Moments of Grace

I don’t like surprises.

I never have.

I roll with them pretty well when they come my way, but I don’t like being held in suspense.

So when my wife told me that she had a surprise for me on Saturday, I was not excited. She would not tell me what the surprise was, only that I needed to be ready to roll at 10:45 in the morning..

I tried to pry information out of her, but she was adamant about keeping a lid on the surprise. She did say it was “not a big deal” which only raised my suspicions more. What could she be up to with this surprise?

Originally, she wanted me to be free Saturday morning, but I had a retreat already planned that would occupy me from 10 AM to 3 PM. She asked if it was absolutely mandatory that I make this retreat, which was being conducted on Zoom. I insisted. She then said that we would do it the following Saturday, same time. Then, she mysteriously informed me that I would need to be ready by 3:45 for the surprise, today. My suspicions peaked.

Three-forty five came and we made our way to her Highlander. We drove past the Braves stadium, which took out one premonition. Then onto Cobb Parkway heading over the Chattahoochee River, another possible stop that we passed on by. All the way to West Paces Ferry, where we turned left. Past the mansion where I lived at the start of my doctoral program, on past the Governor’s Mansion, quickly approaching the toney Buckhead area where my old Cathedral resides. That’s definitely where we are going, or maybe the Fish Hawk to visit with Gary. I had just been talking with my friend, Glenn Brackett of Montana about his bamboo fishing rods, setting up a visit for one of the people I coach.

But she made a turn just before Buckhead, into the Atlanta History Center, one of my favorite places. But she did not go to the left up to the Center, but veered right down to a building I had never visited. It’s called the Kenan Research Center, where a library and records are housed. We parked on the curb, and I slowly made my way to the door, It was late afternoon on Saturday, so there was not a gaggle of research types there. In fact, I dare say we were the only visitors.

It felt a bit odd going through the lobby to the library area. Mary had made an appointment with one of the librarians there. We walked into the library, meeting a wonderfully welcoming young librarian, Serena, who made me think of my college friend, Ginger Hicks Smith, who served faithfully in the special collections of the Emory Woodruff library. This young woman, handed us the same gloves that physicians use when they are going to examine certain areas of the human body, raising my anxiety again, but then I saw it….a portfolio covered by a black cover. What the hell?

Still no explanation. I wondered what could possibly be under the cover. I will not tell/admit to what I feared might be waiting for me. What was under the black cover was a great surprise, and thrill for this Southside boy. It was a photo, a large one, of a group of Atlanta policemen in 1926, gathered around the major of Atlanta, William Hartsfield. There was my grandfather, handsome, John Wayne-looking policeman, along with his partner, Herbert Jenkins, who would later become chief but remained one of my grandfather’s best friends until the day he died. I later met with Chief Jenkins at his office at Emory, in the Center for Social Change.

Glen Pollard was my amazing grandfather, who had retired just before I was born. I was so fortunate to have him as a model for a male when I was a young boy, an image to pattern myself after unconsciously. I lived with my grandparents for the first three years of my life on this planet, with my divorced mother who moved home, and kept teaching high school biology at Fulton High. So while she was gone during the day, I had my grandfather and grandmother to be with me. What could have been a terrible absence of a father became a blessing, giving me an amazing trio of people who gave me unimaginable love and care. This dialectical tension of blessing and curse has played itself out over and over in my existence, so that I now expect it, look for it, count on it. Regardless of what happens, no matter how bad, I find myself natively looking for the blessing that is going to come my way.

The miracle even got better when my mother met a man from Hosford, Florida who had come to Atlanta to work for Delta Airlines. I more than hit the lottery when he married my mom, and adopted me…a package deal he would joke. Not only did I get a father who would become my “Best Man” when I married Mary, but I got a stellar little brother who would share my dad’s non-revenue airline pass as we flew all over this country….for free.

I laughed deeply when I first heard the old joke of a young boy who woke up on Christmas morning to find a steaming pile of excrement… once again cleaning it up for you South of God folk. The joke goes that the young boy is not disappointed by the discovery of the pile, convinced that there must be a pony somewhere. That is boy is me. A blessing from what seems to be a curse. Or as I say every so often to myself: Jackpot!

There’s an inherent issue for leaning into life with such optimism. I have learned that the hard way on occasion, but all in all, I rather like my way of doing life. I have known people who get a pony, but are obsessed with the pile that goes with it. It’s called a mindset. Some even suggest that it is a faith, a trust in the process that we are engaged with.

Living in close proximity with my grandparents proved to be such a blessing.

My grandmother’s gift was teaching me to cook as a young boy, giving me a certain love of the process of preparing food, appreciating the fresh produce of the farm, with a special love for her cornbread and her cast iron skillet. She also told me of her home in Texas, where the soil was black, the trees few, and the thunderstorms were monstrous. She took on a wistful countenance when she talked of Texas, lodging a piece of Texas in my Georgia heart. How magical, mystical when I took a detour while on my way to a board meeting in San Antonio when i spotted a sign indicating that it was 13 miles to Mart, a town my grandmother had mentioned. I found her mother’s grave under a lone mesquite tree, as she had told me, just outside of Waco, giving me a deep sense of connection to this land, relieving me of my homesickness so that I could stay in Texas for a decade…..hell, even weeping when I left. My McBrayer grandmother gave me a lot, not to mention her witchy ways…..that’s a W, son. And the gift included teaching me her incisive way of calling a spade a bloody hoe. It’s my Scots heritage that I wear proudly.

My grandfather modelled a compassion that helped to balance that edge. I remember him going next door on late Saturday evenings, to pick up a drunk, a passed-out Mr. Dial, a single veteran who would get loaded to assuage his inner demons from the war. My grandfather, a cop by day, and super hero by night, would take care of numerous folks, and do it with great heart, but with a quiet grace. He would also give me a deep love for nature, both at his family farm that he kept in West Georgia, and the woods where he taught me of animals and nature, and a pond where he taught me to fish.

I was a lucky, or blessed boy to draw these cards from the deck of life. (Lucky or blessed, depending on your cosmology). I find myself grateful most of the time, particularly in the latter chapters of my story. And that only increased when I was the recipient of this act of love from my wife of forty-one years, who went out of her way to arrange this amazing trip back into my history, time-travelling almost one-hundred years to my grandfather’s beginning as a cop, What an act of love she displayed in planning this special occasion on a Saturday in September.

That’s the way Mary is. She gives it daily at she teaches dyslexic students at the Schenck School here in Atlanta. She gave generously to our two kids, giving them a good dose of unconditional love, preparing them for life. She’s a bit more structured in her love while I tend to be free-wheeling. We make a good team, but you would need to check with our kids. She is an amazing friend to her childhood friends from the Druid Hills area. And now, she saved just a bit for me on this Septmber afternoon. What a gift.

Such moments give me a deep sense of grace, of receiving love from my grandparents, from my mother, from my amazing dad, my brother, my kids, my friends. I am a blessed man, though I sometimes suffer from a case of amnesia. I forget. And then, someone, this time my wife, surprises me with an act of love, giving me the amazing experience of a moment of grace. And I respond by being grateful, thankful for the gift of this life.

I remember people encouraging me as I was growing up to “count my blessings, name them one by one.” Mary’s amazing gift of a moment of grace on a late Saturday afternoon re-minded me of this reality, something that can get lost in the business and busyness of life. I am betting, I am hoping that you have a similar experience of being loved and cared for. I encourage you to let this amazing act of love from my wife, and my appreciation of it prompt you to pause, if but for a moment, and extend the effect of this amazing moment of grace.

Pause. Reflect. Appreciate. Yield to your instinct to be Grateful. Blessings, my friends.

Symbols, Royal and Ordinary

I’ve spent my life working with symbols. Crosses, bread that is broken, wine in a chalice, oil for anointing, even holy smoke for prayers ascending…and making certain people cough. Symbols are a major part of my priest gig. But symbols are an everyday part of our lives, not just religious. Symbols are everywhere.

I was royally reminded by the panoply of symbols at Her Majesty’s glorious funeral on Monday. It reminded me of my days at the Cathedral in Atlanta, particularly assisting Bishop Judson Child. He took extra time, breaking me into the Anglican symbols, many that were new to me.

Being birthed and raised South of God, my initial symbol was a book, the Bible, in particular. It was a symbol of God communicating with God’s people (back in the day, His people). The Book was packed with stories, teachings, history, parables, poetry, prophesy, to name a few. One problem was that those that read it often did not differentiate one type (genre, for the sophisticated) from another. It was simply Scripture, Holy Scripture, only differentiated in red letters, blood red, if spoken by Jesus. Myth was blended with history. Story was mixed with poetry. It was God’s Word. There was a simple way of dealing with it in most South of God churches: God said it. I believe it. That settles it! There was a simple equation of the Words of the Bible and “God said it”. Not so fast, Sparky.

I have another saying, a variation on wisdom from H. L. Mencken, not Jesus, I admit, but wise. This saying has been a cornerstone for me, so much that I have known to carry it with me in my left back pocket: There’s a simple answer to every complex question. And it’s wrong.

In my tribe, South of God, a preacher was known by his floppy Bible that he could cast about while making his three points. You had to shop for just the “right”, and I do mean Right, flop. Mine was stiff, an Oxford variation, which is probably where I went wrong.

When I switched tribes, my symbols changed. We still had the Bible, and we would read through most of it because of a thing we call the “lectionary”, which assigns the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Gospel lessons to be read on each Sunday. This means that you are getting a broad reading of The Book over a three year period, and not the hobby horse, sugar stick passages that Brother Lovejoy “really loves to preach on” that confirms his prejudices and predilections. I have to confess that as an Episcopal priest dealing with the lectionary, there were many Sundays when I wished to God that did not have to preach on some particularly difficult passages. But thems the rules!

In addition to the Bible, there are two other preeminent symbols that were in play for me each Sunday, the bread and the wine. These are the two things that Jesus decided to use to make his point with his followers, his disciples on the last night of his time with them. Bread and wine.

Jesus took this from his tradition, his tribe, the Jewish people, who took bread and wine, with words of thanksgiving before a meal. He transposed this familiar practice, charging it with words of presence and purpose. He took, blessed, broke, and gave this bread, promising that he would be present when his community gathered in the spirit of his love. It was a regular re-minder of God’s abiding with God’s people, as well as the purpose for which we were living. Powerful symbols, sacraments we call them, that communicate the Divine Presence. It would prove to be the pearl of great price for me, leaving my home group to go to another that had preserved the original power of the symbol, presenting the symbol on a more regular basis. Indeed, a great price, but it bought me my soul, my peace, and my purpose.

On Monday, I noted the pregnant symbols that rode on top of the Queen’s casket. A scepter, the orb, and a crown. The symbols hung faithfully throughout the transport from Westminster Abbey, through the streets of London, to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. These symbols were used in the coronation of Elizabeth in 1953. The scepter and orb was created in 1661. The crown was made for King George, Elizabeth’s father in 1937, made of gold, 2868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 4 rubies.

The scepter and crown are symbols of the rule of the monarch, while the orb has a cross on its top to remind the monarch that the power emanates from God. I found it fascinating that before the coffin was lowered to the crypt, the symbols were removed by the crown jeweler, Mark Appleby (with no relation to the restaurant), using white gloves, handing the objects to the Dean of Windsor, who placed each object on a purple cushion resting on the High Altar, again affirming the connection of the monarch to the Divine authority. Those same objects will be used to symbolically communicate the transfer of power to King Charles at a later time. The intent of the symbolism seems clear on the face of it. The question is how is this encoded action interpreted/perceived by the people who live under its influence.

Watching this drama play out in Scotland and London, the role of symbols is front and center for the United Kingdom and the Church of England. They were treated with respect and reverence as this transition was marked in the life of the people. Hopefully, these symbols will signal both the change and the stability as they move to the rule of a new monarch, as the longest tenure has ended.

The Queen’s symbols are rarified, while our everyday symbols may evade our conscious awareness. Symbols form a core part of our human experience, communicating anchoring connections in the face of change. What symbols function for you in a meaningful way? What are the symbols in your life that give energy to your living? And what symbols have receded in the electrical charge they convey?

Maybe it’s just me, my quirkiness, but I seem to have an ark of symbols that are powerful for me, almost on a daily basis.

A watch from my Dad, his Delta watch, connects me to him in an powerful way. It symbolizes his work ethic, his loyalty, and the service motivation of him and his company.

My grandfather’s Atlanta Police badge symbolizes his service and honor. A old diner coffee cup that was his sits on my desk reminding me of our “communion” as I was growing up as a young boy.

My mother’s paintings surround me, and connect me to her creative spirit every time I look at them.

Carlyle Marney’s pipe, his favorite, given to me by his wife, Elizabeth, reminds me of his commitment to follow the Gospel wherever it leads, and his intellectual curiosity. The pipe has a deep bend, like him, like me.

And now, the St. Damiano Cross of St. Francis, sits before me on my window in front of my desk, to remind me of my commitment to follow Francis in being an instrument of God in the world. It also serves a deep symbol of Francis’ passion to rebuild the Church.

These are just a few. There are so many more. My charcoal etching of Thomas Merton, spirited out of the Trappist monastery by ex-New York cop turned monk, Patrick Duffy; a picture of my family at the Wheeler Rodeo in Tyler, Texas; a flag my my sailboat that taught me to feel and catch the wind; a picture of my cast of Godspell where I caught a whiff of the Gospel; a coffee mug from Folly Beach, where I learned almost everything I know of church. I am a person of symbols, thriving on their power to re-mind, to connect, to empower, to unleash. I am blessed and am grateful. Two good eyes, and sometimes, I see.

What are the symbols in your life that connect you across time and space? What are the symbols that bring meaning to your existence? While they may not have 2868 diamonds in them, or have been passed down through the ages of monarchs, they are worthy. But only when you recognize them, drawing the power from their symbolic valence and presence.

I invite you, once again for a “pause”, to consider the significant symbols in your life. No white gloves required, but handle with care. Pause, reflect, ponder…..and then give thanks for those connections.

What the Hell Happened?

This past Sunday, we marked the anniversary of 9/11.

Twenty-one years ago.

Damn. It still hurts. My memory both shimmers and shudders, but there are few things that hold a more firm place in my memory.

It had been a beautiful, crystal blue morning, with no humidity, and that is noteworthy in Atlanta. I had made my way to my new office at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church for an early morning meeting with the two lay leaders of the congregation. Classes were back in session at our wonderfully bulging prep school, so there was a steady flow of kids walking/running/scrambling in front of my office. An everyday morning, until it was not.

My assistant popped her head into my office, telling us that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers in New York. I was a bit disturbed by her interruption, not for the news of the plane, but that we were carefully going through the numbers on my contract for a final edition, after much negotiation. I assumed that it was a private plane, with a malfunction or some medical emergency for a pilot. It turned out to be ironic that my own flight training had been at an airport where one of the pilots received some of their training,

A few minutes later, she told us that a second plane had hit. Clearly, something was up. We left my office to go to a space with a television to watch the aftermath. Speculation abounded, shock numbed the atmosphere, but soon we knew. It was the work of terrorists who had hijacked commercial airliners to assault the symbols of our economy and political power. They had disrupted our illusion of security, misplaced as it was, by bringing down these symbols of American power.

The wake of the aftermath was so odd.

We had numerous prayer services at the church for our community. People from the neighborhood piled into the building for prayers, the ringing of bells, accompanied by the seemingly never-ending listing of names of victims. I had to speak “a word” to these people that I did not know about this disaster, how to make sens of this horrendous event. Shaking at my seat, before offering my words from the loft of the pulpit, I tried to disrupt my anxiety by focusing on my breathing as the Trappist monks had taught me to center, to simply, and profoundly “be” present. It occurred to me suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, that my task was similar to those chaplains and priests that had to speak on the days after Pearl Harbor. Strangely, this gave me courage and a sense of connection to a wider perspective.

I discovered that an older student from my high school, who shared the family name of McBrayer, was in an office on the top of one of those towers that fell. Ken McBrayer, had been our quarterback, and seemed to take special care to boost my underclassman flagging spirit. He easily filled the role of “my hero”. He wound up going to the Naval Academy, served as the commander of a ship during Viet Nam, and was working for a firm in New York, with a wife and two kids in the suburbs. In an instant, he was gone, making the full tilt of the tragedy even more real for me.

My office was flooded with appointments, individuals and couples, asking a basic question: where was God in all of this? Tragedy makes for a tough time to be formulating a theology, but that is what these people that I did not know were doing: trying to make sense out of this, most of them using a framework of causality constructed in childhood with whisps of fairy tales and comic book plots. They knew deep down in their souls that these narratives could not contain the strains of this magnitude of tragedy. So they came to me, searching, groping, clawing for meaning.

I remember the patriotism, the flags flying off the back of fire engines, roaring down the street. It was an auspicious time to be in the flag business. Flag decals seemed to be slapped on anything that slowed down enough for application, centered or not.

I recall a renewed spirit of neighborliness, of reaching out to help someone in need, a refreshed sense of community spirit. And yet, there was something else unleashed as well as we learned of the perpetrators of this destruction. Our anger burned deep, our anxiety rose as well, and revenge was on the lips of our President perched on a heap of rubble, as well as in coffee shops, bars….and churches.

A former acolyte of mine, Logan Walters, was serving as George W. Bush’s chief aide. He had called me on 9/11 to check in. He called me again a few days later, asking me if I wanted to go to hear President Bush’s speech, his first formal address following the attack, scheduled for Atlanta. I did not want to leave my family alone during this crazy time, so he arranged four tickets for us so we could go as a family.

I picked up the tickets the day of the speech, taking the MARTA train to the downtown Regency Hotel to where the Secret Service was set up. My family filed into the meeting, Logan having surprised me with VIP seats, and we waited in a spooky silence, a silence that I don’t think I had ever experienced before that night. We were still shell-shocked from the images of falling bodies, towers tumbling, and hearts broken. I don’t remember a thing the President said, but do remember a feeling of quiet rage that seemed to simmer, but just underneath, an anxiety about the days ahead. What had these hellhounds unleashed?

Some took that rage and directed it by volunteering for military service. The attack had touched the hero archetype for some: for others, a deep sense of duty; for others, revenge; and for many, a mix. Some found other ways to express their feelings in other constructive avenues. I remember doubling down in those initial days of my service in that suburban parish to not dodge the hard questions, to fall into my natural quid pro quo mentality that wanted revenge. That was the natural response, MY natural response….I am formed in the ever-present South of God sense of loss that was be avenged. But I was intent on processing this in light of this radical person of faith who offered me a better way. This Jesus, who admonished me, a former South of God boy who knew all about kicking ass, “South shall rise again!” BS, to make things “even”. This person I called “Lord” admonished me to love my enemies and pray for my persecutors. This might not be an easy time to wade into the new waters of a parish, but it was the hand I was dealt. I tried my best to be pastoral to folks who were hurting deeply, full of rage, while at the same time, holding up the prophetic end of the deal, calling us, me, to another way of response. It is called the “way of love”.

I recall that this time gave me a rare opportunity to engage people quickly, because it raised existential questions about faith, our identity as Christians, and how we should respond. It proved to be an introductory time on steroids for me and this parish, letting them get to see what made me “tick” as a priest. And similarly, it unrobed the parish “spirit” to me more quickly than it could have in normal times. Their suburban gentility oozed at the creases, a part of their native identity that I had not bargained for. For good, and not so good. we got to “know” one another in the biblical sense. I was “on” well before a bishop could get around to “installing” me, as we say in the biz, like some refrigerator, or Sub-Zero in the case of HI.

I find myself wondering on this particular day, twenty-one years later, what spirits got released on that fateful day of reckoning, 9/11. As I began, I know we found a renewed sense of “togetherness” as Americans, standing up together against those who wish us harm. The neighbor-spirit was rich, unlike any I had known before, or since, and I valued it highly.

But at what cost?

Looking back in my rearview mirror, it seems that we have become more isolated, more self-protective in our stance toward the world. Us versus Them.

Our military might was mobilized to strike back, to take our revenge, to “let them hear from us” rather than any altruistic motive of protecting the innocent, not even casually covering our intrusion in the veil of “making the world safe for democracy”. We leaned hard into revenge, culminating in a breath of relief and celebration when Osama, the ultimate persona of a villain, was killed.

And although the Statue of Liberty, a gift ironically from France, was not a target of the terrorist-guided planes, it might have well have been, as the result was a country that no longer welcomed the masses who were seeking freedom from oppression. “Give us your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Rather, we were hearing chants of “build that wall” to keep “others” out, human beings characterized by politicians as “hoards”, and some who lost control and called out Muslims as “the enemy”. Jobs and tasks that only immigrants, my ancestors, would do to make their way into and place in this country were denied access. An isolationism became rampant, and my guess is that it flowed from a deep well of fear that 9/11 brought, as our shores had been relatively free from for most of its history.

The night of Nazi-like marching through the streets of Charlottesville, with Tiki torches flaming, and white boys chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” I never thought I would see such a scene, in MY country. And yet, there they were. I remember, as a student of history, wondering how such a sophisticated culture, with excellent education like Germany, could fall for a guy like Hitler and buy into a white supremacy scheme, playing on ego and fear. Now, I think I know,

But that was just the beginning. That fear and opposition got focused in an insurrection, aimed at our democratic process and even at the central symbol of our government, the Capitol. Folks who used to be known for “backing the blue”, suddenly turned on the law enforcement and police, battering them with the very flagpoles they were flying as a symbol of liberty, all in an attempt to disrupt our lawful process of an election.

We are in a tough time, when our democracy is threatened seriously, not by some snake oil salesman who wants to profit off our amorphous anger, anxiety, and fear, or the latest generation of conspiracy theorists who can always seem to find an audience. No, now it’s the deep questioning of our whole election process, frightened by the demographic changes that have occurred in our country. People who are okay with the democratic process, as long as they can control it, and win. They now seek to control it by kidnapping that very process, speaking of “the steal”.

With moments of silence today as we pause to remember the events of 9/11, my thoughts return to that very day, September 11, 2001, and my personal resolve to brave through that horror, committed to keeping this country and our democracy alive.

But, I remember that on the night of that 9/11, I found my ancient notes from a lecture by my Constitutional history professor who cautioned me, in my sophomoric enthusiasm for our republic, as he paused and looked at me, square in the eyes, and said, “Mr. Galloway, never, never forget that America is an experiment in democracy, and it can all come down in a heartbeat.”

The profundity of that moment in a classroom still rings in my ears. On that night of 9/11, his words that had once pierced the bubble of my innocence, returned to re-mind me of the precarious nature of democracy. And on this day, 9/11/22, it stirs the depths of my heart with fear for our union, fragile and firm. But, digging deep, I find resolve in my gut…our union will prevail! Got to keep the faith. WE, the people, must keep the faith. Or, we may find ourselves asking, “What the hell happened?”.

Pause for the Cause

Erik Erikson, a student of human development, offered the basic structure that I have used in looking at the process of growth. Approaching his study from a psychoanalytic starting point, Erikson attempted to identify the various stages of development that we humans go through in our life cycle, from birth to death, focusing on the psycho-social dimensions .

Erikson waltzes us through the life cycle, beginning with our infancy of finding trust or mistrust in our experience of being cared for in the family; moving us on into childhood with the discovery of our capacity to do and produce; then to our adolescence of discovering our identity as to who we are apart from our parents; leading to the profound shift to intimacy of sharing our Self with an Other; and our generative work of making meaning and living with significance. It is quite a ride, leading one merry prankster to observe: “what a long, strange trip it’s been!” Indeed.

Erikson notes that at the end of life, one naturally conducts a review of what has happened during the course of one’s years. It’s a “look back”, a retrospective, the work of reminiscence. He said that in that review process, one is looking to discern any common patterns, or some thread of meaning that runs through the course of existence. If there is a coherence, a trajectory that seems to hold up in the woof and warp of living, then one is given a sense of integrity, and has a feeling of hope that one’s life has been spent well, in service of a greater purpose that transcends mere survival.

On the other hand, If there is no thread of meaning found in reviewing one’s life, one is left in a state of despair, wondering if this life has any meaning or value. Peggy Lee’s sung question comes to mind, “Is that all there is?”

One consistent thread for my work and life investment has been in this very process of reflective review of one’s experience. It has taken various forms and settings, but all circle around this process of self-awareness that is a part of our journey. Jimi Hendrix may ask, “Are you experienced?” while I would press, “Are you aware?”

My life review has pointed me to one specific thread that runs throughout my time. For me, it was about the human endeavor of naming one’s experience in the midst of the flow, and the fine art of weaving those moments and episodes into a story, a narrative of meaning. It has been my life’s work to tend to those stories, that of others in my South of God landscape, and my own particular and peculiar existence.

I believe that it began for me with my basic curiosity of listening to people tell their stories. I had a natural pool of elderly men who were a part of the Friendship Class at Oakland City Baptist Church. My granddad would take me to the Sunday School class as a boy, and I would listen to the stories of these old men, talking about their life in war, their struggles in their work, keeping their families together. And, if I was attentive and quiet, I would even get the opportunity to overhear their wonder about God.

This later took on a fascination when I heard of a pastor, Dr. Carlyle Marney, a progressive South of God theologian who had studied patristics, of all things. When he retired from the pastoral ministry, he began a “retreat” format of gathering ministers together to tell their stories, to get some spiritual refreshment, and to reflect on how they are going to move forward in their ministry. It was called Interpreters House, meeting at a Methodist conference center in North Carolina, and consisted of three weeks of intensive personal work, or life review, if you follow Erikson, which he did. The first week was spent in a circle, telling your story…Marney called it “throwing up” as you shared the joy and pain of ministry with other fellow strugglers. It proved to be the “magic” that harkened back to the ancient practice of telling stories around the campfire, only these weren’t only ghost stories told but epic hero tales of how one made it through life, to point.

At Marney’s death, Jim Fowler and I, working together at the Center for Faith Development at Emory, tried to focus the process into a time period of a week, using small groups of three or four, rather that the thirty that usually formed Marney’s participants. We had a decidedly more developmental view, so we gathered people in generational groupings, beginning with a cohort of ministers who were three years out of seminary. Then, we worked with other cohort groupings, ministers ten years out, twenty years out, and thirty years of experience. We called it Pilgrimage Project, producing a published format that was extended eventually to lay persons in a parish setting as well as our original intent, clergy on retreat.

When I first started working with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at the Training and Counseling Center, I was working with homeless folk, many that had been turned out from psychiatric hospitals that could no longer hold them involuntarily. Again, I wound up listening to stories that these people would tell, many of cataclysmic events that turned their lives upside-down. Many were successful people with an issue with addiction that knocked them down. Still others, reached the top of their profession, but found that “top” hollow, without meaning, spurring them to opt for another narrative. The stories were fascinating, but again I found myself looking for patterns and noting the quest for meaning that was operative.

From working with the homeless downtown, my next move put me at the Episcopal Cathedral in Buckhead, the toney suburb of Atlanta. There I found remarkable upward mobility as well as old money. But the surprise was that the wealth and prestige of success did not free these folks from the quest of meaning. In fact, it raised the stakes as one had achieved the riches of the promissory note given by our consumer culture, and yet often felt like something significant was missing. The country club life proved boring, the momentary windfall empty, the zombie marriage that looked good on parade left one or both partners dissatisfied and hungry… and I could go on.

It taught me an important lesson: the quest for meaning is at the heart of our human existence, regardless. What is it that gives your soul purpose? In a more pedantic frame, what gets you up in the morning? As a sobered friend of mine presses, with a paucity of restraint, why do you not kill yourself? I only talk to him on good days.

At the end of my life cycle, the questions of meaning press, often relentlessly? What did you give yourself to? What were the core values that got your best energy? Where did you find joy? Where did you display a courage that surprised you? Where and how did you stumble? And, as I learned later in my quest, how did you get up and walk again, even with a limp?

I have a host of these existential questions that I have been pushing and pulling around for some time. I have formed cadres of people who do not shy away from the difficulty of such questions. They form my community of faith, liberated from structure and bureaucracy, things I once valued highly, inordinately,

I now gather groups of pastors and priests to dive deep into the waters of life, and story, hoping to overhear the fellow traveler’s journey as well as to share my own. I have the blessing of meeting intentionally with clergy who are struggling in real time with issues of leadership and management, hopefully helping them to discern the difference. And I get the joy of overhearing the stories of ordinary people, like the old men in the Friendship Class, tell of their lives and the meaning they have found.

So, that’s my pause for the cause as we head into my favorite time of the year, Fall, which always signaled new beginnings and fresh start-ups. I hope that it may prompt your own “pause”, to take the time to ask yourself the questions that clarify your purpose and the meaning in your life.

A pause for the cause.

A Powerful, Creative Interchange

I drove from Atlanta back down to my island for the sole, “soul”, purpose of attending a meeting. That’s five hours of driving, on a good day, in moderate Atlanta Connector traffic. But it was important to me.

The occasion was the Glynn County Clergy gathering of people across racial lines. We began this work in the wake of the Ahmaud Arbery killing on Feb. 23, 2020. It took several months, and some luck to get an indictment of these three vigilantes who took it upon themselves to administer what they deemed as “justice”: as they took on the role of police, judge, jury, and executioner. These three boys, and I am using this appellation deliberately, because these were “good ol’ boys” that give “boys” a bad name.

They chased down Ahmaud with two trucks, killing him with three shotgun blasts. I have written about this several times over the last two years, if you are wanting more details. There was a certain smell of arrogance that comes from an inbred sense of privilege that flooded the minds and souls of these three, allowing them to kill a black person running through their neighborhood. That disregard for the Law was spawned by a belief that they could get away with it in this country. They had connections!

Unfortunately for them. one of them recorded a video tape of the chase and the killing. If he had not bumbled and allowed the tape to surface, my bet is that these “boys” would have walked. But the tape emerged and sort of forced the issue. After a state and federal trial, two of the boys, father and son, have two life sentences, without chance of parole. That’s what they call the deep, dark dungeon sentence. The “videotape dude”, got life with a chance of parole, which probably will not happen before he dies in prison.

So when this event fueled outrage and foment, the clergy of Glynn County took action to try to avoid the societal unrest that has seemed to plague our country. We planned for dinner gatherings at a variety of houses of worship to promote dialogue and discussion about this incident and the racial climate in our county. Due to Covid, we were forced to go to a Zoom link, making the small group discussions happen online. While not ideal, we had several meetings with good interaction among the citizens of Glynn, notably across racial lines.

Having just moved here to Glynn County, I had no measure by which to judge the interaction, but I was taken by clergy who were proactive, and not merely reactive, which characterizes much of my experience of the church’s typical response. My mentor, Carlyle Marney, used to quip that the Church was usually “a minute late, and a dollar short”. He was being kind.

Rather, the clergy led by calling for prayer vigils at the start of the murder trial, maintaining a presence on the courthouse square, gathering when the dramatic verdict was read, and then again at the sentencing. At many predictable “breaking” points, it could have exploded, but our vigilance was rewarded with a peaceful presence, when it could have all gone to hell. It was a good moment for Glynn County.

The clergy group had been strangely quiet, inactive, for a while. Maybe it was out of fatigue. I don’t know. But an honest-to-God in-person dinner was scheduled for last Thursday, to be held at Sistah’s restaurant in Brunswick. The clergy got busy and begin sending notices out, inviting people to show up for this dinner, followed by discussion. There were around a hundred people that showed up at 6 PM on a Thursday night. We sat at tables of ten people, with a facilitator at each table to prompt and guide the discussion. The table I was at had six whites and 4 blacks. We talked about our history, where we had grown up, how long we had been in Glynn County. There were a couple of home town folks, a couple of recent transplants, and the majority being from elsewhere but having resided here for a good while.

People were very friendly, setting a good mood of trust from the word “go”, sharing their experience of race here in South Georgia. And, there was a clear sense that we were all leaning in to listen to each person as they told their story.

For me, the most powerful stories came from a black couple who were pretty new to the area, both having served in the armed services. They settled here, beginning a new business, with hopes for a good future for their family. But the power came when they got real honest about their children, growing up here in Glynn Country. They had had “the talk’ warning their children about being “careful”, of being “smart” as they interacted at school and in the community. They received instructions as to how to act if they were pulled over by police. You could sense the pain, particularly in the mother, as she described the necessity of “the talk”.

An older black professional spoke softly as he described some abuse in some of his interactions in the community, but noting that these were the exceptions to the rule. One black professional woman remained mostly quiet, particularly when our table facilitator asked her for an opinion on a particular subject. She smiled, and shook her head, indicating her preference of remaining quiet. Her wishes were honored.

The whites around the table had a wide range of ages. Many had a history of involvement in civil rights work, and came to give support to this effort of listening. One white woman volunteered that she was 81, having moved to St. Simons Island many years ago. I was lucky enough to sit next to her and was amazed at her energy for listening to others, really trying to understand the role of race in our community. One community development worker from Atlanta who had retired to Brunswick had a lot of common sense in terms of the involvement of citizens in bettering our area. One woman was a retired Lutheran minister who served as our facilitator. And there was one old broken-down bearded quixotic looking figure who looked as if he had seen better days, but he’s really not worth mentioning.

We met for two hours, and the conversation and transparency were surprising to me, invigorating, hopeful, and respectful. The group expressed our common thought that such moments of dialogue allowed us to break out of our normal patterns of relating to only those we know, in our immediate neighborhood. One white female attorney noted that this event allowed us to break out of our “flight patterns” that tend to limit the opportunities for interaction. We all agreed that such occasions were of benefit and voiced the hope that we should schedule more frequent gatherings like this.

In a moment of weakness, I shared an experience I had when chairing the race relations task force in Tyler, Texas. It was in the 1990s that we gathered interested citizens to come to various houses of worship, once a month, to simply listen to people recount their experience of race in their life in East Texas. We loosely followed Bishop Tutu’s model of hearing the pain and experience of racism, offering opportunities for gaining awareness and promoting understanding and reconciliation. I told my table about how proud I was of my efforts as an organizer, to promote truth and sensitivity.

And then, I had to admit to how humbled I was by the gentle intervention on my self-satisfied smile one night in Tyler after a particularly successful, well-attended meeting. Velma Mosely, a black Earth Mother if there ever was one, had become a dear friend during my time in Tyler. She took me aside from the crowd, not subjecting me to the public embarrassment that I deserved. When we were alone in the hallway, she asked her searing question: how many people of color have you had to your house for dinner? The answer was “one”, a friend and co-worker who came regularly for staff parties. But there were no social interactions at my home, ever, with people of color. It was not intentional, but it was neglectful, and actually meant that I was missing an opportunity to experience the diversity of my community. Her point, graciously but firmly offered, made a huge impact on my consciousness and actions. I was wondering, as I told the story, if my friend, Velma, could reach across time, miles, and death, to speak to a group gathered to improve the interaction of our community. I was hopeful. Velma was one powerful person. We’ll see.

After the meeting was over, the clergy group was helping to put the table and chairs back to their normal position as we had promised the owner. One of the clergy, the pastor of a local congregation, walked past me and offered this remark, “There’s the troublemaker!” Initially, his words cut into me, then turned to anger at the name that he put on me. Uncharacteristically, I decided to let it go, After making that long drive, having invested the time and effort, I did not feel appreciated, and that both hurt and infuriated me. I’m not quite sure what he meant by that remark (your guess is as good as mine) but it flew all over me.

I drove back home with that comment riding on my back. But it occurred to me that regardless of what his intention was, there was a richness of meaning encoded in the word “troublemaker”, I decided to use it to remind myself of my love of another troublemaker, John Lewis, my former Congressman, who walked heroically across the Pettus Bridge in Alabama, who marched with Martin, who put himself on the line for justice, “making good trouble.” That would be a name that I could wear proudly, regardless of the minister’s intention. I found myself surprised in offering thanks for the words of this Glynn County minister.

Troublemaker. I guess I have been. Starting in high school, pushing back on Miss Pagett’s imperious style. Protesting the war at Emory. Finding my way into civil right work in race, sexuality, and gender. He, said Glynn clergy person, got it right in his call, Troublemaker. I think that’s right.

And I hope I will continue to find the courage and commitment to “make good trouble” as I move on down that proverbial road. Making GOOD trouble, that’s a calling I am proud to share with my hero. “Maker of Trouble”…..hopefully good trouble.

Creative Interplay

This past week, my son, Thomas, launched a new song, Front Beach Road. It comes from a collaboration that he had with another songwriter in Nashville, Daniel Allen. The song recounts a coming-of-age memory that the two of them had about a specific street in a specific place that they both knew from growing up. The two have teamed up in a band ingeniously called Allen and Galloway. Sheer genius….but, of course, he’s my son!

A friend and colleague of mine, Johan Roels, who lives in Flanders, heard the song on Instagram as he follows my son. He took the time to write me to ask me about the song, prompting me to explain it. I told him that Front Beach Road is the street that runs along the ocean in Panama City Beach. I attempted to tell him something of the place where I spent my summers growing up, and where my kids spent their summers growing up….the white sands of the Gulf of Mexico, specifically in the panhandle of Florida. I jokingly noted the appellation given to the area, the Redneck Riviera. I have a soft spot in my heart for PCB.

My family started going there when my parents first married, staying at a cottage right on the edge of the beach. My dad had grown up not far away in the paper mill town of Hosford, which is outside of Quincy, which is outside of Tallahassee. Got It? It’s real no where, man.

Hosford had a stop sign on the main drag, with a gas station and small grocery. That’s about it. My dad left Hosford to come to Atlanta in order to work at Delta Airlines. Each summer, we would travel to visit Nellie, his stepmother, who lived in a wonderful white house with an amazing wrap-around porch. There, we would sit in rockers, listening to the crickets, and watching the lightning bugs, an idyllic Southern picture, yes?

For me, as a very young boy, there was a spooky add to the scene, with an ancient old lady, rocking in a chair, with a bonnet on her head. Her name was Miss Dean, that’s what we called her, and she was Nellie’s mother. What I remember vividly was a “stereoscope” contraption with photos of the Holy Land that gave the illusion of three dimensions, that she was hot to share with me. I believe one set of slides, she said, had the “actual” picture of the cross at Calvary, which, I guess, could confer salvation, given her passion. Hitchcock missed a sure bet with Miss Dean. She generated nightmares for me, only assuaged by my dreams of the anticipated Gulf.

Across a football field length from the porch, there was the screen of a drive-in movie, which we could watch without “sound” of course. Seriously, the drive-in could have been the set for a Bogdonavich or Tarantino movie. But for us, it was a “command” performance on the way to our cottage on Front Beach Road. That is how my family got connected to the emerald water and white sand beaches in Panama City.

Our summer vacations were spent there. First, in that cottage, then in a motel across the road running down the beach, on what came to be known as the Miracle Strip. And later, as my dad ascended the corporate ladder of Delta, we had a condo in a development on Thomas Drive called Summerhouse. That would be where my young family would travel from Texas for our one-week vacation at the beginning of the summer. We actually gathered with my brother’s family there on the way to the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, on the 4th of July, watching the infamous Olympic torch, designed by my friend, Sam Shelton, make its way across St. Andrews Bay to continue the trek to the hand of Mohammed Ali. Irony has never seen a more brilliant flame.

So, I grew up there. And then my kids grew up there. Or, maybe like St. Jimmy of Buffett said, we grew older but not up. Our days at the beach were spent chasing the gulls on the beach, playing in the surf, body surfing, eating our weight in seafood, usually fried, playing golf in the mornings, Goofy Golf at a surrealistic Putt-Putt course at night with huge Florida bugs buzzing around the lights that provided illumination, of sorts. There was the Miracle Strip which was a poor man’s Six Flags with a rickety wooden roller coaster that I believe was named The Cyclone, a wooden structure that threatened to collapse with every passing rush of ride cars. It was a place to come of age, and generations of Galloways did just that. Sort of.

It was a magical place for me as a kid, with flashing signs, neon lights, music that filled the salt air. This is an odd memory, but it is pungent. We were cruising the Miracle Mile one evening, my dad driving our Ford sedan, with the windows rolled down, and the car radio playing the Fifth Dimension, Stone Soul Picnic. Surry down, a stone soul picnic. I remember sitting in the left back seat, looking out the window at the carnivalesque lights, with Marilyn McCoo singing with her lilting voice. And in that moment, with my dad and mother in the front, my brother to my right, the world seemed perfect, just the way it was supposed to be. And you surry, and you picnic. Whoa, whoa.

As Thomas was writing his song about his experience of the same beach, same road, I wondered what his memories were of that place, of our family’s occupation of vacationland, us in our Chevy Suburban, the official car of Texas. Writing for a country music crowd, his focus would be a bit different. I remember one particular sojourn from Texas, riding on that same strip of road, listening to a break-out song of one newcomer,Garth Brooks, All My Exes Live in Texas. From Marilyn to Garth…have mercy.

I tried to explain all this ethno-cultural crap to my academic friend, Johan, who like me, studies the art of creativity in human Being, and the interaction between beings. He is one of my favorite people, closing in on Marilyn. He made the point that Thomas with his own style of mix between jam band and Americana, and Daniel Allen with his more commercial country bar style, provided a potent mix which had a kind of synergy about it, something Johan and I talk a lot about. In fact, I am meeting later today with a cadre of confreres on that very topic.

Johan made a point a while back on how much he appreciates Thomas’ music. He even introduced it to his granddaughters. He made the extra effort, all the way from Belgium, to tell me how much he liked this new song, even though it was different than Thomas’ normal style. Point taken.

Now, Johan is one of my smartest friends who is an international engineer, with English being his fourth language. I only have two, English and Southern…..you’ll have no trouble guessing which one is my first. Johan and I talked about the creative interchange that took place with Thomas’ perspective, and Daniel’s perspective, each one appreciating and valuing the other’s. moving on through the process of integration, resulting in a creative event, producing this song. Voila! in one of Johan’s languages.

Creative interchange happens when the mix of perspectives interchange. It can be in an executive meeting of clinical and administrative folks, really talking together in a meeting of minds and perspectives, both committed to emerging with a new way of approaching a difficult problem.

It can happen when two politicians who care more deeply for our community than for political posturing…. and we know how costly that can be.

It can happen with two people who have different images of what the future looks like, how to do it, and how to enjoy the process……but that is a stretch.

And., it can happen when two separate people, with different souls, connect to bring birth to a creative moment of song. I am grateful for my friend, Johan, for suggesting the magic that was happening in right in front of my eyes. Creative interchange.

“Trouble with you, the trouble with me. got two good eyes, and still don’t see.”

No kidding…..I cleaned that up for you South of God folks. You’re welcome.

How To Unleash Spirit….

Here’s my story of how I learned about unleashing spirit in an organization.

I was busy trying to establish a leadership development initiative in East Texas, after arriving in Tyler, Texas in the early 90’s. We had received a Pew Grant which allowed me to design a fresh, innovative model for building capacity in a community best known for oil wells. Notably, we were hoping to strategically empower people who had not seen themselves as leaders in the towns of Tyler and Longview. And, secretly, we were hoping to initiate a more regional view of leadership, rather that the historic competition between these two cities.

I engaged Mike Murray, a noted Organizational Development consultant, to help me with the project in designing the curriculum. We were looking at a nine-month program, meeting one Saturday a month, to expose people to basic leadership theory, conflict resolution techniques, change management, communication skills….the typical skill training that helps leaders to become more effective in their work. My vision for this project was “to transform spectators into players as effective leaders”.

I also wanted to use this Leadership Foundation to bring in some special guests to expose the wider community to some cutting-edge ideas in community leadership. We were able to bring in Ernie Cortes, of the Industrial Areas Foundation to introduce the concept of community organizing to East Texas with the hopes of mobilizing folks in some local projects of improvement. We brought John Scherer, a leadership specialist with Fortune 500 clientele, to introduce us to his powerful model of engagement that flowed out of one’s personal mission statement. And Mike suggested a real outlier for me to chase down to see if it might yield a special bang for our buck. The name of that outlier was Harrison Owen. What a great name for a consultant!

Harrison Owen lived in Washington D. C. and had developed a new way of generating enthusiasm in organizations and businesses called Open Space Technology. Mike and I were wondering if it might work in our setting and our goals. I would fly to D. C. to meet Harrison and get a feel for his method, and his person.

First off, Harrison and I had something in common. We were both Episcopal priests. But Harrison had never spent a day in the normal work of parish life. One of his first jobs was serving as an assistant to the head of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver in the Kennedy administration. You had me at “Kennedy”.

After that work ended, he was paid by a think tank group to put together an “all star” conference bringing the leading thinkers in multiple disciplines together to present a series of white papers on pressing subjects. The hope was that such a conference would generate breakthrough insights for the problems that were confronting the world. Harrison spent two years putting the event together, organizing the gathering, inviting the right people to present these powerful ideas, and making sure the right “players” were in attendance. And it went well, he said, a little stuffy, with rarified presentations that would make your head hurt. But it went well, as planned.

Like any good educational event planner, he conducted a survey at the conclusion of the conference with the typical questions rating the speakers and assessing the accommodations. But Harrison added a “kicker” question at the end: “What was your favorite part of the conference?”

The overwhelming answer surprised him….actually stunned him. The majority of the respondents stated that their favorite part of this high-powered conference with world-class experts was…….wait for it…..the coffee breaks!

Harrison reports that he was despondent, thinking that he had spent this significant amount of time and energy of his young life with the result being that of people crowing about the coffee breaks. He was buried in depression for a time….until he realized a great lesson, a lesson that would propel his future career. What these brilliant people really enjoyed was not the stilted academic papers, filled with erudite footnotes. Rather, the highlight, the real gift was the opportunity to interact in creative dialogue with other people. He realized that the trick would be to learn how to organize a coffee break! I simply fell in love with that image. And from that, he birthed a method of gathering that came to be known Open Space Technology.

At an Open Space event, the group is gathered in a circle, the basic way humans have joined together in our past, even in and especially in tribal times. For Harrison, it did not matter as to the size of the group. It could be the intimacy of a small staff, or the gathering of a city. Harrison said, and I found it to be true: Open Space always works. It will tell you important things about the community that you need to know. I wound up using Open Space with a parish, with the House of Bishops, with the gathered Diocese of Texas, and it worked like a charm. Harrison and I actually did it with the City of Tyler in a gymnasium, and it worked. It really does demand faith on the part of the leader, and like Neil Diamond wrote: I’m a believer!

Let me give you a brief description of Open Space Technology.

This creative process begins with the intentional gathering of a group. A broad invitation is sent, and then you wait to see who shows up. In the Diocese of Texas, we invited every baptized member to show up at a gathering in Houston to inaugurate the beginning of Bishop Claude Payne’s tenure. The key notion for us is that EVERYONE received an invitation, not just the “inside” crowd of usual suspects. We went out of the way to extend the “invite” to those who might have felt excluded in the past. Harrison’s premise is: the right people WILL show up. And they did. So a key strategic moment occurs before the process begins: who is included, and, who is being excluded? Another way to ask the question: who is being ignored?

A framing question is offered to the group which sets a wide parameter around the group’s work over the next few hours, or the next few days. In the case of the Diocese of Texas, our question was intentionally broad: How can we make the Diocese of Texas great? That freed people, liberated people, unleashed people to think beyond the conventional boundaries. The scope is intentionally broad at this point in order to bubble up new, creative ideas, sometimes from left field, sometimes from the stands, sometimes from outside the ball park.

The leader/facilitator explains briefly the process that is about to occur, Each person in the circle is being asked to think about one topic or question that just might be a “game change” idea that we could meet around, discuss, and suggest next steps for action.

Every time that I led Open Space, there is a pregnant moment when people start to realize what they are being asked to do: think, imagine, reflect, act in naming their issue or “big idea”. There are always different reactions, including shock, disbelief, excitement, and silence. And,, I always love saying my closing line in my presentation: “This is the plan….. and there is no Plan B.” Nervous laughter follows.

The facilitator then “opens the space”. Once you have your “big idea”, people are asked to write it down on a sheet of newsprint that is available on the perimeter of the circle. Once committed to paper, one is to come to the center of the circle to offer any topic that they think could be beneficial to the group pertaining to the framing question. When you are in the center, you simply read your topic, and then post it on a wall that is called the “Community Bulletin Board”.

This is the moment that the “technology” kicks in. One gets a “post it” from a time matrix board that is strategically located next to the Community Bulletin Board, with times and meeting rooms, which one places on the topic sheet. This indicates when and where the group discussing this specific topic will be meeting. The originator of the idea assumes the responsibility to gather the group around the topic, in the chosen room and at the specified time, and facilitate that dialogue in any way he/she wants.

We organizers provide “scribes” for each group meeting, recording on newsprint “running” process notes from the discussion. Those notes are compiled at the end of each day, transcribed, and then copied, so that each person would get a record of what went on in each group regardless as to whether or not you were able to attend.

Once the initial Gathering group finishes generating ideas, placing the topics and the “time and room” post its, it is time for the members to visit the Community Bulleting Board to decide which sessions they would like to attend, signing their names to the topic sheet indicating their intention to be there.

The genius of this process is that you can literally design a major event, and organize it in a matter of minutes. And another Zen rule of Harrison comes into play: What ever happens is the only thing that could have happened. And even in my overly-organized brain, I have found it to be true. I have done this with boards of churches, educational institutions, even with the professional organization of nursing professors….and it always works, generating creative ideas and unleashing spirit, as well as telling you some important things about your organization that you best take seriously.

I do have to end this tale by telling you about the use of Open Space with the Diocese of Texas. Two of the “old hand” priests, who had served the previous bishop who had been a bit into control, took me aside (as “old hands” do to young whipper-snappers like this Southside boy). They told me that my design was going to fail, “miserably” they added, with all the Christian love in their hearts. They told me: you simply have to program for these people, guide them like sheep. They won’t know what to do with this freedom!”

That’s exactly what they told me. And to be honest, as I began to introduce this wild-ass concept to this crowd gathered under a huge tent in Houston, I thought, for a second, I might be in trouble. But, when I “opened the space” for new ideas, the people began to pour forward to offer their ideas to our community. I described it as if it were an altar call at a Billy Graham Crusade, as they “came on down”! It was something. We generated over 300 ideas that blew the roof off that formerly staid diocese, and it resulted in a Spirit that powered our new day in the Diocese of Texas.

This Open Space process is one that I have used repeatedly through the years, with a learned sense of trust and confidence. It reminds me of the Creative Interchange process that I laid out in recent posts on South of God, courtesy of Dr. Charlie Palmgren. It begins with showing up in an authentic way, being real. It requires trust to give yourself to the process, unlike my “old hand” naysayers. It requires curiosity to “wonder how else things might be”. It takes people making connections between seemingly disparate elements, synthesizing new possibilities. And, it is driven by a tenacity to improve and do the very best we can. The yield is creative ideas, fresh fruit produced by authentic human interaction.

If you made it this far, you may be interested in unleashing some spirit of your own, in an organization or group that you care deeply about. You don’t have to follow Harrison’s process in a lock-step rigidity, though you should pay careful attention to the principles and values embedded in order to get the best results. I would tell you that Open Space Technology should have a warning label attached: You may lose control. For the naysayers for whom control is the core value, they will be resistant. But for those thirsty for the fresh experience of the creative spirit in community, they will appreciate the opportunity and become enthusiastic.

The question emerges: Do you want to unleash spirit in your world, the world? And your answer, our answer, may make all the difference.

Just Who is Sabotaging You?

I’ve never been too interested or convinced in conspiracy theories….which means I am SOL in today’s current culture. There’s a new conspiracy theory every day, it seems.

In the middle of all the hucksters who populate the social media midway, I have actually found a sane voice that is talking about a conspiracy that makes sense to me. And the reason it makes sense to me is that it has been revealed that I (me, David A., my own damn self) am the chief conspirator! And it turns out that I am conspiring against myself.

I always suspected it, myself, that is. Or as my Texas grandmother would quip, “You are your own worst enemy!” But, she was only partially right.

I came across this “conspiracy theory” a few months ago while working with a bunch of United Methodists…. back when they had at least the premise of being that. I was speaking to a session of UMC pastors of a midwest conference, on Emotional Intelligence and the use of coaching as a modality of continuous improvement. In preparing for the event, I was informed by one of their leaders that they had been using an assessment tool that identified one’s inner “saboteurs”, a term used for defense mechanisms that one has adopted as a part of one’s efforts at survival and fitting into the social setting. These are internal voices that appear to warn and chastise us as to our “proper” behavior, or in my world, voices that tell us how to gain an “atta boy!” affirmation. These mechanisms have served us well in the past but they become default settings that we go to without conscious assent. Without our noticing it, we slowly become inauthentic.

I researched this tool and found that this Saboteur assessment was developed by a Stanford professor, Dr. Shirzad Chamine, who works primarily in the business world. He engages with business types who find these saboteurs blocking and frustrating their efforts to achieve high levels of productivity and satisfaction.

Dr. Chamine has identified ten types of saboteurs. He has framed some accessible terms for these ten: The Judge, The Avoider, The Controller, The Hyper-Achiever, The Hyper-Rational, The Vigilant, The Pleaser, The Restless, The Stickler, The Victim. The names of each Saboteur tips his hand as to what is implied. Which one feels familiar to you? Which one makes you cringe with reluctant self-recognition? Truth is, we all have pieces of these, but two or three tend to dominate our thinking.

He counsels people to embrace the thing that I have called the “superpower” of leaders….Self-Awareness! By becoming aware of these Saboteurs, you can discover ways to identify them in your everyday interactions, and then stop them in their tracks. In working with my group of United Methodist pastors, they found this assessment to be revealing of their tendencies of reaction when they are interacting with others. So, they got that. Now, the trick is coaching them up on what to do when they see the Saboteurs coming for them.

This brief exposure to the incredibly profound insight of Dr. Chamine led me to contact the good doctor. Typical of my personal proclivity to follow my curiosity, I have managed to get connected with him, studying with him to master this paradigm of human behavior that has much promise. His popular book, Positive Intelligence, outlines his theory and gives some practical suggestions of how to change your behavior to your benefit. In my way of thinking, this “conspiracy theory” is a hell of a lot more useful than the ones that tell you about a global kaballah plotting the world takeover, or a pizza parlor in Baltimore with Democrats in the basement defiling children. But, hey….that’s just me.

If you are interested you can go to the website, http://www.positiveintelligence.com to access the free Saboteur assessment. And, you can check out the larger theory concerning the role of positive intelligence in one’s success and happiness. While the Saboteur angle was my initial attraction, I found myself captured more by his positing the notion of a Sage that is within each of us. This Sage is able to be activated in one’s encounter with the world in order to deal more creatively with what is happening in the present moment.

The Sage has five specific attributes that become a gift to us:

  1. Empathy- the ability to “feel with” the Other, affording you insight into the perspective of another human being.
  2. Explore- the ability to follow one’s curiosity into the depths of what is going on, rather than a mere casual apprehension based on past experience.
  3. Innovate- the capacity to imagine new solutions to problems that are presented.
  4. Navigate- the ability to make conscious, intentional decisions among a variety of options.
  5. Activate- the capacity to move into action that is focused on a strategy and plan of action.

These five “superpowers” of the Sage sounded a lot like the work I have been doing on Creative Interchange. What fascinates me is the capacity to recognize the Saboteurs that we are dragging behind us from our past and the promise of gaining the awareness of our capacity to creatively engage with our Sage in the present moment, the Now. This is actually the strategy that Dr. Chamine is proposing: to identify the Saboteurs that can hijack your best intentions, to interrupt those typical response patterns, and then to engage your Sage in order to creatively get at your goals and initiatives. Sounds like a plan!

I am currently in a eight-week process of operationalizing this process in my own life. I am, of course adding my spin of Creative Interchange to see how that might fit and enhance this strategy. It is using a high-tech app on my phone to prompt me throughout the day, reminding me of my particular Saboteurs, and encouraging my development of new habits that will raise my Positive Intelligence. Again, if you are interested, check out the website and give it a shot.

And, just for grins, what did your Saboteur just whisper in your ear?

Island Girl

July 29th, it’s Friday and I am getting ready for a major change in my life. I am hitting the highway to Atlanta to our new apartment near the Schenck School where my wife is returning to teach. So, I will be becoming bi-locational, between the island and my birthplace of Atlanta. I find myself thinking like Sheldon Cooper, longing for a space transporter: Beam me up, Scotty! Alas, for now, it will be my ancient Tahoe transporting my Southside self between these two residences.

But more importantly, July 29th, it’s also my daughter, Mary Glen’s birthday, a date that proved to be another red-letter day signaling a huge change in my life…I became the father of a baby girl! My life would never be the same.

For now, I am writing in the present moment. I was leaving that morning for the drive to Atlanta. I had called her the day before to see if she could come over and help me move some boxes and duffel bags full of books to put in my new office in Atlanta. With my torn quad tendon in my left knee, I am restricted in my movements with my trusty Bat Masterson cane. With one hand on the top of the cane, and one holding the handle of a canvas bag stuffed and heavy with books, the physics of the moment confounded my brain, and laid waste to my knee.

She graciously agreed to help and showed up early with her cheerleader strength to assist her aging daddy. She brought with her a 2 lb. jar of the freshly harvested honey from her husband, Michael’s first hive here on the island. Beautiful. More importantly, it bought us some time together alone, to reflect on life, and some changes for both of us.

I tend to get nostalgic on my kids’ birthdays, remembering precise moments of how things went down. I mean, after all, this is salvation history. No virgin birth, as opposed to some of my critics’ speculation, but big stuff. I can get pretty weepy when I think about those magic moments of watching the messy mystery as life began for my two, each with a particular and peculiar feel.

The first one, Thomas, was a long delivery, with my wife’s water breaking at a Friday night dinner party with our close friends, who were destined to become godparents. Many hours later, Thomas crowned and was delivered by my close friend, Steve Moreland. Being the first child, it was an amazing sunrise, calling my mentor, Jim Fowler, and weeping together about this miracle.

The second pregnancy had me praying for a girl. I so wanted the experience of being a father to a girl. It was on a Sunday, and I had been at the Cathedral that morning. After church, I went to the Cowart’s home in Ansley Park for a reception/party for new members. It was there I got the call from Mary that it was time to get to Piedmont Hospital. This time, the delivery was very fast. When Mary Glen emerged, I screamed, “There’s no penis!” which was great news for this Southside boy. I got my girl. That’s exactly what I said when I went out into the waiting area to greet my parents with my good news.

These two have been the highlight of my life, giving me so much pleasure in watching their childlike wonder, evolving into growing, developing children, devolving into adolescence, and then the extended adolescence of college. I’ve gotten to witness my son’s courage in chasing a dream of music that vicariously fulfills my own longing. Every time he climbs courageously on a stage to sing songs that he wrote, I am filled with pride. And my daughter ventured out to St. Simons Island after college to begin a career in fashion, subsequently meeting a great young man, Michael. He grew up on this island and, now married, they are building a life together. Every so often, I am struck by the gift I have been given. This is one of those halcyon days.

This particular morning, before hitting the highway, I pulled off at Striplings to text my daughter on her birthday. I thanked her for her kindness in assisting me early in the morning. I thanked her for the honey Michael had harvested from his initial hives of bees here on the island. And, as she told me that she had made a special request to go fishing on the river for her birthday, I wanted to tell her how proud my grandfather and my mother would have been with that choice. It was one of those parental moments that happen every so often, when the sense of connection across generations was palpable, and to think that Henry Louis Gates was nowhere in sight.

It got me to thinking about the magic of birth, and the very gift of human life that we can tend to take for granted. My friend, Charlie Palmgren who wrote the book that I have been talking about for weeks, Ascent of the Eagle, often reminds me of an enigmatic phrase that Jesus said to his disciples: You must become like a child if you want to enter the realm of God.

What the hell does that mean? The images of my children flood my mind as I remember their fresh awareness of life, of the thrill of discovering everything that was new and fresh. Those wide-eyed looks, the unrestrained laughter at the surprise, their quizzical stares of wonder. What I can glean from my memory about becoming childlike, on this day of the celebration of the birth of my island girl.

The context of the comment by Jesus was a question about greatness among his students. Who will be the greatest in this new reality Jesus is inaugurating? This won’t be the last time this question of “standing” emerges among his followers, and seems to be as perennial as the wild flowers in the life of the church.

Rather than launch into a conceptual treatise on ontology, Jesus beckoned to a child and pulled him to his side as a living example. “Unless you become like a child, you will not be able to enter into my new way of being.” Obviously, Jesus was reading the lay of the land of his team. There were and would be disputes among them about which of them was the MVP, or MVD as the disciples might have framed it. But rank, or position was not the order of the day, the coin of this kingdom. The GOAT, or “greatest of all time”, that we hear a lot about “all da time” simply wasn’t in the vocabulary of Jesus or in his vision of the realm of God.

Let’s just admit, right here and now, this competition stuff is still hard for us. It goes against the way we are formed, the way we are raised. We want to be the favorite, the best, the top of the heap, to be at the head of the class of whatever organization we are in, be it a family, a classroom, a corporate team, even our churches. The vision of bishops gathered in those pointy hats called mitres, at Canterbury, reminded me of rank and hierarchy in my tribe. At one point in my so-called career, I longed for one as a validating symbol of my greatness, but I got over it, forcibly or through gained wisdom. Position is over-rated while the attitude of servanthood, under-valued.

Actually, the church can be THE worst in terms of competition. I know that for sure, as I have participated and traded in that stuff (cleaning it up for the sensitive). And I have witnessed it, suffered under it and can name names! What a wonderful surprising moment this week at Canterbury when Presiding Bishop Micheal Curry seemed to signal an unusual, perhaps miraculous. spirit of cooperation among the diverse constituency there assembled, even on the disruptive issue of sexuality. Holding my breath.

Back to Jesus’ admonition recorded in the first verses of Matthew 18. It really is in there, look it up….unless you become like a child.

Jesus is signaling to his followers that they should not be grasping at honor, much less power. They should take on a child-like presence, content with and relishing in the moment of being alive. My “best” current way of describing this state of being is being “110% present”, a gift given to me many years ago by my friend and colleague, John Scherer, who re-minded me of it a few weeks ago. 110 %. Really present to the moment. Leaning into the moment. When’s the last time you did that, or more accurately, “were” that, 110%? When I first heard John use it, it struck me as clever, a pithy way of getting his thought across to a bunch of leaders in training. But through the years, it has become a mantra for me, 110% present, something I say to myself before a session or a conversation, a “touch” stone that I rub, in order to re-mind me of being present….like that of a child.

A child’s eyes are wide open as they are taking in their environment, observant of sounds, movements, colors, tastes…an extravaganza of sensory experience and awareness. Through cultural formation and schooling, we have this awareness “ordered” and made proper, turning our wild, open, awareness into a careful, controlled consciousness. We are domesticated, civilized, so that we “fit” the roles, chosen and assigned. We become focused on survival, and are formed in the competitive code that is inserted into our psyche. We trade our birthright of a feast of awareness for porridge bowl of consciousness.

For us, the call of Jesus to return to childlike awareness seems fanciful, a throw-away line that we do exactly that. Rather than embracing Jesus’ admonition to take on a childlike awareness as a spiritual koan to be contemplated and or wisdom saying to be used as a prompt for wonder, we remove it from our canon of applicable scripture.

What does becoming childlike mean to you? How might you take this seriously? My daughter’s birthday prompted me to remember her as a child, and the freshness of awareness that somehow gets misplaced in the scramble. Try it on this weekend, this week ahead….hell, try it on now. Can you lean into the moment, opening your eyes to see, your ears to hear, to behold the miracle and mystery of the present moment? Jesus did not pull his punch here. Rather, he framed it pointedly…..UNLESS. Unless you take on this childlike mindset of presence, you will miss it. And what is “it”?

It’s simply everything.

“Tenacious” is the Word!

Tenacity.

The quality of being able to grip something firmly. To be persistent. Determined. The moral strength to resist opposition. To be courageous in the face of resistance. Tenacity!

I think that I first borrowed the word when I was beginning to study the process of change and transformation. My mentor in change management, that is, how one plans and executes change, was Daryl Conner, the writer of Managing At the Speed of Change, a form-setting book. While Daryl introduced me to change in terms of organizational development, or OD, he taught me several lessons in terms of human behavior. The most important was the simplest and turns out to be the most prevalent: EXPECT RESISTANCE!

Now, this seems simple, but it turns out to be profound. Think of the many times you made a decision to change something in your schedule. Or, recall a time when you decided to alter the schedule of your family or organization. The unavoidable truth is that we humans tend to prefer “the way things have been”, that is, what is familiar to us, namely, what is comfortable. We prefer “homeostasis”. which refers to our inclination to maintain a “steady state”…..and by the way, this is not a reference to the laws of Florida.

Daryl taught me that lesson to apply when I was making a change in an organization’s life: to expect resistance. Some of the resistance will be obvious, as people resist the change explicitly in oppositional behavior. That is the easiest resistance to confront and deal with. The more insidious form of resistance is the unconscious decision to oppose the change that goes underground, undetectable. The image I have used with my students is a clever phrase framed by my biologist mother: “the P is silent, as in swimming.” I am a bit more explicit in my image of unconscious resistance to change: it’s like letting people piss in your pool. It goes unnoticed but it is real, and messes with things. And that’s where the real danger resides… you don’t see it coming. It’s sneaky.

Daryl had some counter-intuitive advice: Surface the resistance. Rather than allowing it to go underground, force it into the open where you can deal with it. You actually invite the negativity which runs counter to my natural inclination to be a positive “spin doctor’. But, I have used this powerfully in my attempts to change relationships, marriages, congregations, institutions, and even cities. It is a strategy that I have followed with specific tactics, leaving me bloodied at times, but standing on the other side of change on most occasions. Surface the resistance,

This organizational insight is applicable to the individual person as well. In attempting to change one’s self, one may begin with a flurry of resolve to make “big changes in the way I do life!” and yet, there exists resistance to the alteration of the structures that you have created which makes your life comfortable, manageable. When we really wish to “make a change”, as Michael Jackson would implore, we have to watch for both conscious and unconscious ways, shrewd and stupid, to block the stated desired change.

Charlie Palmgren, the writer of the book I have been reviewing, Ascent of the Eagle, puts the dimension of tenacity as the last of the five conditions for Creative Interchange, and it is critical in terms of dealing with the inevitable resistance to the change it implies. It is worth noting that I first met Charlie at a conference I was attending which was presented by Daryl Conner as I was trying to figure out how to best manage the change in leadership at the Cathedral where I was serving as the Canon Pastor. Charlie was working as Daryl’s main assistant, focusing on the phenomenon of synergy within organizations, which turns out to be a dynamic of creative interchange, that can assist or block the process of change. Charlie and I have continued our relationship through time in a variety of incarnations, including now as he serves as my faithful guide entering the Franciscan Tertiary Order, and as a colleague in a study group of the man who first named the process of Creative Interchange, Henry Nelson Wieman.

As I have noted in my last four articles, Charlie has identified a number of conditions that make the Creative Interchange process possible. The process is about the interaction between people that are authentically engaged with one another to create something new. I don’t think I have to spend a lot of ink convincing you that this kind of interaction runs counter to what has become the norm in our world. We have become divided in unprecedented ways. In such an adversarial ethos, how is any kind of fruitful interaction possible? It is my belief that Charlie is offering a model of authentic interaction that respects the other’s perspective while opening the possibility for an integrative possibility to emerge.

In review of the conditions requisite for this dynamic possibility, let’s remind ourselves of the necessary components. First, a conviction of one’s intrinsic worth is fundamental, as one is not forced to engage in an existential quest to gain worth by what one does or produces. Worth is a “given”, which liberates, unleashing one’s original self’s power. And, simultaneously, that worth is accorded to all other creatures as a part of this creation. This starting point is critical to what follows, freeing the acting parties to engage without the press of competition.

The condition of trust is the next, that is, relying on the engaging actors to be operating with the best interest of all, while also trusting the process to yield fruit. Next, is curiosity which initiates a willingness to look afresh, ask probing questions that might produce new insights. And then there is a spirit of connectivity by which one sees linkages, makes connections between a variety of perspectives that before seemed disparate, at odds.

The final piece in this bag of tricks is tenacity, although it is not “late” in the process, as it must be employed from the word “go”. Tenacity seeks to describe the attitude as mentioned before, a deep commitment to engage in this creative process. Allow me to borrow a term., “dogged”, which was used by famed golf writer, Dan Jenkins, in his humorous account of the terrible fate of becoming a golfer, His book, The Dogged Victims of an Inexorable Fate, describes the addictive type devotion of golfers in trying to master the ancient game of golf. In a similar line, to pursue the lofty work of creative interchange, one must be “dogged” or relentless in pursuit of that event. To add an element of play into the mix fits my demeanor precisely as one is invited to be seriously playful and playfully serious in this interaction between others in the hope of producing results that would be unimaginable otherwise.

Let me quote the master precisely to put a fine point on the project, Charlie writes, “Tenacity is the fifth critical condition on the road to reclaiming the original self. We honor our worth, trust that there’s value in pursuing it, use our curiosity to explore the possibilities, imagine new ways of being, and then practice, practice, practice to turn new skills into sustainable habits.”

Here is my confession. I am in the process of being intentional in my practice of these habits. I think that I have worked hard to grasp the elements of Creative Interchange conceptually, but now comes the hard part of putting it all on the field of my relationships. Charlie includes a final section in his book, “prescribing” a regimen of practice to be approached daily. I have written his instructions down, in my way of understanding, printed it out, and now keep it poised strategically in my well-worn planner for review before my scheduled interactions. Unscheduled are a higher degree of difficulty, but they come, regardless, relentlessly. I rehearse the list, interact with an “other” or group, and then review it for correction. It’s slow going, but I can see improvement in my interactions.

Here’s my “cheat sheet”:

  1. Authentically Interact, sharing the best you now know, with clarity about your intention in the interaction.
  2. Appreciatively Understand by listening to the “other” with humility, being conscious of the “other’s” unique perspective, using paraphrase to “check” your understanding.
  3. Find hidden positives in the perspectives of others.
  4. Integrate differences by using both/and thinking.
  5. Reframe issues, differences, and problems in order to discover better ways to integrate those differences and find creative solutions.
  6. Make a commitment: act with courage, patience, and Tenacity!
  7. Practice….a lot. Don’t worry…..you will have plenty of opportunities if you simply look.
  8. Observe and remember…RE-mind.
  9. Celebrate success.
  10. Correct your mistakes.

As I have said repeatedly in these five articles, this is a tall order. You are swimming against the cultural tide of the adversarial attitude that has defined our common life over the last few years in this country. It does take commitment when it seems easier to just keep on doing what it is you do. And yet, I would pose one of my favorite questions taught to me by my rock jock mentor, Don Imus: “How’s that working out for you?” If you are anything like me, you find yourself hungry for a better way of interacting.

Charlie Palmgren offers us an option, a realistic way of changing the way we interact, with the promise of recovering a fresh look at our world, with the side benefit of creativity. Check out the full story in Charlie’s book, Ascent of the Eagle. available through Amazon, or better yet, your local bookseller.

See you on the field of Creative Interchange. Play ball!