A Pattern to Count On

When life feels like it’s exploding out or imploding in, what does one do?

An old colleague of mine got in touch with me during one of those times in his life recently. He needed to tell me about what was currently disturbing his comfortable reality. It happened to be the disruption of a job, but it could have been one of health, or of a marriage. Disruption comes in various forms, but it breaks apart our sense of control, or more accurately, our illusion of control. It calls the question, and announces that the way things have been are not going to see us through to the morrow.

You know how that feels, right?

Early on in life, it can be the break-up in a relationship that you thought was “true love”. Think again.

It can come in the disruption of a life plan that you thought would be your path into the sunset.

It can be the end of a marriage, where the relational ties that had been frayed, are unraveling for good.

A job loss can prompt a career change and initiate a frantic search.

Or it may come with a gentle but nagging sense of unease with the way things are.

And, thankfully, it can emerge with a persistent longing for a freedom from one’s self-imposed corral. An invitation to run free.

Disruption comes in many forms, sometimes like a bolt of lightening, sometimes as a slow, approaching reality on our horizon, and sometimes from behind, unexpected.

If you have lived a bit of this thing called life, you know the reality of which I am speaking.

In speaking with my friend who was telling me of his disruption, I was reminded of a pattern that I wrote about in my doctoral work many moons ago. It’s a pattern that I think is woven into reality. For those of you who pull back from attribution such patterns to a divine being, you can think of it as a natural process, creative, if you will, that is at work in the nature we share.

For those of us who sense a spiritual reality behind that nature, we can claim that the process has been embedded by our Creator. And those who might claim Jesus as embodying that process in his very incarnated being, we would point to his story as a poignant and dramatic demonstration of a Christ “way” of being that we all share, knowingly or not.

I had grown up in a Christian home in the South, South of God, obviously. I knew all the stories, the Bible ones as well as the local gossip, including who did what and who’s doing who. But the important pattern of which I want to speak avoided me, or I avoided it, as I was growing up. Church, for me, had been another pool of socialization, from Sunday School in gender assigned classes, to youth choir rehearsal mixers, to secret parties held at clueless parents’ homes. Another place to learn or to be socialized.

It wasn’t until I was in my doctoral work that I finally “got” the pattern, or it got me. Confessionally, it had been there all along. I just missed it. Had my mind on other things. But it was through an anthropologist that I finally got it, it clicked.

I’m talking about the book by William Bridges, Transitions. Bridges had lost his job and began to study his own process of going through the change imposed on him. As a phenomenologist, he used van Gennep’s esoteric study of initiation rites in various tribes of folks. As he reframed it, he said it was a three-fold pattern. Endings, Neutral Zones, and New Beginnings. It’s a framework, a heuristic device, for helping you to understand where you are on the map of change. I have used it leading retreats for people on a spiritual journey. I have suggested it as a means for understanding with the persons I saw as a therapist. I have reminded, or “minded” members of my congregation of this key hermeneutical insight in finding one’s way. And I am currently employing it with the people that I coach in leadership.

Endings. Neutral zone. New beginnings.

Endings: It about a major change or shift in one’s reality or life structure. It is sometimes chosen, as one goes to college, gets married, or moves. But often, it is imposed. It is a forced ending, as a loved one dies, a job goes away, or life subjects you to an alteration. Recognizing the ending for what it is and what it means seems to be difficult for many of us, as we long to hang on to “the way things were”. Marking the ending of “what was” becomes the key for a healthy transition. I love the comedic twist of the Texas adage: When your horse dies, dismount!

Neutral Zone: It is characterized by a sense of disorientation. One’s identity, bestowed by role, is often shredded, leaving one with a sense of confusion. The structures that provided the container of one’s life which maintains the status quo has been busted. Everything feels like it ‘s out of the bag, and up for grabs. Rather than the controllable order we crave, we experience disorder. While it may feel like a vague time of dislocation, the Neutral Zone may prompt a profound sense of anxiety where one does not know where one is, nor where one is going. This can last “a spell”, a clinical term my grandmother used. One generally is uncomfortable in such a place and may lead to a premature closure, just to get beyond this “unpleasantness” as we say South of God. My favorite quip here is: Let’s do SOMETHING, even if it’s wrong! Such a precipitous move usually is not smart.

New Beginnings: It offers a new structure, the promise of stability in what felt like the vortex of the Kansas twister in the Wizard of Oz. It is characterized by the energy of the birth of the New, the promise of a fresh start. The danger here is making sure that it is truly “new” and not merely a variation on an old, familiar theme. One is tempted to move quickly out of the transition, forgetting to take the “lessons learned” along. These lessons are called “wisdom” and should be remembered and memorialized in an appropriate way. I have no favorite saying for this other than an old admonition I remember: Lean in!

I have used this three-fold pattern in my own life work as well as in my professional work. It provides a map for the road ahead as well as where you are.

Jim Fowler and I used this as our model when we were trying to redesign the ground-breaking work of Carlyle Marney at Interpreter’s House. He would gather ministers from a diversity of traditions at a retreat center in North Carolina. The first week was spent telling your story within a group of fellow travelers. Marney appropriately called it “throwing up”. He also quipped that all people had a story, and that a few knew how to tell it well. Most, not so much.

The second week was spent being introduced to some new way of thinking about the world. Marney would invite leading thinkers to come share what they had learned in order to prompt the imagination of the participants. He would also seed the clouds by dropping tidbits of Marneyisms into the crucible of this sacred time and space.

The third week was about planning how one was going to reenter the place from which one came. It was to be a courageous plan but steeped in practical actions that would make for a healthy reentry. People I have interviewed say the three weeks of Interpreter’s House was life-changing.

Fowler and I took the basic idea of a gathering place, but recognized that we did not have the “genius” of Marney’s being at our disposal. Rather than trying to manage the egos of thirty ministers in a single group, a task only the gargantuan persona of Marney could pull off, we placed them in groups of four. We condensed our program to a single week, and concentrated the time, using the small group to gain more “air time” for each participant. And we kept the work in tension between individual reflection that used journaling and the work one would do within the small group.

Initially, we though we would use Fowler’s Stages of Faith to unlock the mystery and messiness of each participant’s life. However, we found it unwieldy and a bit obtuse for casual consumption. We resorted to my use of Bridges’ accessible three-fold pattern. But we framed it in the Exodus narrative, of the Hebrew people ending their time of slavery in Egypt, of transitioning into a new freedom as they wandered in the wilderness, and finally, their entrance across the river into the Promised Land. It was the rich narrative that provided the backdrop for the Christian Easter experience of the Easter Vigil. We pointed to the three-fold pattern within the life of Jesus: Crucifixion-Holy SaturdayResurrection as the Paschal paradigm. This proved to be a powerful way for our participants to reflect upon their own lives, where they were currently, and how they got there.

The format proved fruitful and was eventually published and used within the Methodist tribe, not only for clergy but for laity as well. I still use it when working with the clergy I am coaching as it gives a good map for the journey, helping persons to see their way through the dark.

Is the pattern suggestive for you? Are you at an Ending, painful, promising, or both?

Does it feel like you are wandering, in the wilderness or the desert? Do you feel like you are going in circles, or caught in a fog?

Or are you entering a new time of life, a new chapter that might be both exciting and scary? How are you making this new beginning in this odd time of pandemic?

I am hoping this pattern that I am pointing out is helpful as you reflect on where you are as well as where you are going. It’s an ancient pattern that puts words to our common experience, and allows us to talk together about our journey.

It might be worth taking some time to reflect and record your insights. Maybe even share it with someone you trust. Or better yet, share it with someone who has no agenda or investment in your life to help you dig a little deeper.

Where are you in your journey, your unique story?

That’s My Story

Personal stories are what makes my heart beat fast. I love to hear a story, well told, about how someone came to be the person they are. Maybe that’s why I love writers like Flannery, or Pat Conroy, or Eudora. I have been unpacking all the cardboard boxes that provided transport for all my beloved friends…books, from Atlanta to the island. Settling into my new digs, I now have new stories to learn of this low country, and maybe tell.

I remember that as a young boy on the Southside of Atlanta, I attended Tull Waters Elementary, just down the road from Fulton High where my mother taught biology. She would drop me off early and I would go to the library and visit my favorite section, biography. I would check out a book a day, reading these short biographies of characters, mostly in American history.

Imagining that I am psychologically predisposed to be fascinated by stories of origin, I poured through books with the underlying detective instincts of what made this person “tick”. Even with my limited understanding, you could see immediate connections as to why people did certain things, why they pursued a particular and peculiar path. Their destination in life could be foreshadowed in their beginnings.

Now, this raises the eternal question of determinism and free will, which I answer with an emphatic, “YES!’ to both.

We are determined by certain genetic factors, given at the fateful collision of egg and sperm, or, sperm and egg, depending on your disposition and political leanings. My genes predetermined that I would be tall, 6’3″, and with a build that would not lend itself to being a jockey at Churchill Downs, an unfortunate turn of events for a horseman such as myself. On the other hand, I received some traits that served and serve me well, such as my native curiosity and wicked sense of humor, both bequeathed from my mother.

But as a confirmed and practicing existentialist, I believe in the power of deciding, of self-determination, of human choice. “Two roads emerged in the woods” and I, of course, chose the path less travelled, which condemned me to my maverick way. Choice. Freedom. My own McBrayer Scots background took, as its motto, “In Defiance”……how typically Scottish.

So genetics, free choice, and then mystery. The chance occurrence, the chance meeting, the odd happening, all mixes the brew of existence within the witchy caldron of being. I have written before of the decision of my home room teacher, Mr. Jordan, who moved the most popular girl in my class, who was talking too much in the back of the room to our star halfback, to sit next to me, the most shy boy. The result was an unforeseen opportunity to talk with the girl that most intrigued me, and scared me most. At the end of the year, I had made a life-long friend but had a new found confidence that changed my sense of self. A chance move makes a huge impact.

I recently saw one of my favorite programs on PBS, American Experience, as it presented a two episode series on the presidency of Bill Clinton. William Jefferson Blythe was born in the now-fabled Hope, Arkansas. But his father, the proverbial traveling salesman, was killed in a car accident on a rain-slick highway. His mother remarried a man named Roger Clinton, who was an alcoholic and inflicted violence on his family. The program recounts how Bill was talented, popular, seeking approval of others, and hell bent on hiding the secrets of his destructive family life.

As I watched the unfolding of Clinton’s career, I was struck by the way in which these opening events of his life formed and shaped what was to come. His backstory helped to bring understanding to his peculiarly tragic/heroic political play. I met Bill when he was on his initial bus ride start of his campaign as he came through Tyler. I have never experienced the way he literally lit up the room with his charisma. It was an odd experience as this man from Hope touched the people he encountered and gave them a charge of energy, even in the very backyard of his opponent, George H. W. Bush. Retrospectively, I was struck by his original name, Blythe, a word that means “happy, and carefree” but has been loaded through time with the connotation of “not paying attention as one should”. Both spins seem to be apt for the Comeback Kid, born in the Baptist village of Hope but raised in casino town of Hot Springs. This begs for a country song.

Like I said, I love stories. I was fortunate to get my first job in academia listening to stories of people that were a part of our research at Emory’s Center for Faith Development. I had a ring-side seat as people would tell their stories, of what happened to them in their childhood, their lives, and how they had made sense out of all that mess. Homo poeta, human beings who are meaning makers. Our theory was that all people take the events of their lives and do the work of finding meaning, making sense out of thing called life.

I carried that skill into my work as a therapist and as a priest. Today, in my work as a coach, I listen carefully as to how people have negotiated this journey of life, where they have chosen to find value and invest their time and energy, and how they are trying to lean into the future in a meaningful way.

What is your story?

How do you see the lay of the land of human existence?

How are you living out your days here on this planet?

How has this intrusion of a virus changed the way you see life, or confirmed your view?

If you are so inclined, drop me a note as to how you might answer any or all of these questions. Over the last few months, many of you have reached out with your reflections on life, on the process of moving, on pain, on disruption, on meaning. I am always honored to receive your thoughts. So, what’s your story?

An Outbreak of Joy

Going to a doctor’s office is not on my hit-parade of things to do.

Old magazines in the waiting room; after a long wait, being poked and prodded, stuck; feeling tolerated by staff; cups to fill…..none of these things fill me with a sense of joy and wonder in God’s Creation. Rather, I tolerate them. Reluctantly.

Back in Tyler, Texas, I could just walk in to the office of my friend and golf partner, Dr. Dan Toney. He would take a quick look, give me what I need, send me on my way, perhaps with a Cuban cigar, and laugh at my defense mechanism jokes. My kind of Doc.

But that was in the Nice Nineties. Today, not so much.

This Monday, I had to go for a check up here in my new island home. I was not looking forward to it with anticipation. Not so much anxious, but just a pain in the ass, an interruption in my busy day.

I love it when God surprises me.

First off, the waiting room. Normally, a quiet, somber place where people are conjoined in a common anxiety and impatience. We sit through the wait quietly, rarely looking at the others, in the old days looking in magazines, now honed into our phone screens. Add to that, social distancing and masks, and you have the waiting room from Hell.

That’s what I expected.

What happened was far different. Two older men (“older” is a relative term) were sitting across the room from one another. I could tell immediately that they were of the extravert persuasion, who had been suffering at home in isolation. This was a chance for them to engage in the fine art of communication which they wanted to claim. One was more talkative than the other, wearing a Hawaiian shirt that I would only wear if I had been drinking heavily, the other man in more muted tones.

They began to talk about the new development going on in the region, how it’s making their island unrecognizable. There was some politics in the mix, mostly about local politics. And of course, they talked about traffic. Now, these dudes had never been in LA freeway traffic, Houston mess, or the I-285 Atlanta International Raceway traffic, but “traffic” is a relative term, much like the aforementioned aging. They’re clearly “agin” it.

A funny turn in the flow of the river happened. The Hawaiian shirt dude began his lament regarding church. Not about how it was losing its way, or meddling in politics. Rather, both men began to express their pain of missing the gathering of the people of faith. They took time to recognize the creative efforts of their pastors, but asserted the lack of the personal. Zoom or Facebook can only convey so much. They both longed for the “good old days” of touching, of gathering, of being.

They simultaneously began to talk of communion. Subdued dude offered that his church was distributing “crackers and juice” in plastic bags which could be picked up at the church, and then shared during the communal cyber moment. He noted that he picked up several bags and took them to the shut-ins who could not get to the church. He said this with a spirit of service that seemed grateful for the opportunity to be helpful to his fellow human beings. I think I would be right in both guessing he was from South of God kind, and was a person who knew of the Servant’s heart.

Hawaiian guy dropped some hints that he was of my Episcopal tribe. He talked of two small parishes in his community, Darien, I believe. They were taking the Blessed Sacrament, his words, to the members in their homes. The clergy and lay members shared that responsibility.. He noted with some mix of surprise and admiration that one church had resorted to a “drive by” communion, with people getting their sanitized sacrament as they drove past in cars. “These are strange days…..can’t wait till we get back to normal!” he said.

It occurred to me that we were having Church in that waiting room, safe distance, masks, and all. Communion was breaking out in the context of this strange day because it is what we long for, what we need. Connection.

I almost hated to be called away from this waiting area for my appointment, but yield to the call, I did, said Yoda.

I was meeting with another doctor, as my doctor of three weeks was on vacation on the Florida panhandle. This new doc reminded me of my friend, Dr. Toney, as he entered the exam room, flooding the space with human warmth. I felt like I was in good hands, a nice place to be. After he examined me, talking about his days at the University of Georgia, our common Sigma Chi bonds, and his pride in his son who went to Georgia Tech who graduated with a 3.9 GPA (he did NOT join a fraternity), he looked me in the eye and pronounced, “You’re good” as he carefully touched my knee. It was a verbal and physical blessing, as pastoral as that of any bishop I have known. You can’t teach that kind of presence, Actually, you can. It called Emotional Intelligence, and I teach it to docs, executives, and priests all the time, but it was good to be on the natural receiving end of a human touch of caring.

Leaving the professional building, I had one more surprise in store for my holy morning.

An older couple, the kind of couple I see, or notice, more and more these days, were walking together from the parking lot, across a busy lane where cars move quickly, anxious to escape the gravity pull of doctor’s offices. The couple was entering the “danger zone” as they were crossing. I noticed a red car moving down the lane toward the couple. The driver could have rushed through without endangering the slow-moving two. Instead, the car stopped, and allowed the two to shuffle across with no fear. The driver slowly advanced after the couple was past, and as she did, the older man turned and waved at the car, bellowing a grateful, “Thank you for stopping, ma’am!”

No big deal, right? Except the driver was a young black girl, and the couple were old white folks.

The moment moved me. Common courtesy, you say? Perhaps, but what I saw and celebrated all the way back, across the causeway to my home on the island, was a profound moment of community. A person taking it upon herself to slow down to make another’s passage safe. And a person who paused, took the time and energy to say thanks. No big deal, you say? In today’s world, in a climate that is decidingly warming in polarization and selfishness, it was a huge deal. A sacrament of caring, of giving a damn.

A conversation/communion in a waiting room. A touch/blessing by a doctor. A pause and a thanks on asphalt. The way it is supposed to be.

For me, a morning of grace, which I celebrate and share. And, dare hope.

Cause I’m Happy….

I was in no mood for bad news, but this is 2020, so what did I expect?

I purposely have stopped watching the news right before bed, trying to calm myself down before sleep. But like a lot of things these days, my well-laid plans went awry.

I flipped onto Brian Williams on his hour-long newscast at the 11 o’clock hour, and heard his voice break. He was announcing truly breaking news, that my hero, John Lewis, has died.

It should not have come as a shock. He had been very public with his battle with pancreatic cancer. I had not been able to talk to John in a month of Sundays, but it was hard for me to imagine anything taking him down. Some of my friends kept me informed, but I guess I was hoping against hope, as we used to say. Maybe this hero of mine could beat it, like he did the racist charge he met on the Pettus bridge in Selma.

I had many long conversations with John, dating back to my college days working for Jim Mackay, a Congressman from Decatur, Georgia. John was not as loquacious as many others in the movement, but you had the sense that his words were forged deep in the heart, not just grandstanding. He was not the silver-tongued devil that I usually admired. His words were of iron, forged under pressure.

He reminded me of a bulldog, facially pugnacious, embodying a persistence that I coveted for my own damn self. He had an amazing sense of humor in the moment, which is top of the list for me in a quality of leadership. Out and among his people, he was quick with a comment, making easy connections with his constituency. He was the very incarnation of a servant leader, laying down his life, like the One he followed.

We were in a march together in Cumming, Georgia in1987, as he was ones of the stars among the constellation of leaders who gathered to lead us into downtown to protest the Klan presence in the county and the restriction of blacks living in the countt. One of the things I remember is as we marched, the counter-demonstrators began to shout, “We hate you. We hate you.” It seemed as if the spirit of Martin King’s Beloved Community was resurrected as we responded organically, “We love you. We love you.” How’s that for non-violence. It was a paradigmatic moment for me, as comments and bottles were thrown at us, and yet we responded non-violently. We marched from the expressway to the square where various folks delivered speeches.

With unexpected numbers of people showing up, we were delayed for three hours, so we got to the square late. I had to officiate at a wedding back at the Cathedral that evening so I had to leave the protection of the National Guard, and make my way back alone to my car. Luckily, I did not look conspicuous in my clergy black shirt and white clerical collar. Not much. There were pick up trucks o’plenty cruising up and down the highway, flying the Confederate Stars and Bars, and making insinuations about the lineage of my mama. I think I broke a land speed record for walking, making it back to my car. By the way, I made it to the wedding on time, but my hair had a rather Clint Eastwood wind-blown look. Go ahead, make my day.

With the news of his death, I remembered an old clip of John in his office, “clowning” as we used to say to Pharrell’s bopping song, Happy. Instinctively, I searched and found it, as John busted a move in front of a staff member’s camera, as the groove moved him. His smile, as he “broke it down”, proclaiming that “this is MY song!” was infectious. Every person I have shown this to responds exactly the same way, “He’s so cute!”

And he was, until he was staring you down in a confrontation over something that mattered. His famous line was to “make good trouble”, and he did, from his famous freedom rides on the buses in the Sixties, to his “sit-in” around gun violence on the floor of Congress. John was ready to “engage”,, my favorite word, when he saw injustice, and his courage was inspiring to me and many others.

On this night, ambushed by the news, I needed to see the image of an alive John, clowning, enjoying life as I had seen him do in his district so many times. I needed the resilient spirit of John as I face the days, weeks, months ahead. As I watched him dance, a smile busted out on my tear-filled face. I was happy, to see a person in full. What a gift he gave to us by making good trouble.

This prompted me to think about being happy, about a joy that emanates from the soul, not just some cheap laugh line. I saw, I witnessed that joy in John many times through the years.

I began to reflect on where I find my joy. How is that for you? Where do you find your joy, your “happy”?

I remember earlier in life, my joy centered on accomplishments, something I did, completed. It involved my ego, getting something done, scoring, spiking the ball in the end zone. It ties into the first part of life where we are looking to master certain skills, to do something well. But now, as psychoanalyst Erik Erikson suggests, in later life, joy shifts to being. He said that we humans do a life review, to see if there is a thread of meaning that forms a cohesive strand through one’s life. If there is such meaning, one is blessed with a sense of hope. Conversely, if not, there resides an underlying sense of despair. How is it for you? Where are you finding joy in your current landscape?

Since moving to the island, I have been thinking a lot about this notion of joy, of review.

I am fortunate that my daughter, Mary Glen, lives here, having moved to St. Simons since graduating from the University of Georgia. She has found a young man that she loves, Michael, and they were planning to be married on the marshes of Glynn back in May. She and my wife had carefully planned the event, the ceremony, the reception, the food and drink, and most importantly, the soul band. It was sure to be one hell of a party. “Happy” may have been on my dance card for that night.

All of that is up in the air, thanks to COVID. Nothing like a pandemic to straighten up your moral compass of taking into consideration the lives of others and how a gathering could wreak havoc among those you love. A fairly tale, and an island one at that, interrupted.

What it has helped me to see is that the most important thing is the love that my daughter has found. No matter where the wedding takes place, on a luxurious marsh setting, in a stately historic church, or in an Elvis chapel in Vegas, the important thing is that my little girl, my daughter has found love. For a parent, things get real simple, even when it’s complicated. You want your child to be happy. The smiles I see on their faces, when they, Mary Glen and Michael, look at each other, is my joy.

Quickly shift to the Nashville skyline. My son, Thomas, came to visit from Nashville, after playing his first gig in a pandemic while. He played outside at the City Winery, and said people seemed hungry to hear live music. I think I know exactly what he means. I have enjoyed watching my son fall in love with music, a siren I have heard myself.

He tells me he first fell in love with music on the occcasion of me teaching at the seminary in Austin, Texas. We would go to Stubb’s for a Gospel Brunch on Sunday morning, featuring Mexican fare, make your own Bloody Marys, and get the essence of live music, listening to Gospel music from black choirs. The spirit would get a moving in that cantina, with a truly mixed audience, not legislated by law but mandated by music. That’s where it happened, where Thomas experienced the power and spirit of music.

He first took drum lessons from a session player in Texas named Nardo. When we moved back to Atlanta, he formed his first band, rehearsing in our basement, with him playing drums and doing the vocals, Don Henley style, who was from East Texas. I still remember the thrill of hearing him play and sing The Weight, just like Levon. Sweet.

Later, the band moved to Athens, working the famous bars there, while going to college on the side. After touring, he decided to go to Nashville and pursue his songwriting, while he played in a couple of project bands.

To say that I am proud of him is an understatement. The courage to climb onto a stage to sing the songs that you mined from your heart and soul is a special kind of commitment. When I see him on stage, playing his guitar, looking over at his band mate, and a smile of joy breaks out on his face, returned by his mate…..that is the same kind of joy I feel when I look at my daughter who is in love.

It’s what I have come to call a parent’s psychic pay. You work hard, spending time and money, investing in your child’s future, and the payoff is to see them happy. My psychic pay. I am a wealthy man these days.

So, when I reflect on John, on my kids, on my life, it all comes down to two things: relationship and a passion for one’s life that brings meaning.

I have come to know that this sense of relationship is not limited to marriage but can exist between friends you choose and family that you learn to love. The relationality between people embody the deeper spiritual connection that exists between all things in heaven and on earth. Here, I know I am moving into the Mystic, as Van the Man sang, but it’s really about our basic sense of connection. Relationality is about the essential connectedness that links us spiritually to all that is past, all that is future, but grounded in the present moment, the eternal Now.

John Lewis knew this connection. He heard it articulated in Martin’s image of the beloved community, a hope and a dream in which to invest your very being, your life. The yield is the fruit of joy, a joy that comingles the essence of relationality and the passion of one’s life.

For me, that’s where I get my joy, my “happy”. In the rich relationships through time, and the participation in a mission that is larger than me. That’s my song. That is my “Happy”.

The One Place I Did Not Want To Be: The Emergency Room

The wound on my foot was just about healed. My doctor in Atlanta, on my last visit, had cleaned it up and pronounced I was good to go.

But the rigors of the move got to me. Moving heavy book boxes, torqued my foot with awkward moves and twists that exacerbated the wound, opening it back up. After a couple of weeks, it was clear I needed to address the now “yelling for attention” wound.

Having not secured a doctor in my new town, I took a leap into the arms of a local doc, proving that good luck does happen. I showed up at his office in the professional building beside the hospital in Brunswick. I was expecting him to take a look at the wound, dress it, prescribe some antibiotic, to be picked up at the local CVS, and the get on the road to healing. Thirty minutes, tops.

Not so fast, as Coach Corso says on College Game Day.

He looked at my foot, looked up at me, and declared in a voice, folksy, but straight to the point, “You’re not going to like me much.”

He saw a wound that he knew was threatening my health. It was infected, and needed immediate attention, namely, an IV antibiotic, requiring hospitalization.

Going to a hospital that I did not know is a fearful prospect on a good day. But add to that the COVID situation, and you have trouble in River City. I had been on the phone that morning with the CEO of a Florida hospital that I have been coaching for the last three years. He told me of an increase in numbers of cases, depleted and exhausted staff, and diminishing supplies. With that in mind, I was in a tail spin, as I assessed my options.

But it got worse.

There was no room in the inn, so to speak, that is, the hospital was full from the influx of new cases of COVID-19. My doc told me that my best bet was to go to the Emergency Room and wait for a room there. His sense of urgency made its point with me.

My wife dropped me off at an emergency room that is under renovation. No visitors are allowed to stick around, so there I was. No leaping gnome with a bottle of wine to be spilled. Just me, a phone that had little charge, and my book by Coach Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings.

I went through the obligatory triage, determining that I was not dying, at least not immediately, meaning I would go to a waiting area. From there, I could observe the other unfortunate few who would come in, some with accidents, one from a fry accident from McDonald’s, but most looking like the Covid patients I most feared. I hunkered down with Phil, taking in all his Zen stuff he had taught to Michael, Scottie, and Wildman Dennis, which was perfect for my immediate need to chill. BE the Ball! Was that Phil or Ty from Caddyshack?

After two hours, I was finally called back to the ER proper. All the ER treatment rooms were full, placing me on a hallway gurney, which would be my home for eight hours. I had a bird’s eye view of the ER, a place where my consulting firm often does a process assessment of waste and inefficiency. Funny how one’s perspective changes when it’s your ass is on the line, or gurney. However, my fascination was at full tilt as I was observing patients who were in need and the doctors and nurses who attended to them.

I did not take formal notes but particularly noted one nurse who seemed to be the spark plug of the whole show. His name was Mike. He wound up setting up my antibiotic IV to get me going with my healing and deftly managed to find an illusive vein. I found out that he grew up in Manilla but made his way to New York as an immigrant.

He went to college to train as a Registered Nurse, and had since worked in  a variety of nursing settings. Mike’s time in psychiatric hospitals served him well especially well in this night’s menagerie of patients. One particularly crazy woman across from me was a patient type I knew from my own days of clinical work.She knew how to manipulate the young inexperienced staff, but she was no match for Mike.

I watched her size up the staff, and then zero in on the most vulnerable. This was not her first rodeo. She was my age, but lived a life that was full, or as we used to say, clinically, rode hard and put up wet. Her head had a gash where she had run up against her lover’s wrath. She fluctuated in her willingness to blame him, and yet made excuses for his behavior, even without his presence to defend himself. Watching her, put me in the mind of The Band’s Up on Cripple Creek, a drunkard’s dream if ever did see one, though I don’t think her name was Bessie.

Mike was a master at getting her through her tests, making sure there was no serious damage to her cranium, just one of those head wounds that bleed profusely. She was eventually released, with kinfolk coming to pick her up and return her to her native setting. In her inimitable Southern, style, she made the rounds thanking “the help” for taking care of her, taking on the Scarlet persona as she made her exit, stage left.

I, on the other hand, waited until three in the morning to be assigned a room on Five St. Simons Tower, where I would continue a steady drip of powerful antibiotics to keep my foot from falling off. I got great care from the hospitalist doctors, made a few friends among the staff, had two roommates, both long-term St. Simons residents who helped me to get a lay of the land not included in travel guides.

This is definitely NOT  how I planned on learning about my new digs on my island. But it was not bad. Existentially, it took me down to the proverbial river and asked me some powerful questions about life, namely my life, how I had lived it, and most profoundly, what I was going to do with what is left of it. There’s nothing quite like the harsh florescent lights of the ER to get you unblinkingly clear. It was designed for clarity, not comfort. This is life and death.

It occurred to me that this was not unlike retreats I made at Trappist monasteries or times in the desert in Texas at a hermitage. Unplanned and undesired in the land of Covid, it came nonetheless. I am oddly proud of the way I kept my attitude up, and remained receptive and of good spirit. Age seems to be doing that to me. A side benefit, along with Medicare.

The key “lesson learned” for me in this experience was the role of attitude. Throughout my stay, certain individuals showed an attitude of service and an attention to detail. Mike, who I mentioned earlier, provided the juice for the whole Emergency Room team. His enthusiasm was more contagious than any virus. Thelma, head nurse on 5 Tower, had her team organized, encouraging when needed, pushing when required. Eddie, who was the veteran, training new nurses as a mother hen huddles her chicks. Samuel, a faithful servant from Ghana, with a soft voice, whose devotion was embodied in the way he cared for folk. Arianna, a young, fresh nurse whose appetite for learning is voracious and dedication to her profession remarkable. And young Dr. Wiles, a hospitalist whose love of medicine and for his patients was palpable. These people all had a little different twist on how they saw their job, but each one had a mindset for care, and as Delta used to say, it shows.

I’ve thought often of  those folks who took care of me in a strange, unfamiliar hospital. I have given thanks for their passion each morning and evening in my daily office of prayer. It’s my discipline of pausing to reset, coming to me from my Anglican tradition,  to double down on my mindset. It’s my way of tackling attitude.

And I’m thinking tonight, not of Blue Eyes, but of the many doctors, nurses, technicians, support personnel who have been going at it nonstop. This pandemic that we thought might end quickly with the summer’s heat seems to not only drag on, but is on the rise in many parts of our country. Imagine how that feels to them as they make their way for one more day of intense care for those whose lives that depend on them to get it right. 

Give thanks for them in your own particular way. Offer a word of encouragement if you can. I was talking to the CEO of a large health system in Florida this morning and he became transparent to me as to his frustration at politicians who are using this medical issue as a political football, playing games with people’s lives. He, who is a physician himself, trained originally in birthing babies, urges folks to practice social distancing. He is clear that masks do help, both to deter transmission of the virus as well as providing protection for one’s own self. His daunting task is to lead his team of caregivers into these uncharted waters with a clear vision and passion, a heroic quest in my book. I am honored to come alongside and help as I can.

Strange, that in the church, we are now in what I call the “green” season. We have left the purgation of Lent in the dust, gone through the Feast of Easter, such as it was in this year of 2020. And now we are in the long “spell”, as my grandmother would say in her Texan way, of learning. Listening to the teachings of this rabbi, Jesus, talk about how we should live our lives. And like any good teacher, he tries to keep it simple, straight to the point. And when asked by a hungry student, Jesus boiled it all down to the heart of his tradition: Love God and love neighbor, 

Those of us who love to spend time arguing about ontology, the virgin birth, scriptural interpretation, sacramental theology, must be reminded on the basics, of simple things. We’ve actually added the complexity of how we worship in the cyber world, what is proper and what is not. How does the Spirit of God work in this age in which we find ourselves, the production world of Zoom. How odd that we quickly impose limits on the power of Spirit, using technology as the definer, the authority. Maybe this green season, of growth, is calling us back to basics. Love God, and love neighbor.

Loving your neighbor can be as simple as keeping a safe distance. Compassion may be as simple as a mask that you wish you didn’t have to wear to block the world from seeing your gorgeous face. But, it may save a life, or the contraction of a disease that has long term implications to one’s health. It may be saving your own life. Don’t allow yourself to get hooked into the games people are playing. Be safe and be smart. And offer up whatever prayer, thought, or righteous vibe you can for our heroic healthcare workers, these ordinary people, who are loving their neighbor in the work they do in extraordinary ways. Blessings.

Leaving Atlanta in the Broad Daylight

Leaving what is familiar has never been easy for me. I have seen myself as an adventurer, an explorer, but when I dive deep into my psyche, I discover that I also value my connections to home, a base from which to venture. It’s a polarity within which I live.

With that in mind, I am forced to deal with a new reality.

I moved.

My wife and I moved from our home in Atlanta to our new house on St. Simons Island, Georgia. I am hoping it becomes my home. We’ll see.

I was born in Atlanta, at Georgia Baptist Hospital. Born with a full head of black hair, according to my mother, which means it’s gospel. She said my black eyes were keen to follow the light in the delivery room, causing her to quip that I looked like I was in a McCarthy hearing, searching for Communists. Not the last time she would miss the call.

I lived in Lakewood Heights, down by the Lakewood Fairgrounds, and attended Tull Waters Elementary for my first four grades. I was baptized by Brother Bill Rainwater at the age of six at Lakewood Height Baptist, an obviously precocious spiritual awakening. His wife, Bertha, was my Training Union director, who I remember distinctly as a loving and properly polite person, which is what you were there to learn to be…..it’s why they call it “training”. And I remember us being at church a lot……or as Steve Harvey says, all da time. A LOT. I don’t remember much about that time other than one Sunday morning, seeing my dad cry when he was singing “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross”. I did not know why. Now, I do.

We moved to East Point to be closer to the airport where my dad worked. My neighborhood was called Carriage Colony, and had the normal menagerie of kids, not unlike that of the movie, Sandlot. I was the character named Smalls, the bookish kid who had no clue about baseball, and had to be tutored by Bennie the Jet, in my case, Danny Hall. We even had a pair of brothers, Ricky and Collie. And maybe Tony would be cast as Squints, but without the black Roy Orbison glasses. Actually, my friend, Eddie Owen, reminds me of Squints.

It was a large real estate development, so there were a lot of different folks, but no blacks. They would come later, and the neighborhood “changed” as white flight sent folks packing. Looking back on it, I was blessed to have a neighborhood in which to play, ride my bike, play ball. But I was missing something, and didn’t even know it. Now, I do.

Growing up in south Atlanta, I feel a deep connection to the city. I have a kind of pride around the unique collaboration that happened in the wider city between blacks and whites. My grandfather, who was a white Atlanta policeman, gave me inside knowledge of the struggle to treat people fairly and with respect. He embodied that value, and it bubbled up out of his soul, even though his raising in West Georgia might have trained him differently. I am convinced that his faith trumped his raising, something that I did not and have not observed in some others. As I have said, he was a kinder and gentler John Wayne character in stature and demeanor.

Atlanta introduced me early to the issue of civil rights, with the prominent characters of Martin Luther King, Sr., known as Daddy King of Ebenezer Baptist, and Dr. William Holmes Borders, of Wheat Street Baptist who did a pulpit exchange with our pastor, retrospectively quite a progressive and courageous move.

As a kid, I would see a young MLK, Jr. on television, along with others, talking about love and brotherhood. And then, I would hear people who talked about King derisively in the local barber shops, causing me an early experience of cognitive dissonance, something I experience today when I listen to some folks.

My grandfather, who often had to provide police protection for King, would not abide such talk, and on occasion, walked out from that barber shop on Lee Street, an ironic location, taking me with him by hand. It’s the first “curse word” I heard, and it was from my John Wayne grandfather……”damn”, he muttered. And he wasn’t talking Yankees.

I lived in Atlanta for my first thirty some years, with me being actively involved in politics, religious groups, and the whole social reality of Atlanta. As I mentioned a few articles ago, I was a hired gun who went to East Texas with the informal billing that I was familiar with “the Atlanta way”, which gave me way more street cred than my Episcopal priesthood or doctoral degree. It was a mantle that I was proud to wear, hopefully making my home city proud.

It was a hard move for lots of reasons, but mainly, I was homesick for Atlanta, and progressive spirit of the place. I eventually discovered my Texas roots, gracefully stumbling across my great grandmother’s grave in Mart, Texas, just outside of Waco. Like many women of that time, she died in childbirth, and my McBrayer great grandfather returned to Georgia….no midnight train.

And so I have experienced some anticipatory grief this year, realizing this move was immanent. My wife was completing her teaching gig at the amazing Schenck School that focuses on dyslexia. We had been talking about the move for years but this COVID intrusion gave it a bit more drama and degree of difficulty for the dive. The actual June morning of the move was surprisingly brisk and cool as I headed my Tahoe south toward the coast.

I intentionally drove past the Braves stadium formerly known as Sun Trust Park. What a fabulous complex they have built there, with so many establishments that make for more than a ball game. I mourned the Brave’s move from downtown out to Cobb County, playfully suggesting that they should change the name of the team to the Cobb Crackers. But the city seems to be supporting the team, and I am hoping it will turn out well for our wider city. Love me some Braves baseball…..a little low and outside, as Uke would say.

I drove south on I 75-85, down past North Avenue, glancing toward the Varsity, where I first skipped high school. Chili dogs, onion rings, and a Frosted Orange hang in my culinary memory, while the fatty deposits hang in my arteries. Just beyond, on Peachtree is Emory Midtown where I had my quad bypass surgery, speaking of the Varsity. It was a new procedure, beating heart/open heart surgery perfected and performed by my Emory classmate, Dr. Omar Latouff, a Muslim who came from Jordan, one of the greatest humans I have known, now providing leadership in this pandemic, working at Mt. Sinai in New York City.

Further down Peachtree a bit, you’ll find the Episcopal church, St. Luke’s, where I was confirmed, and began my work with the street people of Atlanta. Luke’s defined for me what an urban church could be and gave me hope that the church could make a real difference. They were my sponsoring parish for the priesthood. But more importantly, they were my Camelot that I could never forget.

On down the connector, Freedom Parkway leads to the Jimmy Carter Center, my favorite hangout, and Manuel’s Tavern, the home of my adjunct political science teacher, Manuel Maloof. Just east is Emory where I learned how to question and think, and where I made some life-long friends. Still undefeated in football.

Further along down the highway, the Grady curve, the massive public hospital where I learned of death and dying. And then, there is the place where the Atlanta Stadium stood, a place that changed the future of Atlanta, made it the urban center in the South. I got to see Pele play soccer there, and watch Henry Aaron make history.

Then, there was the Olympic stadium where the world came to Atlanta, and the Braves won the World Series. We affectionately referred to it as The Ted. thanks to one of the drivers of this town’s spirit. It now houses Georgia State which thrills me and gives me hope for the future of this city.

A few miles south, you see kudzu covered remnants of Lakewood Park and a large vacant lot where I witnessed R.W. Schambach and his Holy Ghost Miracle Revival. I saw his big tent, lighted in the night as I drove down the expressway. I went out of curiosity to see an old time sawdust Pentecostal extravaganza. I was a student at Emory studying religion, and I, by God, found it in full strut, there in the Georgia moonlight. Neil Diamond’s Brother Love Traveling Salvation Show must have been in my head as I watched this event, unlike any I had seen in my buttoned-down Baptist get-me-to-lunch-on-time service. I had to come back the next night, bringing some fraternity brothers who were Jewish just to see this thing. The joke was on me, however, as I wound up in Tyler, Texas twenty years later, the home base of Rev. Schambach.. In one of the great gifts and surprises of my life, we became good friends.

A turn to the west on the Lakewood Freeway, takes you to the Tri Cities, namely East Point, to the high school I attended, now razed, and the golf course where I had my first job, Lakeside, now sold to developers.

Further south, the highway divides just north of the airport, a veer right takes you southwest to Newnan, and Columbus, rolling along beside my beloved Chattahoochee, which began as a trickle of water in a gorge in North Georgia, and makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

A veer to the left, heading southeast, the highway goes past the Farmer’s Market where my granddad taught me how to choose the proper ripe watermelon. It’s all in the “thump” of the index finger on the rind that tells the tale. As I write those words, it occurs to me that nothing veers left in the State of Georgia. My mistake.

So I am now heading south and east to the Georgia coast. I will pass through Macon, the home of my high school best friend, on through Dublin, the home of Cindy the Porno Queen, and Metter, where they say it’s “better”. It is in the general direction of Savannah but before I get there, I will turn south toward Florida, just outside the city. About a hundred miles down the coast, you come to the port of Brunswick, and cross over a causeway onto St. Simons, a barrier island.

St. Simons Island is where my house is now. We are here, unloaded, and now unpacking. Have mercy Jesus, Buddha, or whoever will come to my assistance.

For some of you unfamiliar with this area. St. Simons is in Glynn County, which is the topic of the famous Sidney Lanier poem to the marches of Glynn. It is “low country”, a part of the United States, that my friend, Pat Conroy, wrote about, on up Carolina way. It struck me that unintentionally, my “moving in” day was June 16th, Bloomsday, made notable by James Joyce, in his book Ulysses. And, it was remembered and captured by Pat in his book on Charleston, South of Broad, a book I waited until a year ago to read. I picked it off my bookshelf a year ago to the day. It would make Pat smile, I think, and bring a caustic quip. I wrote about Pat’s novel here a year ago, as a part of my process of grieving.

And now, here I am in low country. The race relations I struggled with growing up in South Atlanta are still troubling here in South Georgia. The strides I thought were made in the Civil Rights movement seem to pale in the shadow of the Civil War. The new page we turned in 2008 was an illusion for this hopeless romantic, who thought we had made some progress. And the reality is that we have made progress, at least in law if not in heart. But there is so much left to do.

I now live in the county where Ahmaud Arbery was shot down on Feb. 23rd, my ordination date as a deacon, the Feast of Polycarp, a martyr. His murderers went free for weeks until a video revealed the dark deed, resulting in arrests and yesterday, formal indictments. As a part of the country’s reaction to other violation of rights, protests have emerged here in Brunswick as justice is demanded by citizens who can see the killing of Ahmaud by two white men, one a former police officer of Glynn County, and the other, his 34 year old son. Both have been linked to racist group activity.

Clergy have gathered on the courthouse steps to call for justice in this case. Peaceful protest has been encouraged by the clergy, as my new community waits for trial.

All of this has been taking place as I prepared to pack up my home in Atlanta and make the move to Glynn County. One of my long time friends laughed and said that it just figured I would be in the middle of it, even though I had not left. I am frankly pleased that the community of faith seems to be responding in a thoughtful way, but how this all ends is hard to say. What is true is that a twenty-five year old man is dead and is not going to get a chance to live out his life.

This salt march, just up the road from my beloved Cumberland Island, is going to be the locale for my house. I am hoping and praying to make it my home. I left Atlanta in the broad daylight, flooded with the memories of a lifetime. Atlanta is in my rear-view mirror, but quite alive in my soul. It’s time for new chapter to begin. I wonder what surprise is in store. And as the song says, the road goes on forever.

Loving God and Loving Neighbor

I attended a seminar this week sponsored by the Trinity Institute. The topic was pluralism, a topic that I have wrestled with ever since I have been a part of the church. How do we, as followers of the Christ way, live faithfully in the world with so many competing systems of truth and values. Should we separate ourselves out, like monastics, in order to ensure purity, or do we blend in with the society? Or, do we, as H. Richard Niebuhr suggested in Christ and Culture, seek to transform our society to embody those Christ values?

When I was growing up, there was an assumption of a Christian ethos, especially where I lived, south of God. Most people went to church, and were familiar with the Biblical narrative, at least the basic story. And there was a base of assumed moral values. If you’re wondering what that felt like, re-listen to the country tune, Harper Valley P.T.A..

I remember in my south Atlanta neighborhood of Lakewood Heights, the moral outrage at a particular family, who cut their grass on Sunday, in front of the Almighty. So-called “blue laws” kept stores closed on Sunday, in an attempt to honor our version of the Sabbath. I remember my father, a graceful man, try to explain to me that Mr. Spraitlin cut his grass on Sunday because he was a Seventh Day Adventist, because they thought the Sabbath was on Saturday. Turns out, they had a point…..the beginning of the crack in my quick-set concrete.

Studies now show that the present generation assumes nothing in terms of a basic faith perspective, may have never been to a religious service, is unfamiliar with the Bible even in a basic way, and is seemingly comfortable in the vortex of relativity of values. What makes one belief better than another? Why should one decide that one system of truth is better than another? My generation’s tendency to “inherit” one’s faith seems to be faded, if not disappeared.

Even within the Christian community, there seems to be an astounding amount of diversity of belief and emphasis. A study by the Trinity Institute took pains to interview a wide variety of subjects, asking about beliefs, practices, values, and habits. As you can anticipate, there was a great diversity.

But there was a surprise, an important one, I think. Perhaps even profound.

When asked about the center piece of faith, a throughline emerged with a strong majority of respondents. At the core, at the heart of the matter, the people responded that the center of faith was this:

Love God and Love Neighbor.

Now, I am the last one to tolerate a soft, easy, Kum Ba Yah, let’s all hold hands in the warm glow of a firelight kind of faith.

In my work at the Center for Faith Development, we would hear many people say, somewhat casually, that we all worship the same God. There are really no major differences. But that is a simplification that denies the deep and significant differences that do exist.

When I lived in the world of ecumenical worship, nothing made me cringe as much as at a Thanksgiving community service where we gathered around the least common denominator of worship. We were trying to be friendly and “nice”, to avoid the embarrassing question of differences, and so we settled with smiles and warm feelings of community. That would suffice, “make do”, until we all got around our own family table and wonder aloud what the hell “those folks” were thinking.

The truth is that there are significant differences. In the faith development world, when we found someone waking up to the reality of the differences, we found that there was a move to choose, to take a position. And then, knowing there were other systems of truth, competing with one another, an effort was made to defend that choice over and against the other. As opposed to the back-slapping community where we are all in it together, in a casual, if careless way, the move was to a scrupulous assessment of other’s fallacies and breaks in logic, while glorying in one’s own correctness. What I just described is not a bad proposal for a sitcom on seminary, all without the laughs.

I am reminded engaging in a late night debate with a fellow seminary student, he of a more fundamentalist persuasion where the Bible trumps everything, especially his particular reading of it. At the end of the exhausting debate, my friend ended our exchange by proclaiming, “Well Galloway, you just go on believing your way, and I’ll keep on believing in God’s!” Now most folks will not be that honest, but it sort of boils down to that in final analysis, for a lot of what passes as discussion in church, a covenant of “niceness”.

Faith development suggests that many of us get stuck in those systems, building huge cathedrals of thinking that support our prejudices. And this happens in all forms of theology: liberal, conservative, sacramental, charismatic, social gospel, to name but a few. We take pains to build our structures, applying the leveler of logic to make sure it holds together. Simultaneously, we are painstakingly looking at our neighbor’s cathedral of thought to catch where they went wrong, just so we can point it out, lovingly of course.

At some point, if one is open to the paradox of life and reality, we realize that our systems can never hold the fullness and mystery of God. If we are blessed, fortunate, or lucky, depending on one’s cosmology, we see the holes in our system of trying to tie God down in manageable bits where we can maintain the illusion that we have God under control.

We do not.

When that happens, some of us bag the whole enterprise, dismayed by the fact we can’t figure it out. Others, without a defendable system, fall into the vortex of relativity, swinging from one system to another, seeking to find a home, at least a shelter for the storm. And a few make the precarious move beyond our confusion to a new simplicity of a faith where there is an innocence of trust in God, a recognition of the many paths to God, and many ways to worship. And, in at least the persons I have listened to, there was a deep love for other people, not feeling a need to persuade and prove them wrong, or convince them you are right. There is a simple sense of connection. After one reaches that maturity of faith, it often results in maverick behavior and joyful playfulness. And on other occasions, I have witnessed a person radically freed to make a binding commitment to the dignity and worth of every human being. I’ve met a few, and they were gifts.

It takes me back to my first day in seminary, a required class called Baby Greek. You are thrown in the deep end of the pool, trying to learn to decipher the Greek New Testament, the original language of the writers, with the high notion of getting back to the real nouns, verbs, and prepositions of Jesus. Those were the special words in “red” in the Bible my mother gave to me.

They start you off in First John, a letter to a fellow follower of the Christ way, encouraging and calling them to the serious commitment of faith. The telling line for me that day, taught by Dr. David Garland, was so striking, I could not believe it was in the Bible, and that I was not familiar with it. I thought it must be prank played by a Methodist. Here it is:

If you say you love God, but you hate your brother, you are a liar.

I remember thinking to myself, I wish I had this kind of ammunition when those dastardly deacons in my home church fired my pastor and kept out the blacks. What the hell. And then I realized I had been hoist on my own petard. Love seems to be the key.

Funny thing, that’s exactly what the Trinity Institute discovered in their study. In interviewing a variety of folks, when they boiled it all down to the heart of the matter, it was about loving God and loving your neighbor.

One does not have to work too hard to convince people that we are living in a pluralistic society. There are so many different frames of reference, ways of looking at the landscape of reality. And yet, there seems to be this very practical core.

My sense is that this is what has made for the inflection point in our culture here in this country recently. When normal human beings were forced to watch, literally, to witness the overt taking of the life of George Floyd, it touched our soul. No need to position for red and blue politics. It was simply human. We were moved in a way that dove deeper, or transcended our petty political posturing. And it seems to be moving our culture, returning it to a more humane posture. Maybe it was Mr. Floyd’s cries for his mama that grabbed us. If it had been me, gasping for air, I would have been yelling out expletives that would not endear folks to my cause. “Mama”…..most of us had one. And if you are a mama, you realized, somatically, that could be your child calling out.

So can we find a common thread to hold onto in the middle of the swirling pluralism that surrounds us? Could we dive beneath the static and the noise of social media to rediscover some commonality? Even within a pluralistic Christian community, could we discover, or recover, a simple connection to basic command to love one another?

In my personal spiritual discipline, I re-mind myself of the basics that I find provided for me in my baptismal vows that we repeat in the Episcopal Church on occasions of baptisms, confirmations, or other special occasions. I rehearse the vows at the beginning of each week, to keep my commitments in front of me. Most importantly, it reminds me of my vow to respect the dignity of every human being.

That’s a tall order, I know. It applies to people different than me, who believe differently than I do. They may not love the Baby Jesus as much as me. They may cut their grass on Sunday. They may even fire their pastor. But I affirm that vow every Monday, and work like crazy to make it real in my dealings with others. Would you join me in this commitment?

To respect the dignity of every human being!

Can We Talk?

This has been a tough week.

The death of George Floyd has raised the issue of RACE in our country.

I know many of you don’t want to think about it, much less talk about it. RACE.

Some of you are probably stopping your reading right now.

I tried to approach it in a professional way last week, imploring you to practice Ferocious Listening. When we engage others in discussions on race, we have to engage our very best practices of listening. Do we really have the willingness to practice the fine art of listening to the other, particularly when “the other” has different perspective from our own? Most times, we are too busy defending and fortifying our positions rather than really listening.

My history of listening about race goes back a ways. I’ve written about it before. It started with my grandfather, an Atlanta cop, who walked a deep path of faith, who walked his talk of respecting every human being as a child of God, especially those he served. He practiced community policing before it was copyrighted. It was who he was, down in his soul.

I learned it from my pastors who taught about a faith that sought to open our church doors to all people, and those men paid dearly for their stance. Maybe I should have gotten smart and given up on the church early on as a vehicle for justice. But I was blessed/cursed to grow up in Atlanta, where we had this guy, Martin King, who embodied a hope that flowed from a deep connection with Christ. Somehow, he injected me with a notion of the beloved community, and for him, the church was a vehicle of transformation. But they killed him.

I lived through a time of busing at my south Atlanta high school that pretty well followed the narrative of Remember the Titans, although we did not have Denzel as a football coach. We won no state championships, other than golf. We lived through that time, upping our game in our cheers and our marching band, getting a little “soul power” as the Briarwood cheer went. But it did not go perfectly, as real life tends to do. We needed a better script writer.

Throughout my life, I have worked for equality, primarily out of a faith commitment I made a long time ago. It was as vow I formally made. As I grew up, I learned of that value embedded in the founding documents of our country, although the gap between our aspirations and reality were made apparent constantly. I lived in a land bathed in the smoke of a war fighting about those rights, walking on soil where blood was spilled trying to get this issue settled. But Dr. King, and later, the mystic of the freedom movement, Howard Thurman, kept me on the path, true to my vow.

As a young priest, my journey took me surprisingly to Tyler, Texas to become the leader of a historic Episcopal church in the downtown area. When I took the call to Tyler, I was excited to be going to Texas, the land of my McBrayer ancestors, notably my grandmother. She told me of rich, dark earth, lone mesquite trees, longhorn cattle, and lightning storms that would shake your teeth. She had lived in central Texas, nearer Waco…..Texas is a big state!

I was shocked to find Tyler more Southern than Texas, a curious mix of culture. I was very surprised by the lack of race relations as there seemed to be quite a divide between the blacks and whites. The whole process of desegregation that occurred throughout the country seemed to have been slowed by the booming economy, driven by the oil industry, even in the middle of the Depression. People did okay during that societal shift and so a plantation mentality was maintained, with blacks and whites remaining separate, both relatively satisfied by the way things were.

After that same oil industry went bust in the early eighties. the consensual comfort seemed to come to an end. It led to a strain and tension that was apparent to me when I arrived. So, I felt called to work to provide a bridge between the black and white community. And the new add for me was a growing and vibrant Hispanic community that brought their own gifts.

I joined a group of Tylerites who wanted Tyler to rebound from the bust, to grow and diversify economically and culturally, and so we formed a group called Tyler Together. It was a group made up of the old Tyler families along with us “newbies” who brought some ideas about how Tyler might be a better place to live for ALL people, emphasis on “all”.

It involved the revitalization of our downtown, which seemed dead when I arrived. It was the entrepreneurial spirit of a visionary who saw the possibility on that very square, that began the change. That transformation was anchored by the institution of a blues bar named Rick’s, shades of Casablanca. I have to admit that I contributed heavily to the business there, driven by an unholy mix of civic pride, love of the blues and bourbon! But it also involved growing the burgeoning medical community, developing our junior college and a division of the University of Texas, and extending the fine arts of the city. It was a lot of fun to feel the synergy of civic commitment from the native talent in the Rose City. Tyler was the beating heart of East Texas, now providing a healthy flow of energy.

My part of the gig was to chair the Race Relations Task Force. Our intent was to improve the quality of race relations in Tyler and the surrounding area. Our tactic was to hold a series of public gatherings where we would ask people to talk about their experience of race in Tyler.

We began meeting in churches and civic places to invite folks to talk, but just as importantly, to listen. I was surprised to hear stories that spoke honestly to the racism that was experienced by people, in powerful and hurtful ways. We held weekly meetings, with an open mike that invited anyone to speak. As the chair, it was my work to keep some kind of order and to provide some guidance. But the real work was that of the people who came forward and spoke honestly and courageously as to their experience of racism. It represented a new day of honesty and transparency in Tyler , which some folks weren’t happy to see. It was simply not polite or proper to talk about such things. I am grateful to a number of the key civic leaders, some who were members of my parish, who defended me in my work of opening up this dialogue when it was suggested I take the proverbial Midnight Train BACK to Georgia.

It turned out that the Tyler Race Relations Race Relations was a timely addition to the civic landscape, some would say providential. That group provided a critical leverage point as we faced a racial crisis in Tyler, when a black grandmother was mistakenly shot in a botched drug raid by a sheriff’s deputy. This event was the spark that began an increased awareness of the inequity of rights within the community.

The aftermath of that tragedy brought the Texas NAACP to hold their state convention in Tyler, to highlight this inequality. In direct response, there was scheduled a simultaneous march on the Tyler Square by the Ku Klux Klan. You feeling me?

A member of my parish, Russell Watson, my idea of an irascible Texan, who had gone to Georgia Tech, dropped off a copy of John Grisham’s A Time To Kill, advising me to read it. It was too damn close for comfort. Without our work of listening in the community and the progressive community policing policy of our Chief of Police, Larry Robinson, it could have all gone to hell. People boarded up their businesses, some leaving town, but the Saturday of the meeting and march came and went without violence. A good day in my book, though several more train tickets were dropped off at my house. It brought national attention to my town in a good way, emphasizing the spirit of collaboration.

I told you all this history in order to set the table for this particular story. One of my co-laborers in the Task Force was a black woman named Velma Mosely. She was active in the NAACP and was “experienced” which is a code word for old. I am now an “experienced” priest.

Velma had been around the block a few times, and she knew Tyler well. In my book, she was the “mater familias”, the Mother of our community. When she talked, people listened, both blacks and whites. Velma was one of my allies, one that I counted on to know the “word on the street”. She was also a person known in community work as an “influencer”, as she could make things happen with her approval or disapproval. She had “stroke”.

After a particularly rousing Tyler Together Race Relations community meeting, Velma asked if she could speak to me privately. My mama didn’t raise no fool, so I said “yes”.

When we got away from the public and the press, she faced me. She looked me square in the eye, brown eye to brown eye. Velma put her right hand on my left shoulder. I can think of only one other way she could have gotten more of my attention, but she’s a Christian woman. She had my attention.

She began by praising me for the work I had been doing in race relations. She played her “trump” card by saying she rejoiced when she heard the new Episcopal priest was coming from Atlanta, that I knew the “Atlanta way”.

That’s when I got uncomfortable, because I had been around the block a few times too. She was setting me up. So I readied myself, but I never saw it coming.

“You talk and listen to black folks. And you’re good at it. You seem to care. But……”

Damn, here it comes.

“How many black folk have you had in your home? How many have you had over for dinner?”

I paused, and then she jumped in, “That’s too long!” playing off the old Bush Beans commercial.

We both laughed, discharging the electrical tension in the air when the Truth nears.

She was pushing me, landing a strategic punch right to my solar plexus. Was I serious about engaging people who were different than me? Am I really interested in getting with people in their lives and struggles? Was I willing to break bread, share our deepest hopes, dreams, and fears with folks, all folks, all? It was a breakthrough moment for me, delivered by an angel named Velma. And it was more than a lesson in race relations, which I needed. It was about life.

Velma was pushing me in a way no professor had: Are you willing to learn from everyone? Not just from a renowned scholar or expert in whatever field, but everyone who comes in your path?

Now, lately, I would love to have a long conversation with Velma about being able to learn from everyone. My encounter with Velma came before social media, so she didn’t know about trolls. Velma has gone on to join the angels, but her voice still lives in my soul, asking me if I am willing to learn from every person I encounter. I’m trying, I’m trying real hard.

In these days, living in the wake of George Floyd’s death, I have been moved to see blacks and whites walking together in protest to police brutality. The group was mixed, young and old, different races, different orientations, different religions. I was not able to check their financial portfolios. It gave me hope that maybe this may be a tipping point……or maybe not. The Parkland protest is still fresh in my memory, and it accomplished little because of the lobby money and influence. Politics does get in the way of righteousness.

As I am reflecting, I remember the terse reminder that the Sunday 11 o’clock hour is still the most segregated time in our land. We have seen change. I have had a black man serving as my bishop in Atlanta, and a black man serving as the Presiding Bishop in the national Episcopal church. That’s progress, but I don’t want to kid myself. We have a long way to go and the church may be too concerned with its institutional survival to make the wager. Maybe I need to look elsewhere. We’ll see.

I do know that the way forward involves talking and listening. In this season of an election, is that possible beyond the posturing, protecting one’s political interest? I don’t know.

Are we willing to talk, and listen to one another? As Velma would ask, are we willing to break bread together, get to know one another beyond our demographic categories? It’s clearly been too long.

But, can we talk? Will we?


Are You Ferocious?

I had a game I used to play with the best dog in the history of the universe.

Her name was Ellie, short for Ellijay, where we had our cabin on a whitewater trout stream at the bend in the river. Legend has it that Cherokee Chief White Path had his home there. I always got a deep spiritual vibe in those woods, sensing a sense of connection. The high concentration of black bears and the copperheads sunning on the rocks reminded me that I was a guest, however, and to be mindful.

My kids thought Ellie was a perfect name. She loved the river, but not as much as her predecessor, Judson, who I named for my bishop. I confess it was fun telling Judson to sit, hush, and roll over. I am easily amused.

Both Judson and Ellie were Black Labrador Retrievers. Judson came from the nationally famed Cadillac Mac, a great duck hunting dog. Ellie, not so much. But what she was missing in duck prowess, she more than made up for it in her personality.

She was small as Labs go, only 64 pounds, a lean machine that did not have the more blocky head of English stock. Her personality was amazing. She developed a habit of coming to my desk as I was typing at 10:14 in the morning, putting her cold nose on my elbow, prompting me to give her the obligatory morning treat.

We had a peculiar ritual that we would enact every day. She would bring me her object of choice, sit in front of me, and stare. If you have had a Lab, or for that matter, any dog, you know that “stare”. Those eyes. Looking into your soul.

Our litany went like this:

I would ask: Are you ferocious?

Ellie’s response: Shake her head from side to side, with object clutched in her Lab mouth. Her voice made a ferocious sound, hence the rhetorical question.

Repeat sequence……forever. And I mean forever.

I told you this story 1) because it brings Ellie back to my mind, if only for a precious moment, but 2) I wanted to introduce the word “ferocious” to you, this time in the context of listening. Think of Ellie when you call to mind “ferocious listening”, that is, attending to others with a playful intensity.

Listening is probably the second most important habit I encourage the leaders I coach to practice.

The first is self-awareness. “Know your self”, is the ancient line of wisdom, repeated through the ages. Know your gifts and your burdens, your talents and liabilities, or as been talked about in modern management theory of a SWOT analysis, your strengths and weaknesses. For me, it is THE starting point for good leadership, not to mention being a good person, a loving partner and responsible citizen. Self-awareness is the foundation on which emotional intelligence builds.

But listening is close second. In fact, the guy who trained me in consulting taught me that the answer to what is wrong with all companies, corporations, congregations, or groups is usually communication. There will be other dynamics that are dysfunctional but you can count on communication as being an issue. And I have found him to be right on the money. It’s why I am passing it along to you, as well as telling you about a great dog, who deserves her day!

When it comes to the listening dimension of communication, it really revolves around attending intensely, old fashioned AI. Attending Intensely. Listening ferociously..

There’s a lot to this thing called listening, in fact, my friends, colleagues, and mentors, Charlie Palmgren and Mike Murray, have it as the key piece to the process of what they call Creative Interchange. It’s a process by which we are able to listen to one another, and wrestle the blessing of creativity that comes from engaging with other human forms known colloquially as people. I’ll tell you all about that process on another day, after they have died, so I can say it was my idea. It won’t be long. But for now, listening is the point.

I want to offer seven, SEVEN, that’s right, seven points for improving your listening skills. Not six, not eight. Covey chose seven, so why not.

One: ASSESS. It’s always a good starting point to be honest with yourself about how you are as a listener. It follows my valuing of self-awareness. So ask yourself, am I a good listener? What makes me a good listener? How might I improve? That’s a good starting point but it gets even better when you get others to tell you how they see your listening skills. We do this with executives in a 360 degree survey with those they interact with, to give us an honest assessment as to where they are doing well, and where they need improvement. Your spouse or partner is another good source of feedback, but it can be dangerous, so approach with caution.

Let me add specifically in this time of crisis in our country, to assess how your specific perspectives enhance and limit your view of reality. We all are gifted with a specific pair of “glasses” by which we see the world. You need to be clear about how your special set of lenses enhance certain things while blocking your view of other things. In terms of race, we are being reminded that how we see the world will be influenced by our experience in our specific area. I can learn more about my limited perspective by talking with folks of other backgrounds. And the key, as I was telling my son asking me the other day about the race issue, is to ask folks different from you about how they see life. But then, the most important part is to be quiet and listen….listen ferociously.

Two: SHIFT. When you are about to move from one activity to a time of listening, think literally “shift”. Say it in your mind to yourself to give your brain a chance to throttle back to get ready to do something different. For the longest time, I had people use the term multi-tasking. It’s a lie. Our greatest gift and skill is focus. We can shift the focus to a variety of things, but we are not good at doing three different things at the same time. Those of you who are COVID initiates into Zoom (there will be T shirts) know all too well about this lesson in attention. If I am at my desk and someone approaches. I physically shift to make myself present to the other. It is a mental prompt to make a change in the brain so that you can now engage. You have shifted to the mode of engagement. Shift to ferocious listening mode.

Three: FRAME. I find it helpful if I can get the person that is speaking to me to frame what it is he/she is wanting to talk about. I can simply ask broadly what is it that we are talking about, or even more helpfully if the person can tell me that they are wanting to share information, get my opinion, or need a decision. Once the question is framed, it allows me to listen with that in mind. This is a very effective tool.

Four: MINDFUL. In my world, I can get distracted so I use tricks to re-mind myself as to how I need to focus my attention. With people that I coach, I often encourage them to use Post Its to be in front of them to keep them clear as to their goal. One CEO in particular discovered through the ASSESS process that he had a tendency to interrupt, often finishing the sentences of others so to move the conversation on. He thought he was being helpful, but his coworkers gave him important feedback that it was not. I suggested a post with the word “Hush!” on it, to be attached to his coffee mug in meetings. He opted for a mug that was red that said stop….he smiled, saying it was his secret! It re-minds him to listen ferociously.

Five: CLARIFY. Mike and Charlie are big fans of rehearse what it is you think you heard in order to clarify what is being communicated and to make sure you got it right. This is amazingly helpful if you can progress from the mechanical “What I heard you saying is…..” to a more casual restatement, saying I just want to check and make sure that I heard your correctly. Clarification gives the other person the sense that you are indeed listening, well enough to want to make sure you get the full value of their perspective. It implicitly signals that you care.

Six: TRAIN. Think of yourself in a process of development as a listener. Your intent, like learning to play a musical instrument, is to get better at listening. Pause in the beginning of the day to prompt yourself to become a better listener by intent. Pause at various points to mentally note the fact that you are engaging in listening. Pause to ask yourself how are you doing.

Seven: PROMOTE. As a leader who has either a team of people or fellows who are on a team, you can create as culture of listening by encouraging others. The best way is to share with others your struggle and goals to be a better listener. On teams, a leader can prompt others by asking members what did they hear today in the meeting, both in terms of information and in terms of feeling. In healthcare, we began using “rounding” as a means for executives to go around on the floor, asking questions, and listening to what the staff has to say about concerns and celebrations. This promotes a culture where we are furious listeners to the people we are engaged with. This is doubly effective in terms of patient satisfaction. Listening to patients, about their lives, their concerns, as well as clinical cues, is never a wasted moment.

I am stopping at SEVEN though I could go on. Put the seven in your day planner, your calendar, or on your desk. Review it often to get it in your heart, mind, and soul. Make a commitment to become a furious listener in the next month. Review your progress, adjust, and then recommit. Make a commitment at the beginning of this Summer (it is Summer, right?), that by Fall, you will be well on your way to being a Ferocious Listener!

Now, time to PAUSE.

Shift to FOCUS.

Imaging Ellie, my gorgeous Black Lab staring at you intensely, but playfully, invitingly.

Are you ferocious?

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.