You Know Me!

His face seemed elongated to me, perhaps lengthened by years of stroking his chin, wondering. Wondering about this crazy life we are living, and structures that confound.

His name is Howard Thurman. His face is blazed in the back of my mind, but I have his portrait, a photograph, right in front of me at my desk. “Eyes of age”, implying a hard-won wisdom, look at me daily, reminding me, warning me, inspiring me. And as you will hear, centering me.

I had been encouraged to meet him by my preaching professor, Dr. Joe Roberts, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. For those of you unfamiliar, Joe succeeded Daddy King, Martin’s father, in that storied church on Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta.

I confess I had not heard of Thurman, but Joe’s insistence clued me into the importance of making this happen. It was of cosmic importance, life-or-death kind of moment. Got it.

Joe warned me that I might find Thurman out talking to a tree, which seemed strangely comforting to me, a native Druid myself. I learned that Howard Thurman was known as the mystic, the soul of the Civil Rights movement. It is said that Martin Luther King kept two books in his briefcase at all times; one, the Bible; the second, Jesus and the Disinherited, a book by Thurman.

Thurman was viewed with suspicion by both academicians and activists. Too radical for the careful world of theacademy; too removed in the proverbial “ivory tower” for those marching on the line of fire. He was a “man without a country” in some ways, but seemed to be resolved to living in a tension between those two polarities. My sense was that he experienced a loneliness at times but deep within, his country, his home, was found in a deeper realm.

I was meeting him before he was to speak at Spelman College’s baccalaureate service. Instead of talking to a tree, I found him alone, squirreled away with a few select books and a legal pad. He graciously welcomed me into the empty classroom as we sat. I felt like he was peering deep into my soul as his tired, hound-dog eyes surveyed my soul. What was this boy’s story?, he seemed to be asking.

Young, stupid, and curious, Dr. Roberts knew that Thurman had the medicine I needed for my sin-sick soul. I was serving in a Southern Baptist Church as the “youthie”, the youth minister, while attending a Methodist seminary, trying to figure out my life’s calling, my vocation. Doctor, lawyer, tribal chief? Where should I spend this one, wild, precious life? as teasingly framed by Mary Oliver.

I tried to give him the spiel of my “spiritual autobiography”, a required narrative that every seminarian is obligated to carry in one’s back pocket, and present upon request. He seemed to wave me off the story-telling, getting to the heart of the matter. How might I live my life with integrity? He had read my mail long before I faced him. I was just another one of those young people who had come to him looking for the illusive way of centering one’s Self. And I am sure, his advice, his offering was not specific to me, but in the next few minutes, he offered a method of centering which has provided an anchor for my life.

He described a way to focus, to center oneself in the biblical narrative, notably the Psalms. This is an ancient method referred to as “lectio divina”, or holy reading or holy attending to the text. Christian hermetic monks had employed that method of reciting the Psalter in the context of communal chanting, as well as utilizing it in their private devotions. It was a way of “abiding” in the text rather than studying it, analyzing it, or in good Baptist style, memorizing. I used to joke that a typical Evangelical tactic was to memorize more verses that you are willing to do. This was a subversive approach. “Lectio” intends to engage the text with an expectant heart, waiting upon the Spirit to speak. The trick, as it always seems to be, is listening.

This was not a new method as I had been introduced to it experientially by the Trappist monks of Conyers, Georgia, where I would go to drink in the mystical silence of the monastery. The monks methodically went through the 150 psalms in a cycle for year upon year. Further, Dr. Glenn Hinson, the Southern Baptist mystic, who fed my hunger by directing me to Bernard of Clairvaux, reiterated this subversive method of listening, attending to, rather than the typical way of exposition.. So Thurman’s directions were not unknown to me, but his specificity was.

He “prescribed” a particular psalm for my focus, Psalm 139. He directed me to focus, to abide in Psalm 139 for a month, and then to call him to check in. Being the quintessential student, trained well by twenty years of performing stupid human tricks mandated by teachers, I hopped to it. A month of mornings, meditating, basking, playing in Psalm 139.

After a month, I called Howard to tell him of my excellent work. He congratulated me, and then told me to do it again. The next month, same thing. After five months, I asked if this was going to be the same thing each time. He laughed, and said YES.

I think I got it.

It became my center, my story that could expand me as I breathed in, and center me as I breathed out. The native infinity loop of breathing in….breathing out.

I never asked him why he chose Psalm 139 for me, some sort of psychic mojo? My hunch is that he sensed the profound drift in my sense of identity and intuited my need for home. a center from which to explore. I only know that on that initial day, he began his remarks before the graduating seniors at historic Spelman, with his eyes closed, reciting the first verses of that particular Psalm:

“O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar.

Thou searchest out my path and my lying down; and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.

Thou dost beset me, from behind, and before. and layest thou hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.”

The Psalmist poetically speaks of the deep connection with God, a connection so deep, that one can not avoid it, even if one were to try to escape that love by climbing high or diving deep. There God is, is with you, like it or not.

The Psalmist rhapsodically speaks of knowing you when you were knit together inside your mother’s womb. Your inward parts, even though mixed and convoluted, are known and valued. The days of your life touched and marked by God’s knowledge of you. You are precious. Wherever you might go, God is with you.

This is just the therapy, the healing that I was needing. A brokenness, a psychic tear rending my soul from birth was cauterized by the searing love of God. Other therapists, priests, shaman would assist in the soul surgery, but it was all baptized in these waters, these healing waters of the Psalmist.

And as if to send me off on my journey, charged with the quixotic mission of self-awareness as I travel my path, the Psalmist closes:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my restless thoughts. And see if there be any wicked way within me, and lead me in the way that is everlasting.”

I am convinced that Thurman saw me, really knew me, and gave me the immeasurable gift of Psalm 139. I was fortunate to spend more time with him before his death, but this directive changed the course of my journey. I was blessed to cross paths with this saint who graciously shared his wisdom, centered me, and pointed me toward the Light.

And I enter this new day, this next chapter, wondering where it will lead. But I trust, I know, that it will be a path more deeply into that Center.

Thank you, Joe, for the tip. Thank you, Howard for the insight. Thank you, God, for the journey.

Blessings, indeed.

What Does It Mean to Cast a Vote?

Cast. What does it mean?

I have cast a dry fly on my river in North Georgia, the Cartecay that runs along Highway 52 in Ellijay. I cast a nymph when I first started fly fishing in my early twenties, when I used the weighted line to cast the attractor into the gin clear waters in the Chattahoochie River, up above Helen. During my Texas sojourn, I was relegated to cast a bug for a big bass on Lake Fork and a small fly for bream on Lake Palestine. And I’ve cast flies all over the state of Montana, in the prettiest streams I have known. It’s a favorite thing for me to do, particularly in solitude, casting a fly. Trout seem to prefer God’s most beautiful places in which to live.

But I’ve also cast a play, a production, a musical, in fact. It involves finding just the right person to play a special part in a dramatic production. In a musical, it entails combining a vocal ability, along with the capacity to dance, and add in the ability to not suck at acting. I’ve been lucky to find “just the right person” so many times, and failed on the rare occasion. Some say that I have a good eye and ear, but that sounds like the kind of braggadocious claim that led me to cast my vote in a particular direction.

But the casting you and I have been engaged with recently focusses on casting our vote. We may have mailed in our vote due to concerns of the corona virus, or perhaps with mobility issues. It’s the one time when “mailing it in” is a good thing, a responsible thing.

Or we may have dropped it in a ballot box at a polling area, having secured an absentee ballot, filled it out, and then driving by to drop it in.

Or, we may have gone to vote early, avoiding the long lines to cast our vote at a designated early voting place. Those have seemed to have become scarce these days, which is a bad thing. Voting needs to be encouraged, as my friend John Lewis said, and put his derriere one the line to make it be so.

My way to cast, I say, in the voice of Foghorn Leghorn, to cast my vote is to go to my particular and peculiar voting place on Election Day. I love the excitement of the day, this day that makes us Americans, deciding who it is we want to represent us on the city council, to serve on the board of education, to be on the judicial bench, to make wise decisions in terms of prosecution, to be representatives in the state legislature, to represent us in Congress, and yes, even to go live in that big white house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I enjoy going to my polling place, to have Kitty, a retired person who was a member at the Cathedral where I served, check me in…..she always does, as she has been a faithful volunteer. Regardless, she dutifully checks my ID to ascertain that a clone is not trying to steal my vote.

Kitty and I were both members of the Rose Society of Atlanta, with her knowing light years more than me about growing roses. She is the quintessential volunteer. Except this year. This year Kitty handed off her duties to someone who was not so susceptible to COVID. And, me, I had moved to Glynn County in coastal South Georgia, with a poll place at a community church on mid-island. Things have changed. Notice how that happens.

How did it feel for you? This felt different, perhaps because of the lingering pandemic, perhaps because of the seeming importance of the outcome. Both parties hyped that it was the most important election in the history of our country. And it is, each time we make that decision as to who will represent us.

Elections give us either/or decisions. You vote for one candidate, and not the other. It’s usually a binary choice, this person and not that person. It leaves those who have chosen the winning candidate with a sense of victory, a feeling that things are going my way, of being in the majority in the city, state, or country.

But it simultaneously gives those who vote for the one who did not win with a bad taste, a feeling of losing, which is rarely a good thing. I’m about fifty-fifty, so I know how it feels how to win and how to lose. And as Tricky Dick infamously said, it feels better to win. For a while, he might have added.

As was recalled in the movie about the Obama-McCain election in 2008, many McCain followers were dismayed, even angry that they lost. I remember the incredibly gracious and reassuring way that McCain congratulated his opponent and urged his voters to abide by the results of the election. He squelched the over-zealous Palin who wanted to beat the drum of dissent in those hours following the historic moment. That’s the kind of patriot John McCain was as he realized the historic moment as we elected the first black man to be President of the United States. While I happened to be working that week at a hospital in Tyler, Texas and on that particular evening, I joined many black citizens in their pride at the change, the increase of opportunities in our country, along the vision of Thomas Jefferson, made more inclusive in the expansion of that idea by Martin King. From counting as only a fraction of a human being, a black man would be the President of the United States. Righteous.

And before that, when I was still a Texan, I remember the magnanimous response of Al Gore to his apparent loss to George W. Bush after a court battle. Gore took the high road of accepting the Supreme Court decision which disallowed the votes in Miami that would have given him the victory. Gore showed his patriotism and his love of country by allowing the process to reach a conclusion. That is the kind of statesmanship that we see and want in our public officials who supposedly serve a higher cause.

I am writing this on the morning before Election Day. I am wondering what the aftermath of this current process. I am struggling. To try to write that one true sentence, I am scared to death as to what will follow this week. Threats of violence, people claiming that there is no way their candidate could lose, the conspiratorial virus that seems to have infected a good portion of our country…..this is the emotional bed in which this process of election will play out.

I am praying, pausing, diving deep to find some sense of hope that we will see our way through. My rabbi teacher used to tell me about something called “meta-awareness” which allows one to rise above the hysteria of the moment.

Pundits and political consultants are trying to stoke the fires, the passions, that just might burn it all down.

Remember when we would send delegations from the Carter Center to monitor elections in so-called banana republics. And now, we are one.

I have been disappointed by the run up to this election. Is this the end of our democracy, or damaging wreck at an intersection? Or will this challenge strengthen us in our resolve to secure the vote to every citizen? Buoyed by the registration of new voters and the pre-vote in record numbers, it is as if we have gotten a whiff of a threat to our way of life and are responding proactively. But are we still going to be wrestling for the next decade, with a persistent taste for crazy conspiracy theories in pizza parlors while ignoring the meddling by outside interests that intend us harm. The vote and decisions on such matters still are in flux, in process. Too early to declare, they will chirp tomorrow night.

My hunch is we will be in a holding pattern. An extended holding pattern, like the planes I used to fly around Atlanta back in the good old days. The flight attendants would bring me Chivas as we banked round and round the metro looking to slip into a descent, even though I had begun my own. I would make my move to Drambuie to signal my sophistication to my lovely flying friend, before tray tables were to be hoisted into their upright and locked position. Man, I picked the wrong election cycle to stop drinking, as Lloyd Bridges might say. Ironic, don’t you think, that he was the biological father of The Dude?

At my desk, I am flooded by Neil Young’s plaintive Helpless, poetically selected for me by the Spotify gods. Followed by Neil’s earlier incarnation in the Buffalo Springfield, urging me to stop, and look around, see what’s going down, a song from my elementary days, the first protest song that I ever “got”. How funny to find out fifty years later that it was written “in protest” to a curfew at a local teen club in LA, not the far-off war as I thought. And then the stereo gods speak with John Prine’s voice, urging me to blow up my TV, throw away my newspapers, eat a lot of peaches, and find Jesus on my own. What the hell algorithm am I riding on this holding pattern?

Finally, my man Jerry of the Grateful Dead punctuates my time of reflection with his one, poignant question: What I want to know is…..are you kind?

God, or gods, you know I’m trying. Flaps down.

And the Daily Double is….

What if you could ask Jesus one question? What might it be?

One of the most famous passages in the Gospels is a moment in which a lawyer asks Jesus a question about what is the most important thing in life. Jesus responds from the depth of his Jewish roots, from the Shema, a prayer-mantra that was repeated every morning by faithful Jews: Love the God with your whole being, and love your neighbor. All you need is love, prompting another four, the Beatles, not just the Gospel writers, to trumpet the simple call to love.

This past Sunday, in the middle of political wrangling, the Church trotted out this famous press conference where Jesus has been confronted by a variety of questioners, attempting to trap him, to expose him. It culminates in this question about the greatest commandment, and Jesus responds with a return to first principles.

Let’s pause for a brief side trip into how the Church presents this powerful moment.

In the Episcopal Church, our readings for Sunday are prescribed in a three year cycle, not at the whim of a preacher. It’s called the lectionary, and it includes an Old Testament reading, a portion of the Psalms, a reading from the letters of Paul, and then a reading from one of the four Gospels. This prescription keeps the preacher from only riding his/her favorite pony every Sunday.

It reminds me of the wisdom of my preaching professor, Dr. Joe Roberts, of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who told me once that most ministers have one sermon that they preach over and over. It’s sort of like the practice in music of a variation on a theme. A theme is repeated but with various instrumentation, different tones, addend enhancements, but underneath it all, the theme remains.

The lectionary, with appointed texts (some texts that one would wish to God might go away) forces the preacher to deal with a panoply of subjects rather than remain on their favored topic. It is the gift of the lectionary to the congregation that ministers and priests can’t just remain in their same old message each Sunday. At least that’s the idea.

As noted, this past Sunday, we heard the pointed answer from Jesus as to the centerpiece of life: the command to love God and neighbor. The priest at my parish on the island made a valiant effort at using this moment to frame our current predicament in this country. How do we enter into this political season of red versus blue?

He creatively pointed to perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of Scripture, the “love” passage in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.. It’s one of the passages that is prescribed to be read at weddings as it touts the properties of love between two people about to enter into this time of bliss. It has been chosen by many of the couples that I have officiated their wedding ceremonies.

You remember it, right? It describes what love is and what loved is not. At a nuptial Mass for my wife and me, the Trappist monk read that 13th Chapter of Corinthians, but inserted Mary’s name, or my name, to accentuate the call to both of us to be loving to one another. It was powerful in the moment. “David is not arrogant or rude.”, the priest read. I remember distinctly my mother laughing. Damn if Mary has not learned the same laugh.

But the point was clear, love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous. That is what marriage is all about, as a crucible in which a person learns about how to love an “other”, someone other than oneself. It’s hard work, but it provides a perfect laboratory in which to press the labor of transcending one’s native self- interest and bending toward loving the other as one’s self. I’m in my fortieth year of this labor, “Forty” being the Hebrew idiom for “a long damn time.” The Hebrew tribe wandered forty years in the wilderness….. point made.

However, my priest made a powerful point. The original setting for this passage was not a wedding in the glitz of Buckhead or even in the edge of a marsh. Rather it was Paul writing to encourage a community that was wracked by division, pulled apart by divided loyalty to one leader or another.

Now, I know it’s hard for you to imagine such a thing. A community divided. Right?

A collection of humans split by loyalty to parties, to do-or-die propositions and beliefs. But, I am asking you to stretch your imagination a bit. This is actually what Paul was addressing, not some Hallmark card poem to two love-gorged humans but to an actual community of persons who were ravaged by diverse beliefs and conflicted loyalties.

So what does Paul recommend? What’s his advice?

Paul implores those in the community to treat one another with an attitude of love. He calls people in Corinth not to insist on their own way, but to take seriously the common life they share. Simply stated, he urges folks to be patient and kind. To avoid being irritable, to not boast of one’s own position, or to take advantage. To resist being irritable, or resentful. Can you imagine one of our current debate moderators offering these guidelines, rather than just a mere caution of clapping at the wrong time.

But push it further. How might these admonitions be embraced by our wider community in the middle of this polarized political landscape? Are we able to regard those who differ from us in political affiliation and loyalty without demonizing them in the process?

The answer on observation of social media is a resounding “NO”.

How did we get here? I remember growing up in spirited debates on issues of how to deal with foreign engagements, fiscal responsibility, programs for health, education, and welfare, and civil rights. And there were honest disagreements as to how to best approach these dilemmas, that is, issues we must negotiate continually, never able to finally solve. I remember opponents being able to engage one another on the floor of debate, and then embrace in friendship and collegial relationship, even have a drink together. Those days seem way gone with the hot wind of contempt.

I have no illusion in our current culture that we can all join hands, sing a few verses of Kum Ba Ya, and suddenly find a sense of community and love one another. Hell, I would take singing the chorus of the Beatles’ Come Together, and not killing one another. Unfortunately, even that seems like a stretch these days.

But I thought I might give it the old college try in this meager article to suggest that one pause as we move toward the election day, and in the aftermath of posturing and lawyering, to listen to Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians. Might we be able to become a people of love, recognizing the worth of the other, seeing value in our sister or brother, rather than reducing her/her to an opinion with which one disagrees. Or as Jon Meacham pull from history, could we attend to our better angels, rather than listen to our worst instincts.

I am going to try to take my own advice, preaching to my own damn self, as to the aspiration of love, and my pledge to follow with my heart, mind, and very soul.

I am at my desk looking at Martin King standing by a photo on his wall of Gandhi, reminding me of his image of the Beloved Community, and his tactic of non-violence. And directly in front of me is the portrait of my teacher, Howard Thurman, who taught me to dive deeply into the waters of my humanity to find connection through the modality of prayer. And finally, I am captured by the icon of Jesus, Pantocrator, the one who taught and teaches of this love. I have pledged my intention to follow him in his way of being. And what the hell does that mean in this current situation?

It occurs to me to reread that 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to re-mind me of love, a way of being that is a subversion of what our culture tells us about winning, of beating the “Other”. Dare I dive in again to this quest, or should I just take a number and get in line in this show of bravado by political pundits and putzs ?

We’ll see. Won’t we? The Daily Double….loving God and Neighbor.

How To Change The World

On my last Sunday in Tyler, Texas, having served a decade as the pastor of Christ Episcopal Church, I had shaken my last hand at the traditional spot outside the door of our church on Bois d’Arc. I was headed back through the church for the last time when I saw a small group of women near the front of the church house.

Bitsy Wynne, the mater familias of Christ Church, called to me as I was hurrying to get out of my hot vestments. In typical style, Bitsy queried, “Well, I guess you’re off to Atlanta to go write about US.”

I paused, and it must have been the Holy Spirit that prompted my response, because I am not that quick, “No, Bitsy. Just about you!”

Funny, Bitsy called it right. For all her bluster, she had a heart of gold, which is what I found in most of the people in Tyler. And it’s that soul that I have written about often in South of God about my Texas sojourn to Tyler.

I had spent most of my life in Atlanta, a large progressive metropolis, where blacks and whites had hammered out a relationship in the crucible of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t perfect, but there was a kind of synergy brought about by the work of leaders in the old Atlanta money, the upsurge of black political power, and the odd mix of religious leaders. Atlanta was heralded as the Empire City of the South and hyped as being an “International City”. It actually became an international city after we brought the world to Peachtree for the ’96 Olympics. Up to that point, it was more of an aspiration in the 80s when I was playing ball.

Tyler was quite a different gig. There seemed to be a deep division between black and white, with the additional dimension on Hispanics quickly changing the demographics of the city. While oil had been the economic driver through most of the century, the bust in 1983 redrew the picture of reality. There were some good things going on in economic development, a rise in the opportunities for higher education, the centering in East Texas for medical arts, the influx of some new industry, and an effort in diversification. But the city seemed to me to be at a defining moment of moving forward progressively with more seats at the table for new constituencies, or the more comfortable option of staying stuck in the “way it was and had to be.”

I have mentioned that there were a number of people who were attempting to make improvements in our common civic life. They were visionaries in their own way, fueled not of just oil, but of heart and hope. The Texas spirit is hard to beat.

One was Larry Robinson, our police chief, who had initiated community policing long before it was fashionable. Larry brought his faith commitment to bear on his work in public safety and had an ethical sensitivity as he worked in his difficult role.

Another colleague was Fred Smith, who worked for Leadership Network, which freed him to devote a lot of energy and time working with the non-profit world in Tyler. Like Larry, Fred operated out of a faith base, and it moved him to enter into the mix as Tyler sought to define itself.

Our faith commitment threw the three of us together to make a trip to Chicago to meet with a person who had experience in the work of developing community in the city. His name was Ray Bakke, a professor and consultant at International Urban Associates and the author of a well-regarded book, The Urban Christian.

Larry, Fred, and I flew to Chicago in the hopes of picking Ray’s brain in terms of how we might make a difference in Tyler. Ray had planned our brief visit carefully. He took us to several urban ministry projects to give us a sense of the energy that can be focused through community solidarity and training. He took us specifically to Cabrini-Green, a storied public project known for its roughness, but showed us how his organization was transforming the neighborhood. It was impressive.

For me, as an Episcopal priest, it was challenging to see this older man who had spent his personal capital investing his life, his days and years, his blood and guts, trying to help this part of Chicago become a better place to live for all people. The four of us wound up on the L Train, traveling at night through the heart of Chi-town, down by Wrigley Field, and other landmarks of this place.

We had asked the raft of questions we had brought with us, and Ray had dutifully, and soulfully answered them to the best of his ability. But I had one question I had been carrying in my back pocket for a while. When the night seemed to still, I decided to ask it.

“How do you change a city?”

Ray paused in the silence and chill of the late evening, looking me square in the eyes….I still remember it.

“You have to love the city.” Ray said quietly, but firmly.

My response erupted from my gut, not editing it as I would have in grad school to impress the professor. “Hell, Ray, I don’t even like Tyler. How can I love it?”

Ray smiled at me with what I experienced as compassion. And then he knocked me flat, “Well then, this will take a lot of prayer. Pray that you will learn to love Tyler.”

It was not the answer I came to Chicago to get from this high priest of urban ministry. But it was the answer I got, to the question that most pressed my soul. You see, I was trying to figure out if I could hang is this medium size city that seemed to operate with a small town mindset. It was, as we say in the trade, an existential question.

Larry, Fred, and I went back to our rooms at the Drake Hotel, caught a plane the next morning, taking us back to Tyler damn Texas. But my life was forever changed, like old Nicodemus who came inquiring of Jesus under the covering of darkness.

I begin to add a specific prayer to my daily regimen that Anglican priests commit to: Morning and Evening Prayer. I had been trained well at the Cathedral to say my prayers in a structured way in order to provide some rhythm, some centering in my life. It was the Anglican way of taking the monastic discipline of cloistered prayer and making it palatable for folks in the world.

I added a simple, but heart-felt prayer every time I paused to pray, morning and night: Give me a heart for Tyler.

I have no idea how that prayer thing works.

I decided some time back to stop pretending that I knew how it worked….and didn’t work. I don’t tend to get all spooky about such things. A pragmatist at heart, I only know that my heart changed. My attitude and service was transformed. Driving me now was not an anger over the injustice, the racism, in bias that I saw. My anger, the fire to make things change remained but my motivation was clearly different. I loved the city of Tyler, and the odd menagerie of people that inhabited that town…..MY town.

I remained in Tyler for a decade. It was a hell of a lot longer than I thought I would stay when I first landed and started looking for the first train out. I turned down a number of opportunities to “move on up” like George Jefferson, due to my commitment to be a part of the transformation in Tyler. And when I did make a move, I confess that I wept at having to leave a city and a people that I loved.

I was thinking about that decade of my life recently. I was reflecting on where our country is these days, our polarization. The spirit in the country is one far beyond hatred but is expressing contempt for those who do not share our views. This is a scary place that we are in, a perilous time at the upcoming election. I quit predicting political outcomes after 2016 and have no idea other than a predictable chaos ensuing regardless. It scares me, and that’s rare.

In the shadow of this apprehension, I am taking a lesson from the time in Texas. I have committed to praying for the country. Not just my little island off the coast of Georgia, though we need it. Not my region of the Golden Isles. Not my state. But my country, and the gaps and blindness that plague us. I am praying for a healing to the hatred and contempt. Praying for rationality to clear the suspiciousness that flourishes in fear and distrust, that winds up in the vortex of conspiracy. I am trying to remember my love for this country that has seemed to have forgotten its first principles.

Is it possible for such a diverse country, with two coasts and a heartland, to come together around a common vision? I grew up thinking it could.

I fervently thought that we might form that illusive “more perfect union”, with good hearts, sharp minds, and hard work. I committed myself to that mission early on in my life, finding my place as a faith leader as one way to make a difference. I decided to spend my one, precious life working for that goal in the way my fellow Atlantan did, knowing full well that it cost him his life. As I listen on this afternoon to a plaintive song by Rodney Crowell, my mood mellows, saddens, and wonders.

And it occurs to me, I’ve been here before. Ray Bakke’s admonition echoes to re-mind me that this takes prayer. Some serious prayer. I got to go with what I know. So I am entering this season with a commitment to prayer, with hope.

What are you doing to make things better? How are you pouring yourself out to contribute to our common life? My friend Ray suggested prayer as a starting place to change the world. What do you think?

My Daughter’s Wedding

I am sitting at my desk on the morning of my daughter’s wedding, thinking and writing about this auspicious day.

The sun is not even peeking over my horizon to the east. I went to bed late, watching Seth Meyers, listening to a podcast on Cynthia Bourgealt, and trying to get to sleep. My soul woke me at at 5:30, prompting me to get my stuff together for the day.

It is a day that I knew was coming, even on the day my daughter entered the world at Piedmont hospital in Atlanta. I made a vow that I would not officiate at my parent’s funeral, and I kept it. I made a similar vow about not officiating at my daughter’s wedding, and I am breaking that in a few hours, because she asked.

God gave me a son to practice on for two years before trusting me with a daughter. Good call.

I always knew this day was coming, that my daughter would fall in love and make a new life away from her mother and me. It’s the contract you sign before you leave the hospital with a baby girl. I think I could claim “insanity through joy” which could nullify my signature, but it seems late on the day of the ceremony, so many plans made…..

Mary Glen and Michael will be married on the marshes of Glynn, here on St. Simon Island. Michael grew up here and loves this place, and my daughter has caught the bug of being enthralled by the coastal beauty of low country. So it’s fitting, meet and right, as we Episcopalians say, harkening back to our Anglican roots.

I will use the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer for the wedding. In the middle, I have to say something, as a sermon is prescribed. If you remember the advice that my boss Lancaster told me, I am hoping to rally this morning and not merely say something but have something to say.

I actually wrote an email to my two Trappist monk friends that are still alive to pray for me on this day, especially. Pray that I will stay centered. Pray that I will speak truth. And, for God’s sake, pray that I don’t embarrass my daughter.

Back in the day, when I was the Canon Pastor at the Cathedral of St. Philip, we would do three weddings a weekend: High Noon, for the drama; 4 PM for the cocktail crowd; and 8 PM for the white-tie Buckhead folks. When a priest did the wedding, one had the duty to show up for the rehearsal that Friday night, which pretty well took up your weekend.

I couldn’t believe the older priests would refer all their couples to me for weddings. I thought it must be due to my clinical training as a marriage and family therapist. Just how gracious were these old codgers referring all these couples to me, the youngest priest on the planet. And then, I figured out the gig. I wound up many weekends having three rehearsals Friday afternoon, spending my entire Saturday doing weddings. I had been “had” by these old goats.

Always ingenious, I would finish up my rehearsals, head up to Lake Lanier with my wife, take my sailboat out and anchor in a cove, cook out, and have a romantic evening on the lake, listening to Phil Collins and James Taylor. Up in the morning, sail for a few hours, drive in to Atlanta, shower, and let the weddings begin. That is the Galloway style of time management.

The years of doing high-dollar nuptials in that social setting sort of did me in on weddings. They became social occasions that begged the religious connection. I actually did a white-tie wedding with Howard Cosell, Barbara Walters, and most of ABC in attendance. I guess me pitching my idea for a priest-based sitcom was a bit gauche, but you got to try, as Lyle Lovett taught me. Hell, he got Julia Roberts for a while… gotta try!

When I left the Cathedral, just after my daughter, Mary Glen, was born, I was worn slap out with weddings. In Texas, where men are men, and cows are king, the weddings came at a more civilized pace and I got back to normal….as normal as I can get.

One wedding in particular is etched in my memory. It was for the daughter of two of my best friends, Betty and Guy Danielson. Betty wanted the ceremony to be on her horse farm, which is cool…I have loved horses all my life. In fact, in my early years, Urban “Terry” Holmes helped my to identify my Spirit Animal, which I discerned as a horse, specifically, a stallion. I later morphed into a bear, with a den one asks permission to enter, and now an owl, who sometimes gives a hoot.

Back to the wedding. It was to be in July at the hottest time of the year in Texas. Somehow, a cool front blew through, prompting me to begin my sermon with the observation that even God doesn’t mess with Betty Danielson. As I offered my superb theological comments, I noticed people laughing, not at the right places in my routine. I turned around to see two horses copulating behind me, which is a native American sign of blessing. Too bad the Danielson’s aren’t Cherokee, but Oklahomans.

With all those weddings to perform, and with the requirement of a sermon for each one, I began a serious collection of sermon stories, a raft of tales and platitudes that would send a blushing bride and anxious groom off into a blaze of glory down Peachtree Road. One time, I joked about wishing I could wave my arms in the sign of the cross, blessing the marriage, sending the happy couple off into their future bliss in white carriage drawn by white horses. And damned if, on that very day, there wasn’t a white coach with white horses waiting after the ceremony to take them into the sunset down Peachtree Road. That nearly did me in, as we say in the biz.

My favorite story to tell in the nuptial rite was about an old Baptist preacher I knew, Will Campbell. Will grew up in Mississippi but went and got educated at Yale. He returned to Mississippi and didn’t last too long in the traditional church. He was noted for his activism, particularly around racial reconciliation. But Will did it his own way. He not only served as a chaplain to the NAACP, but also served as the chaplain to the Ku Klux Klan. He would remind folks that God loved everybody…..even bigots! I am trying hard to remember that these days.

He was famous for his iconoclastic weddings. He would ceremoniously take out the official Marriage License from his black coat pocket, look at it, over the rims of his glasses, inspecting for authenticity, and then wildly sign his name on the dotted line as the officiant. Then he would hold the four-copy document high in the air, held by two fingers, and then drop it, letting the cheap government paper flutter unceremoniously to the ground. When the document hit Mother Earth, Will would solemnly announce: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s. Now, let’s get on with the wedding!

It was his prophetic way of reminding the observers, and most importantly, the couple, of the primacy of the vows that they are making with one another, and before God, and the community. The triadic, covenantal relationship took precedence and priority over any social manners or government sponsored contract! You could hardly miss his point.

Being a young priest, I did not have the brass to quixotically make the prophetic action. I merely told the story of this old Baptist preacher I once knew and let Will live and preach in the telling of the story. It would have to do until I was old enough to find his courage.

That’s probably how I am opening this immediate family ceremony on the marsh. We’ll see. I may melt into a puddle of daddy-of-the-bride tears. All I wanted was to be Steve Martin for the day and, instead, I turn into Karl Malden on the Waterfront.

So as the sun comes up this morning, I find myself centering, focusing, pausing. It will be okay. It will be fine, or as St. Julian of Norwich said, all will be well. Try telling that to a wedding planner or my wife!

Postscript to the wedding: It all went well. A cool breeze kept the skeeters and humidity at bay. Mary Glen and Michael were married, though no horses showed up. Rather, Reagan, my favorite Black Lab, graced the gathering, which will do fine for a sign. Michael’s mother, Kit, and her parents, Kappy and Paul, were there. My Nashville musician son, Thomas, served as the ring bearer for both, and my wife, Mary, fixed the train for our daughter to make her way down the trail to the marsh.

I did not shed a tear, nor did I fall, once again beating the family betting pool. I did tear up when I saw the taped toasts from Mary Glen’s college friends who shared the Barber St. house in Athens, where REM once lived. It was a lovely time, a holy time, that made me glad to find the freedom to break a vow, even when I am officiating while others make their vow of marriage.

Mazel tov, y’all !

Folks With Questions

Can I just admit, or confess, that my religious quest found its answer through the television?

Now, I’m not talking Tammy Fay and Jim, or Pat Robertson, or even Oral Roberts. But it was through the television medium, nonetheless.

I had been dissatisfied with the pat answers of my South of God church. My study of religion in college had only intensified my questioning, beginning with the scholarly search for the historical Jesus by the storied figure of Albert Schweitzer, a medical missionary doctor whose passion for Jesus led him headlong in a quest to get at the real person behind the biblical myth. As I have written, this sent me on my own peculiar journey through Jewish mysticism, Roman Catholic theological scholarship, Trappist monasticism, and even evangelical apologetics. My appetite was voracious but like Mick Jagger, I could not get satisfaction. And, I might add, I tried.

What’s weird is that it was on a Sunday morning after a fraternity party at the Sigma Chi house at Emory that I got a nudge. I had had several flagons of coffee for recovery, and ambled on downstairs to the TV room, a dark place in the basement, suitable for Saturday night sinners, or as Kris wrote, a Sunday morning coming down. I turned on the television, and begin flipping around. Sunday morning TV in those days, before cable, did not offer a lot of options. There were cartoons, church services, and public service programming. Not many options. Sparse.

Suddenly, I came across a round face, cherubic, I would say, of a man. I remember the camera was on a close up take, not revealing his liturgical garb. It took me a second but I soon recognized the language of a preacher, but unlike any preacher I had ever heard. He was talking about a person, a person I had heard about all my life, but in a way that seemed fresh. Rather, than telling me things that I needed to believe, he was asking questions about this person, and asking questions about my life.

Turns out, the person he was talking about was none other than Jesus, a person whose story I thought I knew. Growing up in the church sometimes inoculates you to the power and intensity of the story. This guy was talking about a Jesus that seemed more real to me than I had ever heard it. The preacher, the round faced dude was named Tom Bowers, the priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. The sermon was a part of what I came to know as the “folk mass”, where guitars provided lively music, the communion prayers seemed relatable rather than the rigid Lord’s Supper my church did, twice a year, whether we needed to or not. The spirit of the service seemed joyful. I do remember the other priest leading the worship, a Friar Tuck looking guy with an acoustic guitar, sang a song, “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog”, and asking me to help him drink his wine, which was not very appealing in the glow of the morning after,

I can’t explain it, but it grabbed my attention. So much so, that the next day, I called the
St. Luke’s office to set up an appointment with the Rev. Tom Bowers in order to ask him about my questions. Tom was so gracious in spirit, took me into his office, and fielded all my questions without an ounce of judgment. It was the beginning of my journey into the Episcopal Church, a place where my questions were not only tolerated, but encouraged. Turns out, curiosity is my super power.

What started with a chance encounter via television with an alternative way of Christian faith, led to my coming back there to the Folk Mass on many occasions. It eventually led to me coming with my new wife to join this very parish, and beginning my discernment process for priesthood. The cherubic Tom was gone to a high-octane parish in New York City, St. Bart’s, the same church featured in the movie, Arthur.

Now, Dan was the new rector, looking more like Neil Diamond when he was singing about Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. Dan has an electric energy, with his own winsome style of presenting this Jesus. And Dan surrounded himself with an all star cast of kick-ass priests: Parkins, Gorday, Ruhle, and Temple who skewed me into thinking all Episcopal parishes have stellar staffs. Wrong. Each one gave me a gift, a unique slant on this Jesus. Dan was the ringmaster, and he became my sponsoring priest as I moved on to ordination. It was my Camelot.

Luke’s became my paradigm for church. As a person of questions, it is understandable that I have a native affinity to people who also bring questions to the dance. It is not a surprise that my passion for those unchurched, those outside of the community of faith, has focused my energy.

It makes sense, then, that I have a certain drive to present a church that is open and inviting to those who have questions. When I arrived in Tyler, Texas, I was surprised to find that most people were “churched”, meaning, they were member of an organized church, most of them very traditional. I wanted to make a place for the people, like me, who were full of questions, searchers, questers. I did not see any other churches making a place for those types.

So we began to advertise. My good friend, Holly, explored ways to get us on television, producing ads that put forth a message that we were a church that was welcoming to questions. We worked hard to offer advertising at the traditional news hour that Christ Church was an inviting place to go to church. We actually bought advertising on the last show of Cheers, with me at the altar with a bar towel, saying, “The bad news is that Cheers is closing its doors. But the Good News is that there are churches here in Tyler who will be open this Sunday, and they not only know your name, but more importantly, they know that you are a child of God. Why not visit a church this Sunday?” I think the people in Tyler wondered who that crazy priest was at Christ Church. And I think, some of my members felt the same way!

The other tactic I used was to sponsor a weekly radio show every Sunday night from 9 PM until Midnight. I called the show “The Midnight Minister”, although my friend Trey Yarbrough kidded me by calling me The Prince of Darkness.

The format was simple. I would come on the air playing a variety of eclectic music, which was great fun for me. But I invited the listeners to call in and ask me a pastoral question about faith. It was LIVE radio, so you never knew what crazy questions might come in. I made it clear that I would NOT entertain doctrinal questions nor dogmatic debates during the show. I reassured them I would be happy to talk with any one at my office about any question, but I did not want to bog down the show, fighting over who was right and who was wrong about this or that doctrine, like infant baptism, virgin birth, or inerrancy of Scripture. I wanted the questions to be pastoral in nature, dealing with relationships, spirituality, and life decisions.

People honored my request, for the most part, bringing pressing questions of marriage, relationships, vocation, and purpose. Due to the late hour, we wound up with a lot of folks struggling with alcohol and addiction, and wound up guiding a number of folks to some resources that would assist them in getting a handle on their issue. I never did know what question might be coming my way, which was a blast for me and my brave staff. It sure made it hard to go to sleep after the show was over as my adrenaline level was pretty high. Monday mornings at the church house were rough.

This format offered a way that afforded the caller an anonymity that was not available in a local church. You could ask anything….and people did. For marital issues, to child raising, to dating, to addiction, to finding the meaning for one’s life. It was a great run for me and led a number of folks to come to Christ Church to find a spiritual home in which to grow.

I do need to mention my team. I had two guys who gave me some security in terms of helping me through some of the stickier situations, as well as talking me down after certain crazy shows. Keith Weber, my organist at Christ Church, is like a brother to me. We had gone through personal issues in both of our lives and had been the supportive “other” to one another in those ten years. Keith’s own struggles and battles brought rich experiential wisdom to the show.

The other member of my Midnight Zoo Crew was Paul Kyser. Paul was a producer at the radio station, KTBB, and had become a member of Christ Church. He was invaluable as he knew the practical issues of broadcasting as we sent our voices into the night ether of radio. But Paul’s wit was put to use as a sometime caller, Buck, from Buford, who would serve me up weighty questions in a comical way. Sometimes, we had way too much fun on the airwaves of East Texas, but it was always in service of our mission to use a non-church vehicle to reach out to those people searching for answers.

By the way, Keith is providing musical leadership in Houston, these days, having been nominated for a Grammy. And Paul is now Doctor Paul, a medical doctor in Longview, Texas. He no doubt brings his compassion and comedy to the clinical work that he does as an internist. These two continue their work in another venue, which leads to the question, “What the hell am I doing?”

I guess I am continuing to reach out in non-traditional ways to folks that are motivated by questions of faith. Why am I here? What is the best use of my time and energy in the life I have been given? What does it mean to be compassionate? How can I center myself amid all the distractions? What were the Falcons thinking?

What questions are you dragging along behind you? Old questions from your past, or fresh ones from current struggles, they are where we dive deep into this thing we call life. Care to share yours? I have found that community, in the context of relationship, is where I have found some of my answers. What questions press you? We are gifted with the capacity to question, reflect, think, and eventually, decide. What are you wrestling with? What comes to mind?

My prayer is you find the courage to lean into the question. You may leave with a limp from the encounter with reality, but you may get a blessing.

One True Sentence

I have been writing all my life. Most recently, I’ve been writing a blog every week, about to celebrate my second anniversary of South of God that I began on a Thanksgiving down on St. Simons Island. That’s around one hundred posts. And now, I reside on that island, and write. It’s a long way from the Southside of Atlanta.

I wrote a sports column in high school and college for a local newspaper, my dad called it the Suburban Disturber. It was fun to talk to coaches and make the weekly predictions during football season. Had I known that ESPN was on the horizon, I might have heard a calling from Chris Berman. I thank God that did not happen, unless I was fortunate enough to land with my mensch, Tony Kornheiser.

I wrote papers for professors throughout my academic training, enjoying the opportunity to weave deep research with my natural curiosity. I also took the advice of one of my history professors when he threw down the gauntlet for his students: “Teach me something”, he dared. I loved that challenge and threw down.

I started writing sermons when I was in seminary. It’s a odd genre, combining academics, rhetoric, and storytelling. Oddly, I was given Sunday evening services, not exactly “prime time”, in which to sharpen my sermon sword. Those poor people at Decatur First Baptist were so kind and loving with my youthful attempts at making sense of life. I pray for their souls daily.

Twenty years of weekly sermons installs a certain urgency and pressure. I always remembered my boss, Bill Lancaster, who helped me frame the task for the preacher: Sometimes I have something to say, sometimes I have to say something. By God, I know what the boy meant.

I actually got the opportunity to write free lance articles for an entertainment magazine in Texas, focusing on the variety of music in the region. Honestly, that was the most fun as I got to chase around the region, learning about bluegrass, Cajun, Zydeco, blues, conjunto, just to name a few cultural expressions of the human drive to make music. My favorite was going to Willie’s 4th of July party each year to interview a who’s who of country music, including the man himself. Any time on Willie’s bus is worth the price of admission. And it is true: the road goes on forever, and the party never ends.

Another assignment took me out of Texas. Going over to Eunice, Louisiana to interview Marc Savoy, the Cajun philosopher, was quite a challenge, as Marc does not countenance fools. When I asked about taking in some live Cajun music at Mulate’s in Lafayette, he groaned and said, “Galloway, you don’t need to listen to the ‘yuppified’ Cajun music. You need the real thing!” So he directed me to go down the highway, take a right at the blinking light, and keep going till I see the lights on the hill on the right. Driving into the darkness of rice fields in a bayou thunderstorm, I thought more than once that Marc might have sent this Atlanta city boy on a wild goose chase. That is, until I saw those lights, the lights of D.I.’s, an honest-to-God Cajun juke joint, confirmed by the pick-up trucks in the parking lot. What an experience to not only enjoy, but capture in an article.

The next day, I got to watch the parade of souls who come into Marc’s music store to play Cajun folk music, eat boudin, and drink Dixie beer. My favorite sight was watching these blue collar workers open up their red Craftsman tool boxes, pulling out an ancient fiddle. Marc would call each person by name as they entered the building, transforming them from a beaten-down factory worker into that noble role of musician who makes magic with music. You could watch their bowed backs straighten up to the calling, and see their gait quicken, leaving their back-breaking years behind. I spent the evening with Marc and his amazingly talented wife, Ann Savoy, who has recorded with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. This was my personal briar patch, and I was smart enough to throw myself in.

In all my writing, I have had one mantra that has pounded in my head: Write one true sentence.

I don’t have the brass to identify who said that line and and where I first learned it. Those of you who know the source will no doubt know why I would shy from even mentioning the name. Like a true believer, I shy away from invoking the Holy Name. But it was offered as writing advice to those who, like me, fear the prospect of running dry. It hangs on the wall, over my computer screen, to remind me, and at times, late at night, to reassure me.

Telling the truth has been my aim, no matter where it leads. That was a vow my mentor, Carlyle Marney, made on the day of his ordination. I did the same, on the Feast of St. Mary, and have extended the commitment to my writing.

So it was interesting this past week when I wrote about my friend, William Wayne Justice, the former U. S. District Court judge in East Texas. I have always subscribed to the notion that feedback is the real Breakfast of Champions, not Wheaties. I had one reader respond with his own take on the fact there was no racism in Tyler. I could pretty well receive that for what it was worth, his opinion. I get it, that from his privileged perspective, there is no problem here. I reminded him of the differing opinions of the folks I had the privilege to listen to who felt the pain of systemic bias.

And, I had another person send a glowing note of praise for this particular piece of writing as my “masterpiece”. I puffed up, for a mere second, and then remembered a comment from someone offering the insight that said I was full of myself. What a roller coaster of emotions for a writer of any kind: an article, a sermon, or a song. That is the price of admission to express your inner thoughts, memories, and feelings publicly on paper. So be it.

Through years of presenting my ideas, thoughts, and opinions, I have become more and more impervious to the slings and arrows of criticism, coming to terms with the risky business of laying your self out there. Climbing into the high pulpit will either break you; lead you to start believing your press clipping, which is deadly as you construct an ego of superiority; or toughen you up to the awakening of one’s mixed reality of motivation. I have slowly learned not to take either the praise or the derision too seriously. I want to attend to the truth that critical comments have, in order to learn from my mistakes and mark the ways in which I got it right….this time.

But speaking the truth, as I see it, it is my joy these days. Nothing gives me a deeper joy that trying to scan the horizon of my existence and scramble to write that one true sentence. I know when I hit that right dominant chord and hear it ring through the darkness. It’s not a bad way to spend one’s time and energy.

One true sentence.

About life, and how short it seems as you live longer.

About love, and the illusions and depths.

About family, biological and chosen.

About discerning the difference between loneliness and solitude.

About God, transcendent and as close as your heartbeat.

About Death, cheating it while you can and embracing it when it comes.

About creativity, seriously playful and playfully serious.

About politics, after this past debate, I have no words.

So, I write, word upon word, sentence after sentence, enjoying the ride. I try to tell the truth from my perspective, with the hope that someone might enjoy the story, resonate with thought, grab a morsel of sustenance.

Yes, I abide in hope, even in such times that we find ourselves swamped in.

One true sentence. No fading of the meaning. No pulling the punch.

One true sentence.

That’s Not Fair

When I arrived in Tyler, Texas, as the new Rector of the downtown Episcopal Church, I was told that this East Texas town was made up of a lot of good people. And I found that was true. Really good people, good hearts, ready to be caring to their neighbors….strikingly so. Over the decade I served in Tyler, I grew to love the people and the place.

However, Tyler was a little late to the party of desegregation that swept our country with the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that led to the intentional mixing of races in the educational process in our country. In fact, it was almost twenty years late. Civil rights, as it was known back in the day, which I now simply refer to as equal rights, found Tyler and East Texas to be strangely slow to even begin the dance. More about that later.

Along with the fact of the preponderance of “good” people, I was also told that there were no famous people in Tyler. Well, there was one famous person, Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose, who won the Heisman Trophy as he was the star running back for the University of Texas Longhorns. Unlike many Heisman winners, Earl went on into professional football and made a similar impact there with the Houston Oilers. But Earl no longer lives in Tyler, but Austin. I wound up getting to play golf one day in Austin with Earl, which began my long relationship with the only famous person from Tyler. I was surprised to find out that I was the first person to invite Earl to play at the country club there in Tyler. Folks sure turned out to see their folk hero…. a regular Texas Paul Bunyan. It’s good to be a Friend of Earl.

And there was one infamous person in Tyler, Judge William Wayne Justice. How’s that for a name for a Judge. He was a leading judicial figure in driving the difficult change in desegregation, and was the brunt of the social resistance to this change. People told me he was the most hated man in Tyler. Actually, a Texas publication extended that honor by claiming he was the most hated man in all of Texas. Texans are prone to exaggeration about most things, even hate. But as I listened to conversation at coffee tables and cocktail parties, I found that was not an exaggeration. And so, in my first Christmas Eve sermon, I began my address with that name: William Wayne Justice. I paused after saying it for a full minute, just to let the nervous energy build. Then, I said, “My sermon has nothing to do with William Wayne Justice, but I was told if I wanted to get the attention of a Tyler audience, all I had to do was to mention his name!” There was method in my madness, and the congregation just got served!

It was odd that I came to know this infamous Tyler personality soon thereafter. I had been involved with a movement to improve racial relations in Tyler. Long story short, it led to my house being broken into by the Klan in the middle of the night as a threat. I got a phone call from Judge Justice to offer protection for me and my family, along with an invitation to lunch. Judge Justice told me that he knew what it felt like to stand up for something right and just, and to be the target of hatred. I appreciated his taking time out of his busy work to reassure me, but I had no idea that this would be the beginning of a cherished relationship.

Judge Justice and I began to meet regularly for lunch, which initially centered on the reality of Tyler race relations, but eventually evolved into a conversation about his life and faith. He told me about his preacher calling him out from the pulpit after his desegregation ruling, resulting in his walking out of the church service, and vowing to never go back. He began to ask me questions about faith, about God, about the purpose of church. Treating the questions and my responses gingerly, he finally asked me if it might be okay for him to attend church with me. His question was: would it hurt your reputation if I showed up at your church? Would it cost you if I darkened the door of your church? So from mentioning his name to get folks’ attention, now the man was actually going to show up! Can you say miracle?

Judge Justice started by coming in late, sitting on the back row, to be unobtrusive. If he could have worn a disguise, I’m betting he would have, something Groucho-esque. His distinctive look,, gaunt frame was pretty recognizable. I was proud of my congregation not pointing their fingers at him. Hell, I was happy they didn’t throw him out.

Slowly, he began getting there early, moving up into the middle of the congregation. He attended the Confirmation class, learning about this strange history of the Anglican Church and the legacy of catholic worship, which was new to this former South of God Christian. He decided to join us at Christ Church, and was confirmed by the Episcopal Bishop of Texas, becoming a consistent member of the congregation that met there on the brick streets of Bois d’Arc in downtown Tyler, Christ Church.

In fact, Wayne became one of my most ardent “evangelists”, inviting his friends, and I believe requiring his clerks to come to church. As he told me, he had discovered a “good thing” and wanted to share it, naturally. with his friends. He said he loved my catch phrase: “In the Episcopal Church, you can come to church without checking your mind at the door.” He loved to think, to ask questions, and follow those questions to a conclusion, and then assent by the actions of his life. For me, he was a dream parishioner.

I tell all this to get to the dramatic scene of a church school class that I was teaching one Sunday morning. The class was for adults and was focusing on the difficult teachings of Jesus. This particular Sunday, I was teaching on the parable from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20, which happens to the the Gospel reading for the Episcopal Church this past Sunday.

It’s about a land owner who hires people to work in his vineyard. The owner hires folks to work at the beginning of the work day, then hires on more at noon, then more at three in the afternoon, and then, more at almost quitting time. And at the end of the day, the owner pays the workers the same wage that was agreed on in the initial contract. All the workers got equal pay, regardless to the length of time in the vineyard working.

As I was reading this parable story of Jesus, I could see Judge Justice squirming in his metal chair, the uncomfortable ones that God issued to all churches at the beginning of Creation. They are always gray, and hard, hard on the derriere of Episcopalians, and the butt of South of God folk. You know the ones. He was screwing his bottom into that chair, first to the left, then to the right. I could see, could sense his uncomfortableness with the story because he was sitting on the front row, right it front of me.

And then, he exploded, “That’s not fair!” he offered his U.S. District Court opinion. This brought a long silence in the classroom, until I sustained his objection, “Precisely.” We all enjoyed the move of the Spirit in that Texas morning gathering, and celebrated with the hearty laughter also associated with Texans.

I went on to explain the pedagogical point of Jesus to the people listening to him in the original setting. Jewish folk, who had been part of the Covenant from the very beginning. They were now being joined by the unwashed, the unclean, even the uncircumcised, and given equal rights in this Kingdom of God Jesus was proclaiming. There was a radical tone to this message that this young rabbi was bringing. And to make sure his students got the point, Jesus told this story.

Today, the radical notion of God’ grace remains difficult for us to get out minds and hearts around. In our own time of disorientation as to whose life has value, the story pricks at our own sensibility. There is a native sense of unfairness when we hear it. How can it be fair that the owner of the vineyard pays someone who works for a few minutes at the end of the work day the same wage as the one who has been working from the break of day? It offends us. It shakes us. Judge Justice stands in for the early workers, grumbling, murmuring, complaining to the vineyard owner.

And Jesus’ point seems to be to redirect out natural attention on the vineyard workers to the reality of the scenario, the vineyard owner. It is the prerogative of the owner to set the rules of the day, and set the terms of value. And the owner in the case of our reality is God, who decides to extend Grace to all, whether we like it or not.

That’s so offensive to many of us….most of us. In our logic, the one who works harder, checks off the most boxes, follows the most rules SHOULD be the one who gets the most reward. In the world you and I grew up in, that’s the way it SHOULD work. What was your SAT score, your GPA, your class ranking? That’s the way it worked when I was growing up. My dad and my school counselor “splained it all” to me. Like Joel Goodsen in Risky Business, who did some respectable work in high school. But Mr. Rutherford reminded him it was not quite up to Ivy League standards. But Joel had learned his lesson, through all his sixteen years, that sometimes you have to say, “What the hell?” I’m cleaning it up for you, but Joel knows the score. He realizes he’s not measuring up. He is one of those servants who came late to the work party, so he’s not getting into Princeton. And then…. the surprise ending is that he DOES get in, a moment of grace.

Jesus is seen and heard breaking the rules of logic, extending God’s love and regard to all people, regardless. REGARDLESS. A surprise ending in the cosmic story of our existence.

Let’s be honest. It offends us. It can get under our skin, this grace thing. How are people going to behave themselves if the rules of efficiency and fairness are ignored by some foolish owner who decides to change those very nature of the game?

My own sense is that this is at the very heart of our problem in religion. Religion is, by nature, a structure of rules made to keep the order. It’s the natural driver behind our native desire for order. But, the Gospel, literally the Good News, is that the Vineyard Owner, the Creator, God, loves us and cares for us REGARDLESS, without regard to how many rules we keep…..or break. It is mind-blowing. It was mind-blowing to those who first heard it from Jesus. It was mind-blowing to Judge William Wayne Justice and his trained sense of fairness. And my hunch is, it is mind-blowing to you. YOU.

I have to confess that the real perk of being a priest was watching the mind-blowing power of God’s Grace mess with folks. I got a front-row seat in the Transformation Circus. To get to watch Wayne, to listen to his wonderings, his protests, his amazement, and to see him embrace the radical reality of Grace. And then, as a old man, begin to live out of that discovery. It was a blessing which makes me smile as I remember it.

It was the same years ago with the letter writer, Paul, who was grabbed by this notion of Grace, even though he too had been trained in the very structures of legalism. His mind was blown, to the point that he found himself proclaiming that in this Christ-filled world, there is no male nor female, slave or free, Jew nor Greek.

How do you respond to Jesus’ story? “It’s not fair!” seems to be the natural response. But then, when you pause to play within Jesus’ pool of Grace, splashing the waters on those you know, and dipping your own broken soul in these healing waters, do you find yourself opening to a deeper Truth that the Lord of Life might be intimating? Can you catch a whiff of this amazing thing called Grace?

It’s not fair, but it true. And that’s terrible news for those who like laws, limits, clarity. We become swamped by our need for bring “right”, and in order. But it was good news for my friend, Wayne, who found a rare kind of freedom late in life. How is it for you? Time of your life?

Taking Care of Your Self

This weekend, I became acutely aware of the effects and drain of this pandemic on our community. I have been been in contact with many healthcare workers who have been on the front lines of the work of saving lives in emergency rooms and intensive care units. But sometimes, the sustained intensity of those moments blur the line of pain that we can see in the people around us.

My wake up call happened over the weekend. A young priest colleague in a town in Georgia took her life. By young, she was my daughter’s age on that dark night. I am not certain as to the details of what led to that decision, but my hunch is that the stress of living in this peculiar time is getting to us, and it got to her. I grieve for the pain that she must have been experiencing in that moment in which she could see no way through.

I listen weekly to the clergy I coach express their emotions around the difficulty in leading during a time for which they were not prepared. Having to become a producer of a broadcast, to preach without a congregation in front of you, to not have the human interaction that is the lifeblood of a congregation……all of this combines to make for a time of stress for clergy. They are attempting to give care to their parishioners, who have their own worries about their loved ones, their jobs, their particular disrupted lives.

We’ve been at this for over half a year, with the end not in sight. The normal uptick that occurs as we approach Fall is not there. The typical September start up and enthusiasm is a bit subdued, at best, dude. It’s weighing heavy on everyone, clergy and other caregivers, especially if they don’t tend to their own self-care. Any one of us can get into some serious trouble.

In my work with healthcare professionals, I predicted some Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the severe work hours, the intensity, and the sheer number of deaths. That’s proving to be true, as well as a rise in domestic violence and abuse of substances. Even docs and nurses who served in war zones have told me that this is different, and more taxing. Not only are you dealing with death, but your own susceptibility of contracting the virus, added to the fear of infecting your family. I had two emergency room docs in New York City, badass combat docs, breakdown into tears in the middle of the worst of it. Refrigerated trucks parked in the adjacent lot that held the deceased bodies were a constant reminder of the devastation at hand. Hospitals are needing to take care of the caregivers in a responsive and creative way.

This is true for all caregivers. Priests, ministers, teachers, social workers, all types of people who are called to pour out themselves for others must be sure to “fill up” and not allow themselves to dry up.

This is, in fact, true for all people. We must take the time and energy to invest in our self care. My grandfather who was a cop, who did his work with a servant’s attitude, back before there was such an innovation called “community policing”, used to tell me a simple line of truth: “You can’t give what you ain’t got.” It rather homey, but true nonetheless. You are only able to give when you have been filled up by your own self care.

I spend a lot of my time teaching Emotional Intelligence, that is, the ability of a human being to be both self-aware of what’s going on inside of oneself as well as be empathetic with what’s going on inside of the people around. This takes a lot of energy, not only with being attentive to what emotions are being stirred up inside of oneself, but taking the time to tune into what emotions are perking in the other. Are they hurt? Are they angry? Do they need some attention, or do they want to be left alone? Anyone whose job demands that they take care of other people knows what this feels like. We call it empathy, that is, feeling WITH another human being in the messiness of life. It requires a great deal of energy and patience. Some of us come by it naturally (my mother schooled me), but the good news is that we can learn to become more tuned in, more sensitive as we tend to the other.

But along with the teaching of self awareness and empathy of Emotional Intelligence. we have to train people to take care of themselves: self care. Without it, we can burn out, we can experience “compassion fatigue” which can slowly invade our mind and turn our view of the world dark.

So, how do you tend to self care? One is by taking some time off, where you are filling yourself up, rather than spending your inner resources on others. For me, it used to be sailing on Thursday, single-handing my boat or taking a friend along. Either way, it was a renovating experience of life that fed my soul. It’s different for every person. It can be painting with watercolor or oils, reading classic books or trash, exercise or birding. It can be playing golf for those of us dogged victims condemned to an inexorable fate. Whatever. It’s what the ancients called Sabbath time, or as we make it more colloquial, “down time”. How do you take care of yourself?

Another way is by connecting with others. For me, when I was under pressure, some sort of a therapeutic relationship was helpful. Sometimes that was with a particular shrink, Freudian or Jungian, but human. Sometimes, I enjoyed the care and challenge of a group of colleagues, or just a group of fellow travelers. And sometime, it was my golf buddies who I could pal around with, cut up with. One of my favorites was a Texan, who had the perfect drawl. But if I was ever getting down, feeling sorry for myself, he would pipe in with the Texas folk wisdom that I love: “Oh David, don’t be so hard on yourself….that’s what we are here for!” That’s a sense of humor that keeps you grounded.

Frankly, listening to the people I coach, made up of leaders, clergy, and caregivers, I am noticing a low-grade depression. It’s different than I have experienced in the past. It feels a bit more like exhaustion, of being tired of the new way things are. The hoped for “quick end” is not in sight. There’s a little lack of the normal spirit I sense in my folks, maybe due to being worn down over the last half year.

I know what I am going to do this week in our coaching sessions. I am going to talk about it.

Our tendency is to not mention this kind of thing and just focus on the work we have to do, do some creative playful imagining, to make some action plans, and then get on with it. But not this week.

I am going to pause, take the temperature of the water we are sitting in to see if the heat is rising ever so imperceptibly, so that we might miss it. I’m going to take my time to see where people are, rather than just jump right in, which I can easily do in my typical push. We need to check on each other in this strange time of Covid, this election time of division, this tense time of race. We need to care for one another, and….to take care of our self.

How are you taking care of your self?

If you are feeling troubled, a bit listless, or sad, you might reach out to a friend by phone. Not as good as in person, but I’ve been surprised at how good a phone call can feel.

Or, reach out to a professional, someone who knows how to help you through the tough times, those times that are a part of being human.

If you are hurting, and worried about hurting yourself, get your sweet self to the local Emergency Room. Don’t let the rumination on bad times, tough times fool you into thinking there’s no way out of this predicament. There is. Take that step toward recovery. We’ve all been there in that dark night. Make your move toward healing.

Finally, if you don’t know where to turn, you can call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255. There are people there trained to get you the help you need. There are people who care about your well-being.

Check it out: how are you doing with your self care? What do you need to be doing to take care of your self in this crazy time? There are people ready to help. But, as I learned once again this weekend, it’s your move. Take care of your self out there.

Who Comes to Mind?

I was watching the rebroadcast of a PBS documentary on Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?.

I remember Mr. Rogers, though it came a bit before my time. It hit my brother at just about the right season in his development so I do remember catching glimpses of it, “hey neighbor!!”, and probably making fun of it. Trips to the Magic Kingdom had a different connotation to me at that time. I remember Eddie Murphy’s famous take off of Mr. Rogers going to the “hood” which was hilarious, “thank you, boys and girls”. I recall being puzzled by the “land of make believe” and the rather simple characters that did not catch my attention. When I saw Fred Rogers slip into his comfortable sweater and shoes, it was a sign for me to head to my own room and listen to Santana, the Stones, or the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper was my King Friday.

Like most PBS specials, this was so well produced, dredging up footage from the early days of rather primitive production, but moving into deeper waters as to the motivation behind the man. Fred had intended to go to seminary but got short-stopped into the idea of producing a television show that was pitched toward young children.

The documentary looks at his growing up in a privileged background, but being susceptible to the taunts of his peers, as they referred to him as Fat Freddie. The piece does not deal with how he transformed into a more confident Fred, but does make a curious point that he slimmed down to a weight of 143, which he meticulously guarded throughout his life by swimming daily at the Athletic Club. Delving into numerological prompts. it is disclosed that the number represented the number of letters in the three most important words to Mr. Rogers: I Love You. Seemingly, his earlier taunting caused him to be particularly sensitive to issues of esteem in young children. Mr. Rogers was known specifically for offering the reassurance that “you’re special” to children that tuned into his daily show.

Examining the evolution of the show’s format as the years went by is fascinating. The practicality of funding is addressed as Fred Rogers spoke to Congress about his mission of providing self esteem to children who are listening. His balanced, yet passionate rationale for his show proved convincing, leading a previously skeptical Congressman to exclaim that Mr. Rogers’s testimony won the show five million dollars of funding. Oh, for the days when Congressional funding was more based in caring for our children and their development instead of showboating and blocking partisan maneuvering.

Having played in the waters of Piaget and the education of children, I was fascinated by the way Rogers took the perspective of the child and pitched his material to meet their specific cognitive capability and needs. His empathy for the unique position and vulnerability of a child is amazing as many educators forget that perspective as they deliver information. You sensed, as he interacted with all different types of children, that he really cared. It’s hard to fake that, as politicians know.

Eventually, he began to take on topics that less courageous folks would avoid. He shared a wading pool with the policeman who was black, to experientially address the issue of integration, an issue that was real to me as a child swimming at the Oakland City pool in Atlanta. I remember parents taking their children out of the pool in a hot hurry when blacks “invaded” the community pool. My grandfather, a cop, kept me in, without so much as a word. That is, until I asked him, which he explained in simple terms of us all being God’s children. Made sense then. Makes sense now.

Mr. Rogers plucked a dead fish from the aquarium, examining it and observing that it was not moving, becoming an opportunity to discuss death. When Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, he showed pictures of people crying, not hiding reality from these young children. He took the time and space to talk about sadness, of how it feels when bad things happen. When 9/11 occurred, PBS smartly trotted out Mr. Rogers to talk about how you deal with such terrible things.

I was struck by one piece of advice that he offered at times when one was scared. He encouraged children to look to the one’s who are providing help. Go there. Those people will see you through this bad time. It’s advice I have thought a lot about lately.

The documentary goes on to the conclusion of Mr. Rogers production and his struggle with aging and death. His wife tells touchingly of his asking her if he will be a sheep. This is an explicit reference to the scene in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25, of The Final Judgment, where God separates the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous. “Will I be a sheep?” he queries, just as a little child might. And his wife responds that if she knew anyone who was a sheep, it would be him. It is a powerful, pure moment as the question of worth and esteem emerges for a final time for Freddie, and hopefully got answered.

The show is a tour de force, displaying the care and the careful way Fred Rogers sought to engage the children in our country. It concludes as the various players in the program are asked to bring to mind the one person who made them feel that they were of worth, or as I would frame it, one person who blessed you with the knowledge that you were loved.

The camera goes to most of the faces that had been talking throughout the documentary. It frames and focuses, pauses, and holds for silence. You can visually see the cogs and wheels turning in their cerebrum, searching for images of people who have conveyed that holy message of worth, of value, and esteem. You can imagine that, for many of them, it was Fred who came to mind. I wondered as the camera focused on Fred’s two sons, and who came to mind for them. For each person who was asked, a small knowing smile, and look of peace emerged as they remembered a sacred moment in time when that blessing was conferred.

Isn’t that the way it is? We are graced by encounters with people who bless us with conferring an affirmation of our down, deep goodness that can not be taken away. If we are fortunate, it may be our parents, but that’s messy territory that gets a bit confusing. Sometimes, it may be a teacher who saw something special in us and tried to nurture it. It might be someone from our particular neighborhood or community that decides to invest the time in getting to know us, and then gives us that sense of worth, of value. However it comes, it is blessing. It is sacred. It is gift.

Who was that person for you? Stop. Right now. Pause. Catch in your mind’s eye the person who gave you that gift, that existential blessing. savor that moment, that exquisite feeling. Who comes to mind that makes you smile?