The Pesky Question of “Why?”

If there is a hidden blessing in this damned pandemic, it is the renewal of the question of “Why?”

Why do I “do” life the way I do?

Why do I “do” what I do?

Why do I spend my time doing THAT?

This forced pause allows for questions to emerge that can be life changing, leading to transformation. But those questions can prove to be disruptive, breaking our normal routines that are comfortable. And that may be the original sin…..Comfort.

The communal pause we have taken, or has taken us, raises a question that comes up at certain times of life, in a pesky way. By pesky. I mean troubling, getting under your skin, or as Alton Brown, my culinary philosopher would say, a “bother”. You become bothered by the question “why?”.

It happens when you’re a kid and some adult who has nothing better to say, asks you, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

And it happens again after two years in college and you have not settled on your major, and your academic advisor, who is struggling to get tenure, presses, what do you want to major in while you are spending your parents’ money? Sorry, that was not my beleaguered advisor, but my dad.

Every so often, that pesky “why” reemerges, sometimes predictably, sometimes out of the cleat blue.

With the terminally cute intro of the year 2020 by Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen, using a wonderful parody of Barbara Walters’ pronunciation of Twenty-Twenty by Cheri Oteri, who the hell knew what was in store for us?

I find myself asking what so-and-so (fill in the blank with relatives, political figures, writers) would say about this pandemic. For some reason, I would love to hear the take from my microbial fascinated biologist mother, or from my Grady-trained doc father-in-law. It would be insightful, and more importantly, funny. What would they say about this odd time?

And what can be done for and with the lack-of-luck Class of 2020? The disruption of graduation exercises put a highlight on the role of such rituals in our lives as they push the questions of existence of “what?” and “why?” out on the dance floor. What are you going to do next? And, why are you going to do that?

Graduation exercises mark the ending of one phase of life with the presumption of something else coming, the beginning of another phase: the end of high school with the presumed beginning of college; the end of college and the beginning of grad or professional school; the end of boot camp, and the beginning of deployment. That is where the Big Gulp should come: between endings and beginnings.

And the in-between time of summer was spent, bouncing around, wondering if you had made good decisions, even in the middle of making some very bad decisions. That in-between time is what we of the ritual type call the liminal time, as we are literally “between”, as we are paused.

This pandemic has caused a pause for many of us. Keeping us home, not venturing out into the world. Connected by Zoom and phone lines, interminable emails that make us pine for paper memos that we could touch….that we could wad up and crush, tossing into a trash can for messages doomed for incineration. It was a pause for a “why?”.

For some of us, our very jobs put us at risk, more so than normal. Working in a normally functioning hospital, or even in the normally organized chaos of an emergency room, we faced the fear of a real threat to our existence by a virus that we were not too sure about. We still aren’t, if we are being honest. It raised a deep question that we had pushed deep down, beneath the sedimentation of routine, and pension, and mortgage, as it asked the pesky “why”, and reminded us, some of us, of our lofty ideals that got us in this mess in the first place. Remember those noble goals of healing, helping, saving. Oh, yeah, I remember.

For others, there was little time for pause. Maybe a slight pause for fear as we got ourselves to work. It meant rendering service to our society, delivering our particular work in spite of the risks involved. While our remuneration was not consistent with the degree of risk we were entering into, we made our way to work, in grocery stores, to restaurants, in trucks, on buses, in order to keep our world turning. And, perhaps, naggingly, the pesky “why” came calling.

Why? Why do you do what you do? Why are you spending your time and energy doing what you do?

This is the basic human question of meaning that most of us confront at certain moments of our life and answer as best we can. Sometimes a disruption in life, due to disease, divorce, the loss of a job, or retirement, trots the pesky question out to bother us again. But who knew that 2020 would shout that question so loudly, so insistently?

For some, the pause to question “why” brought about a clarity that was shattering. I have talked to a handful of mid-career folks for whom this pause woke them up to the fact of their unhappiness in their work. Their life had gotten crazy and they were caught in a system that keep them moving so fast that they lost the ability to ask a probing question, particularly the taxing question of “why?”. Some have decided to change their jobs. their direction. Some have decided to listen to the proverbial question of “why?” and have found a fresh sense of commitment.

How’s it been for you? What “why?” has been dogging you?

Here is one dog that bounded my way, unanticipated.

I had a long talk with an emergency room doc, who was waist deep in COVID-19. He is used to the frantic pace of emergency medicine. Triage is his middle name. Cool, ice in his veins, some say cold, but I’m not buying. I know this guy. He stitched up arteries on the battlefield, held the hand of men who were bleeding out. He knows about death as well as I do and speaks of it clearly and cleanly, no platitudes, life and death….that’s how the scoreboard reads at the end of the game. Win, lose, back to play again the next day.

But when he called me a month ago, his voice was different. He still spoke in clinical terms that could be dictated into a medical record, but there was a crack. Not big, but enough to allow me entrance into his heart. He was facing that pesky “why?” that is not allowed in the rush of emergency, urgent care is the name. Now…..or never.

From the clinical description, he trailed off, and then, I heard him sobbing.

I was honored that he trusted me with his broken heart, as he said he had never seen this level of death. Body bags stacked,. refrigerated trailers waiting to receive the cargo, lined up in the side lot, out of the way, but not out of mind. Sixteen hour shifts, bunking in a break room because he didn’t want to expose his family. He grabbed sixteen minutes twice a day talk to his wife, trying to not let on where his head was at, how scared he was. He told me that the intensity was worse and more pressing than the battlefield, because the bullets weren’t flying in the OR, while the virus is, most def..

I know it was the long hours, his fatigue, the blood, both fresh and crusted on his scrubs, that allowed the pesky “why?” entrance into his psyche. But once in the room, it was pressing, intrusive, bothersome. This would turn out to be a brief encounter, enough to cauterize the bleed, to slow down the flow so he could make it through the dark night. It would turn into a number of sessions that dove deep into his soul. What does this mean? Why am I here? Why am I risking my life, a life that I love, with people that I love? Why?

I don’t know how this turns out for my friend. He’s still working his shift but taking care of himself. I did hear him say, emphatically, that he has some things to figure out. That pesky “why?” has him and will not let go. I’m betting on him to figure it out and glad I can be there to help.

If you are wrestling with a “why?”, take time to journal about it. Share it with a trusted other, or with a group. If you are needing some help, reach out to those who can give you the attention you need. A coach can give you some perspective that will give you some room to move, help you to discover some options you may not be seeing. A therapist might give you some relief, some clarity.

Funny thing about that pesky “why?”. Like COVID-19, it’s contagious. It’s catching.

Mixed Blessings on My Mind

So, how long have we been in this crazy time? Depends on how you count, I guess.

I decided to free-form the article this week, probably because so much is going on. Hope you might grab something worth your while. Funny, I originally typed in “free-from” which may be one of those Freudian slip things. Or, maybe I just can’t type well when I’m tired.

  • I went for my physical this week. I love my internist who is a stable middle-aged guy who was referred to be by all my physical therapists in the wake of my quad tendon surgery. They all go to him and swear by him. In fact, the hand specialist has a huge crush on him, which is a bit comical for me. Going to his office building and his office, just off Pill Hill here in Atlanta because of the close cluster of Children’s, St, Joe Emory, and Northside, was a little scary. I wore the worst mask I have ever worn, supplied by my lovely wife. Hotter than hell, not an N95 even in its dreams. But I wore it, black, a flannel sort of thing that I thought looked appropriate for a priest. I just have to say, the office staff, the nurses, nurse assistants, and the doc could not have been more friendly, so accommodating to this crazy guy who uses a well-honed defense mechanisms that I like to call humor. I made it in and out in a reasonable amount of time, with a deep sense of victory getting this behind me.
  • My wife has taught at the famous Schenck School for some time. It was begun by a man, David Schenck, who had a dyslexic kid. In his effort to care for his child, he started a school in the basement of an Episcopal Church. His early, simple dream is now one of the preeminent schools in the world for dyslexic students, giving them the skills to deal with their specific learning issue and then helping them transition into mainline education. Families from all over the country make the investment of moving to Atlanta to avail themselves of the Schenck School magic for two or three years. It has caught the attention of Richard Branson who has provided some publicity and support for its method. For me, I have become a huge fan, cheering on my wife and her co-teachers in their noble cause. My wife taught her last day last week, having been relegated to ipads and computers. figuring out how to educate through this new medium. on the fly. Tomorrow, the teachers will line the circular driveway around the school, social distancing, while kids, driven in family cars. will honk and say good bye as they end this year. I would wish her end of serving as a teacher could be a bit more up close and personal, but my bet it will be a special moment. I have laughed each morning as each kid in her class signs on, their faces popping on the screen, and the laughter as they recognize their classmates in cyber space. I have been amazed at the creativity of these teachers and the resilience of the parents. My niece, Gracie, will begin teaching at Schenck next year, keeping the Galloway connection intact. Did I mention, I love Schenck?
  • I have been worshiping by internet for the last few months. Christ Church, Frederica, signs on with Morning Prayer at 9:15 each Sunday, and does an excellent job of producing the broadcast from either the church building or from home, when regulations mandate. Then, I watch another parish, Holy Nativity which is near the village on St. Simons Island, at 11 as they celebrate the Holy Eucharist. It’s an odd feeling, worshiping this way, but I have been shocked at moments of deep holiness breaking through the digital broadcast. I am proud of the clergy and professionals who make this all work, as they do so with great creativity and with a deep pastoral sense of connection. However, it is a study of the role of media in communication. Music seems to work well, although I love live performance and crave singing with others…..I grew up South of God, remember. And television is a cool medium, not great news for preachers. McLuhan is worth a revisit.
  • We are in the process of moving from our town house in the shadow of the Braves home park, and around the corner from my beloved Weather Channel. I am praying to not be visited by Jim Cantore during the upcoming hurricane season. First time I went to move my daughter in after her college graduation, we ran into my Atlanta neighbor, Jim, on Front Beach, where he was covering a tropical depression about to make landfall.
  • We are packing boxes, mostly of my crazy collection of books. It is a bizarre time to be moving, and with my physical limitations of my torn quad tendon. It’s tedious at best, dangerous at worst, and sporty on a good mood day. We are moving to St. Simons Island, a coastal island of Georgia, with a rich history that I am excited to explore.
  • Many of you will connect St. Simons, with Glynn County, which has been a bit infamous of late. It is the county where Amaud Arberry was murdered as he was jogging on the streets. He was a part of the Gullah Geechie culture of the coastal islands, a culture my friend, Pat Conroy, connected me to years ago from his coastal South Carolina roots. It was almost a year ago, I finally allowed myself to read Pat’s last work of fiction, South of Broad, in order to get some closure on my grief at his death. I only hope I will inherit the twinkle in his eye as he talked of his love of low country. I’m betting on it. However, my eyes have been focused on racial justice all my life, and I am finding it curious that this is happening as I make my move. My Texas friends are noting the irony.
  • This move gets me closer to my beloved Cumberland Island, where my friend, John Miner, used to take me to his bungalow off the Greyfield Inn. John introduced me to so many characters on this remote island, but my favorite was an old fisherman who got it just right: Cumberland Island ain’t nothing but the Good Lord a’talkin’, and my, do He go on!
  • John had hunting rights for the Carnegie portion of the island which meant we were free to roam over a good part of the island. So here’s my story from the island. On one occasion, we were down around Halloween for a hunt. Miss Lucy Ferguson, the grand dame of the Carnegie clan invited us to a clam bake on the beach after our dinner, libations, and drive on the beach in John’s trustworthy Bronco. When we returned from our adventure, we found the group sitting around a huge bonfire. John and I ambled up toward the fire as if approaching a sacred ritualistic gathering, which in a way, it was. As far as I knew, there were no virgins to sacrifice. To my surprise, sitting in the sand by the fire were two honest-to-God leopards, one traditionally spotted and the other midnight black. I knew that I had been drinking but this was a bridge, or feline, too far. Turns out, Miss Lucy had invited this animal trainer dude who provided animals for movies to come to the island.. He had brought these two big cats, along with a menagerie of other creatures. I was fascinated by the gorgeous black leopard, the sheer majesty of this cat. Aided in my chemically-induced confidence, I knelt before the magnificent creature and began to talk to him/her. The cat seemed nonplussed by my presence, when all of a sudden, it used its declawed left paw to send me sprawling into the sand, with not so much as a by-your-leave. Turns out, this leopard was brought by the now infamous Bhagawan Antle, otherwise known as Kevin, who owns and operates Myrtle Beach Safari. He was part of the human menagerie of folks featured in the infamous Tiger King series, now ensconced in the collective unconscious of this damnable pandemic. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
  • I have been using this odd time to attend some training opportunities. The Absolom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing is offering a series of conferences online on the human experience of lament. Led by Dr. Catherine Meeks, this series offers a fresh, faithful look at our experience of facing times of crisis. Google the Center to get the dates and times.
  • In the wake of the pandemic, as predicted, we are seeing a significant rise in mental health issues, including depression, domestic violence, and addiction. Post Trauma is particularly on the rise among our healthcare workers who have born the brunt of this crisis. Being sensitive to others, taking the time to ask “how are you doing?” may be the difference for someone on that particular day. I’ve had more than a few off-handed queries responded to with desperate responses that got my attention. Take the time to ask. There are a lot of hurting folks out there.
  • Monitor your own self. If you find yourself down or troubled, reach out to a trusted friend just to talk it out. Most times for me, that’s enough. But if it gets tough or repetitive, pay attention to your internal prompts. Call the Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-273-TALK. Or, as I counsel folks deep into crisis, get yourself to an emergency room, or call 911.
  • My friend and colleague, and old Southside Boy, Lou Koon, continues to offer online seminar opportunities to be trained in awareness and suicide prevention. On Tuesday, May 26th, an online seminar is being held from 9AM to Noon., three hours to equip you to be sensitive and respond to those who may be in despair. You can register for this seminar, offered at no charge, by going to InterveneChallenge.com , or armedforcesmission.org . I have gone through the training myself and recommend Lou’s expertise and accessibility.
  • Journaling is my longtime means to increase my self-awareness. It’s what I teach the people I coach, and the folks who work with me in therapy. Attending to your own emotions as they emerge, monitoring the shifts of mood, exploring the triggers are things that you can tend to in your journal. I enjoy writing my thoughts, wonderings, things that make me smile, things that make me angry. These days, I start my day with a time of gratitude, and end it the same way, listing things for which I am grateful. Framing my day in gratitude works for me. There is a lot of research that supports this practice as a healthy means to live your life.
  • Finally, invest in connections. Take the time to call. Write that note to someone to express a thought or appreciation. I found a note to me by my eighth grade teacher, Ruby James, that renewed my spirit and gave me some encouragement this week. Though she is long gone from this planet, she was still her for me this week. Connect with someone.
  • As we move into this Memorial Day weekend, I am reminded that it used to signal the beginning of summer for me, a more relaxed time. This year seems different. I am going to remember to give thanks for the women and men who gave their lives in service, and I am going to be reading a new book by my friend, Joe Galloway, who wrote We Were Soldiers, Once….and Young. He’s got a new book out about stories of soldiers he knew in Vietnam. He was in the thick of it, and he’s a hell of a journalist and writer. I know I will learn something important about life. Blessings on your Memorial Day weekend. Make it memorable.

What Is Your Image of God?

What is your image of God?


By that, I am asking: how do you think of God, when you think about God? What images come to mind?

Some of my friends tell me quickly they have absolutely NO image of God in their mind. For them, God does not exist. And others tell me their image is pretty negative, a judgmental God that seems vindictive at best and capricious at worst. horrific images perpetrated by mean-spirited spokespersons and congregations that accentuate an angry God. And I have a few friends that tell me plainly that they just don’t think about God at all, not in the equation.

I sometimes wish I didn’t think about God at all, but I have little choice. I grew up in a family, in a community where God was all around, at least in our talk, our songs, and our minds. Like fluoride in the water, God was in my life. As Steve Harvey says, I had me a lot of church, 24/7. And so I had to do something with this God that figured so “deep and wide” (those in the South of God club know what I am talkin’ about) in my life.

My life question emerged as this: Why do some people have faith and some people don’t? Maybe I was fortunate, lucky or blessed (depending on your perspective) but I met up with the leading thinker on the psychological aspects of faith, Dr. James Fowler, and I joined him at Emory in his research in the emerging theory of faith development.


We developed this exercise at the Center for Faith Development early in the 80s, to prompt people to think about how their image of God changes through time. It’s actually a pretty simple exercise but it led to some profound discoveries for people. I am inviting you to take a pause in your busyness and give this your attention.


The exercise began by asking people to either describe in words, or in a drawn image, how they thought about God when they were children. What did you think God was like when you were a kid?


We then asked our participants to think about how they thought about God when they were adolescents.

Next, we asked the very personal question of how they were imaging God in this present moment. How does God show up for you in your life now?


The clear result of this exercise was an experiential recognition that our images of God change through time. The image of God we had as a kid necessarily develops, or changes, as we experience more and more in the course of our life.

The early image often was that of a grandfather in the sky, looking down from heaven. Interestingly, the image often had the God-figure with lightning bolts in this hands, ready to catch someone doing something wrong. But there were contrasting images of a God-figure with a huge smile on God’s face, sometimes with a hand reaching down from clouds offering help along the way. It begs the question, what kind of environment were these people brought up in? What images of God were they being fed by their parents, and by the congregations in which they grew up? Almost everyone had an early image of God that was powerful. And again, the takeaway was that the early image was not adequate to them as they grew up, thus changing it to fit their experience.


And so, here it is: our image of God changes. We can debate the issue of whether God stays the same all the time, which is a traditional view from religion. Or, we may adopt a more evolutionary view, put forward by process theologians, that posit that God in fact changes along with the Creation, developing, unfolding, if you will. That’s a worthy discussion for another time. Today, our focus is on our image of God, what is it? Clearly, it does develop, or change through our journey in time, hopefully becoming more in line with our experience and more adequate to give us a living image of connection and meaning.

It was interesting to me that when we asked people to focus on their image of God in adolescence, their teenage years, there was a profound shift from “The Guy in the Sky” to more of a close, intimate presence. In our mostly Christian audience, the shift was clearly from the Old Man Judge to the young Jesus who is my friend, even my “best friend”. As cognitive structural psychologists, we found it fascinating how this image shift in content followed the cognitive shift to that of reflective thinking, that is, we come to the Copernican revolution of realizing that there are other people out there, the community, and that they are looking at us, or more tellingly, “ME!”. We comprehend, in a new and sometimes scary way, that people are looking at us, and assessing us, judging us. I don’t need to cite studies that teens are painfully aware of others, as they literally become self-conscious, We have all been through that painful, exciting journey, and for some of us, we have had kids who have taken the ride. It makes sense that their focus would shift from the all powerful God, removed in the sky, to a God that is intimate, able to put an arm around us, and love us. This is the psychological mechanism that fosters that shift in many people.

Again, the insight is that our perception of God changes as we grow. It is a natural process that happens, although there are many examples of how certain experiences, such as abuse, grief, trauma, can interrupt this development.

As we continue to grow and mature, our experiences and our education help to form us and our images of God. It was fascinating for me to interview persons across wide demographics about their journey: what content they were given by their home churches, what they adopted as their own, what they rebelled against, even rejected, and images that came from other sources. My interviews which lasted for three hours, revealed a depth of experience, and mysteriously, a process of making sense out of the world.

This was the raison d’etre of our work. How do people find meaning in their life? While I had studied and mastered the theoretical concepts of the faith development theory, I was astounded to hear the stories, the narratives, of how people had negotiated the shifts and changes in their life. Each person developed a guiding sense of what is going on in this world we live in. Homo poeta, is the term I loved as I was beginning my study. It states that human beings are meaning makers. We try to make sense, even when there is mostly chaos and disruption all around. Sometimes, people align their sense of the way things work, the nature of reality, with a biblical story that seems to make sense, reading their life experience through that lens. Other times, people who have experienced a barrage of violence and suffering, their conclusion is that the world is not trustworthy, you have to watch out for yourself. Their way of living life will prove to be much different than the way one who has a foundational trust in the goodness of life.

Homo poeta. Humans are meaning makers. I had this theoretical concept get flesh and bones for me one day interviewing a young girl in a clinical setting. She had landed in this home for children as her family setting was judged to be inadequate…that’s the word on her patient’s chart. In interviewing this young adolescent in my role as a chaplain at this treatment center, this girl revealed to me that her father, who was an addict, would take her to a local park in Atlanta, and sell her for sexual favors. Her depression, mixed with explosions of rage, reflected her visceral reaction to being used by her father in this way. I felt if I was interviewing a ticking time bomb, embedded in a beautiful doll, who had already learned how to sell herself as sexual object. To be honest, I was struggling with my own anger with this son of a bitch who would use his child in this form of sexual violence, not exactly the clinical objectivity I had been taught, but that’s the purview of my supervisor.

I mustered a simple question, my mantra given to me by a grizzled clinical professor: What do you think is going on? She shifted her posture, from a seductive lean to a seated position, hands clasped across her lap, as if sitting on a bench. She looked out the window, I’m guessing that she was wishing to escape, but after almost a minute of silence, she said, “I guess I must have done something really bad for my daddy to do this to me.”

I’ll never forget it. Unable to make sense out of her father’s action, she would construct a web of meaning, even it it were to pin the blame on herself. Better that than no meaning at all. As humans, we are wired to resist the notion that there is no underlying meaning to our lives, so we become creative in drawing out a construction of sense and purpose. We become authors of our story, a story that tries to make sense out of the events that make up our life. Homo poeta.

Turns out, she was fortunate, lucky, or blessed (depending on your web of meaning or faith) to escape the hell of her family and be placed in a good environment where some healing could begin. I followed her for years, as she wound up in a foster home that was a healthy one, where she was given images that contrasted those of her early life. She taught me the rough and raw clinical meaning of this rarefied human developmental theory. It is both beautiful and puzzling that we humans are indeed, homo poeta, makers of meaning.

After 9/11, my office had a line of folks who sought me out, trying to make sense of this terrorist attack on our civilization. Where was God when those planes were crashing into the Twin Towers? Where was the Almighty when innocent people on those top floors waited for rescue, before the collapse of those structures? That’s cinematic in proportion, but it happens all the time as we seek to make sense of our lives. A heart attack ends a life, a devastating cancer diagnosis is given, a suicide is reported. How do you make sense out of that? How does your faith deal with those hard facts?

For some of us, we simply paper over the gap of meaning, moving on to the next frame. Others, construct underlying structures that make bad things happen even in the world that is God’s. Others choose not to deal with it, put it aside, keep moving. Others enter into a wrestling match with reality, much like Jacob, trying to gain a blessing, even if one’s faith exits with a limp, sometimes profound. And some simply check out.

How is it for you?

What sense are you making from this pandemic, this intrusion of a virus that goes by the name of COVID-19? How have you dealt with the isolation, the deep pause? Does it feel forced, you giving in with compliance, or have you chosen to enter in with a thirst for learning? Do you see this as a part of living in nature that is filled with disease, or do you blame someone, here at home, or abroad? Have you constructed or bought into a meaning scenario that carefully constructs a conspiratorial group that hopes to control your life? Have you abdicated your responsibility to the experts, trusting, having faith, in those scientists, or government officials? What a sense are you making of all this, homo poeta?

How does this time fit into your view of the world, of how God works, or doesn’t work?

I began this article with an invitation for you to take a look at your image of God.

You might begin by reviewing your life by my old Image of God exercise. What did your childhood God look like? Did the image change as an adolescent, young adult, or in middle age? What does it look like now?

We all have images of God, even if we don’t believe in a Supreme Being. That’s an image of absence and it has its own consequences. In fancy philosophical language, it is called a cosmology, that is, how you think the world works. Some people frame it as a “world view”, that is, how do we see the world that we are in? What lens do you use to see the world?

Sometimes, this image or view is largely unexamined. Sometimes it comes from the groups that we inhabit. What have you learned from your faith community about all that? What has this country taught you about how the world works, or should work? And if you live in a certain part of the country, particularly South of God, what did your culture tell you about the lay of the land, the way things are? Who counts and has value, and more telling, who doesn’t?

Examining those internal images, the lens you use to see the world, can assist you in becoming more self aware. How has the experience of the pandemic informed your view of life? Has it increased your sense of gratitude for the gift of life or had it made you more frightened, scared of losing it? Or both? Many people tell me that life feels like a roller coaster these days, up and then down, and then up again. How are you making sense of all this? How does it fit into the image of life you brought into this time? Are you feeling more vulnerable, more anxious, more at risk? Is this time of pause giving you an opportunity that you were looking for or needed?

Truth is, COVID-19 has affected people in a variety of ways. some positive, some negative, some mixed. Talking about your experience with a trusted other can be helpful. Discussing your experience in a community of others can bring insight and connection, even in the face of isolation.

I know we are faced with all kinds of limitations, but I want to encourage you to find a way to talk about your experience with another person. It can be as simple as calling a friend on the phone. Yesterday, I reached out to my friend who happens to be a psychiatrist, and we both shared about our stress, our anxiety, even our boredom. It felt good to be completely honest about how I was feeling, how I was experiencing this odd time. It was a fruitful time. We happen to share a faith perspective that allowed us to dive into the deep end of the pool which turned out to be surprisingly insightful. The key is making time to make a connection.

One side note: for those of us isolating in families. Our closeness and the increased amount of time in close contact sometimes does not make the kind of honesty I am talking about easy. It’s our very closeness, our intertwined life, that may keep us from diving deep in this precarious, tension filled time. Sometimes, it makes good sense to reach out to someone who has NO agenda for you, and is just there to listen, to clarify, to respond. Think about what it is you need in this time.

Our time of isolation seems to be lifting, but life as we knew it has changed. Be kind and easy with your self and others as we move into this new way of being. I encourage you to reflect on your life, your images of life and of God, and what you want in this life we are given. And I encourage you to renew your connection to others, family and friends. As St. Jerry of Garcia noted in his spiritual notes, what a long, strange trip it’s been. And as the inimitable Penny Lane reminds us, it’s all happening! Be there. Blessings.

Taking One’s Life

Lorna Breen was a vibrant woman who had dedicated her life to saving the lives of others. But on that day, her own sense of self led her to a moment of a profound decision.

Lorna decided to take her life. There are various ways to say this, to describe what happened.

She committed suicide.

She killed herself.

She did herself in.

As her physician father described it, she sucummed to the coronavirus.

The “what” happened at the end of April, in the infamous year of 2020. The “why” is always up for grabs. The reality of the results are clear.

Last week, I received several notes of contact following my writing about Lorna and the impending wave of mental health issues, a wake following the speeding pandemic through the waters of our common life. One note was from a high school friend who reminded me of the suicide of one of our close friends, a death that was a surprise to most folks, leaving us wondering what the hell happened. What had snapped in our talented and fun-loving friend?

Another note reminded me of a friend who had been very deliberate in her taking of her life in a graveyard, as her reflection on the nature of life itself led her to stand before the grave of her beloved, unwilling to carry on in the face of her loss. No real surprise here. But the pain for her friends remained even in the moment of understanding.

Others wrote notes to tell me of how suicide had touched their life in an indelible way, writing deeply into their hearts and minds.

I had originally thought to write the article to encourage people to go to a suicide prevention workshop by my friend, Lt. Col. Lou Koon. I used one of my favorite stories about my dad as an easy intro into a difficult subject. My “desired outcome” was to encourage people to tend to themselves and to the people around them as this wave of despair sweeps over our land in the time of pandemic. There is, in fact, a workshop coming up on Tuesday, May 12th, that I encourage you to register for by googling Armed Forces Mission. Lou tells me he posted an announcement on Facebook this morning. The training provides a good, basic way to train yourself to watch for signs of distress in yourself and others, and equips you with some action steps to try to help. In the time coming up in our country, this training may be priceless. I encourage you to consider investing the time.

Every time I bump up against suicide, a list appears in my brain, connected to my heart. The list is a group of folks that I have known, many I knew well, who have committed suicide. Many are members of my various parishes, or people in the communities I served. Some were friends, some were family. But I unconsciously rehearse the roll of those folks and the stories connected with them.

As some of you have read my work, you know that I experienced death early and intensely. Suicide loomed early on my morning horizon as an option that humans choose. In my world, it was not lambasted as an unpardonable offense against the Creator, but rather, talked about quietly, softly, the way Southerners do when they talk at all. It was handled more secretly, with a look, with a clearing of the throat, as if there were a phrase of truth stuck in your craw.

I learned my most important lesson early on in my clinical career, a lesson that I try not to forget, and a lesson I share with my students.

I had a patient I worked with when I was a doctoral student. He was an adolescent at a psych hospital connected with Emory. I had made real headway with him. Before I left for the weekend, he told me good bye, which seemed odd. Following my training cue to stay curious, I asked what he meant by “good bye”? I asked if he was thinking about hurting himself. He confided that he had decided to kill himself. After talking with him for a while, I informed him that I was going to have to report this, and it would result in the order of restrictive clothing, a straight jacket, and monitoring. He was furious with me and said he should never have trusted me. At that early point in my training, I was devastated by his disappointment in my action, wanting to be the best, most trustworthy therapist ever. It bothered me, deeply.

I left the hospital at 5 PM, and went to spend the evening with a nurse I was dating at the time. The next morning, I went to the hospital to check on him, and the nurses on the unit said they had been trying to reach me all night…..before I had a beeper! He had gotten up on his bed, with the jacket on, dove off, broke his neck, killing himself. It took me a while to process, but I came away with a clarity that if someone really wants to kill themselves, they will. All one can do is try to help them think it through, which I have done many times. But it is amazing how that event freed me from any misplaced sense of guilt or responsibility….after a lot of therapy myself. But it also impressed me with the need to ask the hard, uncomfortable questions to help the person test their reasoning and realize the consequences of those decisions.

Another memory always invade my psyche at the time of a suicide. It participates in the phenomena known as gallows humor, laughter used to assuage the sheer pain of death. Those of us who work in hospitals often use humor to get us through our dark nights, those tights spaces of pain, suffering, and death, three dimensions of life, all too well known in such human settings.

This moment of gallows humor was provided by an unlikely source in my mind at the time. It happened unexpectedly in a class in pastoral care, taught by the Dean of pastoral care in the Baptist world, Dr. Wayne Oates. The class oddly was meeting at night, on a cold Fall evening in Louisville, where the wind and chill pierce your inner being. After teaching a three hour class on suicide, he dismissed us. We were up from our seats, ready to flee the classroom, but then asked us to sit back down. He paused and said he was sure some of us were wondering, Wayne, have you ever considered suicide? And Dr. Oates answered his own rhetorical quesstion. “I have to admit, yes I have. Then your next question should be, Wayne, how would you do it?”  He paused, for an extended time as we twisted in the existential moment. Then he replied as he dramatically leaned out over the wooden lecturn, “I plan to laugh myself to death with all the bullshit I have to put up with around here.”

Humor has saved my life several times.

On that same windswept night, like The Gambler, he did pass along an Ace that I could keep. Dr. Oates hipped us to the reality that the cemetery is filled with people who really didn’t want to kill themselves but made a mistake. They didn’t know they were taking a lethal dose. They really meant to just alert those around them to their pain, their need. Those are the people I aim to help.

The reality of the effects of isolation are becoming clearer with each week. Some of us find ourselves reacting in defiance to the order that we shelter. There are some pretty crazy acting out of our need to display out independence from any government interference. I would ask you to think carefully, for yourself and others, as you exercise your God-given freedom. I would remind you that God also gave you a mind with which to think, and a heart to care for your neighbor.

For those of you isolating like me, there are a series of suggestions I would make to keep you healthy in this odd time: Move, Mindful, Meaning, Master, and Meet.

Move: The first aid in depression is movement, that is, getting your body moving. It can be as simple as a walk or as complex as a thorough workout. That expenditure of energy does all kinds of good things, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. MOVE!

Mindful: I have written several articles about the ways in which I practice mindfulness, using breathing with awareness. There are all kind of apps you can employ, like Calm and Headspace, but simple, mindful breathing makes a difference. It literally re-minds you.

Meaning: Reconnecting with your inner sense of purpose is empowering. Spending some time scratching at the “why” in your life can be transformational. Many of us lose that “inner fire” in the busyness of work and the grind of daily work. Finding that fire can feel like rebirth. One of my favorite things in my coaching is helping physicians, nurses, executives, lawyers, clergy, and teachers to rediscover that “why” that got them into their profession. This pandemic has accentuated the deep passion that may have had sediments of routine cover over and almost extinguish that flame. The gift of the pandemic may be to find that thread of meaning. Rediscover your WHY, the meaning of why you are here on this planet.

Master: Get creative and think of some area of life that you would like to discover. I have heard of people working on their guitar chops, their piano playing, or making a run at a foreign language. A Trappist monk friend who has been in training for this pandemic for over fifty years, is rereading one of my favorite pieces of writing, The Four Quartets. Tom says he’s reading it very slowly, chewing the cud of the words to get all the meaning. I have taken out a paint brush and tried to play at a skill that my mother, wife, and kids are gifted in. Not me. Humbling, but exciting to play with colors. Good for my soul!

Meet: Wait a minute. What about that social distancing? I am very serious about maintaining that distance physically, but I have used this time to reach out each day to people in my directory that I have lost contact with. Three fraternity brothers joined me on a Zoom call that was a blast. I called a priest colleague that I had not talked to in years. And your imagination and daring is the only limit. Make that call and reconnect by meeting through a variety of means.

Move, Mindful, Meaning, Master, Meet. Five M’s that will connect you to your life force that will keep you moving, get you on track to enjoy this wonderful life that we share.

If you find yourself struggling in this time, or know someone who needs some immediate help, you can call the national Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Georgia Crisis line at 1-800-715-4225. There are trained people who care that can assist you in finding a way through this dark time.

My prayer as that we move through this odd time with a renewed spirit of connection and care. The pandemic is our common experience, throughout the world. The question for us as human beings is two-fold: How will be choose to deal with this reality? and What will we learn from this time? May we be surrounded with a sense of our community, family, local, nation, and global. Blessings.

Do You Have Koons in Your Church?

I was so lucky to have my favorite human being I have ever met as my father. Those of you who knew me in my early days know that Olin Galloway was smart as hell. He graduated from high school at 16, moved to Atlanta and got a job with Delta Airlines. He worked as a cost accountant while going to school at Georgia State. He rose through the ranks of Delta to finish his career as the Senior Vice President of Finance in a company that he loved. He was a part of the special family of folks that started with founder, Mr. C. E. Woolman, who took it from its crop dusting background to an international airline. He was a great father to me, loving me as unconditionally as any father can. There was NO question as to who the “Best Man” would be at my wedding.

This is the set up for a quick story that get me to a deeper point, a pressing point a provocative point.

My dad had taken me with him to the local barber shop to get our hair cut. The owner, Jimmy, was a good ol’ boy who cut hair as something to do while he talked. He loved to talk to people, and his barber shop was not unlike other such places that I remember growing up. It’s kind of a men’s social club, with gossip, political discussions, and awful jokes. Jerry Seinfeld did NOT get his start in a barbershop. No observational humor, here. Just yuk-yuk jokes, the kind my grandfather called a “knee slapper”.

My dad was in the classic barber chair that probably came from the turn of the century while I waited in one of those 60’s plastic bucket seats, looking at Sport’s Illustrated, Sport’s Afield, and hoping for a stray Playboy that wandered over from Jimmy’s secret stash. I was an observant little boy and hungry to learn.

The setting was Southside Atlanta that was undergoing a sociological shift as blacks were moving in, and whites were moving out. I learned later in my Urban Geography class by Mr. Cason that this phenomenon was called “white flight”, with whites moving out of the neighborhood.

So, this was just getting started. My home church, a progressive Southern Baptist church had been visited by black folks which caused a bit of our furor. Our pastor, a PhD in New Testament, took a stand and opened the doors of the church to all people, including blacks. The board of deacons met that Sunday night and voted to make this pastor a Rhodes Scholar, saying “hit the road, scholar!” They fired him.

This was a formative moment for me in coming to an early recognition that the Church of Jesus doesn’t do a very good job in following the teachings of the one they call Master. “Loving your neighbor” seemed to apply to only those who look like me. This was my first experience of realizing that disciples rarely measure up to their teachers. I wish I had taken more notice of this as it might have saved me other moments of disappointments, but that’s for my therapist.

So white flight was just beginning, that is the context. Jimmy, ever the conversationalist, is using the clippers on my dad, when I heard him ask, offhandedly, “Olin, you got any coons in your church?” Now Jimmy’s question betrayed his native prejudice as he used that derogatory term to refer to black folks as “coons”.

I paused, wondering how my dad would respond, as he was someone I would characterize as financially conservative but socially progressive. He had been supportive of our pastor’s move to open the doors of the church to all of God’s people, and so I braced for his reaction.

But my dad’s native innocence overtook him from behind, as he was probably not really paying attention to Jimmy’s usual banter. Come to think of it, I am probably the only one paying any attention to the conversation, seeing as how I had not found any stray Playboys among the dated sports magazines. My dad responded, as only he could, “Yeah, we have some Koons. There’s Pete Koon, and his family. I believe he married into the Folsom family, you know, Homer Folsom, who was a Baptist minister?”

I do not recall Jimmy’s response, just my laughter at the comedic miss. I told my mom when we got home and the story has become legendary in my family. Still one of my favorite stories. Your welcome, in this not so funny time.

The last six weeks have been quite a time in our country. I have been focusing on the “second wave” I see coming in the pandemic, which is not from the infamous opening of bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, and hair salons by our Governor in Georgia. No, I am talking about the mental health crisis that is coming in the wake of isolation and stress of disrupted life structures that typically relieve the stress we experience in the course of life.

This isolation acts like a Petry dish for developing incipient mental health issues that bubble quietly in our normal lives. Both the isolation and the close quarters exacerbates the tensions that exist within, bubbling up in some odd ways. It is predictable that there will be an increase in depression, domestic violence, addiction issues, to mention just a few. I am particularly worried about the Post Traumatic Stress that will predictably occur in the next few months among our healthcare workers who are pulling sixteen hour shifts, with massive exposure to suffering and death. Two ER docs that I know in New York, both vets from Nam and Afghanistan, say this is overwhelming, worse than they experienced while in a combat zone.

I have been working with healthcare leaders to proactively deal with this surge that will occur in the wake of this pandemic. Setting up natural breaks, conversation points, huddles, check ins, buddies….all ways to help people process their experience and to unload their stress. Most hospitals I work with are not staffed or structured to make this happen and so we are in the mode of nimble redesign to respond to the need. I have been impressed with the willingness and ability of healthcare leaders to make the appropriate and timely investment to make this happen proactively, rather than as our country has responded, which has been more reactive and piecemeal.

Yesterday, news of one of the first victims of this stress turned up, Dr. Lorna Breen. She was a middle-aged ER doc from New York City who had thrown herself into the fray, combating this virus. She actually was infected, went through recovery, and returned to the battle. Her body and psyche were obviously depleted by the stress and the disease. In her weakened state, she left the hospital to go recover at her sister’s in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, it all caught up to her, and she took her life. This suicide will not be isolated, as I have heard of two more suicides among our first responders this morning.

As a priest, therapist, and coach, I find myself wondering “why?” She was an experienced pro in emergency medicine, so she knew trauma. Her father, a physician himself, said that she had never suffered with depression but was swamped by the massive experience. Any one who has lived in the healthcare world knows of that “swamp” of emotion, of the dark night that can come. While this story fascinates me, it is more helpful to use it to prompt our responsiveness that might avoid further despair with ways of meeting those needs.

My colleague, Mike Murray, pointed out a book written by a Holocaust survivor that noted some coping techniques that got her through that horrific experience. She noted four observations that seem instructive to those of us in the middle of this dark night.

First, she noted that people afflicted with perfectionism died within a month of arrival to the death camp as they could not cope with disruption. As the social scientist, Jimmy Buffett, says, learn to roll with the punches. Be creative with this disrupted time and the lack of structured activity.

Second, “loners” also succumbed early as they did not have a small support group of people who cared. This is a great time to reconnect to friends from the past. With the technology of Zoom or even the simple phone call (no more Sara on the party line in Mayberry) you can use those old relationships to get you through,

Third, survivors created “small victories” where they would celebrate wins that would get them through the night. I have used a journal most of my life, to list the Big Three things I was going to get done today. I also use it to begin my day by noting my blessings, things for which I am thankful. And I end my day by jotting down things that I am thankful for. Try journaling if you aren’t doing it now, and double down if you have some practice at it.

Fourth, survivors were strategic, thinking their way through the situation by being smart in the moment. Think through how you are experiencing this time. Talk it through with a partner, a friend, or a coach as to where you are struggling and where you are thriving. Set yourself up for a positive mindset. Be smart! Learn something new. Did I mention, Be smart?

Now, some of you are wondering how we got from Koons in your church to four recommendations to getting through the Holocaust? Fair enough.

I wanted to wind up telling you about an old friend of my Kenneth “Lou” Koon, who grew up in the church I mentioned. In fact, he is the grandson of the aforementioned Rev. Homer Folsom. Lou has developed an amazing group that seeks to intervene in the rise in suicide within our veterans and first responders. Lou can quote a bunch of statistics that clearly show that we are seeing a huge increase in suicide deaths in these groups, as well as in our general population. This was true before our current crisis and will only increase the severity and frequency.

Lou’s mission is to get people to be more aware of the people around them, to be attentive to people’s behavior, to what they say, to signs they give off, indicating they might be at a point where they might hurt themselves. His payoff pitch is to get people to be comfortable in asking the hard question of “Are you considering killing yourself?” If answered in the affirmative, Lou helps people to know how to then connect them to the people that can save their lives. Lou’s point is that by observing and then asking a question, you can save a life.

Lou heads up an organization that runs seminars and training in suicide prevention. They are geared for regular folks, both those in various first line caregivers as well as normal citizens. They are offering some online training that you can do from home during this time of sheltering. The name of the organization is Armed Forces Mission, as Lou is an Army chaplain, but he has extended his mission to a broader audience.

You can find opportunities for training at ListenLearnLead.org or AFMfamily.org .

You can also connect people to folks who can help immediately by calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225. I encourage you to put these numbers on your phone directory. You never know when you might need it for others or yourself.

So Jimmy the Barber asked my dad, “You got any coons in your Church?” And my answer is proudly, Yeah, got this dude named Lou Koon, who can save you or your friend’s life!

What Are You Thinking?

I have been meeting weekly with a group of thinkers who focus on the process of change.

These folks come from all over the world: South Africa, London, Manhattan, Los Angeles, Netherlands, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv….. just to mention a few.

Our convener, Dr. John Scherer, is currently living in Warsaw, Poland, developing a leadership program there for entrepreneurial leaders. I had John teach in my Leadership Foundation in East Texas back in the nineties. He was one of the first people I invited to teach a group of business leaders in Atlanta when I returned here in 2001. John is using his global base to ask the pressing question of what we are going to do moving forward from this pandemic.

We have been framing these questions from the smallest unit, the individual, to a variety of other sized grouping. That would include couples, families, work teams, and organizations. All three of the questions we are posing are pertinent to how we are going to move forward into the NEW. Our bet is that there will be no return to the old “normal” but we will be moving into a new way of being in all our configurations of being.

I was reminded as we were working on this of the old wisdom adage: there is nothing as valuable as the process of planning, and nothing so worthless as a plan. This used to bother me when I was a young man, wondering as to the value of long range planning that seemed archaic the moment it was completed. I had to learn of the inherent value of planning, with the foreknowledge that the plan will be out of date and needing refinement as soon as it sees the light of reality. The process of thinking, imagining, anticipating, planning is, in fact, the breakfast of champions.

And so the three questions ask some pressing questions as we emerge from the shelter of our quarantine. We suggest you start with your self, carving out some reflective time to consider how you might respond.

John initially framed this for couples, which made me laugh. After over a month of being “stuck” in shelter with your beloved, a poorly asked question might ignite the unstable explosive just lying beneath the surface. One of my predictions as we entered into this new time, without the safety valve of work and outside activities, was a rise in domestic violence. It was a pretty simple call and is being born out in police reports. The thought of couples engaging in questions of depth without a trained facilitator was both funny to my comic side but frightening to my therapist perspective. You will be the best judge of the timing of opening up these questions within the marital/relational bliss you find yourself within. Good luck to you, as my Texas friend, Ted, might drawl.

I happen believe work teams will be the most productive venue for these probing questions. How is your business going to be changed by the pandemic? How has the new social reality impacted your business in the very way we are gathering? Having a team with a variety of perspectives offer the gift of diversity as well as overcoming the tendency to be overwhelmed by emphasizing the value of a team of folks working together on a solution.

Let me add the grouping of congregation to the table of consideration. It may make sense to convene the leadership group of a congregation to consider these questions. It might make sense to form a task force of influencers and imaginative people to try these on. In large churches, I would definitely get the staff together, either by Zoom or in a safe-distanced meeting to wrestle with these questions. One of the young ministers I am coaching is gathering a variety of groups together through Zoom to generate some new ideas and insights into the future of their ministry in this land of the new. Using a trained and disciplined facilitator might help in making the process yield better results. That’s just a hunch on my part……

The questions are simple but profound and worth some time:

What part of our past do we want to hold on to? What will provide us an anchor as to who we are essentially?

What have we had to let go of, due to this change in social reality, that we really needed to let go of? What did we used to do that we don’t want or need to continue?

What new things have we learned about ourselves that we want to make sure we continue? What gifts has this crisis given to us that we did not know or were not clear about?

In my initial meetings with church groups, there has been a recognition of the deep value of relationships, and the gift of presence. The crisis has forced us to pare down our activity to the essential, forcing us to jettison some behavior and activities that we not really worth our time and energy. And, surprisingly, we have discovered new ways to connect with one another that we never really considered before we were forced to get creative.

One congregation in particular discovered that it could us the ancient discipline of daily prayer in the day to provided some reassuring structure to an otherwise chaotic day. In the Anglican tradition, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer serves as a way to mark our days and give us a sense of order. In addition, the regular discipline of prayer, deepens and widens our circles of concern as we are re-minded of our neighbors, our community, and the world. This congregation that initiated this recovery using the technology of Zoom plans to continue this practice beyond the crisis.

I was impressed by one congregation’s board that decided to take of the task of reaching out to their members making making phone calls to every member. The leader divided up the directory, assigned the list to each board member, asking them to make that call, and record the information gathered for response to the need. This is old-fashioned community care but in a fresh environment provided by the pandemic. Do you wonder how members felt getting a phone call from the church for something other than soliciting money? I don’t. How caring is this initiative…a gift from this crisis. I hope we have the capacity to learn.

Three simple questions: What do we want to keep regardless, what is essential? What do we need to let go of as we move into the future? What did we learn in this crisis that we want to hold onto?

Start with your own self. If you’re feeling lucky, or sporty, try it on your marriage, and/or family. Then, how about your work team, or an organization that you are engaged in. And what about your congregations.

We all have gotten the experience of this pandemic, some with more intensity than others. But the real question is: who will get the insight, the learning, the lesson?

As my colleague, Mike Murray, reminds me: Experience is NOT the best teacher. Processed experience is! How are you processing what went on in this odd time? Have you wrestled a blessing from this encounter?

Easter….in the Shadow

On a quest to discover my calling in life, I enrolled in a clinical pastoral education program to learn something about the world, but more importantly about myself. I had no clue what I was in for.

I had graduated early from college, still living in the fraternity house as I played soccer and worked as a bouncer at night at a hot club in Atlanta. Trying to weigh my options for grad school, I enrolled in the Spring for CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, an intensive praxis education experience for those training for ministry. I still don’t know how I got in, but I’m betting it had something to do with tuition dollars.

The setting was Gerogia Baptist Hospital, the very hospital where I was born twenty years earlier. I was assigned to the Five East, a neurological floor, and Four North, a floor for gerontology. Perfect. Just what a twenty year old needs.

The program consisted of serving as a chaplain to the patients and staff in the hospital. You would meet every day with a peer group of other chaplains in training and present a written account of your encounters on the floors of the hospital. Those verbatims were intended to give you insight into how you interact with others, as well as giving you the opportunity to look inside yourself at what’s going on with you. What is driving you, what are you hoping to accomplish, what are you afraid of?

My group were all pretty seasoned folks. A Navy chaplain who had seen war, a Baptist middle aged woman who wanted to be a chaplain, a young Methodist woman who was completing her seminary training at Candler, and a freshly minted Southern Baptist minister who served a church in Zebulon, Georgia who was most interested in putting notches on his Bible with the folks he saved while in extremis. Take a moment to guess who I got along best with and who I did not. I was so predictable.

The time as a CPE student meant you were on the floor every day, along with educational seminars, interpersonal groups, and clinical reviews. You also were”on call” once every two weeks, spending the night there in the hospital, responding to any critical need, and particular, any death that occurred during the evening hours. Just for the record, I led the league for the number of deaths covered in that quarter. The Henry Aaron of Hospitals.

Let me pause the story to just reflect on the fact that I was completely inexperienced, unprepared to meet the spiritual needs of these poor souls facing life and death in this place called Georgia Baptist. But there I was. So much happened to me in those compressed three months, but I want to focus on one story surrounding Easter.

I had been on-call when I was paged to get my young self to the Emergency Room. There had been an accident as a young pregnant woman drove into the back of a large truck on the highway. The front of her car went under the back end of the truck, basically taking off the top of her car. In the process of this massive accident, the in utero fetus did not survive while the young woman suffered severe brain injuries. She had been initially tended to at a rural hospital but then transported to Baptist for the more complicated care she required.

When I got to the Emergency Room, I met her husband, a guy who was a couple of years older than me. They had been married for three years, had gotten pregnant recently, as they were planning for a family.. He worked construction but had his life turned upside down that afternoon. He was in a daze, literally in shock. So, I didn’t know much, but I did know to stay close to him and not offer any glib comments in the face of this tragedy. I’m good at that, that is, not being glib….my mama taught me that.

She was moved to the Intensive Care Unit where she received state-of-the-art care but there was really nothing to do. I continued to go by and spend time with him in the waiting room for the next few days as he hoped for a miracle. I remember going with him into the ICU, looking at her with her face basically scooped off, with tubes coming from every where, a constant bubbling of oxygen, along with the gurgling sound from her throat, I tried to employ my perspective-taking skills, imagining what was going on with this young man, with his young wife at death’s door,

All this was happening in the week prior to Easter, Holy Week, which had little meaning to be at the time. As the low man on the organizational totem pole, I had been assigned Easter Sunday duty so that the other chaplains could be with their families. This meant I would be called on to preach the first sermon of my life on Easter Sunday in the small chapel at the hospital. It was sparsely attended on Sundays, so folks told me, sensing my anxiety. I could just follow the order of service, make a few remarks of about ten minutes, and then dismiss the service. No problem, I thought. One hundred percent for the team.

I went on call Saturday prior to Easter and would conclude my shift after lunch on Easter, When I got to the hospital, I went to check in on the woman in ICU and her husband. As usual, he was sitting by himself in the ICU waiting room. He informed me that the doctors had run repeated tests and determined there was no brain activity. She was on life-support, keeping her alive physically, but with no possibility of recovery. They had given him their recommendation to take his wife off life-support and allow her to die. I remember him, bent over, clasping his hands looking down at the floor, as he told me the news. I just sat, putting my hand on his shoulder instinctively, but fighting back my deep need to say something helpful. If this training had taught me anything it was that PRESENCE is the most important thing i could bring. We did talk about his feelings of helplessness, of being out of control, and yet now the doctors needed his signature, a decision, to allow them to stop extraordinary means to keep his wife alive.

To make a long afternoon short, I stayed with him as he made this decision, something I had wrestled with in a philosophy class in an ivy covered building. But here, it is in flesh, blood, bone, and heart. He eventually made the decision to let her go, arguing with himself, back and forth as I listened and tried to clarity.

The doctors turned off the ventilator and left us. He and I stood there together by her side, watching her shallow breathing subside until it was no more. I remember offering a prayer, with no idea what the hell I prayed. And then, after the obligatory papers were signed, I walked with him to his truck, parked in the towers beside the hospital. I hugged him and somehow felt a mirror was being held up to me and my Self.

As I walked back to the hospital, the overwhelming pathos of the moment seemed to hang over me. There was a depth of sadness I had never known. While I had experienced the up-close death of my grandfather, it sort of felt like it was his time to die, and he did it fishing….I knew that he loved that.

But this. Out of season, a young woman, fresh to her life, her marriage, about to begin her life as a mother, And this poor bastard, who was off doing what he was supposed to do, working to support his family, and his life is destroyed in seconds. His pain, his helplessness, his suffering was overwhelming to me. Particularly at this moment of optimism in my life, ready to embark on a great adventure, the world just waiting for me…and then this. What the hell.

What happened next, I can’t explain. I do not remember consciously thinking about what to do next, I just knew the next morning I was going to have to lead an Easter worship experience. How in the world would I be able to do this in the wake of this tragedy?

Now, I am not one for spooky stuff. I am a scientist by training, and a poet at heart, But something, a spirit or the Spirit, prompted me to get my young ass to Labor and Delivery. I stood outside for a while, watching the new babies in their plastic containers. Kicking,.Screaming. Sleeping. Smiling, at what? The joke just beginning.

And then, I went into the nurse, and asked if I could hold a few babies. She smiled at me in a way that seemed to be knowing. And I spent the next hour or so in a rocking chair, cradling those babies in my arms, talking to each one, calling them by name if they had one at that point.

That existential moment got me ready to do the Easter service, my first sermon. Caught between death and life, the ultimate polarity. Only in the shadow of death does Easter offer any real shred of hope. It was an early lesson for me, one I have had to learn again and again, because, as I have told you, I suffer from spiritual amnesia. The Cross casts a shadow over the morning of Easter. If not, it’s simply a day invented by Hallmark to sell chocolate, bunnies, and cards.

Easter came this year in an odd way. Like the revolution that was to be televised, this Easter was on the air from my favorite parish on this planet. It dared to proclaim hope in the face of overwhelming suffering and death. It whispered hope in the face of anxiety and fear. It was probably closer in resembling the original Easter morning than any other time, other than the one I just told you about.

How did Easter go for you this year? Were you more aware at what’s at stake when we proclaim Alleluia on Easter? Did Easter feel more real to you in the shadows?