The Stories We Carry With Us and That Carry Us

A while back, I engaged in a two-hour phone call with an old friend of mine who is a minister in Minnesota. Like me, he emerged from the Baptist womb of the South, with all the blessings and curses such a spiritual genetic code allows. Bob got a heaping helping portion, given that his father was a Baptist minister. I missed that rodeo, although a Southern Gospel quartet is hidden in my closet.

We have lots of common connections and share a questing spirit to find what is true. Bob landed in the United Methodist Church while my spin took me into the Episcopal church. We both found that sacramental worship was lacking in our heritage, and sought to fix it by studying, experiential learning, and finding a liturgical community in which to make our home.

It was great fun reviewing our common experience of the Candler School of Theology vibe that we both shared in the late 70s, and early 80s when Emory had arguably the finest theological faculty in this country. This stature was thanks to a windfall Robert Woodruff gift and some deft leadership by President Laney and Dean Waits, attracting and retaining world-class scholars. Rather than serving as a farm team for Yale and Harvard, the monies allowed us to keep the stellar teachers in the stable. I count myself as the fortunate one for that gift, and therefore put an obligatory Coke product on the lectern when I speak. Coke, Tab, Diet Coke, and at one point, a blue-tint, green-cap Dasani…the evolution of my shameless sponsorship.

As a side note, I spent my first year of doctoral studies living in a Buckhead mansion with Mr. Woodruff’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Jones, as she had a habit of hosting young, very poor Emory grad students. That would be me. This happy circumstance allowed me to share the dinner table with Mr. Woodruff and to thank him personally on several occasions, to which he was most gracious. An Atlanta visionary that I admired, I am sure that he did not fully grasp the depth of impact he had on the wider world’s theological landscape.

In our phone conversation, Bob and I took the time to tell our stories to one another, to update the record from our prior entries. Twists and turns, victories and defeats, we caught up as to where our journeys had taken us, both having experienced long, strange, trips. It was a satisfying time on the phone, reminding me of the inherent power of story that we sometimes lose in the brisk memos of email and the clutter of social media. Our stories bear the weight of our souls as we seek to make sense out of what we have done and what has happened to us.

I made a habit early on of collecting these things called stories. It began informally by listening to people talk around a fire, at a table, or in a room, listening to the narratives that they told. Stories are part of my Southern ethos but more deeply, a work that all people share, of constructing a narrative collection of events that tell where we have been and what we have done. Clearly, there is a particular and peculiar style of the Southern story that formed me in my listening and telling. While in Texas, I learned of an old adage: don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story. My wife and kids know that I can embellish, or make a story pretty, or even better, dance. I like to think of it as adding color, sort of like Percy Garris in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But the story is the underlying form I learned from my grandparents, elders, and my tribe.

Moving more formally into research, I listened to and recorded people trying to make sense of human existence as they told their stories to me as a part of my work at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. Interviewing people for three-hour lengths, transcribing, analyzing… it remained at its heart a process of listening to stories.

Later, I followed my teacher, Chuck Gerkin, listening to people in a clinical setting as I attended to the “living human document” they presented in telling their stories. It took me to listening to homeless folks on the streets of Atlanta as well as perched penthouse persons in the deflective shimmer of Buckhead. And I continued this in my priesthood and clinical practice over thirty years, paying attention to the contours of meaning they weave into their stories. Everyone has a story. They drag it behind them, use it to present a “front”, an elaborated persona, a reason for the way they are. And some will even tell it well.

Recently, I have begun a gathering of clergy who meet to talk about how it is going in their lives, how it’s going at the churches they serve. We meet regularly to share our stories as well as pregnant moments of interruption that threaten the cohesive frame we have come to rely upon for identity.

I conceived of gathering these people using an online platform, Zoom, it’s called. However, the form of our gathering was wrought many moons past. Years ago, the Bishop of Texas had asked me to meet with young clergy who were in transition from their seminary studies to their first parish assignment. Canon Kevin Martin, from the diocesan staff, joined me in the project of helping the young clergy use that first year in the parish to learn some good habits. And, not to crash and burn.

I loved working with Kevin. He and I come from differing theological positions but share a common desire to make the church a more effective presence in the life of our community. He and I would meet with these folks once a month for nine months, a natural gestation time. We would gather at the holy space known as Camp Allen, the diocesan conference center in Navasota, just northwest of Houston. It involved a lecture/teaching/training on Thursday afternoon, with case-studies on Friday morning as we talked about their placements. But it turned out that the “gold” was the night time, spent in a circle, spilling a little wine, and talking honestly with one another about our stories, and how priesthood was fitting into that continuing narrative. It remains a highlight of my life.

I would begin with a “check-in”, with two pregnant questions: How is it with you? Or How is it in the place you are? I had gotten the questions from my mentor, Carlyle Marney, who famously led a previous gathering of ministers known as Interpreter’s House, which occurred at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. I had studied Marney’s method, and used it to design a retreat format for clergy while working with Jim Fowler at the Center for Faith Development at Emory.

The format that Marney used was quite simple. The first week, he gathered the group of ministers in a circle as they told their stories, how they came to the ministry, and how it was currently going in their place. This primitive gathering was the initial step. Marney called this “throwing up”, as you literally told your messy story, with the content spilling out onto the floor, for everyone to see and smell. It was revelatory, especially for ministers and priests accustomed to hiding behind sacred personas.

The second week involved some fresh input from a leading thinker in the world of Christian faith, usually intended to push these ministers beyond their pastures of comfort. Allowing them to ponder deeply, ask the questions they brought to the fire, and most importantly, applying to their own lives, this was the crucial time in which the ideas, wonderings, and hunches percolated.

The third week was critical. It was a time when they would make plans for how they might take these fresh insights back into the communities from which they had come, or fled, or as Marney would say, had been “sentenced”. Some would make action plans, others would talk of internal changes, and some would make vows. Some would find the courage to leave the formal bounds of ministry and find fresh, honest work. Marney’s independence from ecclesiastical structure freed him to encourage the person to find their own way, without the constraints of institutional agenda. Many were inspired, some were unleashed, and still others were saved.

My colleagues and I took Marney’s genius and spirit, and condensed it, distilled it. Marney would have loved the word “distilled”, I think. We scoped it down to one week. We kept the idea of “throwing up” but put it within the vessel of a small group rather than a large group in order to maximize “air time”. Small groups of four went through the five day experience together.

Our input was a deep remembrance of a central image of passage-making, utilizing both the Exodus motif and the Paschal appropriation of the Exodus story by the Christian church. How does your story fit The Story? What was your “burning bush” encounter of calling? How was your journey? How have you been in exile, enslaved? How were you freed, liberated? What did your wilderness feel like? What were the contours of your desert? Just how dry was it? How long did you wander? What promise did the “new” offer you? What might the Promised Land look like for you?

And, the week-long experience kept the context from which they had come and to which they would return in mind, granting a pause, a silence for thinking and reflecting to occur. We called it Pilgrimage Project, testing our design with only clergy, using cohort groups of similarly experienced ministers, three years out of seminary, ten, twenty, and thirty years of parish experience, with the postulation that there would be similar issues in play developmentally.

It wound up being published and used not only with clergy but in parishes and other gatherings of faithful people. Truth is, all people have stories. I have used it in the back of my mind as I have worked with all types of people who have been trying to make sense out of life, going through particular transitions, and looking for new beginnings. This image of pilgrimage provides the paradigm for the work I do.

How might you tell your story? What would be some of the things you would note as to the beginnings of your journey that set your direction? What significant choices did you make along the way? What surprises came in the process? What gave you joy, what brought grief? How does the trajectory of your story form the way of your future? What are your greatest hopes and fears? What limiting beliefs do you hold onto that no longer serve you well? What do you need to let go of? Where is your growing edge?

To transpose a line from poet, Mary Oliver: what do you have left to do with your one, wild, amazingly crazy life?

I love my work of being with people as they ponder these deep questions and make plans to make the most of their journey on this good earth. It is a wondrous adventure. I do most of my work now in the context of coaching and spiritual direction, though I drag out my old therapeutic couch on occasion. Regardless of the modality, I love listening to those stories and joining in the play of imagining a future.

I was reminded the other day of the famed opening prayer for worship in Judaism: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Shema, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. It starts with Shema…listen… Listen…LISTEN! The first word is the admonition To Listen. It all begins with listening.

Take the time to listen and reflect on your story. Your self-awareness might uncover some patterns, some saboteurs that perenially get in your way. Your past doesn’t necessarily determine your future, if you choose to make some changes. That’s never easy, but it is possible. You can choose how to write your next chapter. What springs to your mind and heart as you imagine the next chapter of your life? What beckons you from the horizon? What feels ‘unfinished’ that pushes you into the future? What is waiting for you to make your move, to decide, to begin anew, to complete?

You might carve out some time, an hour, a morning, to reflect. Maybe write your thoughts down on a piece of paper or in a journal. Try to capture the feel of where you might want to take your story, what might be waiting for you to do. It begins with a prompt of your Spirit, a whisper from your deepest Self, a vision from your Soul. And the wisdom urges you to do a simple thing, though made difficult by distraction and numbing busyness: Listen. Listen.

MLK: Much More Than A Day

Every January, I take in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day ceremonies from historic Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sweet Auburn Avenue in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia.

I dedicate that day, the third Monday of January, to remembering the life of Dr. King. Since no longer serving a parish, I try to dedicate the long weekend, to reread his academic work, his sermons, and read about his life. This year, I purchased a copy of his doctoral dissertation which is included in his collection of papers. It is a comparison of the theology of Paul Tillich, the first systematic theologian that I studied seriously, and process theologian Henry Nelson Wieman, a person that I have dedicated the last three years of my life to studying, particularly his process of creative interchange which I have written about here. King’s assessment of the two side-by-side has been revelatory.

But I confess, I prefer his sermons. Although academically trained and rigorous in scholarship, it is the heart of the pastor that touches my soul. I sense his deep pastoral care for his people while addressing more significant societal issues of race, poverty, and militarism.

Back in the day, when Dr. Joe Roberts was the pastor of Ebenezer, having succeeded Daddy King, Martin’s father, I could get a good seat just by walking in. Joe was my preaching professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. He took a special “liking” to me, I think because I was South of God at a United Methodist seminary. He did me the great favor of personally introducing me to Howard Thurman, the mystic godfather of the civil rights movement. He was always a welcoming, sponsoring spirit. Later, after my move to the Episcopal priesthood, I was able to introduce his genius to my new world of high liturgy.

When I left Atlanra and went to Tyler, Texas, there was no King Day celebration. I was able to help start the first one in the city the year after I arrived. My close friend, Art Flicker, the rabbi, and I walked arm in arm that first march from the downtown square to the Roman Catholic Cathedral for the first King Day service, noting the SWAT team on the roofs of downtown buildings providing “protection” as there had been threats.

I believe that it was the second year that I was asked to speak. It was clear to me that the invitation came to me, not out of awe at my doctoral work, or my Episcopal priesthood. Rather it was my Atlanta pedigree, having come from the city of Dr. King. And I was proud of that, working harder on that speech than anything else I had ever done. I wanted to make Dr. King and my home town proud of this boy.

Imagine my surprise as they asked an older black pastor to give a “pastoral prayer” before I was to speak. This old, deeply dark black man, with gorgeous white hair, came to the pulpit and delivered one of those LONG prayers that come from the depths of his heritage and soul. As they say, he went “on”, and on, and on. Hell, by the end, I was ready to join the Church and become a missionary! He was good, which was to be trouble for anyone that tried to follow him.

And that would be me.

Somewhere in my memory, an image emerged that just might help me make a smooth transition to my presentation. As I climbed into that pulpit, I paused, letting the place settle down. Silence, while awkward, can be effective.

I said, “I feel a bit like Dennis Menke.” I knew that only a handful of people knew who in the world Dennis Menke was. I went on. “Dennis Menke was an infielder for my Atlanta Braves. His job was to follow Hammerin’ Hank Aaron in the batting order. Imagine, every day, he would have to wait in the batting circle while the home run king took his turn at bat. That’s how I feel, coming to this pulpit after hearing Rev. Jones deliver that powerful prayer. It occurred to me that Rev. Jones is on a first-name relationship with the Almighty. That’s hard to follow!”

I got the laugh I was looking for, and maybe some sympathy for my predicament. And made a life-long friend with Rev. Jones.

I remember the outline of my talk. I used the image of an alarm clock, meant to wake us up from sleep. How sleep was comfortable, the special sin plaguing Tyler, the sin of comfort. We want to get an alarm clock with a “snooze” button on top, so that when the alarm sounds, we simply have to push that magic snooze button and get five more minutes of rest, And you can anticipate where I took this sermon, talking about alarms going off all around us, but we kept slapping at the snooze button. It was not the typical Chamber of Commerce hype, but a prophetic call. And we know what fate awaits the prophets, don’t we?

There were a number of people in town who did not appreciate me calling out the glaring issues of race and poverty in our town. Some were powerful, leaders in the community who resented this “outsider” from Atlanta telling them what to do. Thankfully for me, I was protected by the Episcopal polity which prevented folks from voting me out, as they did my pastor in the church I grew up in. I also had a cadre of people in my parish, notably of World War II vintage, that had my back in conversations at the country club and in business gatherings. To my surprise and delight, I was able to serve there for a decade, which was quite a trick and gift, weeping when I left the parish and city that I loved and grew to call home.

King Day took on a special value this year, and I am not sure why. It was the usual four-hour service, from 10 AM to 2 PM. If you are a platform speaker, four hours is a long time to hold your water, as they say. A bladder buster, Especially as one ages. I get a perverse pleasure when public officials show up to “be seen”, unknowingly drinking their fourth cup of coffee as they arrive. They are in for a surprise. Watching them shift from side-to-side is hilarious, right around 12:15. Surely this is going to be over soon, they are hoping. It is not.

This year, there was the usual reading by a rabbi of the Old Testament, a reading from the Gospel by a minister, and then a reading from the Koran from an Aman. There is music provided by the Ebenezer Choir, along with solos from various members of the music industry. One of my favorite parts is the dramatic presentation of various portions of King’s words by young people from local high schools and colleges. One of my least favorites is the recognition of public officials who have shown up, but my revenge has already been noted.

It leads up to the keynote speech. This was someone that I know, attorney Bryan Stevenson, who works with folks on Death Row. His remarkable life story is dramatized in the film, Just Mercies. I had met him several times at the Carter Center and his content and delivery are superb. He has some amazing stories to tell, some confessional as he admits to the discouragement that comes his way in his line of work. The book and the movie are worthy of your time.

This day, he focussed on the systemic effects of racism, particularly reminding us of the history of racism in this country. Our reluctance to face this history, because it makes us uncomfortable, dooms us to not progress in our American dream and vision. He argued powerfully, like a good litigator should, for a renewed effort to face the hard reality of our past so that we can move faithfully into the future.

A powerful part of the service was provided by Dr. King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King who chided the folks gathered, particularly the politicians, to not just quote her father about unity, and then fall into partisan antics that divide. She said that we love the quotable, convenient King but dismiss the inconvenient King that demands change and transformation of our social structures and values. She reminded us that her father was sent as a prophet to this country to speak a prophetic word that calls for an inconvenience because it challenges us to change our hearts, minds, and our behavior. Dr. Martin Luther King, the inconvenient King, puts some demands on us to change our ways. It was a powerful call to make good the vision of Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community. Poignantly, she pointed out the hypocrisy of politicians publicly lauding the work of Dr. King and yet preventing his words and teachings to be studied in our schools because it made folks uncomfortable. Clearly, Dr. King’s blood and spirit fuels his daughter.

And so, another King Day came and went. It, as usual, was a powerful re-minder to me and others of the Dream. I took the time to reread that famous speech from the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. And then I forced myself to reread the letter he wrote to white ministers from his cell in a Birmingham jail. It chastises for a lack of courage but ends with a clarion call for hope based on King’s sense of the lay of the land of human existence. It was my biggest takeaway, prophetic and poetic:

“In a real sense, all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Sounds to me like Jesus’ Kingdom of God, or more pointedly, the reign of God.

Thank you, Dr. King, for making the call clear.

Are You Happy?

One auspicious day in my life, I was able to be present to the teaching of the Dalai Lama.

Previously, I had studied his teachings on Tibetan Buddhism and the practical methods of increasing one’s capacity for behaving with compassion toward other human beings through the practice of meditation. It was this pragmatic angle that first attracted me to his teaching, and his affiliation with Emory University as a visiting professor provided me the rare opportunity to receive that teaching “live and in person”.

The most important thing that I remember about his hours of teaching and answering questions was a very simple statement: All people desire happiness.

All people want to be happy.

The common connector between all people is this basic wish…I want to be happy.

The implications of that basic connection to all human beings gave me something to center myself in as I was forming my own being in the world. What if I approached each person that I encountered as having this basic need? Everyone that I come in contact with was looking to find happiness. Could that serve as a hermeneutical key as I sought to understand others? In fact, it became a prompt that drove my curiosity in engaging with people that I had difficulty understanding their motivation.

The obvious question follows: What will make one happy?

As an infant, an emerging developing being, there are some basic needs, such as nourishment, touch, and warmth. But very quickly, we are given signals from our parents, our community, and culture, as to what we need to be happy. Pause, if you will, and think back on the messages you were given, consciously and unconsciously. Initially, parental approval takes center stage. Soon, the school setting takes prominence with its own system of demands, control, and rewards. The creative child must negotiate the various spheres of experience, learning along the way what works and what does not. We call this the socialization process, resulting in the adaptive ego that provides a vehicle for our self. That ego provides us the means by which to survive this process, readying us to embark on adulthood. We celebrate the survival, but it comes at a high cost.

As a society, we have studied this childhood process extensively, with the underlying motivation of understanding how it works, how we might better the pricess, often with an underlying reason of finding out how we might control it. Jean Piaget looked to research the development of the cognitive structures of thinking. Erik Erikson boldly tried to track and stage the psychosocial interaction between the child/teen/adult within the context of community. Development is a complex mystery that we mere mortals grasp at understanding.

One particular study grew out of that rich environment of human developmental research and study, the Harvard Study of Adult Development. Begun in 1938, it impressively has studied carefully the lives of 724 men over the course of 85 years. The study followed 268 Harvard College sophomores, and 456 boys from Boston’s hard-knock inner city. I was fascinated to learn that, while subjects remain anonymous, it has been revealed that John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradley were participants. While this originally was a limited study demographically, particularly gender limited, the group was added to by including spouses and later children, now consisting of a couple thousand subjects. It is currently focused in its study on Baby Boomers, the children of the original group.

The research uses questionnaires, personal interviews, medical records, scans of blood and brains. The study monitored the physical and mental health of the subjects, their work lives, their friendships, and romances. The unique piece of the study is the longitudinal style. It is the only study of such length and offers some unique insights into human adulthood.

I remember looking at the study when I was working at the Center for Faith Development, prompted by Jim Fowler who had been familiar with it during his work at Harvard. This week, the current director, Dr. Bob Walberger, released a book of the current findings from the study. The title is The Good Life, and attempts to draw out the lessons that were learned through the years of study.

The basic message is that the key to experiencing the “good life” is found simply in the quality of relationships. If you have significant relationships with people that you feel a deep connection with, you will tend to be happy, which is shown to affect one’s health and, in fact, one’s longevity. These relationships can be romantic in nature, but can be friendships, collegial, or simply social. The key seems to be your sense that you could count on this person, that they “have your back”.The defining question is: who could you call in the middle of the night, and they would be there for you? Many people simply could not name a soul.

The magic of these relationships is that they can provide a break from the normal stress of life. It allows you to return to an equilibrium even in the face of major stress. Dr. Waldinger calls it a stress regulator, breaking the cycle of fight-or-flight reactivity and the body’s response of inflamation. The data is overwhelmingly clear as to the positive health role of these close, positive relationships. Other research shows that we are currently in a time of significantly increased loneliness and isolation, rendering us vulnerable to disease. The prescription is to make relationships a priority, and invest time and energy in paying attention to the state of your relationships.

This came home to me in a surprising way during Christmas. I came down with the flu on Christmas Eve, which took me out of my normal family gathering. Not only was I physically sick, not feeling well, but I was missing out on my connections. I found myself experiencing some depression after a couple of weeks of isolation, an unfamiliar situation as I am normally with a good number of close friends daily. Most are collegial relationships but I pride myself on the level of intimacy we share. I was suddenly and profoundly feeling alone. It was not a good pace to be.

Now, as an introvert, I get recharged by taking time to be by myself. The key distinction I discovered was that I was choosing to spend that alone time. It’s what Thomas Merton talks about as solitude, as you get time to be alone with your Self and God. It is a cherished time for me, and was particularly true when I was overly active in the parish ministry. Solitude is something that I value highly and make sure that I get on a regular basis.

But, when it is not “chosen’, but is rather imposed, it feels awful. It is experienced as loneliness, isolated, disconnected. This was a powerful learning moment for me. And about the same time that I was straightening out my soul, I came across this report from Dr. Waldinger. That was a wonderful moment of synchronicity for me. I am grateful.

Dr. Waldinger suggests that you begin to address your relationship situation by taking an inventory. Who would you name as that person that you could call in the middle of the night? Be honest with yourself. Who would you include in your intimate circle of friends? Who are the people you connect with on a regular basis? Make a clear assessment of where you are with your relationships. I have found it helpful to make a visual chart of my relational matrix which has added some clarity to my current situation.

The good news is that, regardless of current deficiencies, you can improve your situation with some focus and prioritization of nurturing your relationships. Who is an old friend that you have lost touch with? Make a commitment to send a note or make a call to reconnect in the next week. Make a list of such folks and invest the time in building those relationships. By making relationships a priority, you are doing yourself a favor as well as reconnecting with people who will find value the contact and the connection. Maybe you might join me in becoming more intentional in your connections in this coming year. “Connection” is my word for 2023.

I was always encouraged by my mother to make friends with others. I think her admonition may have added that it would make Jesus happy if I was friendly to others. How odd to find out that such behavior may in fact yield the benefit of health and longevity, not to mention being happy along the way. I can almost see Jesus smiling…or is that a laugh?

Twelve Days: Christmastide

The season of Christmas goes for twelve days, from Christmas to Epiphany. Hence, we have the Twelve Days of Christmas song that I learned in elementary school, a list of twelve things that, at the time, I enjoyed memorizing… at the time. It is now a song that goes on forever about geese a-laying, pipers piping, maids a-milking…..five golden rings and the inevitable partridge in a pear tree. You know the drill.

Twelve days, Christmastide.

But sometimes, the dates don’t mesh or align with the “stuff” of our lives.

That has been true for me this year.

First, Christmas got an early start with my daughter taking my wife to New York City for a Mother-Daughter Christmas trip. Nothing like New York at Christmas, except maybe San Antonio, but that’s just the Texas-hidden-here-in-my-heart yodling. I watched their pictures of their adventures from my warm apartment beside the Braves stadium. It was the definition of vicarious enjoyment.

They spent four days over a weekend to get their fill. I was proud of my daughter for coming up with the idea, planning it, and pulling it off well. A comedy club owner saw these two Georgia girls coming from a mile away and put them front-row CENTER, a comedian’s easiest target. All six of the comics “roasted” them lightly, leaving them with a lifetime memory.

They also went to the Neil Simon Theater to catch MJ…the Musical, telling the story of Michael Jackson, focusing on the tempestuous relationship with his father, Joe Jackson. An amazing cast, catching the various stages of the development of Michael, presented both the vocal and dance components of this talented man. This was probably the highlight of their sojourn, with 30 Rock, Hoda, Freedom Tower, and a plethora of restaurants contributing to their memories. I was so happy they got to go, spend precious time together, and make that memory. Priceless.

Upon their return, I saw a few folks for coaching sessions before jumping into the intrepid Highlander to head for the coast. The drive down to St. Simons Island is always nostalgic as I remember the sights along the way, especially my days growing up in Atlanta. But the whole Christmastide mystique engages my emotions and sentimentality at a profound way, it seems.

Taking the downtown expressway south through the heart of the city, I saw the Turner Broadcasting Center, two modern production studios joined in the middle by the classic Georgian architecture style by the Atlanta Progressive Club. It looks a little odd to me, but it was thrown together by Captain Outrageous, Ted Turner, and he was in a hurry at the time. We held one of my Junior-Senior proms at the Progressive Club, a classy venue back at that time. My date for my junior year was a senior whose family began the Savannah College of Arts and Design (SCAD), a premiere learning center for the arts in the southeast. Pam was a gifted vocalist, playing the lead of Maria in my high school’s production of Sound of Music. We had lost connection as she moved to Savannah after college to work with the campus there. Unfortunately, I learned a few years back that she had died from cancer, this beautiful, petite songbird had suffered an early death. Seeing the Progressive Club, now dwarfed by the studios always takes me back to that special night and friend. This particular time prompted a brief flow of melancholy.

Not for long. I quickly saw to my left Emory Midtown Hospital, formerly Crawford Long, where I spent time in clinical chaplain training. But more importantly, it was where I had quad bypass surgery, by my Emory classmate, Omar Lattouf. Omar is a leading innovator in cardiac/thoracic surgery, developing a procedure to do the bypass without having to put the patient (in this case, my smart-ass white boy self) on the heart/lung machine. While I was on the table for eight hours, it allowed me an almost instant recovery from this major surgical procedure. Whenever I am talking about this event. I always add that Omar was an immigrant from Jordan and is a faithful Muslim. How about that: an immigrant, and a Muslim saves the life of South of God renegade. That’ll preach.

And it does! And has.

I barely have time to give thanks to God for Omar’s calling and gifts before I catch a glimpse of my Camelot, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on historic Peachtree Street. It was there I caught a glimpse and demonstration of a congregation that convinced me that the Church could be a player in the city, and that it could be the place where persons could be transformed. St. Luke’s provided me a vision and gave me the courage to follow the promptings of the Spirit to leave the comfort of my “home team”, that I grew up with, in order to enter into the arduous discernment process in the Diocese of Atlanta. The priests and lay people were sponsoring for Mary and me as we both made this transition. The Rector, Dan Matthews, my supervisor, Palmer Temple, Gene Ruhle, Rey Parkins, and Peter Gorday gave me the gift of seeing what was possible when talented, committed, creative people are unleashed. My heart fills with gratitude every time I pass by that building on the overpass.

Side note: Later, I was able to visit with my sponsoring priest, Dan Matthews, and thank him specifically for the gift. At the time, he had gone from St. Luke’s to Trinity-Wall St. in New York and was mixing it up with the power brokers in the Big Apple. He was there at 9/11 when the Towers came down, blinded by the billowing dust. As I said, I thanked him, but added a bit of a rejoinder. I told him that he had “skewed me”. He looked puzzled. I explained that he “skewed me” by leading me to believe that all Episcopal parishes were progressive and engaged in the social gospel. Not true. Ask me how I know this. And his staff, brilliant, energetic risk-takers did not give me an accurate view of the priests in the Church. My ever-present dialectic comes to visit me again as I was both blessed and cursed to have this halcyon experience early in my Episcopal life. Dan laughed at my comment but agreed with my assessment, I was “skewed”. Oh, happy curse.

Next, coming into the Grady curve, we cross over Sweet Auburn Avenue, directly by Ebenezer Church, where Daddy King and Martin pastored, now pastored by our U.S. Senator, Raphael Warnock. Sweet Auburn is the hub where civil rights leaders met, strategized, and acted. The MLK Center is a pregnant reminder of the commitment needed for justice, along with the cost that goes with it. Dr. King’s grave is a regular stop for me “get my mind “right”, as Boss told Cool Hand Luke. A sculpture on the horizon pictures Martin with his arm, raised and outstretched, in a typical prophetic pose, as it should be.

To the right just beyond Auburn is a building with a wall mural of my hero, John Lewis. It has a HUGE painting of the man in full, with HERO painted at the top. He is my closest link to the apostolic order of freedom fighters in those early civil rights days, along with Andy and Joe. For a priest in an institutional church, it is important to be reminded of the hard work and risk of proclaiming a realm of God that is breaking in, even now, over our heads. John called it “making good trouble” and I am trying to uphold his legacy. Advent and John the Baptizer put me in the prophetic mindset. John’s defiant face was a proper send off for me to head back south for Christmas, getting ready for Christmas Day.

I would pass by the Stadium on the downtown connector where the track and field events took place during the Olympics, an epic event making Atlanta truly an international city, not just a Chamber of Commerce hype. I would pass by the Hartsfield-Jackson airport with a stream of jets heading to and from who knows where. There’s the Porsche test track where wannabes, like me, are playing like kids with these amazing vehicles and the laws of physics. There is the wonderful throwback of the Atlanta Farners’ Market where my granddad would take me to pick out our watermelons for the church gatherings. So many scenes in my memory flood my fields. It was a good way to take leave of my urban perch for the pastoral scene of my island.

My route takes me down through Macon, veering east on I-16, down through Dublin and Metter, on to Savannah, where one exits on to I-95 which could take you all the way down to Florida, should you so desire. My wife, who is driving, goes the interstate the whole way. Me, I’m looking for side trips, coastal towns. I regularly hop off on Ga. 17 somewhere along the way so that I can see what’s shaking in Eulonia, Sapelo, and my favorite, Darien. Regardless as to how you get there, St. Simons Island is our destination. Did I mention that she was driving?

My son came into town from Nashville, bringing Scout, his dog, a Covid adoption dog who is an Australian Shepherd, one of the sweetest dogs I have known. To live with a musician, I guess you have to be natively of a sweet disposition, or get that way as soon as possible. Thomas also brought along Boudreaux, the dog of his friend, a dead-ringer for the mastiff Good Dog Carl. To say that Boudreaux commands the space with his size is quite the understatement. However, Bou was so gentle and kind as he moved among us. I posted his winsome photo on Facebook which prompted several people to opine that he looked like my kind of dog. I love me some Boudreaux, and some Scout, and my resident island dog, Reagan. All adopted granddogs. A houseful of dogs at Christmas is my idea of a good Christmas, even if it was not at a duck camp.

Christmas Eve found me getting sick in the morning, with a terrible cough from deep within my chest. I would find out on Boxing Day, Monday, that it was flu. No fun. This is the first year in a long time that I have gotten the flu vaccine shot. In any case, I was very sick Christmas Day, saw a PA on Monday, getting on symptomatic meds, and just riding this sucker out. I have missed the family gatherings to point, my son acusing me of going Buehler on the group.

It’s been a very different Christmas for me this year. In all my years of doing multiple Christmas Eve services, followed by Christmas Day service, I was never sick. It feels odd, even intrusive, but I am trying to use it to take my own counsel: to Stop, Pause, and Reflect. Nothing like Mother Nature getting your close attention.

I am hoping to get to enjoy the season in the time remaining in Christmastide. I still have nine days until the Epiphany, Jan. 6th. I’m going to give it my best shot. I hope that you survived the Artic blast, the travel woes of Southwest skies, and the “I can’t believe my relative said that!” experience at Christmas dinner. Try to enjoy this magic time when, in the deepest darkness of midwinter, a light breaks through to bring you hope, to warm your heart, to set your face for the coming year.

Christmas blessings, y’all, from my island off the coast of Georgia. Great love has been given to us, and now, our task is “to Christ it” in our time, loving our neighbors with lavish abandon. Let that be an intention as we lean into this fresh year.

Stages of Faith: Where Are You?

Last week, I was prompted to reflect on my journey of faith, beginning by recalling “my” early question that drives much of my thinking: “Why do some people have faith, and, some people do not?”. I gave a promissory note that I would fill in some of the gaps as to the formal theory James Fowler offered as to the universal, sequential, and hierarchical stages of faith that humans move through in the course of life.

I have interviewed hundreds clinically, thousands informally, about how they make sense of life. How do they see the contours of our experience, our common reality? How has their nature formed them, how has their nurture shaped them, and what is the interplay of the two? What interpretive lenses have they developed during the course of their life, and how do those lenses inform and limit what they see? How can those lenses change through time, even be transformed?

Fowler and our tribe would state that faith is a universal among humans, which I assume includes YOU. I realize that I am being optimistic, but that’s just part of particular and peculiar faith. As you may have read last week, it flows from the circumstances of my beginning, the people who formed me and my way of seeing this world that I found myself living within That original image of the world has been added to, subtracted by, and transformed by the people and experiences I have had. YOU may have been or are one of those factors. You know who you are…..

Fatih as we are defining it is not limited to creedal communities, or formal religious systems of thinking and valuing, though they certainly inform a person’s faith formation. Even a refusal to name any religious faith as one’s own is, de facto, a faith, a way of seeing the world. Ironically, I have found that some of the most adamant holders of faith are those who vehemently oppose any ascription to a transcendent reality. It’s a part of their “faith” by having NO faith. Cue Alanis Morisette, Isn’t It Ironic.

While we hold that faith is a universal phenomenon across cultures, we also offer a stage structure as a heuristic device to help us see ways in which our faith is formed, reformed, and transformed through the course of our life. As we said every time we professed this ambitious theory, we intend it as a helpful model rather than pigeon holes in which to stuff persons.

Our stage theory is largely formed on the back of Piaget’s cognitive structural theory. It also owes a great deal to the practical extension of that theory into moral reasoning by Lawrence Kohlberg. Moral development theory looks to see how we reason our way through ethical dilemmas and arrive at moral decisions.

Drawing on Piaget and Kohlberg, James Fowler forwarded a stage theory that identifies six identifiable ways of exercising that human capacity of faith. For a look at the sweep of those six faith stages, I would point you to the signature statement of our theory, Stages of Faith, which will dissect the dimensions of human faith, and will show you the debt we have to Piaget and Kohlberg, while making our unique contribution. Stages of Faith is hefty in theory, deep in humanity’s meaning, daring to look unflinchingly at our existential condition. It has the temerity to ask “my” question of how we come to faith, emerging with an answer.

In last week’s article, I did a bit of autobiographical gazing into my past journey of faith, which some refer to as a pilgrimage. It gave a personal testimony as to how my faith was formed, reformed, and hopefully transformed to where I am presently on this Winter Solstice of 2022. This week, you will be spared of my gaze turned within as I focus my attention on the three stages that touch the largest group of people living life: Stage Three- Conventional Faith, Stage Four- Individuative Faith, Stage Five- Dialectical Faith.

We will begin with Stage Three, rightly referred to as Conventional Faith. It is generally the system of truth, the life orientation that you grew up with. Many times, it represents the faith tradition you grew up with, mainly because it was all you ever knew or was exposed to in childhood and adolescence. The content can be varied. It could come from a traditional religion that offers stories, symbols, and values that are passed on to you by your parents or family of origin. This can be done aggressively with indoctrination or casually, just hoping you pick it up as you go. The content can be that of no-content, agnostic, or atheistic, or a more common form in our society, relativism. Again, this can be aggressively pushed or merely present as “the way we do things around here”. These positions can be tacit, that is, largely assumed and unexamined, or carefully thought through and discussed openly. Regardless, this becomes your way of seeing the world, or interpreting just what in the world is going on.

A person transitions out of Stage Three when you realized that you have accepted a system of thinking that has been handed off to you, by your family, your society, or culture.

You awake to the fact that there are other ways to conceive life, make ethical decisions, and see the lay of the land of human existence. For many people, this process takes flight when one goes off to college, leaves home, or joins the military service. Not only does one leave the context of home and family, but may be simultaneously exposed to other ways of thinking and valuing. This can prove to be both exhilarating and frightening, maybe both.

The vortex of relativity may cause panic and disorientation. Many times it may lead to retrenchment, diving back into what you “know” with a sense of resistance to the new, the literally “unfamiliar”. Others seem to relish the new found freedom and see the world as a smorgasbord of thought from which to experiment and choose. This exposure typically leads to a choice of an “owned faith”, something that you have chosen for yourself. It can be an affirmation of the system that you grew up within, or a choice to adopt a new community of shared belief. Let me add that for some that community is of people who explicitly don’t know and choose not to know or care. That too is a system of belief and way of faith, strange as they may be to us who are thinking in traditional terms.

I can’t help but think about the Christmas holidays, that moment when kids who are going through this process are returning to the nest. Many times, they will be asked to go with the family to a religious service that they used to attend each year when they lived at home. This can be comforting to one who has been inundated with strange and unfamiliar knowledge, returning to familiar people, thoughts, and customs. On the other hand, it may press the discontinuity in their heart, mind, and soul, making them feel uncomfortable, even disingenuous. It makes sense to be aware of what’s going on with folks who may be experiencing this transition. What a novel thought to be compassionate in the season of Christmas.

Stage 3 Conventional Faith transitions to Stage 4 Indiviiduative Faith which signals that one has self-consciously chosen a faith position. This can be a new system of belief, a system that has a few differences from one’s original conventional faith, or it can be a decision to stand in the one that brought them to the dance of faith from the beginning. The big difference is that now one has come to “own” the faith for oneself, and not merely going along for the ride of an inherited faith of one’s family. That movement to make a conscious decision is dramatically portrayed in evangelical religions as one literally “walks the aisle” to the front of the church to profess your faith. It is curious that the drive for such a profession comes in these congregations before the child has the cognitive structures that have the necessary capacity to make such a decision. Having worked with youth, this push for premature closure is driven by fear, as caring parents wan their kids “done” before they get away from them. Understandable, but it tends to be counter-productive as the adolescent develops formal operational thinking. I’ve seen the same thing happen in more liturgical traditions that use the liturgy of confirmation to formally ask questions as to what one believes. Again, this is generally done too early to be effective. Regardless, the “owning” of one’s faith represents a significant moment in the life of faith.

My experience is that, given the fear-based push, this move to Stage Four may be repeated several times, usually requiring some steady-state identity before one truly has the capacity to choose and “own” one’s faith. And some never find that capacity, choosing to hang with folks that make them feel comfortable, confirming both their values and prejudices. Formation in many traditions are relegated to learning facts, affirming dogma, rather than engaging the basic issues of faith. Thankfully, some traditions and denominations are beginning to take this question more seriously.

After one has lived out of a Stage 4 faith for a while, one will find that your system may have some holes in its logic, or some gaps in its argument. Coming in contact with other faith systems may alert you to weaknesses in your own position or may be attractive to dimensions of the world’s reality that you may have missed. This may lead you to question your faith position internally, not sharing that doubt with others. Also, sometimes people in Stage 4 react strongly to those emerging internal questions, doubling down on their firm commitment to the system that they have chosen. For some people, this self-selected system of belief is satisfying and remains their faith position for the rest of their lives, serving them well, as they say, even unto death. Whatever Gets You Through the Night, adds John Lennon.

We found that some of the people that we interviewed had their self-chosen Stage 4 disrupted by some event that caused them to question the adequacy of their faith structure. A traumatic event to one’s self or to a loved one may prompt such reconsideration. Also, we found that world events might begin the cracking of the solid structure of explaining “how things are”.

Sometimes, the overly tight rules of a Stage 4 faith start to fray at midlife, leading to an exploration of other ways of making sense of life. This transition can resemble the vortex that one felt when moving away from the conventional faith that you inherited. Once again, one becomes acutely aware of the competing systems of truth, and may be overwhelmed at times as one no longer has the certainty that accompanies a stabilized stage.

Again, one may choose consciously or by default to return to the formerly stable set of beliefs and orientation. Or, one may come to hold one’s faith tradition more loosely, recognizing the Truth of other systems, no longer obsessed with defending your own. One may still live fully and faithfully out of one’s chosen faith, while giving berth to others, looking for parallels that exist between systems of truth and values. This Stage 5 is called Dialectical Fatih as it holds one’s own faith in tension with other faiths. There seems to be a relaxing of the need for “superiority” that was a part of one’s past way defining one’s faith over and against others’ faith.

My research interviews with Stage 5 folks demonstrates a deeply held “home” faith while expressing an open view to the Truth that may exist in other’s faith. Appreciation for others’ journey and culture does not seem to diminish the commitment that one has for their chosen form of faith.

I had an opportunity to interview the mystic Howard Thurman just before his death. He was a grand example of one who was firmly rooted in his Christian tradition, and yet was able to appreciate and learn from other faith traditions, enriching his own faith. I remember admiring his gracious acceptance of others’ traditions as he described them in appreciative terms, synthesizing their perspective and insights with his own, and emerging with a transformed vision of the world. I have come to know this as Creative Interchange, which I have written about in previous articles. On that weekend, I recall witnessing a kind of faith that seemed to offer a way forward. In these days of aggressive purveyors of violent differentiation and judgment of right and wrong, I recall the real-life faith of Dr. Thurman as “a way through”, and try to do likewise.

I have tried to give you a “down and dirty” introduction to three of the most pertinent stage of faith that are offered in our faith development theory. Again, I refer you to the primary source material of James Fowler, Stages of Faith, for a winsome and provocative picture of human faith as well as a process of stage development that we found common in persons.

I am finishing up my writing of this particular article on the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. It has served as a liminal time in the history of humankind, when our awareness of the thin space between heaven and earth. In this deep darkness, people of primitive religions, those in conventional, those wrestling with relativity, and even those with more sophisticated faith look to the horizon of our world for signs of the coming light. This is our faith, our hope for the future… our future.

I hope that in this season of Light that my ramblings may provide a fresh insight into your own journey of faith as you borrow the heuristic lens of faith development. May the faith that you carry in your heart, mind, and soul bring you joy and wonder in this time. Advent blessings.

You Got Faith?

A better question might be, “What kind of faith do you have?”

Or even more provocative, “What kind of faith’s got you?”

Georgia may have always been on the mind of Ray Charles, and I am grateful for it. But it’s”Faith” as a phenomenon and experience that has always been on my mind.

More precisely, “my question” (we all have one “pet” question that we push around the room and our lives) is “why do some people have faith and some people don’t?” How and why does that happen?

As I look back, the way I formed “my question” reflects the way my “faith community of origin” framed the notion of faith: are you “in” or are you “out”. This distinction held true for your decision to be a person of faith, or not, as well as your eternal destiny. Were you “in”, that is, bound for the promised land, or were you “out”, going to Hell? Fiery evangelists could paint the scene in bold colors, making their cosmic case, and scaring you half to death. I consider myself fortunate to have missed most of those pyrotechnics, while I am sure some feel that is precisely what is wrong with me.

I’ve been pushing this question of faith around for awhile. I came to it naturally. Religion, God, faith is in the water when you are South of God.

I grew up in church, mostly South of God. We were in church a lot. A lot. Do you get my drift?

Steve Harvey has a whole comedy routine about being in church “all da time”. Steve emphasizes the word ALL: ALL DA TIME, or as we said in my family, every time the church doors were open. Steve goes through a litany of the various meetings in the black church, a meeting specific for every day of the week. Deacon’s meeting, prayer meeting, young people’s meeting, old people’s meeting, and the infamous and ubiquitous building fund meeting.

I identified with his story the first time I heard it on his Kings of :Comedy documentary, his comedy routine about church. Surpringly, his church attendance led to his life in comedy. Here’s his logic: if you have to be there all the time, you have to start looking for things that are funny, things that will keep you interested. Otherwise, you will go crazy. Steve chose comedy.

For him, it was Sister Odell. Steve mentions in his act that he grew fond of going to church just to hear Sister Odell cuss. She would be talking to his mama, referring to some of the folks that were pretending to be holy, those backsliders, who would “do right” on Sunday, putting on a show, but “cut the fool” during the regular days of living. If you grew up in church, Steve, and I, assume you know who he’s talking about.

Steve would overhear Sister Odell talking to his mama about that “worthless somofabitch” that went by the name of Deacon Smith. As a kid, Steve found the juxtaposition of a holy person telling the truth, instead of “putting on” made Steve laugh, rightly. There’s a lot to laugh about when I look at the church. And there’s a lot to cry about as well, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about faith. Human faith.

I was prompted for this piece of writing by an article sent to me by Dr. Joe Howell, a clinical psychologist who has taught me a lot about the Enneagram. The Enneagram is popular in spiritual retreat centers, particularly in Roman Catholic and Episcopal ones. I first came across the Enneagram some time ago at a Jesuit retreat house. The Enneagram is a spiritual typology, which is sort of a Myers-Briggs inventory of the soul. It offers a way to reflect upon your spiritual life and also gives you some insights into how others are wired. I have found it helpful, and have watched the Enneagram become more mainstream in the last few years. My daughter reintroduced it to me as she was preparing for her marriage. She and her husband have found it a helpful way to talk about what motivates them, what’s important to each one, and how to live their lives together. It’s like the Myers-Briggs in that sense, although more explicitly spiritual.

I dove back into the Enneagram, thanks to my long-time friend, John Adams. He introduced me to Dr. Joe Howell, a prominent Enneagram guru in the circles where I run. Joe has written the best book I know on the Enneagram. Becoming Conscious, and I receive a daily post from him on things Enneagramish, to borrow a Steve Harvey literary construct. This week, Joe was taking note of my mentor, Dr. James Fowler who put forward a theory of human development around faith. I worked with Jim for six years at the Center for Faith Development at Emory as we sought to discover the psychological contours of human faith. That post from Joe prompted me to reflect on Fowler’s insights, discoveries, and how I followed my interest and curiosity in the phenomena of human faith. David Byrne’s poetic question dogs me: How did I get here? In the rearview mirror, such a preoccupation on faith makes some sense.

My question about faith emerged in my early environment, going to church with my granddad to the Friendship Class at the local Baptist South of God Church. Oakland City Baptist. This was my first experience of Christiian fellowship and community, as the old men (my age now) rallied round me to provide a “family of fathers”. I have a picture of me when I was three at my birthday party. When my mother asked me who I wanted to invite to my party, legend has it that my response was simply, “the boys”, meaning the Friendship Class. In the picture, I am on my grandfather’s shoulder, with the boys gathered around a picnic table, with a cake and punchbowl in the center. One does not have to dive too deeply into the water of Jungian archetypes to see and sense the prefiguring of how I would see religion. Flash ahead thirty years, and you could see a similar picture of me with my “grandfather” bishop Judson Child, with a host of priests gathered around a table with spiritual food set in the center.

This early experience in community was added to by weekend trips with my grandparents to “the country” for “singings” and prayer meetings. Bear it in mind that I am a mere child, taking it all in, experiencing, seeing, smelling, hearing and then nascently interpreting what in the world, my world, is going on. There were a lot of starched white shirts, Brylcreem pomade, cheap aftershave lotion, women with big hair, and expressive holy utterances that would form the core memory of this time in the more emotionally centered Bible Belt gathering. As strange as it appeared to me, there was a joy and sincerity that impressed my young eyes and soul.

A few years later, I would find my faith community in my South of God church youth group in East Point, a southwest suburb of :Atlanta. I confess that it was more of a social gathering than religious camp meeting, and that was just fine by me. It was where we tried on our emerging identities, began rather feeble but hormone-driven attempts at intimacy. Does she like me, really like me? How far can I press these boundaries? What do I think about all this God stuff? For some, it was where people would profess their faith in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and then get baptized, immersed in the waters of believers’ baptism. For most, it was a curious comingling of spirit, society, and sex. There was nothing quite like a church youth group party in someone’s basement. There was one girl who had professed her faith, gotten her sweet self baptized, but seemed to need to make her way down front to the pastor almost every Sunday night to “rededicate” her life to Jesus. After a while, even before my training in psychotherapy, I would anticipate her walk to the front for rededication, especially if I heard that she had a date that weekend. Guilt seemed to be pervasive in this group, which ran parallel to hormonal development. It turned out that the Bible lost a lot of late-night wrestling matches.

I had been warned by a friend that the college I had chosen, Emory, would take my faith away and that I needed to prepare my soul for battle. He gave me a copy of a book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, produced by the Campus Crusade crowd. For the uninitiated into evangelical apologetics, these were the “four spiritual laws” that would locate precisely where you were on your particular road to Hell. But it would not just diagnose your sinful, depraved state but give you a map to the exit ramp to heaven. I studied that book all summer, hoping to gird my loins for the onslaught of the dual-headed enemy of science and humanism that lurked at my college of choice, otherwise known as the den of iniquity. The women’s prayer group put my name at the top of the prayer list, hoping that I would not succumb to the wiles of godless liberal professors, since Emory had earned a reputation for the “God is Dead” theology of Dr. Thomas Jefferson Jackson Altizer thanks to Time magazine. I am guessing that no one had been leafing through Nietzsche in my town.

When I got to Emory, I found that almost half my class were Jewish, about half from outside of the Southern culture that I had been dipped in. I suddenly was forced to deal with people who were radically not like me, which was one of my first experiences of good news/bad news. That dialectic would become familiar, if not my brand.

It was bad news in that my presuppositions about life were not dominant within my new tribe. I faced a clear choice. I could search out a cultural ghetto in which to hide and wait the four years out, or I could examine other ways of making sense of the world. I chose the latter. That consequential choice, that I would later learn to be existential, would make all the difference. It introduced me to an experience of the vortex of relativity, in which Truth is no longer defined tightly, but is rather swirling with competing worldviews.

I love the phrase “the vortex of relativity” because it conveys exactly what I felt like in a world without my previous moorings of certainty. In cartoons that I grew up with, this psychological scene was represented by a character, like Tutor the Turtle, who is spinning in infinity, not sure what is up or down. That was pretty much my freshman year. The four spiritual laws that I had memorized became just a part of a merry-go-round of options for my examination. It was dizzying, and I was blessed. or lucky, depending on your cosmology, to have a compassionate professor, ironically named Dr. Jack Boozer, who helped me keep it between the ditches.

So what’s the good news? It’s good to realize that you have a perspective from which you came. I got clear that my perspective was mine, the only one I could have had: white, privileged, and South of God. And now, I was liberated to see that there were many other systems of seeing the world, some that were similar to mine, and some that were radically different. And, and here’s the kicker, I had the awesome possibility/responsibility of choosing my own perspective.

Once you choose your position, your way of looking at the world, life, and God, that becomes your faith, that is, your orientation, the way that you lean into life. Good news/bad news again. Even though you have chosen your particular way of thinking, you are now aware of the competing systems of truth, so you must differentiate and defend why you decided to follow the path you chose. This leads one to “distinguish” your choice over others, most times emphasizing the superiority of your chosen system. Typically, when one is fresh to this decision process, you can get defensive when challenged by competing systems, setting up a win-lose situation. This is the fatal flaw of much of religion, that is, dividing people up into us/them. In the South of God tribe, it was Right and Wrong. Some never get over that false dichotomy.

After a while of living with your faith orientation, one sees some issues that are problematic in explaining everything one is experiencing in life. This tends to happen in mid-life, although it can occur earlier due to a traumatic experience that challenges your neat package of how things work. Or, curiosity may press you to see the truth in other systems that offer another and fresh perspective. This can open up a person to a transition in which Truth is seen as bigger than any theory or theology, transcending the limits being imposed by a religious system or one’s home team.. One is able to see the truth in one’s chosen system while valuing the truth and insights of other systems.

What I have been describing is a part of a process we came to refer to as faith development. This is that faith thing that grabbed me early with the Freiendship Class, my youth group, my Emory experience of science and religion, my experience of life. I was in a process of which I was unaware, but a process that most folks experience.

As I said, this experience led me to Jim Fowler, who had been stolen away from Harvard to come to Emory. His impeccable credentials, his overlay of psychology, and his curiosity made for a perfect fit for me in my own wayward pilgrim’s progress. His ace in the hole for me was his relationship with Carlyle Marney, having served as his young assistant at a retreat center for ministers and priests, the Interpreters House. There in the foggy mornings and crisp evenings of Western North Carolina, Marney would gather ministers to sit in a circle and tell their knightly stories of how it was out there in the fields of church. Many came battered, shell-shocked, even abused by the good church folks that they sought to serve. “Telling their stories”, or as Marney called it “throwing up”, gave them a place to begin healing, mending broken bones, cauterizing bleeding wounds, and for some, a heart transplant. Marney would feed them with rich fare of wisdom and the heady wine of scholarship, getting them ready for reentry into the parishes that awaited their return. The work and the place became the stuff of legend, and formed the frame around which Fowler and I would later recreate such an experience for spiritual pilgrims.

Fowler listened to these stories, synthesized them with the cognitive developmental theory of Piaget and the moral development theory of Kohlberg, forming a nascent theory of how people develop in their making sense of life. For Fowler, the human is a meaning maker, homo poeta, shaping one’s experiences into a story that explains who you are. Everyone pieces those incidents and episodes into a narrative that makes sense. Some folks know how to tell that sorry better than others, and some are working hard to “fit in” an event that seems out of character. But, we all have a story.

Jim recognized parallels in the structures of development and had the audacity to claim that these stages are universal. He set out to do the difficult cross-cultural research, hoping to say something substantial about this human faith and its development in the wide human family. Following prior developmental psychologists, Fowler offered a theory of six stages of faith. If you are interested in diving deeply into this broad notion of faith as well as the predictable stages of development, I would direct you to his magnum opus, Stages of Faith, which I was able to work with him on during my time at the Center. It is rich reading, provocative, and gives great insight into this thing called faith.

Are you noticing that I am enamored by this thing called “faith”? It is a thread that runs through my life and the stories that I tell about my experience of it. I have more to say, but will stop now for the sake of the reader. Next week, I will give you a skeletal view of the stages, focusing on the three stages, Three, Four, and Five, that most of us glimpse, if not live through, with hopes it might give you some markers for your own journey.

Until then, why not use this time to pull up your own stories of growing up, in faith communities, or outside of them. Do you see any patterns? Are there defining moments when you wrestled with tough questions of meaning and values? Were there times of discernment that clarified your heart’s desire or your soul’s longing? Such things are the stuff of faith. Recalling them can connect you to the spiritual mystery of being, something that may be prompted in this season of pause and of hope in Advent.

Growing Up…Hopefully, Before We Die

Every December, I coordinate a gathering of my fraternity brothers from Emory. It’s always a roll of the dice as to who comes. I put my organizational skills on PAUSE as I simply send out an invitation to a list that has grown through the years. No pressure. Just an open invite, accompanied by a timid urging to pass it along to those not on my email list. And then, I wait to see who shows up. I take comfort in my friend, Harrison Owen’s zen wisdom: “Whoever shows up are the right people.”

It began as a simple gathering of the Atlanta Sigma Chis for drinks in December. We then imagined how much fun it would be to have other “characters” from Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana that would bring some additional “color” to the gig. When I describe them later, you’ll see what I mean.

We then decided, especially for those brothers who were coming from long distances, that we might add a night to include spouses. And I, being a broad-minded Episcopalian who many doubt my kosher Christian theology, insisted on including “partners” for our brothers who were gay. All of my homosexual brothers “came out” after graduation. I have often thought of how hard it must have been for them, living in our house, hearing our jokes and derisive references to gays. But they did.

One particular brother who had “come out” attended our gathering and made a point to announce this revelation to each person individually. I appreciated his sincere efforts as he literally went around the room during drinks, informing the brother that he was gay. It was not exactly “breaking news” to anyone in that room, but I loved the fact that my brother found a new freedom in that moment, something that he did not have before. Some have not been able to make that same brave journey of self-disclosure, perhaps justly writing the group off, mired in the sedimentation of the past. But, many have told me that they don’t want to “go there”. I regret that, but honor it, inviting them each year to join us.

Our format has evolved. We now begin with a gathering on Friday evening at Manuel’s Tavern, which is in the Virginia-Highland area, next door to the Carter Presidential Center, and near Emory University. It was a major watering hole for me in my undergraduate days as it hosted a number of political players and journalists, including Reg Murphy, the editor of the Journal-Constitution. But more important for me was that it was the home of Manuel, himself. Manuel Maloof was my “adjunct professor” of political science, sitting in a booth, late in the evening, early in the morning, reviewing political writings on FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. JFK’s portrait still commands a central place behind the main bar, along with Manuel’s ashes. It’s one of Dave’s Faves.

For me, it is home. It’s where I went to celebrate when I decided to get married. It’s where I went when I decided to take the plunge into the Episcopal ethos; where I went before leaving my hometown of Atlanta for a parish in Texas; where I went to celebrate my return; and where I went to lick my wounds with some of my precious friends who showed up again this year for our December gathering. This is 50 years of me coming to the bar, and it gathers the collective feel of the sweep of all these years: the good, the bad, and the ugly… but most powerfully, the loyal.

That’s what I’m talking about. In this group of boys who grew into men, a group of 18-year-olds that pledged to a fraternity that we barely knew, had no clue as to their history, their conflicts, their divisions, and their commitments and values. We had gone through a compact time known as Rush week, going to each fraternity house on the row to get a sense of the group, have some conversation, put forward our best “self” for approval, hoping to get a “bid”, that is, an offer, an opportunity to join this particular group of humans for our four-year sled ride through our college experience.

I had absolutely no idea as to how important this decision would be for me, the power and consequence of the decision. It would form the context of a critical, formative period in my life, and yet, I had little clue as to what I was signing onto, what ports of call this ship was headed for, what dangers awaited, what sirens might call from dangerous rocks, what delights particular harbors promised. The song “Brandy” suddenly sounds in my memory.

At the conclusion of Rush week, there came a time for commitment, referred to as Walking the Row. All those Emory freshmen and transfers would gather at the beginning of a loop known as Fraternity Row and then proceed to walk down the street, making a fateful and fatal turn to the house where you would “pledge” your loyalty for the next four years. While we gather in December a group of folks from five years either side of my class, the class of ’76, it’s those persons from my pledge class that prove most profound in my memory.

My friend, Kevin, who was from the suburb of Chicago, Western Springs, lived across the hall from me in my dorm freshman year. We met the first day of orientation and walked that night to Everybody’s down in the Emory village for my first legal beer. Kevin and I have been friends ever since, living in the fraternity house together for two years, going to sail in the Caribbean, being in each other’s weddings, sailing on Lanier after grad school, him coming to my ordination and celebrations of new ministry. And we had a sacred moment the other night at Manuel’s, where we paused to weigh the value of our friendship through time. Tears flowed.

And there is the other part of the trio, Mark Hastings, who made the critical mistake of moving into my freshman dorm room, midyear, sacrificing his grade point, carousing with Getz and me. Later, all three of us lived on the infamous third floor of the fraternity house. Later, Mark would graciously provide a room in the house he was renting near Agnes Scott as I returned for grad school. Our friendship has been a constant, something I could count on. Even though he did not want to expose himself to the tirade of some of our more conservative MAGA members, he showed up for me….which defines loyalty in my book.

And one more special companion was introduced to me by Hastings, Mark Jones. Mark is an interloper as he was not part of that group that walked the row in ’72, but became a social affiliate, or as he introduces himself, a “social affliction”. Jones was the drummer in our jazz trio, with Tom Greenbaum on keys and me on bass and BS. Jones is one of the funniest human beings I have ever known. He and I once took out a pair of twins, a story best untold, thanking God for no smartphones with cameras. Jones was the son of a prominent Methodist minister in the area who became a bishop, and he carries that burden well. He famously would take out his father’s business card, shake it in the air with a proper rumble, proclaiming that he was “on the lay-away plan” for salvation. He provides me a powerful image of what friendship looks like. I was able to trade on that friendship by getting him to surprise the gathering, showing up in his Santa outfit. He was the HIT of this year’s gathering.

Other members of that 1972 Pledge Class showed up as well. Gary Phillips, from Baton Rouge, is one of my favorite people on the planet. He was the Pledge Trainer when I served as president, and he and I tried to up the level of commitment beyond a legal demand to”show up” for work parties by inspiring a sense of engagement. In our last quarter in college, Gary, a group of girls, and I decided to “paint the SAE lion” one last time. Gary got caught and had half of his head shaved…the SAE’s sense of justice. He had an interview with a prominent accounting firm the next day. Obviously, the accountants were impressed with his double dose of courage, offering him a job. Funny how things work out.

Gary is natively conservative and I am one of those left-leaning liberals that your parents warned you about. From college on, Gary and I have continued to have meaningful conversations about issues that have faced us personally and within the larger social context. He is a brother that I value and count on.

Peeler Lacey came to Emory from Kosciusko, Mississippi. To say it was a bit of a cultural shock is a vast understatement. Fortunately, Peeler was smarter than the average bear, having attended a private prep school here in Georgia. He also seemed to have an eidetic memory like Sheldon Cooper, but that’s where the comparison stops.

I remember one particular night going with Peeler to the infamous Claremont Lounge. I’m imagining that the gyrating dancers would have had trouble envisioning us as a future physician and priest in those fraternity jackets. Another night, Peeler and I were commanding a foosball table, beating endless pairs of Georgia Tech students at Denny McClain’s bar in the basement of the Georgian Terrace Hotel. After becoming “tired of winning”, Peeler offered a particular opinion as to the lack of manliness of Tech men. One of our defeated opponents chose to challenge Peeler to a fight. Being from Kosciusko, Peeler was incapable to say “no” to such offers, so he proceeded to take off the aforementioned jacket, and when his arms were bound back in that process, the Tech guy cold-cocked him, setting off a full-scale bar fight. Fortunately for Peeler, he was with a non-violent priest-to-be who got him the hell out of Dodge. Eye wounds tend to bleed profusely. Ask me how I know this.

Jeff Doussan was from New Orleans, and brought that Mardi Gras spirit to my pledge class. Jeff was one of the original wild ones in our fraternity house. He had one of the few single rooms in the house, and schooled me in the value of a large aquarium and the romantic ambiance it provides. His was a 55-gallon tank with beautiful, exotic cichlids providing an aquatic ballet, while I had a 5-gallon tank with goldfish. Like Forrest Gump, that’s all I am going to say about that. Jeff was one of the first of my tribe to “streak”, notably on the Agnes Scott campus, an all-girls college. I remember specific conversations I had with him in our shared bathroom/showers. Nothing like locker room talk with a guy from NOLA. I always smile when I hear his accent say “Dave”, “Galloway”, or “Rev”.

Fred Runner was one of the first folks there at Manuel’s this year. I remember Fred specifically from the day we walked the Row together. He had a fresh face that rivaled my own baby face. We both had a lot to learn and Fred seemed to relish that fact. Fred was a part of a trio a little different from mine. His was comprised of Howard Kempsell and his roommate, Larry Lutchen. Howard was from New Jersey and offered a rather proper, careful way of speaking, He transferred his junior year, and later became an Episcopal priest. He and I have stayed in touch, as we moved through the labyrinth of the Episcopal structure and explored various forms of spirituality. Larry was from New York and became an ObGyn, practicing at Georgia Baptist Hospital, the place I was born. He later found his passion, becoming a high school teacher, and enjoying his work with kids. All three have been back for our December gathering, adding to the spirit of camaraderie.

What struck me the other night as we gathered some fifty years after we walked the Row, having chosen to be together for these precious and precarious college years, was what a good choice we made. I dare say that such a sentiment would be the opinion of most who made that decision. But, without reservation, I make that declaration for my own soul.

This group of diverse guys has stayed connected despite the separation of many miles. We have been through the deaths of some of those friends who wore the White Cross of Sigma Chi, and who made the walk that fateful day. We have handled incredible victories, tough situations, and reversals. We have embraced the recognition of some of our number “coming out” to their true sexual identity. And, we have all grown to a deeper acceptance of our differences. One brother in particular has made a transformational change in terms of his bigoted views on race, moving beyond the deep prejudice in which he was raised. Each one of us has done some of the hard work of jettisoning shards of our cultural residue, as well as coming to own and claim parts of our heritage

In spite of all of our significant and different political, economic, and religious perspectives, we have found a way to honor the deeper value of our brotherhood and the worth of each person. Our commitment, when initiated into the Sigma Chi fraternity, was to use this intentional grouping of individuals as a crucible in which to build our character and to learn the tough lessons of true friendship. That was and is a worthy goal. Surprisingly, it was where I learned some of my best lessons in leadership and what it means to be a person in this world.

You may be snickering, or maybe even experiencing a hearty chortle or guffaw as you hear me wax poetic about this motley group gathered in a pub on a night in December, remembering scandalous stories about strip clubs, bar fights, drinking, and carousing. Writing these words down caused me a few belly laughs as my memory flowed, particularly when I realize that I am the “motliest”, a word that I made up for the occasion! But superseding my laughter is a deep smile of satisfaction, that I indeed made good on my commitment to seek true friendship among this group of men, for I have surely found it here among my brothers. On this dreary day in December, I am feeling grateful, blessed, and ready for more..

Advent: Getting Ready

It should not have surprised me, but it did. I remember putting the CD disc into my Tahoe’s Bose CD player because I simply couldn’t wait to get home. Driving down Peachtree Street, Paul Simon began this album with the driving beat of an acoustic guitar, along with steady four-beat handclap, on the first cut on his new work. I had anticipated this fresh album from my patron genius entitled with the curious phrase, So Beautiful or So What.

That first song shocked me with its theme, not at all what I was expecting, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”. A contemporary Gospelish  song, set in the context of the busyness of the Christmas season, exhorting one to “bear it in mind”, to get ready for power and the glory and the story of Christmas Day. As he sings the lyrics, talking about how crazy life gets in this tinsel-tangled time before that magic day in December, he interjects a black preacher man exhorting those unaware that one needs to get ready. And in a traditional “call and response”, the preacher calls so there is no mistaking: Get ready, ready for Christmas Day!

Now, I know. Christmas is a cultural holiday that pulls all into its powerful wake. It is all about the commercial reality of a boom time for merchants, selling goods to make a profit at the very end of the fiscal year. I’ll never forget my visit to a sporting goods/outfitter in Tyler, Texas, to visit my friend, the owner, Alan Haynes, Alan was hosting me for a festive holiday lunch. I asked him, as innocently as I could muster, how was business. Alan, with a twinkle in his eye, responded with the Texas humor I came to love, “Business is great!  I only wish Jesus had a brother born in June!” He was getting ready for Christmas Day…… but with a green tint.

Getting ready. Within the Christian community, the four Sundays before Christmas intentionally are designed to help us prepare our souls for the new time of birth, symbolically incarnated in the birth of the Baby Jesus. The season of Advent. That’s the drill for those of us in the Christian tradition, but it was chosen by the early Church to coincide with the seasonal Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year in terms of the Sun’s distance. It is about the coming of Light into the Darkness, symbolized by adding a candle to an Advent wreath, culminating in four lights ablaze, with the punctuation of the lighting of the Christ Candle on Christmas Day. Getting ready.

Approaching the season of Advent, merchants like Alan aren’t the only ones who are busy. Clergy tend to get a  “deer in headlights” look. They are busy planning for the press of time due on the onrushing Christmas festivities that come with the influx of visitors to ogle the cute Baby Jesus. There are “end of the year” concerns with money, both closing out the financial giving that may define the shape of the parish, plus preparing a budget for the coming year. In certain denominations, end-of-the-year reports and performance evaluations loom. Add to that, there is a never-ending procession of social events, some fun, most not, where the pastor is expected to attend if not perform a functional role. A group of clergy that I meet with regularly has named this time of Advent a “whirlwind”, intimating the blinding, circling chaos of activity. Finding a way to be centered in the midst of the whirlwind seems to be the trick. Get ready.

Certainly this is true for all folks in the busy seasons of life, especially this time around Christmas. How do you stay grounded in the craziness of life? And when life serves up some unexpected twists and turns without regard for your particular and peculiar situation, how does one keep one’s centeredness? How do you stay balanced?  This is something that faces us all. I will be writing of some of the ways I have found to be useful in my peculiar whirlwind with the hope it can be helpful to you, particularly in this Advent season, getting ready for Christmas Day.

One of my basic and central disciplines for staying centered has been journaling, that is, writing down what is going on in one’s life, one’s mind. Journaling may be my most basic method of advancing my personal quest for increasing self-awareness, even in the distractions of business and busyness. It really is as simple as writing down what is happening, how you are reacting to those events, and noticing the hopes and fears that may emerge. Come to think of it, that is what I listen to when I am listening as a therapist, coach, or spiritual director. It captures what my old professor, Dr. Chuck Gerkin, wisely told me to look for in my life and in the lives of the people I was trying to help by asking a simple but profound question: What’s going on?

Journaling has been a constant in my attempt at being self-aware in my life. I was introduced to the general concept by a high school teacher who encouraged me to read Walden, the journaling of Henry David Thoreau as he lived alone in the woods, seeking to discover himself, to clarify his identity. For me, it meant keeping a composition book, writing down stray thoughts, verses, quotes, and wonderings.  I actually have a few of those early journals and am amazed at my descriptive entries, even though I was a little short on perspective.

Later, I came across Ira Progoff’s method of depth journaling as we hosted him at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University in Atlanta. Progoff developed a method of journaling that would cross-reference each day’s journaling with specific additional journaling on dreams, expansions on themes, hopefully leading one into a depth that is not possible by mere daily posting.

I found this depth method incredibly helpful during times of critical decisions as I was making my way through life. Dreams emerged, which I could correlate with happenings within my life, and in fact, recurrent themes predominated. The Progoff method, called the Intensive Journal method, can become ponderous, particularly if one has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I can’t help but have images of Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, journaling as to his various bodily functions. Unlike him, I tend to keep my journaling simple but see value in the variety of methods that have emerged.

The plan I am offering to you as you enter this season of Advent is a simple one. First, set aside a dedicated journal in which to write your thoughts. It can be a simple notebook you pick up at the local. pharmacy or a moleskin-type journal available at specialty shops. I have noticed a plethora of new offerings of a variety of formats, such as the Daily Focus Planner, the simple Panda Planner, the Monk’s Journal, just to name a few. These are helpful, suggesting areas of reflection, but one does not need a fancy format. Just get a notebook and begin.

Pause. Reflect. And the write. Set it aside in a place that is secure and not liable to be opened by others so you can write your thoughts in the rare air of freedom, with an assurance of confidentiality.

Set aside a time, a regular time where you will commit to intentionally record your thoughts and feelings during this season. It can be early in the morning before the day goes into full-tilt boogie, or it could be at the end of the day as you are becoming settled for a review of your day. It can vary, perhaps out of when it is convenient, but I have found the regularity of a specific time to be helpful. For me, I tend to use the morning, jotting down notes from any dreams of the past night, agenda for the coming day, feelings about the day ahead. You make the call. This is for you. But I encourage you to give it a shot over the next thirty or forty days and see how it goes. It could be a powerful response to the call to Get ready.

For starters, let me give you a few simple prompts:

Begin the journal entry by recording the date, the time, the weather, and the feel of the space you are in. This is useful for future tracking.
Jot down your general feelings, thoughts that are emerging/
Record any dream that may remain in your memory. Don’t fret if there are none.
List three things for which you are grateful on this particular morning.
What are the growing edges of your life? Where do you feel that you are being called to grow?
Be still, quiet, silent for a time. What thoughts, feelings emerge. Write them down.
Are there areas calling you to explore? Are there lights of hope on the horizon of the future breaking in?

It’s that simple. You don’t need to complete the above list every day. If one topic seems to call for more attention, give it. Go with the flow. Don’t over-complicate it at this point. Just commit, and then do it.

Pause. Reflect. Write.

After you’ve done it for a week, you might reread your journaling on Sunday or Monday to see if there are themes. Make a separate journal entry for that if you wish, cross-referencing. But don’t let the organizing inhibit your flow.

With dates attached, you can revisit your thoughts and musings months or years down track. I have looked back at my journaling from significant times in my past and found it helpful, even transformative. But that’s down track. Let’s get started NOW. Get ready!

Pause. Reflect. Write. And enjoy being with your Self.

Get ready.

What Damage Can You Do In One Four-Year Term?

I’m betting that you are thinking that this title refers to a certain orange-colored ex-president. You are accurately thinking that I have a long list of the things done to degrade our country, both internally and internationally. As tempting as such a diatribe is to me, that is NOT the subject of this piece of writing.

Rather, it is to mark the four-year anniversary of South of God. Four years. Trumpets sound, French horns adding gravitas.

My first blog post was published on November 22, 2018. It was Thanksgiving week and I was at my brother’s house on Ocean Drive on St. Simons Island, off my beloved coast of Georgia. I remember that the mechanics of Word Press was intimidating to me, but courageously, I pressed the “Publish” button twice, as required to send out my first article to the cyber universe. It was brilliantly entitled “The Journey Begins”. I could have creatively toyed with my virgin readers by framing the title with a suggestive, alluring “So”. but why obfuscate with such pandering techniques. Straight up. One true sentence…..

And, so, it began. For years, I had written a weekly column for my parish newsletter, usually pedantically pushing upcoming events and playing cheerleader to the troops. I had developed a routine that, in the hurly-burly world of parish urgency and palace intrigue, helped to make me feel normal, even sane. Most were written on Sunday nights, after the rush of the day was settled, and I was in my study, no one else in the church…..except God, I hoped…on a variety of levels.

Once, someone broke in, setting off the alarm, causing me more fear of the onrushing police mistakenly shooting me, although there was that one detective that never liked my style of playing the role of pastor. And one time, the alarm was not on, and a well-known druggie entered the building, pulled a gun on me, which I laughed off, giving him a ride home in my Jeep. But those were the exceptions. Mostly it was quiet, my stereo playing eclectic Texas songs, with me writing, reflecting, but encumbered by the role, the position. the dependent need to deliver to my parishioners.

Not so on November 22, 2018. I was FREE, and damn glad of it. Liberated, loosed, sprung, or as my colleague John has trained me, unleashed. And that appellation feels right.

It calls to mind a Springer Spaniel, a hard-charging dog with a nose for birds, that I would restrain with a “lead”, a fancy dog trainer word for a leash. Sometimes, I would let Rob off the leash, and he would rear his head back and take off in a sheer joyful run, none of the trained, disciplined quartering to cover efficiently the ground in search of birds for his master, but unleashed to go in a free rush of spirit. It brought a smile to my face as I watched vicariously. It still does.

Also invading my mind is an image that runs continuously, sometimes uninvited. It is of a wind-swept, deserted beach on Cumberland Island, an undeveloped strip of land just south of mine. It is the last barrier island before you fall off into Florida. I was introduced to it by my boss, Congressman Jim Mackay, who helped to broker the deal of wealthy aristocrats who had invaded the South’s barrier islands, to give it for a national park. That is when I first met Jimmy Carter, on a dock on that island, as we gathered to close the deal. It was good to know someone who actually did know the art of the deal.

Later, my friend, John Miner, a communicant at the Cathedral, would invite me to his cabin that stood near the famous Greyfield Inn, where John Kennedy, Jr. has his wedding reception, hosted by his uncle, Teddy. My friend, John, would use the Inn and his hunting lease for the Carnegie land to entertain his clients, and fortunately for me, his priest.

I first met one of Cumberland’s wild horses on a misty morning in the maritime forest. I was meditating in a camouflaged hunting chair, listening to Barber’s Adagio and a variety of Ralph Vaughan Williams selection on my Walkman with earphones. I felt eyes on the back of my head. Turning slowly around, I found a pony staring at me, observing this curious life-form invading his living room. After we properly introduced ourselves, he returned to his work. At least, that’s what he told me. And I, I returned to my meditating, my mantra, which suddenly seemed rather pedestrian. But my smile, that same smile, was on my face for quite a spell, as Grandma McBrayer would say.

Later on that same trip, I was walking on the beach in solitude at dawn’s break. I sometimes had observed the rather curious and ominous sight of nuclear submarines being towed out to sea from the King’s Bay base, its menacing towers and tubes of metal at the waterline, breaking the surface, the oddest juxtaposition of the Apocalypse framed by the Garden of Eden. The mercury-vapor orange cast an odd glow on the sky in the middle of the night, superseded only by the emerging light show of the Creator of morning itself.

On this particular morning, there were no subs. The orange glow had been banished. The sky was a blue, so pure and deep, that it would make you cry with joy and promise. It’s the exact same clear blue that I singularly remember on the morning walking to my office on 9/11. A purity that screams at you, demanding you notice its sublime beauty. But on that November morning, my reverie was supplemented by another sight, a herd of wild horses running free on the beach. I don’t know, but I thought I heard one of the horses laughing. Me, I was smiling again, that same goofy smile when everything seems “just right”. Free.

And that is my brief point on this Thanksgiving week, this fourth anniversary of South of God. It represents a celebration of freedom to write that “one true sentence” that I chase. It’s the dream of any true writer, to tell your truth, tell your story, express your feelings, offer your insights into this thing we all share called life, to risk one’s vision of a future. Freed from constraints, sponsors, sensitive members who pay your salary…..Free. I smile as I type.

Two-hundred and twelve articles…I counted them. Reviewing them quickly brought to mind an extravaganza of images and memories. Each title captured a bit of my soul, some deep memories of connection, a piercing pain of loss and separation. It’s been a mixed bag, which like most things, has its positives and negatives, don’t you know.

I look at the titles listed in order of their publication date and thought of how I had used South of God over the past four years.

It has provided a therapeutic outlet when a close friend like Chris Wall died…The Poet Is Not In Today. I still miss my Texas-Montana cowboy, particularly on Friday nights. I remember meeting him one night in Austin at the Broken Spoke as he sang his most infamous song, I Like My Women Just a Little on the Trashy Side. Smile.

I tackled some spiritual issues, much as I did when I played a priest on TV…Advent: Getting Ready. Lent: A Pause and a Nudge. “Don’t Screw Up My Easter!”. Sunday Morning Coming Down. Kidnapping the Baby Jesus. What Color is Your Bible? Go Grow Roses! Put the Camera on the Bishop…the Fat Guy in the Pointed Hat!

I used it to work out and promote my passion and commitment to Creative Interchange as a way through our malaise of dysfunctional polarization. A Powerful, Creative Interchange. Creative Interplay. How to Unleash Spirit. Tenacious is the Word. Spanning Boundaries, Building Bridges.

And it bought me space to share my learnings of Positive Intelligence and the work of mental fitness. Who is Sabotaging You? Want To Get Mentally Fit?

I used it as a journalistic device, reporting on the Ahmaud Arbery trial from my home in Glynn County. A Symbol of Unity in a Divided Town. Justice for Ahmaud! Giving Thanks for a Particular Black Panther.

It served as a vehicle to reflect on the gift of family. My Grandmother Is A Witch. Island Girl. On the Corner of Bourbon and Toulouse. Thinking of Thomas. To Look and See What God is Doing.

I explored subjects that caught the eye of my curiosity. Choose Your Bias. Decide…Killing Off Murderous Options. My Path to Mindfulness. Doctor, Lawyer, Tribal Chief. My Horse Named Music.

It afforded me a place to cogitate on the events of my life. Leaving Atlanta in the Broad Daylight. My Daughter’s Wedding. A Pause for Memorial Day by a Draft Dodger. My Nobel Prize. My Personal Camelot. A Fish Tale: A Freight Train, Bourbon Street, A Drug Runner, A Bouncer, and a Leopard. And on Nov. 5, 2020, What Does It Mean To Cast A Vote?

South of God even gave me a few moments to play with and get honest with my cosmology. Twist of Fate or Defining Moment. Sub-Version. Where You Step, You Stand.

And it focused my attention on my current work of coaching. Coaching… My Way of Giving Back. What is a Coach? Intentional Change. The Breakfast of Champions: Self-Awareness.

Some articles were just good stories. Ralph Does Folly…Ledell, A Man in Full. Magic to Do. Not THAT Part! In the “On Deck” Batting Circle Behind Henry Aaron. Do You Have Koons In Your Church? And a particular favorite story about my Cumberland Island friend/brother: That Old SOB Can Shoot!

This is Article 213. Reviewing the titles of my past South of God brings that same Cumberland Island smile to my face, the smile that is part of the Creative Self, the child-like smile that revels in the moment of existence, remembering the gifts of the past and leaning into the promising future. Joy and wonder begin to scratch the surface of describing this moment.

I have a list of potential titles for coming articles which gets my juices flowing. Next week, I will begin my fifth year. Thinking of the title, the creativity explodes. “The Journey Continues.”?

No. Time to turbo-charge. Like my old Saab, or my MR2.

So, The Journey Continues. And, there’s that smile, again.

Angels Unaware

Have you ever been visited by an angel?

My wife told me a story from a few years back.

She had been sitting in her car outside a CVS store near our apartment in Atlanta. She was on the phone for a long time, and in the process, her car’s battery died. When she tried to start the intrepid 4-cylinder Highlander, it would not start.

I’m not quite clear on the details., as she went inside to the store. The woman at the register heard her plight and volunteered to go outside, get the jumper cables that she had, and provide my wife a jump start. Turns out, this woman/s name was Angel.

That was at least three years ago.

We had moved to the island, living in my bliss for two years. My wife missed the classroom and has returned to the Schenck School. This necessitated a move back to the ATL and us to the same complex, in the shadow of the Braves stadium.

She was back at the same CVS the other day and saw Angel at the register.

She asked Angel if she remembered the prior event with the jumper cable, and she quickly said, “Of course!” adding her own account of the incident, as if another Synoptic account of a miracle. My wife thanked her again for her act of compassion and kindness toward a stranger. Cue the Publix Thanksgiving/Christmas music.

My point in telling this story is two-fold.

One, I would note the kindness of one person to another. It went beyond the conventional. Angel could have let my wife call her roadside assistance, remained in her safe role as an employee of CVS. Instead, she went beyond expectations and responded to my wife as if she were a friend, someone who is valued, someone who counts. In fact, in that small act, Angel recognized a stranger, someone she did not know, as a neighbor, and acted accordingly. It was not heroic. It was neighborly.

Two, I would note the gratitude of my wife, on a busy day, three years later, recognizing a person’s act, and taking the time to say “thank you”. Again, in normal roles, we just play the parts we are assigned, not going beyond expectations. The temptation to move routinely, safely, through the day is strong, and yet, she found the time to say “thank you” from across time. The exchange between these two persons, one a cashier doing her work, and the other, a teacher busy getting home from work, is remarkable.

This moment in time speaks to a basic connection we have with one another. It is often obscured by roles and routines, by press for efficiency, by fearfulness, or anxiety of the stranger. So many things can get in the way of such a simple and profound connection.

I point out this brief story of Angel and a person named Mary to make a simple point. Opportunities for neighborliness occur all the time, every day. I’m sure many of my readers instantly picked up on the name analogy that I was playing with in this story. No incarnational announcement, just a simple set of jumper cables, but the message of connection is profound. Reaching out, reaching across our individuality to connect.

We are heading into Thanksgiving week, some of us traveling, some of us staying put. Some will be with large extended families, some will be alone. Regardless of your circumstances, I invite you to tune your eyes to see opportunities to care for others, particularly strangers, people who may need help, and you just happen to be in the perfect position to reach out, to reach across and connect. You might be able to become an Angel to someone who needs just a little bit of extra care. What a gift that would be. What a gift you could be.

This Angel event reminded me of my grandmother who was quick to quote Holy Scripture to me when I was a child. I wish I had been asked to call her MeeMaw like Sheldon Cooper called his grandmother in Texas. I just got dealt the Georgia ordinary “Grandmother”. She was touted to be the best Bible teacher at Oakland City Baptist Church there near Ft. Mac, now Tyler Perry’s mammoth studio, speaking of Madea. To me, she was a three-syllable name, Grandmother, who showed me a lot of love….love that came with her godly advice.

A quote from Grandmother that I remember was an admonition from the New Testament book of Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” That’s the King James Version, resting of the promises that Jesus and God spoke Elizabethan English, don’t you know.

A more modern translation goes like this, translating from the Koine Greek, the actual language of the New Testament: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for by so doing, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” This is clearly more approachable to the modern person, but the poet in me prefers the King James with the luscious “unaware”.

The point is the same. It’s to get you to be nice to strangers with the implicit promise that it might pay off for you later. It’s South of God karma, or as close as it gets. Be kind to strangers because some of those might just be angels sent down here to trick you. By being kind, you turn a trick into a treat. Instant karma.

I once got the courage to ask my grandmother if this was a way that God was trying to bribe us. Her mouth turned down at the corners, signaling me that she was not happy with me. I didn’t ask again.

Regardless to the potential bribe, it is a deeper spiritual truth that reminds us that all human beings are connected in their very being, and are deserving of care and to be treated with dignity. Jesus makes it plain: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. There’s a deft sleight of hand here: since we know you love your own damn self, you should extend that to your neighbor. It’s like the basic marching order of being a human being: love one another.

I’m just using Angel from CVS, who I have gone by to thank just this week, to remind us of the many opportunities that we have in our daily life to care for our neighbor in a gracious way, conveying our valuing of their being by noticing them and caring for them in a simple tangible way. Just for grins, train your eyes to look for those strangers who may come your way this day. Look for an opportunity to care, to extend hospitality.

And if you happen to be at a CVS on New Northside Drive, that person might turn out to be an Angel.