A while back, I engaged in a two-hour phone call with an old friend of mine who is a minister in Minnesota. Like me, he emerged from the Baptist womb of the South, with all the blessings and curses such a spiritual genetic code allows. Bob got a heaping helping portion, given that his father was a Baptist minister. I missed that rodeo, although a Southern Gospel quartet is hidden in my closet.
We have lots of common connections and share a questing spirit to find what is true. Bob landed in the United Methodist Church while my spin took me into the Episcopal church. We both found that sacramental worship was lacking in our heritage, and sought to fix it by studying, experiential learning, and finding a liturgical community in which to make our home.
It was great fun reviewing our common experience of the Candler School of Theology vibe that we both shared in the late 70s, and early 80s when Emory had arguably the finest theological faculty in this country. This stature was thanks to a windfall Robert Woodruff gift and some deft leadership by President Laney and Dean Waits, attracting and retaining world-class scholars. Rather than serving as a farm team for Yale and Harvard, the monies allowed us to keep the stellar teachers in the stable. I count myself as the fortunate one for that gift, and therefore put an obligatory Coke product on the lectern when I speak. Coke, Tab, Diet Coke, and at one point, a blue-tint, green-cap Dasani…the evolution of my shameless sponsorship.
As a side note, I spent my first year of doctoral studies living in a Buckhead mansion with Mr. Woodruff’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Jones, as she had a habit of hosting young, very poor Emory grad students. That would be me. This happy circumstance allowed me to share the dinner table with Mr. Woodruff and to thank him personally on several occasions, to which he was most gracious. An Atlanta visionary that I admired, I am sure that he did not fully grasp the depth of impact he had on the wider world’s theological landscape.
In our phone conversation, Bob and I took the time to tell our stories to one another, to update the record from our prior entries. Twists and turns, victories and defeats, we caught up as to where our journeys had taken us, both having experienced long, strange, trips. It was a satisfying time on the phone, reminding me of the inherent power of story that we sometimes lose in the brisk memos of email and the clutter of social media. Our stories bear the weight of our souls as we seek to make sense out of what we have done and what has happened to us.
I made a habit early on of collecting these things called stories. It began informally by listening to people talk around a fire, at a table, or in a room, listening to the narratives that they told. Stories are part of my Southern ethos but more deeply, a work that all people share, of constructing a narrative collection of events that tell where we have been and what we have done. Clearly, there is a particular and peculiar style of the Southern story that formed me in my listening and telling. While in Texas, I learned of an old adage: don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story. My wife and kids know that I can embellish, or make a story pretty, or even better, dance. I like to think of it as adding color, sort of like Percy Garris in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But the story is the underlying form I learned from my grandparents, elders, and my tribe.
Moving more formally into research, I listened to and recorded people trying to make sense of human existence as they told their stories to me as a part of my work at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. Interviewing people for three-hour lengths, transcribing, analyzing… it remained at its heart a process of listening to stories.
Later, I followed my teacher, Chuck Gerkin, listening to people in a clinical setting as I attended to the “living human document” they presented in telling their stories. It took me to listening to homeless folks on the streets of Atlanta as well as perched penthouse persons in the deflective shimmer of Buckhead. And I continued this in my priesthood and clinical practice over thirty years, paying attention to the contours of meaning they weave into their stories. Everyone has a story. They drag it behind them, use it to present a “front”, an elaborated persona, a reason for the way they are. And some will even tell it well.
Recently, I have begun a gathering of clergy who meet to talk about how it is going in their lives, how it’s going at the churches they serve. We meet regularly to share our stories as well as pregnant moments of interruption that threaten the cohesive frame we have come to rely upon for identity.
I conceived of gathering these people using an online platform, Zoom, it’s called. However, the form of our gathering was wrought many moons past. Years ago, the Bishop of Texas had asked me to meet with young clergy who were in transition from their seminary studies to their first parish assignment. Canon Kevin Martin, from the diocesan staff, joined me in the project of helping the young clergy use that first year in the parish to learn some good habits. And, not to crash and burn.
I loved working with Kevin. He and I come from differing theological positions but share a common desire to make the church a more effective presence in the life of our community. He and I would meet with these folks once a month for nine months, a natural gestation time. We would gather at the holy space known as Camp Allen, the diocesan conference center in Navasota, just northwest of Houston. It involved a lecture/teaching/training on Thursday afternoon, with case-studies on Friday morning as we talked about their placements. But it turned out that the “gold” was the night time, spent in a circle, spilling a little wine, and talking honestly with one another about our stories, and how priesthood was fitting into that continuing narrative. It remains a highlight of my life.
I would begin with a “check-in”, with two pregnant questions: How is it with you? Or How is it in the place you are? I had gotten the questions from my mentor, Carlyle Marney, who famously led a previous gathering of ministers known as Interpreter’s House, which occurred at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. I had studied Marney’s method, and used it to design a retreat format for clergy while working with Jim Fowler at the Center for Faith Development at Emory.
The format that Marney used was quite simple. The first week, he gathered the group of ministers in a circle as they told their stories, how they came to the ministry, and how it was currently going in their place. This primitive gathering was the initial step. Marney called this “throwing up”, as you literally told your messy story, with the content spilling out onto the floor, for everyone to see and smell. It was revelatory, especially for ministers and priests accustomed to hiding behind sacred personas.
The second week involved some fresh input from a leading thinker in the world of Christian faith, usually intended to push these ministers beyond their pastures of comfort. Allowing them to ponder deeply, ask the questions they brought to the fire, and most importantly, applying to their own lives, this was the crucial time in which the ideas, wonderings, and hunches percolated.
The third week was critical. It was a time when they would make plans for how they might take these fresh insights back into the communities from which they had come, or fled, or as Marney would say, had been “sentenced”. Some would make action plans, others would talk of internal changes, and some would make vows. Some would find the courage to leave the formal bounds of ministry and find fresh, honest work. Marney’s independence from ecclesiastical structure freed him to encourage the person to find their own way, without the constraints of institutional agenda. Many were inspired, some were unleashed, and still others were saved.
My colleagues and I took Marney’s genius and spirit, and condensed it, distilled it. Marney would have loved the word “distilled”, I think. We scoped it down to one week. We kept the idea of “throwing up” but put it within the vessel of a small group rather than a large group in order to maximize “air time”. Small groups of four went through the five day experience together.
Our input was a deep remembrance of a central image of passage-making, utilizing both the Exodus motif and the Paschal appropriation of the Exodus story by the Christian church. How does your story fit The Story? What was your “burning bush” encounter of calling? How was your journey? How have you been in exile, enslaved? How were you freed, liberated? What did your wilderness feel like? What were the contours of your desert? Just how dry was it? How long did you wander? What promise did the “new” offer you? What might the Promised Land look like for you?
And, the week-long experience kept the context from which they had come and to which they would return in mind, granting a pause, a silence for thinking and reflecting to occur. We called it Pilgrimage Project, testing our design with only clergy, using cohort groups of similarly experienced ministers, three years out of seminary, ten, twenty, and thirty years of parish experience, with the postulation that there would be similar issues in play developmentally.
It wound up being published and used not only with clergy but in parishes and other gatherings of faithful people. Truth is, all people have stories. I have used it in the back of my mind as I have worked with all types of people who have been trying to make sense out of life, going through particular transitions, and looking for new beginnings. This image of pilgrimage provides the paradigm for the work I do.
How might you tell your story? What would be some of the things you would note as to the beginnings of your journey that set your direction? What significant choices did you make along the way? What surprises came in the process? What gave you joy, what brought grief? How does the trajectory of your story form the way of your future? What are your greatest hopes and fears? What limiting beliefs do you hold onto that no longer serve you well? What do you need to let go of? Where is your growing edge?
To transpose a line from poet, Mary Oliver: what do you have left to do with your one, wild, amazingly crazy life?
I love my work of being with people as they ponder these deep questions and make plans to make the most of their journey on this good earth. It is a wondrous adventure. I do most of my work now in the context of coaching and spiritual direction, though I drag out my old therapeutic couch on occasion. Regardless of the modality, I love listening to those stories and joining in the play of imagining a future.
I was reminded the other day of the famed opening prayer for worship in Judaism: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. It starts with Shema…listen… Listen…LISTEN! The first word is the admonition To Listen. It all begins with listening.
Take the time to listen and reflect on your story. Your self-awareness might uncover some patterns, some saboteurs that perenially get in your way. Your past doesn’t necessarily determine your future, if you choose to make some changes. That’s never easy, but it is possible. You can choose how to write your next chapter. What springs to your mind and heart as you imagine the next chapter of your life? What beckons you from the horizon? What feels ‘unfinished’ that pushes you into the future? What is waiting for you to make your move, to decide, to begin anew, to complete?
You might carve out some time, an hour, a morning, to reflect. Maybe write your thoughts down on a piece of paper or in a journal. Try to capture the feel of where you might want to take your story, what might be waiting for you to do. It begins with a prompt of your Spirit, a whisper from your deepest Self, a vision from your Soul. And the wisdom urges you to do a simple thing, though made difficult by distraction and numbing busyness: Listen. Listen.