human existence:

“We would do well to get in touch with our own operative worldview. It is there anyway, so we might as well know what this highly influential window on reality is. It’s what really motivates us. Our de facto worldview determines what catches our attention and what we don’t notice at all. It’s largely unconscious and yet it drives us to do this and not that. It is surely important to become conscious of such a primary lens or we will never know what we don’t see and why we see other things out of perspective.” from Richard Rohr’s A Gospel Lens

Along with our “image of God”, we have this image of the world, the way that it is, or more colloquially “the lay of the land.” Erik Erikson noted that our view of the world begins with our primary caretaker, often times our mother. Is the world trustworthy? Will the world respond to my needs and give me what I long for, beginning with food and nurture, and then extending into regard, belonging, and significance. This process of formation continues to be supported or amended by the experience of the child in the world. But, this process is ongoing. A lot of my time as a priest and therapist had to do with the work of helping people integrate new experience into their world view so that it all makes sense. Sometimes that was as easy as blessing the change as “good”, but other times it involved some heavy lifting with deep transformation.

My office was packed after 9/11 as the images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, on OUR shores. It rocked the world of people who, to point, felt relatively safe and secure. The vulnerability did not “fit” people’s way of seeing the world. Some framed the disruption in terms of their image of God, namely, “where was God?”, begging the theodicy question of why do bad things happen if God is good. Many people were asking more basic questions of trust: is the world a safe place to live? Are we safe? Those of us who now routinely take off our shoes for inspection when entering an airport can see the result of those deep questions that alter our images of the way the world is?

What is your image of the world? How do you see the nature of life? Is there a purpose to our lives here on Earth? To what end are you spending your life and being spent? Are there values inherent in our life? What are your non-negotiables? How do you see this world that we share?

I once had an improv character that I used in my college days, skewering the ubiquitous television evangelist that harangued the airwaves. My character was named the Rev. Billy Sol Angel, an amalgam of Ernest Angley, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson, although the accent was clearly that of my beloved Billy Graham. A favorite line I would eventually get to in my riff was: I just love it when young people come to me and ask, “Billy….what’s it all about?”. And after a proper pause (comedy is all about timing) my character would offer in a Carolina South of God accent, “I don’t know.”.

Truth, it was a question I was furiously asking myself in the vortex of the relativism that most colleges students encounter as they bump up against a panoply of systems of truth that challenge the one you had inherited from your home team. It was pointing to the process of coming to an adult ownership of what you believe about the life you are living.

That question, my existential query, sent me headlong in to a search to figure it out both in my academic inquiry and in my experiential learning, what in the world is going on. I’m still working on it. How about you? What do you tell yourself about the nature of reality? How does the way you are investing your time and energy testify to what is important to you, what is crucial? And how has that changed in the last twelve months as we have lived in the threat of pandemic?

Earlier in my writings, I have explored the image that we have of our self. These images, positive and negative, are deep within and both support and ambush at times. But it’s beneficial if we know what they are. Just who are you when you are not being a role that you play on the world stage? Who are you behind the mask, the persona that you present to the world? My mentor, Carlyle Marney, used to piercingly probe, “Who are you when you are not a minister, a pastor, a priest?” Right to the heart of the matter, what lies beneath the surface. Who are you, really?

And last week, I talked some of our image of the other. How do you see other human beings that share this living space with you. Are they objects that are to be used, utilized to get what you need to be done? Are they mere actors in the transactions that you are making, or are they people that have their own dreams and goal, anxieties and fears? How do you treat them, with respect and dignity, or a inconveniences to be managed? I have learned that the way people treat others reveal a great deal about a person. I found out early, being a hired hand of sorts, just how seriously does a person’s regard for you as a human being go. I observe, especially in a service situation, like that of a restaurant, how people treat one another. How is that for you?

Four lenses. Image of God, image of the world, image of self, image of the other. How are your lenses helping you to see what is really going on in the world? How are your lenses blurring or filtering your vision as to what is really going on? It’s a worthy endeavor, though at times, painful, to take a look at the lenses through which you see your world. I invite you to join me in the uniquely human work of self-reflection by examining those lenses we all have, our biases.

I heard somebody say recently that when they take a long, hard look at the world, they feel disillusioned. I thought about it for awhile and then realized the depth of what was being said. If you are “disillusioned”, it suggests you lost your illusion, that is, you had been operating out of an illusion, and now you see reality. It’s curious to me. Why is that not a good thing, to be rid of a false sense of the way things are? To be liberated from the illusions that have kept you from the truth. With that understanding in tow, I long to be disillusioned!

Cleaning your lenses may disillusion you, and thus, open your eyes to the world, your Self, your neighbor, and maybe even God. I think that it is worth our attention. Blessings.

Walk A Mile In Their Shoes

Probably the first thing I remember of my learning in church was to “love your neighbor!”

Here’s the way “the deal” was presented to me as a child: God loved you, SO, you should love others.

Has an easy logic, right? If God gifted you with God’s Love, then in response, you should love others.

That drumbeat followed my journey throughout my tour as a South of God Christian. It continued as I made my way through the magic of childhood, into the time when I faced the Copernican revolution of realizing other people were looking at me, assessing me, judging me. It’s commonly referred to as adolescence. It is experientially known as “hell”.

That perspective is complicated and compounded by the fact that hormones are rising, let’s be honest, surging through your rapidly developing body. Feeling those initial feelings of attraction to an “other”,. wondering what she thought about you, was the attraction shared, and hearing from other “others” known as your peer group as to “what the score was”, “does she like me?”…..all these things are swirling in the mind of an adolescent. And the church responds with a simple beat: Love one another….but not too much and not in the way your sinful mind is suggesting.

Later, we move into young adulthood as we make our way onto the playing field of life. We are told to be competitive, it’s the American Way. If you do it well, you will be rewarded monetarily and in other intangibles such as fame, respect, even envy. And still the beat goes on: Love your neighbor, but only after you make your quota, finish your project, complete the deal….then, love your neighbor. And, oh by the way, give 10% to the church.

Somewhere along the way, someone will mention that this dude, Jesus, said in a sermon on some mountain, that you should add your enemy to your love list. Now, this first landed home to me in the unlikely place of a Broadway stage with the musical play, Godspell. But it made the tough reality of the call to love and the real possibility of that happening plain and clear. I am certain that my pastors covered that in their erudite sermons, but I was probably looking at Terri or Phyllis at the time, planning my next move. I did mention adolescence, right?

Loving your neighbor is not a problem when they are attractive, interesting, or presenting a side utilitarian benefit. It makes logical sense, but now, you are going beyond logic. My enemy? You have to be kidding. What’s the punchline…and it turns out the back-slapping punchline is, you should pray for those who persecute you!

Wow.

This continues throughout one’s life. If you happen to be a follower of the Christ Way, you are constantly in tension with what this rabbi from Nazareth said, on a mountain, or embodied “on a hill far away”, the ultimate love, laying down your very life. The church is strong on telling you that are you to love your neighbor. It’s very symbol is advertisement for the cost, but most wear it as an accessory. Didn’t Madonna wear one for a time? And what about Flava Flav? Nah, that was a clock, another symbol of our culture, yeah, boyeeeeee!

Right.

The problem I found was at least three-fold. One, there was infighting within the church itself as people jockeyed for power, fighting to the death over certain issues. But the jealous, self-promotion seemed to run counter to this basic marching order in this group claiming to follow Jesus.

Secondly, there seemed to be a problem in defining the boundaries of who my neighbor was. It turned out, my neighbor was often the one who looks like me, thinks like me, acts likes me. My experience was that the circle of who counts was drawn pretty tightly, which defined who was our “real” neighbor. Others might be paid off by a check to some organization who will do the loving for us, to assuage our fleeting guilt.

But thirdly, and this is what strikes me the most currently, the church does not teach us HOW to love the neighbor. Just HOW does one transform one’s tendency to focus on self, to center on one’s own agenda. We do a pretty good job at teaching about this love, tracking scriptural references, even cross-referencing until the proverbial cows or prodigal son comes home, But HOW do we do it?

Maybe the instruction manual got lost. Maybe Peter put it in that drawer where all whatchamacallits go to die. Now, some will say the Bible is the instruction manual, but as a serious student of that book, I beg to differ. The WHERE we are to head, the direction, seems clear: Love, Kingdom of God, Beloved Community all seem pretty well-defined. The directions seem to be a little thin. The “S” at the end of the word “direction” makes for an important gap, between what we are to do and how we are to do it. The “S” turns out to be your ass, which you are left holding.

This left me looking for a way, a training, as to how I can deal with this “love” thing. It was fascinating to me that the Broadway play I mentioned, Godspell, spends most of its time showing how that love gets done within the community of ten people on the stage. To point, I’ve never seen a better demonstration of what this love looks like, with the possible exception of Tom Key and Harry Chapin’s Cotton Patch Gospel that transposes the Gospel love into a Souther idiom, but that may be too close to home for some of my South of God readers. How do I love the neighbor who is in my neighborhood? How do I love the neighbor who does not share my beliefs, my values, my agenda? That’s a project worth tackling, but that’s just the start. It’s complicated, as they say.

How do I love those that have betrayed me? How do I forgive those who have wronged me? How do I love the folks who have tried to hurt me, who let their own interests drive them to betray my trust? These are the deep cuts that are hard to heal. At one point in my life, I found myself faced with this question existentially. Was I going to be sentenced to a life of anger, bitterness, or even retribution. My soul longed for NO, refusing to give away my own agency, and my soul’s call. But, my ego, formed in my culture, said Payback is the Way, best served cold.

You can say it was luck. You can say it was fortune. You can ascribe it to my constant curiosity that tends to take me to some exotic places. Or, you might suggest, in a whisper, it was God’s spirit leading me. In any case, I wound up in a Tibetan Buddhist meditation session at Drepung Loseling in Atlanta, the North American center of the school of Buddhism sponsored by none other than the Dalai Lama. It is affiliated with Emory which gave me a natural curiosity and connection.

I had been meditating since college, tasting the effect of Transcendental Meditation, made popular by the Beatles. A cast of Trappist monks transformed that practice with the baptizing of my TM into an ancient monastic tradition of Centering Prayer. I had used that method throughout my priesthood for some thirty years, to center me when I was buffeted by critics and lured by pitch men. It was my “center”.

On that fateful day of wandering into this Tibetan center, I found a clear linkage to what Buddhists refer to as shamatha, which is a method of quieting the “monkey mind” by sitting, and using a variety of methods to still the self, to experience a calm, a focus. On my initial visit, that meditation felt like “coming home”, a journey to a place that felt familiar, and how refreshing to just “be” and not be in charge. On top of that, I experienced a community that was characterized by compassion, a value that is at the center of what the Dalai Lama teaches. The kicker was, he was also training folks how to do that. That got my attention.

Through time, hanging out at the Center, and getting serious about the teaching of Buddhism, I came across a practice known as Compassion Meditation. It began with the normal practice of most meditation, taking deep breaths in order to center oneself, beoming really present in the now moment. I had this down, in fact, as my practice through the years helped me to become pretty good at taming my infamous “monkey mind” that leaps from tree to tree, idea to insight. There was not a rabbit or squirrel that my mind could not follow whatever hole they might dart down. My basic spiritual work was focusing my mind, to slow it down, and simply be in the moment.

But a new piece was added in Compassion Meditation. I was asked to bring into my mind a person who I cared for deeply. I brought my wife, Mary, to my mind. I was asked to dive deeply into her life, what the circumstances were, the current presses on her life, the challenges, the issues. It wasn’t hard because I loved her, I knew of her life as a teacher with dyslexic kids at the amazing Schenck School. I had heard her speak of her love of her kids, her valuing the colleagues who shared her passion of mainstreaming these children who have a unique issue of learning to negotiate. I knew of her love for our two kids, trying to figure out how to best care for these diverse young adults. I knew of her spiritual hunger, her life-long friends from Druid Hills, her mountainous issue of having to live with my craziness. This exercise put me in mind of her life, and asked me to take her perspective in my mind. A good thing, but not that difficult, beginning with the easiest target, going for a “quick win”, by design I would learn. But this was just the start.

Then, the meditation leader would ask us to focus on a neutral being, that is, a person that you had no strong emotional connection, but a person who you come into contact on a regular basis. I had a face come to my mind immediately. It was my drycleaner who worked just up the hill from my townhouse. I would encounter him almost every other day or so. He was business-like taking my business suits, my blazer, my shirts, giving me the infamous “ticket”, listing what items I had brought and when I could expect to pick them up. It was a business transaction that would be repeated over and over.

Through time, I would notice a golf club behind his counter and would find him training his swing in the parking lot. I ran into him a few times at the local muni course, which changed our relational connection. And yet he was not a friend, but remained a neutral being. I put the energy into imagining his family, what his day was like, his challenges, where he found joy in his long day of receiving dirty laundry. This exercise led me to see him as a human, not a mere element of transaction, making me take him more seriously as a person. How might this change the way my next encounter would go with him? In my time of using this method, I have brought many other so-called neutral beings into my meditation, bringing me into a deeper perspective-taking of these persons who share my life space. I enjoyed it, in fact. And it has produced good fruit in my interactions with others with whom I share this life space.

But the kicker in this whole “compassion meditation” gig is that after holding one’s loved one, followed by a neutral being, one is now invited to bring to mind an “enemy”. I was first surprised with that suggestion after I had been so loving to my loved one, and so curious with my neutral being, but Enemy?

At that particular time in my life, two people leapt into my consciousness, two enemies that I felt had done me wrong, betrayed my trust, which was at the top “sin” in my book. Dutifully following the instructions, I decided to focus on one, rather than going with my instincts of a double-barrel. I began to imagine this person’s life, his life situation, particular issues that he had to deal with. I called to mind what I knew of his background, and particularly what I knew was his lack of experience. This hard work was continued in sessions for about a month, with the result being a deeper appreciation of the unique position of this person, with my attempt to understand his perspective. Through months of work, I experienced a breakthrough as I realized that this person did not have the personal capacity to have done anything other than what he did.

It was surprising how this process freed my mind, heart, and soul from focusing my energy and anger on this person. In my own language world, I “got off that hook”, freeing my energy for other worthy efforts. Plus, I think it brought me to a more complete comprehension of this person, who I had limited by my definition into a category. I actually had the occasion to invest the time and energy to go to engage this person, seeking resolution. Are we best friends? No, but a transformation occurred for which I am thankful. I have used this technique to engage my mind in perspective-taking that disturbs my categorization which robs a person of the deeper humanity. In honesty, I have to admit this past election cycle, particularly the aftermath, has tested the metal of this technique, but I am trying.

I share this story to illustrate the practical technique of putting the “love your neighbor” and “pray for your persecutor” into action. I think we as people of faith need to be open to learn from one another as to how be compassionate people who can exist with one another, even when we disagree, or hold conflicting positions. That seems to be in short supply these days.

I would present to you an invitation to try this on in the remainder of Lent. IF, and I know it’s a big “if” (since my readers are all holy folks, loving of God and neighbor, righteous folk)….but if you have somebody who bothers you, you might try this Buddhist technique on for size. Dedicate ten to twenty minutes to do some of the righteous perspective-taking that might just free your mind to consider the humanity of the one that is getting under your skin, making you mad, or even inhabiting a group or party which you hold in contempt. Hell, for some of you, I bet it might be me! How’s that for preemptive perspective-taking?

Try this on and see if it doesn’t work. I’m a pragmatist at heart. Let me know how this works out for you, a practical way to take the perspective of your neighbor. Just might free up your soul to love your neighbor….even your enemy. God knew I needed it. God knows, we need it. Blessings.

Thinking of Thomas

Thomas is my son, my first-born of two children, now adults. I joke that God gave me a son first to practice on before getting a girl. There’s more truth to that than I can say.

Mary Glen, my daughter was fortunate to follow in the wake of Thomas, observing and learning how to manage us as parents. She is a clone of her mother physically, but she got my sick sense of humor. Your welcome.

We spent a lot of energy around Mary Glen’s wedding in 2020, planning initially for May, cancelling due to the pandemic, planning in a different way, and making it happen safely in October on the marshes of Glynn. She and Michael had an immediate family wedding that was what I wish I could have pulled off for my own. A reception line in a Baptist basement is not my preference. Thomas flew in from Nashville to support his sister and new brother-in-law, and was such a great help to me, personally, acting as the Father-of-the-Bride as well as a priest. Steve Martin, I was not.

Thomas is on my mind because he called me today to tell me that he tested positive of COVID. He had been lucky for so long. Living in Nashville as a singer/songwriter, he has had more exposure than most, but he has been careful. I pray for him every day, but praying with a little more juice tonight.

I’ve had him on my “idea” list for writing this blog for some time. I think I wrote one of my first articles on him as a little boy when he asked me to take him on a walk out back in our garden in Tyler, Texas. We had a pool there, and Mary and I were scared to death that our kids would fall in, so we always accompanied them. But this particular time, I was writing and Thomas interrupted and asked if I would take him out there. I asked him why he wanted to go. He replied, with a child-like purity that stunned me “I want to see what God is up to.” You see, at that time, he was taking this God thing much more seriously than me.

When I was teaching in Austin at the Episcopal seminary, sometimes my family would accompany me for the weekend. It gave me a chance to introduce them to the magic of Austin, as well as this odd thing called “traffic”. On those rare visits, we would make a point to go to the amazing Gospel Brunch at Stubb’s.

It was amazing. Beginning with Mexican fare for brunch, especially my favorite, migas, it was a feast indeed.. It featured a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar, with all kinds of exotic accompaniments. It was a hell of a way to evangelize, in my opinion. Food, drink, in a fabulous setting of a Texas barbecue bar. Heaven on Earth. I don’t know how many souls were saved but I know mine was resurrected a few times.

At around noon, there was always a Gospel group, usually a black church choir came and laid it on us. If you couldn’t find you some joy there, you were, as we say in Texas. SOL. Honestly, I hope you took the chance to see the unbelievable job that Henry Lewis (Skip) Gates produced on PBS as he did a historical tour of the black church in this country. Can I get an Amen? It touched me in so many ways, both reminding me of how the black church has been the lifeboat that helped folk get through the tough times of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights, and the continued institutional racism still existent in this country. While we are honoring the history of black Americans in this month of February. the black church deserves to take a bow.

The Gospel group would sing, sometimes coming out into the restaurant to help us get happy, and it wasn’t even Happy Hour. It was soulful, reminding us of how faith sustains us in sorrow. It was joyful, as we remembered just how good our God has been. It was hopeful, as we looked for a light on the horizon to see us through a dark night. It was CHURCH, y’all.

Now, I know how much I enjoyed it, but I was not sure how my kids were taking it all in. Their eyes were big, as they had never seen or heard this kind of music in the Episcopal church. I had grown up with a bit of it, going to all-day country singings, and Gospel tent meetings with my grandfather.

Later I got my joy on by hanging out in the coolest interracial church on the planet in southwest Dekalb County with the Paulks and the Gospel Harvester Church when I could shake free from the high church of the Cathedral. There I could get down with Don and Clariece, Bishop Paulk, and Cameo star Anthony Lockett. Word up! Almost made me check my birreta for a Kangol. but I stayed with my Anglican tribe. But, my kids had flat missed that good ole Gospel ship. It was a fine time for me, getting a day off from preaching in my parish and hearing about how the church was too hot or cold. But I did not know how my kids were taking it.

So it surprised me when Thomas and I were talking about his strategy on his plans for his music career. He volunteered that it was at Stubbs where he first felt a sense of Spirit that existed in this community as the live and lively music brought us together. He said watching the musicians and their passion grabbed him in a new way, and he began to think about doing that himself, in his own way. So his career of writing music, performing in bars, festivals, and shows began in a Gospel brunch at Stubb’s. Praise the Lord, and pass the migas.

He then told me something that moved me deeply. He said that he had watched me lead the congregation in worship, creating Spirit in those gatherings. In a sort of apologia for his vocational choice, he offered his insight as to how he saw his music as doing the same thing, only in a different space, in a different way. I would have kissed him if it would not have embarrassed him. What a gift to his dear old broken-down priest of a father.

It wasn’t exactly a Brick-Big Daddy moment in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Nor a reconciliation moment with Tom Wingo with his shrimper father in Prince of Tides. Nor a Great Santini moment of pathos. But it will have to do.

I love my son so much. I loved watching him bravely take the stage the first time at his high school, the toughest audience I could imagine. I was so proud to see him break into the music scene in Athens as a singer/songwriter, fronting one of the most popular bands in town. I marveled as he managed to hold together a group through college and beyond. Living on the road, my friend, is never easy, playing one night stands with the band looking at your backside, mixing up some lyrics from Merle and Waylon. I wondered what it was like to see people in a crowd mouthe words to songs that you wrote. And to be able to be there to see him open for Bon Jovi at Phillips Arena in Atlanta….that was beyond my wildest imagination.

But music is a tough gig. As I told Thomas early on, there are three things that will come along and kill a band:

One, drugs and alcohol, but that’s true in most professions. Including priesthood.

Two, drama in the band among the members, anxious for the spotlight. Come to think of it, that’s true in ministry too. I know something about that, and could tell you a story that follows the lines of Macbeth or Hamlet, take your pick.

And three, Yoko shows up. Nuff said.

All three happened to my favorite band, Mama’s Love. But Thomas kept on, going to Nashville to write songs and sing, with a variety of projects that have been good. It’s a particularly tough business these days with COVID having dried up most live performances and touring.

Thomas has hung in like a trooper, finding new friends, along with playing and writing partners who have the courage and commitment to keep on keeping on. At it’s best, it’s a crap shoot, but he’s doing what is in his heart and soul to do. Mary and I both committed to encouraging our kids to follow their dreams and passion and, by God, they have.

I guess you can tell, I’m kinda proud of the boy. My aim and my hope is that I have let him know that, not only in words, but in actions.

This first Sunday in Lent. the Gospel lesson told of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan by John. As Jesus comes up out of the water, the sun is shining on him, illuminating the drops of water on his brown skin. And the Gospel writer records that a voice from God sounded, This is my Son in whom I am well-pleased.

The Good News in this season of Lent is that we have the audacity to believe that is true for each one of God’s children. God loves us, and wants the best for us. We seem to have a hard time wrapping our soul’s around that truth. Our culture tells us, promises us that we will find worth in success, money, fame, how many followers we have on Instagram, or some other external measures. In Lent, we try to get clean and clear about the fact that our real worth and value is not up for grabs. It comes with the territory of being a child of God.

Thomas is entering the “wilderness” of COVID. Maybe you have been there. I am hoping he and you are abiding in the awareness of your worth and value, which is not up for grabs or debate.

Others of us have been waiting for over a year in this pandemic, anxious as to what the future holds for our family, our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves. The long haul drains us of our energy and threatens our sense of hope.

We dare not deny the sobering reality of the death of a half a million people in this country who were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers who are no longer with us on this journey. It would be a mistake to deny the suffering that has entered our world that reminds us of the precariousness nature of life. Those people who have died were all children of God, and yet they were not exempt for the ravages of this disease, nor are we. Denial and avoidance is only whistling through the graveyard, wishing reality would go away. It won’t.

Politicization of this pandemic has only distracted us from the real challenge that is before us in being smart and aggressive in battling this disease, rather than each other. And to lean into this threat with the faith that our worth and value is secure, regardless.

My prayer as we live through this unique season of Lent 2021, with the shadow of COVID looming large, is that it focuses our thoughts and wakes us up to some deeper awareness of our deep connection to God and to our neighbors, near and far, who are sharing the journey with us.

Perhaps we can wrestle a blessing from this awful pandemic, and rediscover our call to care for one another. That is my hope. That is my prayer. Blessings.

Revelation from a Texas Cowboy

Jimmy Owen was the only real cowboy in my parish. I came to Texas with thoughts of prairies, rolling sagebrush, and cattle, with a little oil on the side. However most of my parishioners were bankers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses and other white collar sorts. But there was one honest-to-God cowboy, Jimmy Owen.

Jimmy was a cattleman in the best Texas tradition. He was, in fact, the president at one time of the Texas Cattleman’s Association, a sign I’ve seen on ranches across Texas. Jimmy had heard that I was a horseman, and invited me to come to his ranch to ride. He put me on a cutting horse, which is one of the more athletic horses in the stable. They are trained to “cut” quickly from side to side, in order to pen in cattle, and cut them out from the herd for various procedures, mostly medical. I had heard of cutting horses, seen them perform, but never ridden one. As the horse was showing me his skill, he cut so quickly to the right, leaving me mid-air, like one of those cartoon characters that hang for 2-3 seconds before plummeting into the canyon. That would be me. Jimmy laughed pretty hard as I lay crumpled in the Texas dirt of the ring.

Jimmy is the star of my story that I want to share with you today. He was an early favorite of mine, reminding me of my grandfather, both in his physical build, the way he carried himself, and his speech patterns. I loved Jimmy and walked with him through battle with brain cancer and his death. I loved him, in spite of his conspiracy to put me on his quickest cutting horse.

After my third year in Tyler at Christ Church, we noticed a number of changes in the lay of the land. I decided to be explicit about those changes with the Vestry, the board of lay people that are the ruling body of the parish. There are usually 10 to 20 members on a Vestry, depending on the size of the parish and the bylaws. They pass the budget yearly, monitor it, and provide some direction for the programing. In small parishes, Vestry members are assigned to various ministries and provide some direct oversight with those committees. In some parishes, they serve as de facto staff members. In larger parishes with staff members, the Vestry has more of a strategic position and serve as fiduciary overseers of the budget and expenditures. It’s the medium sized parish that sometimes gets this confused, particularly when a small parish is experiencing the “high class problem” of growing, as Vestry member need to relinquish their “hands on” management of the day-to-day work. This confusion of roll can result in conflict.

At Christ Church, Tyler, the Vestry was clearly in the second function. In light of that, I decided to review strategically the direction of the parish and the changes that had occurred since my arrival as the Rector.

I began the meeting by asking the Vestry to list the positive things that have occurred in the past three years. I had two easels with newsprint in order to record their answers. The positives were easy, as they recounted the number of educational opportunities, the increase in excellent staff members, the careful precision of our worship planning, the excellence of our music, along with a number of other specific positive notes. I was feeling good about the quick and enthusiastic responses, and the various positive notes that I recorded in green.

I then moved to the other easel and invited them to share some negative things that they perceived. Being more Southern than Texas, they were reserved in their willingness to be negative. Such a thing is just not done in polite company. You only said negative, catty things in the parking lot, not in the library in a formal meeting. After some chiding, Jimmy decided to blaze the trail into the negative territory. He did it in his distinctive Texas drawl.

“David, I’ve been a member of Christ Church for a long time,” he said, looking around the room for approval of this fact, which nodding heads affirmed, vetting him as having the street cred to comment authoritatively.

“For a long time, I could sit in my pew and look at the doors at the back and the front, watching people as they came in the church house. I knew almost everybody. I knew who they were connected to, their family, their grandparents, hell, even some great grandparents. This is a big family. We knew each other and we cared for each other.” The continuing of nodding heads gave him the encouragement he needed. He was clearly articulating the spirit of Christ Church which was a tight community of connection.

“But….” There’s always a “but”. Sometimes, there’s a BIG “but”. This was one of those “big but” times.

“But….nowadays, I don’t know half the people coming through those doors. I don’t know where they are from, what they do, and who they are.” And to add a little East Texas humor, “And, I sure as hell don’t know their grandmother!”

Laughter, and then he got down to business, as they say.

“I liked it better when I knew everybody. I don’t like seeing all these strangers coming in, people I don’t know, people who don’t look like they belong here. They dress differently, they just don’t seem to fit.” And Jimmy was spot on in his description.

Our efforts to reach out to a broad swath of Tyler with use of media, television, radio, and print had positioned Christ Church as invitatory, open to new people to come and join us. We also had initiated a well-planned and resourced small group ministry that formed intentional communities that reached out to friends of our members who were unchurched in an effort to meet their needs for community and spirituality. As result of this two-fold strategy, the composition of our congregation was clearly changing demographically and rapidly.

There were “new” people, that is, people who were not biologically connected. But, there were also “different” people that did not fit the description given of Christ Church by the former Bishop of Texas as I considered becoming the Rector. When I asked the bishop his “impression” of Christ Church, he mater-of-factly declared, in not a negative tone, “It’s the country club at prayer. The rector is chaplain to the country club” Now, in time, I learned that was NOT true, but it did capture a piece of the truth, enough that was troubling to me.

That image of a “club” based on social connection, not commitment was problematic. That’s why I pushed the notion of “growth” which was new to Christ Church. It was a goal prescribed by Jesus as he called us to spread the Good News of Christ. But, it was also a practical goal that was necessary, given the economics of running a top quality program in the face of declining oil and gas prices, and the aging of the major givers. So, it was actually not hard to sell the Vestry on the idea, the goal of growth. They had bought in on paper, but now, the bill was coming due.

“I no longer know the people who are worshipping with me. I used to know most everybody. Now, I don’t.”

And after a pause, filled with silence, Jimmy added, “And, I don’t much like it.” he said matter of factly.

The room was still. I was wondering what I should say. How should I approach this call of the question. And then, I began to speak, without really any premeditation, other than a few years of prayer about this topic, which was sort of new to me as well. I had been familiar with my individual prayer, devotion and meditation around my personal spiritual growth. But only since coming to Tyler had my prayer expanded, not only to my parish, but now I prayed for my city.

‘”Well, I guess it depends if we want you to be comfortable, or if we want to do what Jesus told us to do.”

What followed was the best example of what is known as a “pregnant pause”. It seemed to last for hours but was, in fact, only a few seconds. I remember being caught by a feeling of “where did that come from?” with a simultaneous thought that I had stepped over the proverbial line. I recall that some people who had been looking at me intently, suddenly were averting their eyes. Not a good sign.

Then, almost like a rumble of thunder that follows lightning, Jimmy said, ” I get it.” and he did.

It was one of those exceedingly rare moments in parish ministry when revelation occurs. It can not be programmed, diagramed, put on a PowerPoint slide. It is tantalizingly out of our attempt at control. It just happens. Like God’s Spirit, that is described in the book of Acts, it comes and goes where it will. This simply drives program-oriented ministers crazy. It bedevils Christian education experts, although I know one who relishes it when it happens in a flash. It is simply beyond our control.

That moment became a moment of paradigm shift within the leadership group of the parish. It would take longer for other people to “get it”, and some never did, languishing for the good ole days, “the way we were”. That however is the work of leadership in the parish. Sowing the seeds, doing the homework, planning the structures, but it comes down finally to the Spirit that resides in community.

At one time in my life, that was not good news. I wanted to design, plan, and execute with predictable results. That’s how I was trained, how I was wired in my family of origin. But living in the parish world knocked that right out of me. While I was able to apply my method to organizing and accomplishing the pastoral care of the 5000 communicants of the Cathedral parish, this East Texas parish taught me just what I couldn’t do on my own, in my cleverness. Parishes, and their resistance to change, to leave comfort for a mission that will entail suffering, can and did bring me to my knees, physically and metaphorically.

I love telling this story to the priests and ministers that I coach. It’s one moment of a win, but there are many more of my sitting, head in my hands, tears streaming, wondering why it did not work out. That’s the challenge. To lead people who want to do right….just not right now (props to Gillian Welsh). It’s the challenging work of leading a group of people who want to serve a mission that is daunting, if you have any sense to recognize the challenge. And it has become my privilege to overhear the struggle of ministers, priests, and bishops who are trying to lean into this art and science of leadership. This story tips the hand to the reality of the situation: you are dependent on a Spirit that is not controlled by you.

As I get older, I seem to notice a transformation of my mind, spirit, and soul, that is more comfortable with that truth. It does not mean that I will lose my passion for analysis and planning, but that I am more able to let go, and let what happens, happen. So, to close on this surgery of an experience, is it the hard work of human intention OR is it the seemingly capricious, uncontrollable movement of the Spirit?

And the answer is YES.

Do your homework AND trust the Spirit for the outcome.

Blessings in this season of Lent.

The Breakfast of Champions: Self-Awareness

The beginning of a new year often prompts the roll out of Resolutions, goals to achieve in this immediate future that will bring about a positive change in our lives. The often go unheeded after a week or two as our habitual behavior overwhelms our good intentions. In fact, February has been called the month where resolutions do to die! Sound familiar?


Those of us in the faith tradition often have other means to promote transformation in our lives. Christians have a notable season known as Lent, a period of forty days prior to Easter, to get serious about our amendment of life. Initiated by the one-two punch of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, we party hard on Fat Tuesday with a knowing bow to the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday.


On that Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortal nature by the imposition of ashes in the form of a cross on our forehead. It is indeed an “imposition” as we don’t like to be reminded of our inevitable death. We spend a lot of time, energy, and money attempting to deny that very fact as we age. But on this peculiar day, we line up to be reminded that we are merely passing through, going from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And the point is not to wallow in the mortality we find ourselves in when we wake up to that reality, but to wake up as well to the preciousness of this limited time we have on this field called life.


Ash Wednesday wakes us up to this fact and call, literally rubbing it in, as the ashes are pressed into our foreheads to re-mind us. The point of this liturgy is to “turn us around”, turn us toward the good, away from what hinders our process toward our goal. And the goal as a Christian is to put on the Christ life as our own.

I pause to note that pastors are scurrying to figure out how to “deliver” the ashes in a safe way in this time of Covid. Amused by the variety of methods proposed, including “showering the people you love with love” sprinkling the ashes without the touch; using a LONG Q tip, the kind that was my mother’s weapon of choice “mopping my throat” (scary); ‘pick-up plastic bags with ashes to be self-imposed at home; surgical gloves to provide a barrier for the priest’s thumb; all seem odd but can convey and communicate, at a soul level that transcends the awkward means, the spiritual message of mortality.


I have remembered people “giving up” things for Lent, like sweets, or alcohol in order to better ourselves, longing for the forty days to pass quickly so we can get back, return to our bad habits. Ideally, Ash Wednesday which extends into Lent is a discipline by which we engage in self-examination so that we can amend our life in the particular ways that are getting in our way of a good life.


This “moment” in the Christian year is actually a concentration, a focus on an aspect of how it is to live a faithful life of self-awareness, a habit that we need to employ throughout the year. Self-awareness is that discipline of taking the time to pause, reflect, and plan our lives that will assist us in achieving the life we desire. In our busyness, both in our work and our social interactions, we become distracted and fall easily into a default mode of routine. Lent re-minds us of the critical nature of self-awareness as goal of our life.


One of the practices that encourage such self-awareness is known as journaling. This discipline requires an engagement of reflection that has a three-fold shape: Pause, Reflect, and Write. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s as easy as pulling up a piece of the room to pause, to write down what going on in your life, taking the time to reflect on that life, your feelings as to what’s going on in your heart, and even sidle up to that soul of yours to check on your deep emotions and desires.


If you want to make it a bit more complicated, you can google “bullet journal” and find a good method of cross-referencing your entries through time. Note to insurrectionists and militia: bullet does not refer to ammo.


If you are up for a deep dive, you might look up a man we brought to the Center for Faith Development, Ira Progoff, who brings a Jungian depth to a method he calls the Intensive Journal. It has definite OCD tendencies for my taste, but I have used it effectively in critical times of decisions, opening access to dreams and the power of imagination.


Like most of life, it matters little what method you use. Just start. Begin.


Begin with a profound PAUSE. Ash Wednesday might be just the time to begin. This year, it begins on February 17th. You can access a liturgy through Zoom at any liturgical church such as the Episcopal near you. You could go to the website of Christ Church here on St. Simons Island at http://www.ccfssi.org and find the times and the links to the service. Don’t worry if you are not familiar with the ritual. Just show up. Of all the liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer, this is the one that does it on its own. I’ll give you the proverbial money-back guarantee. Just show up.


I think forty days later, the number of years the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness, the time designated for observing Lent, you just may find the wake up call you were looking for:

* A new way of reflecting on the past that got you where you are.

* A more clear sense of where you are in the present moment.

*An adjusted sense of direction as to where you are headed.


Why not give it a chance? Increasing your self-awareness, the real Breakfast of Champions.


All you have to lose is your illusions about this life you live, and who you are. Blessings.