Break Through the Impasse

The polls have closed.

I am writing this at the end of a long Tuesday, Election Day.

I have no idea as to who won. I have some assumptions about what will happen, after years of involvement in politics and many nights sitting with Manuel Maloof at his bar where various politicos hang. They don’t call me the James Carville of the Episcopal Church for nothing. But this election felt different. This is a peculiar time in our country.

Perhaps it is because it comes after the shocking disruption of an insurrection to overturn the results of our last election. Storming the Capitol, invading legislative chambers where the sacred work of the people takes place, and defecating on our very governmental structures. When and where have you seen a scaffold and a hangman’s noose displayed, as chants rang out calling for the hanging of our Vice President? This was no peaceful protest, no regular tour of the facilities as some disingenuous people contended.

And now, the post-coup continues. The number of “election deniers” running for office, particularly those openly saying that they will control our voting process to make sure that the “right” party wins, in spite of the popular vote, is deeply disturbing.

Regardless of the outcome, we will be left with a divided country, polarized into two separate camps. There is very little, if any, bipartisan cooperative work due to this spirit of division and blinding thirst for power. Some talk of an imminent civil war. Violence has broken out sporadically and some leaders encourage this with their self-serving rhetoric.

What in the world can we do? Is there a way to break out of this malaise that is hurting our sense of connection, our sense of community? As I move into the night that somehow feels darker than before, is there a hope that is more than a childish wish?

Let’s be clear. There have always been oppositional forces vying for political power, even when we were an English colony, straining to break free from that rule The Framers of the Constitution were not lock-step or unified at the beginning as some fantasize. They were drawn together by a passion for freedom, but even then, there was fierce debate as to how we should obtain our independence. That debate and adversarial wrangling continued and has resurrected periodically in our political life as we fight over the role of the federal government and the rights of states. And beneath that is the philosophical polarity between individual rights and the common good. This is a classical dilemma that has to be lived with…it’s not going away. It is not a problem to be solved. Rather, the tension has to be recognized, embraced, respected, and lived with. This democracy thing gets messy. It always has. People get anxious, as I am tonight, and begin to wonder if it’s all worth it. And typically, that is when an authoritarian-type leader emerges, with simple answers to complex problems. It’s an old formula, and it always proves to be wrong….tragically so. And that is precisely where it looks like we are in parts of our country. Maybe we have run out of luck, or maybe will. It’s not easy holding tensions in a creative interchange from which good things can emerge.

We have faced this “living within tensions” dilemma throughout our history as a country. There are some “purists” who literally wish to “whitewash” our history in an attempt to clean up “the record”, as if being honest about our developmental journey as a republic somehow sullies our reputation. But, a clear-eyed look at our history must include an honest look at our past, including our poor treatment of Native Americans, our discrimination and violence towards those not white, and our original sin, slavery. Dealing with the facts of history helps us to live into the dreams of our ancestors for this country, even as it evolves. This is not being somehow “woke” as I heard some Floridian wanna-be leader frame it. Rather, it is simply being honest about reality.

One such dilemma occurred in my lifetime, one that I witnessed firsthand on the Southside of Atlanta. It emerged from the familiar fight over state’s rights and federal enforcement of law in the Sixties around the issue of the desegregation of our schools. Underneath this tension was a struggle over civil rights: did these rights to education extend to all people. And even more deeply, a question of white supremacy lingered, asking for an answer. And some seem still to need it answered.

A quick search of that time in my America will bring you multiple pictures of fire hoses turned onto protesters, dogs attacking, and nightsticks beating people. One image has dominated my mind through the years. Angry faces and snarling looks form the background of a young black girl, Ruby Bridges, walking to school as she was a symbol of desegregation, but more deeply, a challenge to the assumption of racial superiority. This was the dilemma that my generation faced, and is still wrestling with, desperately trying to emerge with a blessing, but surely with a limp. No, this is not a new problem but an old dilemma rising from our evolutionary ooze.

In my office, I have a Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges walking to school. It is titled, The Problem We All Live With. It depicts her courageous sis-year-old walk to her elementary school in New Orleans Because of threats of violence, she is preceded and followed by four U.S. Marshalls, a familiar sight in the South, symbolizing the tension of state and federal law and power. On the wall to her side, are the words “nigger” and “KKK”, along with the stain of a tomato that had been thrown, now unceremoniously dripping.

I have put this iconic painting in my office to re-mind me of the struggle of America seeking to live fully into its aspirational hope of our Founders, some who at the signing of the very declaration of our existence as free, owned slaves. We should suffer from no illusions of purity, but at the same time, claim the high ideals that have served as our Northstar of a vision, a promise of equality. I do not hang the picture to make me feel guilty, but to keep the dream alive, in front of me, as well as the knowledge and recognition that there has been and always will be a struggle. This is a part of the night that I feel surrounding me on this particular night. I would rename the portrait of Ruby “The Dilemma We All Live Within”. It requires courage and heart.

That will have to be enough for tonight as I await the dawning of another day in America. We will be living in the reality of this dilemma, with hopes that the engagement of oppositional forces and perspectives will yield fruit for the future. It has always been our best path, even if it is after we have tried all the others, as Churchill quipped.

Living in the tension known as America, searching the horizon for a better way.

For All the Saints!

It’s All Saints Day, 2022. I am involved in a training to serve as a chaplain at the upcoming polls during the US midterm elections. I was joking with a friend of mine, who lives in Flanders, that I was hoping I would not be called upon to perform Last Rites during the voting. Humor is how I deal with my anxiety. Always have.

My comment prompted me to remember the many saints that have contributed to my life. But also, it got me thinking about my remarkable introduction to the use of Last Rites in my pastoral ministry. Having served as the inimitable “youth minister” and as an “ass” pastor (associate pastor) in the local South of God iteration of church for a number of years, I knew something of pastoral presence. I had walked alongside an adolescent as he negotiated a long death from cancer. I had buried a teenager hit and killed by a car while riding his bike to school. Not just the usual youth minister with a guitar in one hand, a football in the other, with some bodacious “hip” in his back pocket, I thought of my work as a ministry to young people and their families. I learned a lot during this amazing time.

As the Associate Pastor of a key progressive South of God outpost, where Jimmy Carter was once a member, my role was specifically pastoral, working with persons struggling to make sense out of a faith that they had outgrown. And, my pastoral work extended to the therapy of couples who were both seeking to grow and to recover from the ever-present rocks and boulders in the flow of life. My job also entailed visiting in the hospitals, offering a listening ear, and a spontaneous prayer. I often felt entirely inadequate…meaning that I was not suffering from the common pastoral psychosis of thinking I had all the answers. I was acutely aware of my inexperience and what I did not know.

When I “transitioned” into the Episcopal Church, I found that I had some tools that I had not had in my previous life. They are called sacramentals, signs and symbols of the community of faith that were transportable, that is, they “traveled” well from the regular Sunday worship to where people were living their lives. As a priest, I carried them with me as a “connector” between the person shipwrecked in a hospital ward, re-minding them of a deeper reality, transcending their designation as a patient, or a history on a chart, or a prognosis, sunny or dire. They were a person of the community of faith: connected, significant, and of worth.

Those tools were sort of simple, I guess, by design. First, I presented myself, “showed up” with this white round collar, perched on a black clergy shirt. In the past, I wore a blazer, maybe a polo shirt if I were feeling sporty or on the way to the golf course. A clergy collar broadcasts an identity that carries a message: this is important. I mean business! Whether you cherished that clerical presence, were scared by the dire implications, or rejected it as quaint, you HAD to deal with it. I can’t tell you how many times that simple collar moved the dialogue right to the heart of the matter, rather than wasting time in chatty exchange.

And there’s the bread and wine, the Blessed Sacrament, that I bore in a variety of vehicles. One, a box with a silver chalice and small plate, two small cruets with wine and water, if I were to consecrate the elements with prayer at the bedside rolling altar. Or, as I came to know as more efficacious, or in my terms, have more “stroke”, the sacrament from the congregation, already blessed in the congregation’s worship on Sunday morning. Nothing seemed to carry that spiritual truth of connection with more powerful valence than the Blessed Sacrament.

My secret weapon was a sacramental most of my priest colleagues seemed to miss: oil, or the sacramental name, chrism. This was a small vial of oil that had been blessed by the Bishop, given to priests at Holy Week, when we renewed our priestly vows. My bishop, Judson, who I have mentioned often, would go to great lengths to put a special scent into the oil that he was blessing, From his Anglo-Catholic raising, he knew of the power of our olfactory sense, particularly in extremis, when other senses were fading or failed. Anointing the forehead of a person, as I traced the sign of the Cross on their forehead as they reclined in a sick bed literally re-minded them of their identity as a member of Christ’s Body, especially if given an assist by a whiff of the Divine Presence. I would do that regularly when visiting the sick, regardless of the seriousness of the malady. I often found it broke through years of sedimentation of religiosity to a deeper soul space, making way for a spiritual connection.

The Prayer Book was another point of connection. For those who grew up in the Anglican tradition,The Book (Book of Common Prayer) had special symbolic power, one of the reasons that we catch Hell when we try to update it or change it. I am often surprised by the ignorance of long-tenured priests who casually make changes, surprised by the reaction. The changes are often called for but we forget the symbolic function, particularly among people who have every part of their life in seemingly continuous turmoil. Reading a Psalm, an ancient prayer or liturgical form can go deep, and quickly in a pastoral exchange.

You would expect that depth of reverence from one who “grew up” with the Prayer Book, but what of those of us who are newbies, freshly-minted Episcopalians, many who are spiritual refugees from fundamentalist Bible thumpers, whose rectal muscles could turn black coal into diamonds. For those of us who come from such tight spaces, the Book of Common Prayer represents a life-preserver that kept our heads above the water of relativity and the sea of uncertainty. It symbolizes a freedom that unleashes us, liberates us. And, even though our exposure is brief, our loyalty can be fierce, for this is our deliverer.

A priest does well to remember the power of these sacramentals. It is easy to take them too casually, to handle them with a familiarity that does not honor their magical, mystical connective power. They should come with a warning label: Handle With Care!…but often.

My entrance into this world of sacramentals came at a peculiar time. It was when AIDS was bursting onto the scene in this country, and in particular, Atlanta. I remember meeting with the main CDC doctors with the Bishop as they were trying to explain their take on the disease in the early days of the outbreak. They were trying to avoid hysteria, the main agenda of communicable disease officials. We, of course, were interested in the “communicability” of the disease. How was this disease transmitted? Were there reasons for caution in terms of Holy Communion? The scientists/doctors went through extensive explanations of the etiology of the virus, using sophisticated experimental terms that left the Bishop’s mitre spinning. My biology let me hang with them enough to end our conversation with a scary conclusion: So bottom line, you guys don’t know. They nodded, reluctantly. It led us to try on an evolving protocol of how to safely “do” communion, protecting the uninfected, but as we were surprised to learn, more importantly, protecting AIDS patients from our infectious diseases to which they were especially vulnerable.

Our Cathedral parish had a large gay population, resulting in a number of members early on being hospitalized with the mysterious and deadly disease. We had large numbers at a variety of local hospitals, which I would visit daily. The clinical protocol was to gown up, sterile gloves, and face mask to insure that you would not catch the disease, nor spread it. These conditions only accentuated the sense of isolation for the patient, which was profound in this time of anxiety. I made a point to touch the patients and to anoint them with oil, although the clinicians were fearful of allowing these very sick patients to receive communion. It was a scary time for all involved.

Slowly the procedures changed, becoming less stringent, but the sense of the unknown hung over the room. The damnable thing was that most patients were young men with strong hearts, meaning that while their lungs were filling with fluid, their hearts would beat strong, prolonging the end for many. And many would rally, gratefully, but only to go through the hellacious process again.

The other issue that repeated in many situations was that the patient’s parents were discovering that their child had this deadly, mysterious disease at the same time that they found out that their son was homosexual. This made for some very difficult and painful moments for both the patient and their families. I found myself in a mixture of roles, facilitating, counseling, educating, and blessing.

At the time of death, there is a powerful set of prayers provided by the Book of Common Prayer. While it may occur as a one-on-one event with the priest and the person near death, I have found the power in the communal setting, particularly when the family is present. An opening prayer naming the tight space of death sets the stage, followed by the Litany at the Time of Death, a remembrance of one’s baptism and connection with Christ, a pardoning of all sins, the promise of a place with the other saints in light. This is a call-and-response that is beneficial for the person who is in the process of dying as well as those gathered in support.

There follows a common recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which unites the participants in a common act of prayer. When I did this liturgy for a bishop who was dying in a nursing home, the previously unresponsive bishop joined in mouthing the words of the Lord’s Prayer, leaving one to wonder how and when he was present to the action. This concludes with this prayer: Deliver your servant, (the name of the person), O Sovereign Lord Christ, set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with your Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Then comes a powerful moment of commendation, which I ask those gathered to join me in saying: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ, who redeemed you; in the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the paradise of God.

I have been surprised that often the person dies in that very moment. I believe it is because they are experiencing their loved ones giving them permission to let go. That is why I always prep those gathered, both to explain the liturgy but also to make sure that they are ready and willing to give this commendation.

This is followed by a beautiful pastoral prayer offered by the attending clergyperson: Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, (name of the person). Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

There are other prayers for a vigil that may be used as this dying process continues, though my experience is that the prior liturgy brings significant closure and peace. I learned so much about the power of sacramental symbol, about priestly presence, and my own sense of mortality as I sojourned in the peculiar valley of the shadow of death. I carried those lesson with me into the rest of my work.

As I am writing this on All Saints Day, I was reminded by a friend, Professor Rex Matthews, of the names of the faculty from Emory’s Candler School of Theology who have departed this life, leaving a legacy of faithfulness and excellence. Names that come to my mind are Jim Fowler, my advisor and boss, Ted Jennings, my Lullwater partying colleague, Chuck Gerkin, Jim Hopewell, and Fred Craddock, just to name a few. What a gift they gave to me.

I encourage you to Pause, breathe deeply, remembering the natural exchange of air that takes place in inhaling and exhaling, and recall those saints who have funded you with their energy and love.

And why just think about those who have departed? Why not Pause and reflect on those who are giving you energy in your life this very day? I am thinking particularly of a group of people who I meet with regularly to explore the nature of Creativity and how we can interact among those with differing perspectives and concerns, coming away with a value-added result. In our current bifurcated, polarized culture, it’s an ambitious goal, but one that seems crucial. We call it Creative Interchange, and I have written about it here earlier in the year. People like my Franciscan brother, Charlie Palmgren, Mike Murray of Texas, John Scherer of Poland ( my Big Three) and my new colleagues, Johan from Flanders, and Cedric from Mayberry. These folks feed me with their brilliance, their spirit, and humor. I am grateful for the saints in my life, from the rich past, the pulsing present, and those waiting on the horizon of the future. A gift, indeed.

Again, I encourage you to Pause, thinking of those persons in your life who enrich your existence. You might go all South of God and actually count your blessings, as the old hymn says, and name them one by one.

All Saints Day is a red-letter day, fueled by a sense of connection that yields a deep experience of gratitude. If you missed the actual day, November 1st, you have my permission, encouragement even, to take on this spiritual exercise at this very moment. Pause, and be grateful. Experientially breathe deep this air that connects us all. Blessings.

A Spiritual Flashback

After last week’s long article on Richard Rohr, I thought I might take a break and head out to the wellspring of my soul, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.

I was in need. Serious need.

Between listening to endless political ads and my crazy ass schedule of work, I was in need of a spiritual fix. So, I ventured out on I-20 East, trying to dodge the infrastructure fixes of our blessed Loop known affectionately (not) as I-285 Speedway. Fortunately the gods of the Georgia DOT smiled on me, and my passage did not send me deeper into the realms of Hell.

It’s so funny that the pastureland of Conyers has developed so much, so quickly. There are horse farms with paddocks, large yards surrounding the ubiquitous brick houses, but the intrusion of business and shopping centers is jarring to my soul. What used to be a mom-and-pop store where I might stop for a cup of coffee is now a huge island gas station. Yeah, I am THAT old man who shakes his head at all the change, at least here at my beloved spiritual oasis.

I got to the Monastery early afternoon on Saturday. There was a minimal crowd of people, mostly older folks… me. There is a huge bookstore, now more of a gift shop, though books do rule the center of the space. I took a clockwise stroll around the structure, which began with Roman Catholic saints in statue form. There were two of St. Francis which were typical of the birdbath depiction of popular thought. One of John Paul II, leaning on an elongated crozier, depicting a piety that remains spiritually seductive, particularly to those that long for the proverbial “good old days”..

Odd that you move from that section to Trappist sweets, jams and jellies made at another monastery, but marketed here. In the corner is a coffee shop, with, of course, coffee, and other Coca Cola (my sponsor) products. I remember the days when the main product sold was the monk’s bread, a wheat bread that carried an air of holiness. No more. Bakery closed except for an incredibly well-done fruit cake. No driving after eating this cake, laced with copious amounts of bourbon and rum. Delicious, rivaling my Collins Street special from Corsicana, Texas. Okay, fruit cake is not cool, but I’m dancing with what’s here.

The rest of the story is sort of funny, Following the wall, there are all kinds of religious trinkets and schlock. I must confess that I am a bit….no, a full-bore snob when it comes to this popular religious art. Someone has figured out the marketing angle of busloads of older Roman Catholics. I made my way around the four walls, smiling, laughing….my resident defense mechanism to such stuff. Here comes that Old Man in me again: I remember when this used to be a spiritual bookstore! Yeah, grandpa….settle your ass down!

Truth is, there are more books in stock now than ever before. In the past, a few tables, with stacks of two or three copies of religious titles that would fill the space. Now, a plethora of bookcases with all sorts and conditions of books. The focus, thankfully, is on the spiritual life, prayer, with a distinct tilt to those from the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition. The fan of modern mystic Thomas Merton will be excited to see a full plate of his titles. There’s a special shelf that features some of the local monks’ work, along with a few well-produced photographic treatments of life in the monastery. All in, the bookstore could be an afternoon’s work, with a lovely reading area provided in the middle of the shop.

Bad news for me was that the bonsai shop is closed. Father Paul, a friend of Merton who had come from the house in Louisville, was the master gardener. For years, I would come to the greenhouse to stand at Paul’s elbow, watching him artistically prune the dwarf trees into works of art. It became known as one of the “go-to” places if you are interested in bonsais.

Confession time: I am a murderer. I have bought and killed several bonsai trees in my lifetime. One, in particular, I bought for the opening of my psychotherapy office at the Brookwood Center on Peachtree Road. I bought a lovely stand for my prized tree to reside. A spotlight lit the scene dramatically. “Perfect” I thought, as the champagne corks popped at our opening. Some of the monks came by to survey my wondrous office. It was quite the moment. As I said, “Perfect.” Except for one small issue……the airflow from the AC was positioned to mess with the ecosystem balance of my tree. This botanical specimen died an ignominious death, a tree that was so expensive that I paid for it on a Monk’s time payment plan. A “write-off”, my accountant offered to assuage my grief. Another tree died at my hands, on my watch. Damn. Dave the Ripper.

In recent years, the bonsai shop no longer had the oversight of Paul, who had departed for that monastery in the sky. Without his expertise and personality, the shop was doomed. They tried to diversify the shop with other gardening accoutrements but it did not bring in the revenue needed. So it is closed. It looked rather ghostly as the display greenhouse and shop are bare. Did I mention “ghostly”?

Connected is a wonderful museum which is joined with the original monastery, which was an old dairy barn where the monks lived as they built the present structure. Farming, cattle ranching were early ways of supporting the life of the monks. Their spartan life is chronicled in this museum, and the “story” of the monks is told in a well-produced video that is able to be viewed in a small theater. The museum itself is worth the trip, and sometimes Father Tom is positioned at the entrance to “greet” you. You may be there for a spell….but it will be a memory worth holding onto, pondering.

There is a retreat house that offers people a place to come and stay, in a guided retreat setting around a spiritual topic. Or, one may set up a private retreat, utilizing the spiritual counsel of one of the trained monks. Occasionally, there are special opportunities to encounter leading spiritual teachers who bring fresh perspective to the life of the spirit. The retreat house offers meals for the retreatants during their stay. And you can choose to take your meals in the dining room where you can talk, sharing your stories and question. Or you can choose the “silent” dining room where you are to refrain from talking. Introverts and extraverts are both welcomed in this spiritual house. You can inquire about a visit at their website by googling .

The grounds of the monastery are gorgeous, well-maintained, and provide a natural setting for reflection and meditation. There is a lake for viewing, along with some feisty geese in need of exorcism. Back in the day, Flannery O’Conner’s peacocks lived in a pen, as she had been a frequent visitor. Their screams in the dead of the night would wake me, wondering who was being killed in this Gothic novel in which I was living.

The monastery church is simple but stunning. It was built by the young monks who came from the monastery, Gethsemane Abbey, in Louisville, Kentucky. That was the very monastery community that was the home to Thomas Merton, one of the more significant writers and spiritual guides in the 20th century. Many of those early monks had been friends and students of Merton. They came here to Conyers in 1944, living on a dairy farm, and inhabiting the barn until their permanent quarters were built.

The church itself is simple in design, a poured concretes structure, plain, bordering on stark. The stained glass, made by the monks, provide for a space for prayer that is bathed in blues and purples thanks to the moving natural light source, adding dappled color with their own majesty. It is one of my holy spaces on this planet.,

The church has been under renovation during the pandemic, with new choir stalls with baffling installed. When I was there on Saturday, there is some work going on in the front, necessitating entrance using the side door. There are five times of prayer in the church, which are open for the public. Vespers is at 5:20 in the afternoon and gives you a chance to hear the chanting of Psalms, a monastic tradition. My favorite liturgy is Compline, at 7:30 PM with special chants that end the monks’ day before entering into the Grand Silence, which they will keep until morning prayers at the dawning of a new day of Creation.

For me, my visit flooded my mind and heart with the faces of the monks. While I love the grounds and the various buildings, the holy men themselves left an indelible mark on my soul.

Abbot Augustine, known as Gus. Straight out of Central Casting, the rotund, bald monk was a favorite partner on my walks around the grounds. He allowed me to live at the monastery for a summer while I “tried on” life as a monk. I was six weeks into burn when I went to his cell to inform him that I did not think I would be able to fade this celibacy thing…..his kind laughter let me off the hook, and gave me permission to find another way “home”.

Father Francis, a mini-monk, who for years greeted school children who came to visit the monastery, was the literal gatekeeper. He taught this South of God boy how to pray the Rosary, and gave me an appreciation for the purity of the basic folk religion which I observed in a small grotto chapel in the crypt area, graced by a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A magical, mystical tour of the soul.

Father Joachim, a monk who had “visions” and visitations. He was one of the main organizers around group that would gather for a visitation from the Blessed Virgin Mary to a lay woman, Nancy Fowler. On the 13th of every month, in the 1990s, an apparition of Mary would appear to a divorced housewife, with messages of love. People from far away would come to the monastery to hear of the recent appearances. I was on my Texas sojourn during that time so I missed what sounds like was quite a show, and Joachim served as Nancy’s priest. One of my treats was to help him set up the Nativity Creche outside the church at the beginning of Advent. He had an innocence which was childlike, refreshing to a cynic like me. He was my apparition!

Father Thomas, who led me into the practice of Centering Prayer, baptizing the Transcendental Meditation technique that the Beatles picked up from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Tom also patiently taught me the intricacies of sacramental theology. In many ways, he has been my Yoda.

Father Francis Michael, a young man from Philly who had a love for volleyball, nature, and particularly birdwatching. He and I have been like brothers throughout our lives.

Father Methodius, the artisan who heads up the amazing work of stained glass, who shares my love of music.

Father Paul, who was the founder of the bonsai greenhouse and the master of that art.

That’s only seven….I could name thirty more. Some irascible like Brother Louis who parlayed his disability with deft; some worldly-wise like New Yorker Brother Ken who had some repenting to do; some writers/artists like Father James who plied the trade of poetry from within the cloister. Each had a story that led them to this solemn vow of being a monk, of finding this particular and peculiar vocation. From a variety of backgrounds and stories, each one had a deep desire for a connection with God, best promoted within a monastic community. And each man offered prayer and prayers for the world, for you and me.

I take a certain comfort, not Southern, that I know that I am on the community’s prayer list every morning at Mass as an Associate of the Order. And I have had and have my name on the prayer list of individual monks that lift me up each morning, each evening. So like Carl the Greenskeeper in Caddy Shack, who looped for the Lama, I have that going for me…which is good.

The workings of prayer, the causal relationship of the mention of a name in an intercessory way, is beyond my spiritual pay grade. I have no clue how that works, the economy of prayer. As Flannery might chide, it’s a mystery. And yet, I pray for people that are on my heart and mind each day during my discipline of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, an Anglican short-form form for the monastic raft of prayer times demanded from a cloistered monk. All I know is that I have been surprised by prayer many times over the years.

And when I say “surprised”, I mean SURPRISED. “Shocked” actually is closer to the feeling. I have never felt comfortable “insisting” when it comes to the Godhead. Rather, my prayer normally is more of a discipline of aligning my errant will with that spirit that Jesus embodied, the image of servant. I know how that econ9omy works, and I have been recipient of several windfall paydays, gratefully.

And having these guys here at the Monastery praying for me gives me a damn good feeling, a peace that is said to pass understanding, at least my own. You could say, as Paul Simon wrote, it’s my Ace in the hole.

Do yourself a solid during this coming holiday season. Get your Self to a Holy Space, a liminal place, where the line between the Now and the Eternal seems thin, so that you might catch a glimpse, get a whiff, or even cop a feel of the Eternal. Blessings.

Rohring into the Future

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who lives in New Mexico. He has been and continues to be a significant force in my formation as a follower of Christ. How in the world did that happen? A good South of God boy growing up on the Southside of Atlanta wound up connecting with a Franciscan friar?

Good question. Let me ‘splain it to you, or at least, try. It’s a bit convoluted, circuitous….in a word, messy. Just like I like it,

When I was a student at Emory College, I would go once a month to the Trappist monastery in Conyers, Georgia. It was at the invitation of my pastor, Dr. Estill Jones, who had taught New Testament at Southern Seminary in Louisville, a South of God seminary. Estill had been fired from the seminary along with a few other professors for not being constrained in their theological approach to the Holy Scriptures…in other words, not conservative enough for the home team. Estill left the Ivory Tower of Academia to find his place as a pastor of a South of God church in Thomson, Georgia. That is what I call a “transition”. After serving the people in that eastern Georgia town for a time, he migrated north to Atlanta, East Point actually, to my home church, Dogwood Hills Baptist.

I had fled the church after my grouping of South of Gods fired our pastor, Dr. Bill Geren, also a New Testament scholar. Dr. Geren had fostered a dialogue with a black Baptist church, Wheat Street Baptist which was located on Sweet Auburn Ave. in the heart of Atlanta. He did a pulpit exchange, as well as the choir, in an attempt to promote interracial dialogue. This was in the late 60’s which was amazingly progressive move for the time. But he tried to push to a bridge too far for these South of God members: he “opened the doors” of the church, offering membership to anyone who wants to join, and that meant “blacks”. This bold move led to a deacons (aka board) meeting that Sunday evening to remove him from the position of pastor. My attempt to fall back to comedy led me to quip, when I talk publicly about this event, that they made him a “Rhodes Scholar”, as they ordered “Hit the Road, Scholar!” This firing thing seems to flourish among these folk.

When Dr. Jones arrived, he deftly tried to pull me back into the fold. To this day, I do not know what my parents paid him for his efforts, but it had to be substantial.

In any case, he invited me to join four South of God New Testament Greek scholars who were meeting with four Holy Roman monks, namely Trappist monks at a nearby monastery. The Desired Outcome of our gathering was to translate the Greek New Testament, specifically the Gospels, where Jesus’ words were inked in red to denote specialness, holiness. My red-letter edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which came with an imitation leather cover, was bought at the Sears store in West End, which explains a lot. I left that Bible in East Point, taking instead an interlinear Bible, which Dr. Jones ordered for me, which had both the New Testament Greek and the English translation. Wore it out! It was a gift from Dr. Jones. Free! “Don’t cost nothing” as they say in “Animal House”, though I had no idea what it would cost me in the end.

I am telling you all of that because 1) it’s fun to tell, and 2) I need to situate my relationship to how I originally got connected to a Trappist monastery, which provided my entre to Rohr. Got it?

It was in this group of New Testament scholars that I met Father Anthony. Anthony was an older priest who had Italian heritage. His dark skin and facial features could have placed him in the Mafia backroom with Luca Brasi, “leave the gun, take the cannoli!” And yet, rather than a crime syndicate, circumstances or providence led Anthony to become a monk and eventually the retreat master at the guest house at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.

Anthony was in my monthly Bible study group, though he sort of scared me with his dour face and acerbic quips. Father Joachim was much more approachable as a red-faced Irish priest whose eyes danced with delight. And Father Tom with his brilliant intellect and delightful giggle when something South of God struck him with hilarity, was a quick friend, and through time became my spiritual director.

And then there was Francis Michael. who was almost as young as me, fresh-faced from Philly, a true seeker, having journeyed to India to seek out Mother Teresa, to join her in her mission with the poor of Bombay, only to have her wave him off to go to a Trappist monastery in some God-forsaken land….that’s right, Georgia. Francis Michael and I have been like brothers from the start, almost fifty years ago.

Later, there was Father Patrick Duffy, a former New York cop, made famous in the book, Blue Highways. Patrick joined us late in the game, bringing a cop’s pragmaticism to the dance. Patrick secretly snuck a charcoal portrait of Thomas Merton out for me, as it was destined to be burned. Seems that the artist who had done the portrait had ignominiously left the cloister to become a chef, prompting some of the brothers to burn his work. Patrick saved this gem for me. My mother framed it for me and it has been in every office I have ever inhabited.

It was a mixed bag of nuts, to be sure, my Bible study group at the monastery in Conyers. I loved it. I credit, or blame it, for my spiritual healing, my return to things ecclesial, and my vocation. I looked forward to every monthly meeting, drinking coffee, studying the Gospel, and kibbitzing with these men I admired about the contours of life, the lay of the land. It became a paradigm for my sense of community.

It was Father Anthony who introduced me to Richard Rohr. Anthony was a bit of an anomaly for me as he was a celebrated part of the Roman Catholic charismatic renewal movement. For the unwashed, that was the part of the Church that rediscovered the power of the Holy Spirit back in the 60’s. Richard was a part of this movement, beginning with a huge community of young people that found identity and meaning under his leadership in a charismatic student ministry.

Quick side trip: I have some hidden Pentecostals in my West Georgia background, so I was familiar with the breed. I had even been to some “camp meetings” where the Holy Spirit “fell”, with people falling out on the floor, speaking in tongues. It captured my childhood imagination, wondering what the hell is going on. My branch of the McBrayers got “civilized”, becoming upstanding, pew-sitting, no Holy Rolling, South of God folk. But my experience as a child “stuck”, giving me my basic question about how people come to have faith, or not, and how they choose to express that deepest of human emotions, “awe and wonder”.

It led me to chase down Oral Roberts, who I once watched on TV with my granddad. I was curious, as the line of people waited for a white-shirted, rolled up sleeved Oral to pray over them in the front of the meeting, What was going on? I finally got to interview him when he came one year to Ministers Week at Emory. He seemed normal enough, and only got a slight static electric charge when we shook hands.

It led me to a tent revival of R. W. Schambach and his Holy Ghost Miracle Revival when I spied it from my drive on I-85 at Lakewood Fairgrounds. I watched in “awe” as this sawdust preacher did his thing, with people falling out, right and left. I wondered at the line of people going forward to put in their “love offering” into a Rubbermaid trash can that was doubling as a collection plate. I returned the next night with some fraternity brothers from the North to share my discovery. Oddly, I was bowled over to find out that Schambach’s headquarters happened to be in Tyler, Texas, where I was called to be a priest at the downtown Episcopal parish. R. W. loved my story from those two nights in Atlanta.

It led me to take a Sunday off from my Episcopal Cathedral and go to southwest Dekalb to find the Paulks who were pulling off a truly interracial church on the outskirts of Atlanta. Earl, Don and Clariece became life-long friends who are born and bred in this charismatic tradition. They were doing things and going places no one else dared to go. And my sense was that it was powered by this liminal experience of a power beyond themselves.

And in my own Cathedral parish, we had an amazing group of committed faithful who claimed the power of the Spirit through the Episcopal version of the charismatic renewal that Anthony experienced in the Roman Church. These charismatics proved to be people I could count on for some of the heavy lifting of church life, though they also seemed to struggle some with self-righteous judgment, at least in their early experience. Oddly, we had two congregations at the Cathedral, one charismatic and one traditional, something I documented using a congregational analysis tool. I loved both of them, but the bifurcation came home to roost after I left. But that’s another story.

Anthony was another source for me trying to understand this strange phenomena of spirituality. He had come across Richard Rohr through the dissemination of cassette tapes of his teachings. Anthony would “slip” them to me, like contraband, during our lunch breaks at the monthly Bible studies, holding his secretive finger in front of his lips, which made the tapes even more delicious. Most of my friends were being given Playboys by crazy uncles…I was was getting sermon tapes from a Trappist monk. Again, it explains a lot.

So I discovered Father Rohr through the medium of cassette tapes, the the nascent form of podcasts of my youth. Father Richard remained for me a winsome voice that made sense out of the Jesus I had heard about for all my life. There was a practicality, dealing with everyday life, in Rohr’s teaching, sprinkled with radicality that fit where I was in my life, searching for something to commit my life to. This disembodied voice playing on a cassette tape deck was connecting me to the historical Jesus that seemed to make sense, and challenge me at the same time. Jesus seemed to become relatable, accessible, familiar, no longer just a stained glass story. Retrospectively, Richard Rohr was a huge factor in my transition from my inherited, conventional faith to my individuating, owned faith of commitment.

I met him one day at a conference of spiritual gurus that I was attending, me being a token South of God representative, which was a joke in and of itself. Basil Pennington, Morton Kelsey, Tom Keating, and Fr. Richard were the Roman Catholic bright lights. I remember running into an older man in stairwell at the monastery, who stopped me to ask for directions. It was Douglas Steere, THE Quaker scholar and spiritual wise man of our age. The irony of him asking me for directions was not lost on this sojourner.

Through the years, I have run into Rohr on numerous occasions, a few that afforded me some substantial time for exchange of ideas, and more importantly, questions. The best thing about him to me was that he was REAL, not a lot of “holy” posturing, which is an occupational hazard for those who live in the rarified air of spiritual renown. Coming to believe your own PR package is death to spiritual types, and Richard has guarded against it with a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor,

He began his journey in the wheat field of Kansas, a member of a devout Roman Catholic family. He credits the joyful nuns who served as teachers at his school. These holy, joyful women proved to be the attractors of him as a young boy. He later was taken by reading of the life of St. Francis, his joyful celebration of Creation and life, which led him into that Franciscan order. He began his work among the Native Americans in New Mexico, appreciating their natural spirituality of greeting the rising of the sun each morning as an affirmation of life. He returned to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1987 to begin a retreat center and school, the Center for Action and Contemplation, which is where he is today.

Richard is often overheard talking about God’s continuing call on his life to focus on being present in the moment. He maintains his deep connection to the Franciscan spirit, not only in an appreciation of God’s presence in Creation, but significantly God’s call to Francis to “rebuild the Church!”. Francis responded literally by rebuilding a dilapidated church building, but later recognized a deeper calling to the spiritual rebuilding of the foundations of the Church.

Rohr follows this tradition by not only advocating ecological awareness and care of the Creation, but has taken seriously a call to rebuild the foundations of faith that have been truncated by a limitation of the conception of Christ. While the historical Jesus grants us a definitive look at what the Christ looks like in flesh and bones (the Incarnation, a fancy theological term), the Christ was before this historical moment of birth in a stable, and is present in the Now. A recent book, The Universal Christ, asserts winsomely that God’s love for the world has existed from the very beginning and has been present in all cultures. “This is the Cosmic Christ, who always was, who became incarnate in time, and who is still being revealed.” For Richard, this is the Good News, the joyful message of the Gospel.

There is something of joy that pervades Richard’s very being. When you are in his presence, you get a strong whiff of the joyful exuberance that flows from his experience of being gracefully cared for by the Sisters that taught him, the “Perfect Joy” that he read of in the life of St. Francis, a joy that he intentionally brings in his encounters with people now who cross his path. It reminds me of the old Franciscan saying: “Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” There is Good News of Love, Joy, Grace that flow from Richard’s being, by the way he moves and has his being. In my book, that’s as good as it gets.

I took a course with him, through his Center, on Franciscan spirituality as I was beginning my journey toward profession as a Third Order Franciscan. The class was on Zoom, mostly on tape, but I swear that his joy transmitted through the pixelated images from the desert of New Mexico to my island off the coast of Georgia. His call, throughout his life, was to make the love of God known to others, sometimes in spite of the institutions that would throttle him back to a safe speed. Just as in the South of God branch, Richard has had his detractors in the Roman community. There are those that have taped his lectures, trying to “catch him” in error, to present them to the authorities in order to excommunicate him. Richard smiles and shows more grace than I have in my soul for his enemies. I think I remember reading about “loving your enemies” thing somewhere along the way.

Richard has just brought out another book, Jesus’ Alternative Plan. I think he intended The Universal Christ to be his last book, the definitive statement. He had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer, and later suffered a significant heart attack. But he has survived. Some one told me the other day that “he is living on borrowed time”. Aren’t we all? He is leaving behind quite a testament of what he has discerned about God, who Jesus can be, the Spirit that is pervasive and moves as it wills, and a Church that needs to be rebuilt, adding a few timely doors for access. A bridge too far, again? I pray not.

If you have been following Richard’s pilgrimage, the new book encapsulates the center cut of the Gospel, focused on the kerygma, the message, of Jesus’ realm of God and what it means to live seriously out of its vision, including loving your enemies, something we are in need of desperately in our country, something I need. Richard pulls no punches. It is high-test octane. It’s the straight shot-no chaser. High voltage. Are you getting my message? He’s all in with this book, so you need to cap off your long journey with this pilgrim by reading what will be his final book, in a way, his parting words.

And if you are new to this lion that Rohrs, this book would be a good place to start. Talking about living your life out of some core values, unconstrained by careful, tightly wound religiosity that majors on the minor. It’s a straightway back to the Jesus who gets real about this thing called life. It will give you a center from which to expand with joy and wonder. Here is a place to start, to encounter one who has a message that points to a way of being in the world with integrity, a value longed for by a new generation of seekers.

My sense is that we are currently faced with a world full of people hungry for meaning and purpose. Like in various ages, there is always this spiritual hunger, a restlessness looking for a place in which to abide, as St. Augustine framed it in his day. In perhaps his last act of love and compassion, Richard has gifted us with this Gospel treasure, repackaged for this specific time in the development of consciousness and religious sensibility. For what it’s worth, I encourage you to take a look at Richard’s take on the Sermon on the Mount, a kind of compilation, “best of Jesus” hits, to get a fresh look at what Jesus gave his life for: the realm of God.

I’m betting you will be glad you did. Blessings.

Want To Get Mentally Fit?

Sometimes, I think I just get lucky. OR, maybe I have been blessed. It all depends on your perspective, I guess.

My spiritually spooky grandmother, Glennie Mae McBrayer, would make some pretty outrageous claims on the guidance of the Spirit, which she brought from the moors of Scotland to the hill country of Texas. As I get older, I seem to appreciate her perspective more. Maybe you just need to have a rearview mirror with a long enough view to recognize, see such things.

But this has the spooky quality that would bring that twinkle to Glennie’s emerald eyes.

It began with a phone call from a coaching colleague who lives in Memphis, (Memphis in the meantime, baby) while I was driving down live oak-tunneled, Spanish moss-dripping Frederica Road on St. Simons Island, definitely a setting for revelatory moments. My normally well-measured Methodis colleague was excitedly telling me about some guy named Shirzad. “Shirzad?” I replied. “What the hell is a Shirzad? A new Tesla Model 3 turbo-charged?”

“No.” Rick replied curtly, long-tired of my comedic attempts. Rick quickly told me that he had run across an article that might interest me in its connection to Emotional Intelligence. I encouraged him to send me the article, so I could add it to pile upon the mounting stack of things I need to read. Shirzad? Shirzad..,,exotic. The name seemed to stay with me, residing in my awareness. Haunting me? No, but definitely pulling me into an unknown vortex.

And within a week, I found myself leading a retreat for a pack of priests who had been introduced to this guy’s book, Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine. Turns out, Shirzad is a professor at Stanford, who through his research in neuroscience, performance science, and organizational psychology, has provided an amazingly sophisticated and accessible model of human behavior. I wrote this summary for a number of my clients that I am working with in my coaching practice. I am transposing it to South of God as a way of sharing a good thing.

I began my dive into this theory by going to Dr. Chamine’s website at . There you will find a brief description of what he means by “positive intelligence”, or PQ, a history of the research, and basic information. Shirzad starts by describing something that we know all too well in our everyday lives…Saboteurs. Those are the voices that come from our past which question our abilities and reasoning. Most of us have two or three Saboteurs that dominate our thinking, mental pauses that trip us up, derail us from our goals and intentions. When you go to the website, you can take a ten minute assessment that is free, resulting in a document that shows you which Saboteurs tend to dominate your mind.

Positive Intelligence does not leave you there however, stuck with your Saboteurs. It also points out our innate capacity for wisdom, which is called The Sage. The Sage has five capacities which also can be identified and strengthened. They are empathy, exploration, innovation, navigation, and activation. These five “powers” reminded me of the capacities mentioned in the theory and application of Emotional Intelligence. Fortunately, these capacities can be developed with attention and energy, increasing one’s mental fitness.

Shirzad’s unique contribution to mental fitness is his use of specific exercises that interrupt and intercept our Saboteurs, as well as strengthen the Sage capacity. He frames this as self-mastery.
Below you will find a description of the Saboteurs, and how they get in your way. I give a brief introduction to the Sage. And then, I offer a brief summary of the “operating system” that gives you a key to understanding how you are living life now, and a strategy to make you both more productive AND happy. I have worked with all kinds of people on increasing productivity, or adopting a mindset of continuous improvement. Positive Intelligence adds the component of personal satisfaction and happiness that I find most attractive.

I hope you will consider getting a copy of the book, or the book-on-tape, so that you can dive more deeply into this powerful way of thinking. If you have questions, feel free to email at my address below.

Let’s start where I started: The Saboteurs. I recommend that you do the online assessment at the website before reading my descriptions, but that’s your call.
The Ten Saboteurs

  1. The Judge- universal to all. Constantly compels one to judge oneself or others. Justifies itself by the lie that without it, the unambitious would not produce. Masquerades as “tough-love” of reason.
  2. The Avoider- focuses on comfort, the positive and the pleasant. Avoids difficult and unpleasant tasks and conflicts, using procrastination and side-stepping. The lie is that you should just be positive.
  3. The Controller- runs on anxiety-based need to be in control, to take charge, bend people’s will to your own. Dichotomizing in that you are either IN control or OUT. The lie is that you need high control to get results. This creates resentment in others and does not utilize or develop others’ capacity.
  4. The Hyper-Achiever- dependent on constant performance. Self-respect and esteem rides on success rather than internal validation for happiness. The lie is that your self-worth is conditional on performance. Result is unsustainable workaholic tendencies.
  5. The Hyper-Rational- relies on rational processing of everything. Leads you to be impatient with peoples’ emotions. Results in a cold, distant, and intellectually arrogant person. The lie is that the rational mind is the most important. Leads to impatience with non-analytically minded people.
  6. The Hyper-Vigilant- intense and continuous anxiety about danger and what could go wrong. With such danger threatening, you simply can not afford to rest. The lie is that the danger is too big to handle and the only way to handle is extreme vigilance.
  7. The Pleaser- goal is to gain acceptance and affection by helping, pleasing, flattering, or rescuing. You lose sight of your own needs and later become resentful. Side effect is that people become dependent on you. The lie is that you are a “pleaser” because you are a “good” person, a “do-gooder” when actually you are trying to gain affection and acceptance indirectly.
  8. The Restless- constantly in search for a “better deal”. You are never satisfied or at peace, as you scan the horizon for the next shiny object, or challenge to conquer. You lose focus on relationships and things that matter. The lie is that being so busy, you create the illusion that you are living fully, when in truth, you are missing the dance.
  9. The Stickler- seeks perfection, order, and organization. It makes you and others uptight and anxious. It saps your energy by insisting from yourself and others a too rigorous measure of perfection. The lie is that perfectionism is the highest calling and that it does not exact too high a price.
  10. The Victim- wants you to recognize the deep pain and hurt as a way of gaining attention and affection. Often this appears in martyr’s attire, and leaves people feeling frustrated in the inability to make you happy, as you constantly remind them of your sacrifice. The lie is the belief that making people feel sorry for you is the best way to attract caring and attention for yourself.

How’s that for a start? Recognize a few Saboteurs that visit you in the middle of your work day, or maybe during the night? As you will see, the key is to see them coming, and intercept their lies. It’s not easy because you have been well-trained, over a long period of time, and, it works somewhat. But you are not able to function at a high level nor are you really happy. But, here comes the good news.

The Sage is presented after the unveiling of the various Saboteurs. As there are ten Saboteurs, there are five powers of the Sage, capacities that we all have.
The Sage:
The Sage represents the deeper and wiser part of you. The Sage brings perspective to the engagement, not losing himself/herself in the drama of the moment. The Sage sees any challenge as an opportunity and a gift for learning. It has access to five powers:

  1. To explore with great curiosity and an open mind.
  2. To empathize with yourself and others, to bring compassion and understanding to the situation.
  3. To innovate and create new perspectives and outside-the-box solutions.
  4. To navigate and choose a path that best aligns with one’s core values, mission, and greater purpose.
  5. To activate and take decisive action without the distress, interference, and distraction of the Saboteurs.
    (Side note: This follows along the lines of some of the main competencies in Emotional Intelligence and the process I have pointed to before called Creative Interchange= trust, curiosity, creativity and tenacity)

The Mental Operating System:
The overall strategy is to:

  1. Recognize and weaken one’s Saboteurs;
  2. Strengthen your Sage;
  3. Strengthen your Positive Intelligence (PQ) Brain muscles

Let’s dive a little deeper into these Big Three.

  1. Recognize Saboteurs- identify those thought and emotional patterns, seeing that they do not serve you. Identify and label them when they show up. Intercept them so that they don’t rule the day or dominate your mind. Have a sense of humor about them!
  2. Strengthen your Sage-consciously shift to the Sage perspective (all situations offer you an opportunity of learning and growth), intentionally accessing the powers therein to handle the situation at hand. Have confidence that you have a Sage within.
  3. Strengthen your PQ Brain Muscles- remember the Survivor Brain, which is more primitive and responds to fear, typically fight or flight, as opposed to the PQ Brain that brings into play the five powers of the Sage.

A key to the unique genius of Positive Intelligence is to strengther one’s capacity of self-mastery. Build that muscle through reps of mental focus, mindfulness, being aware in the moment. Literally, focus your awareness on any of your five senses for TEN seconds. Stop the thinking process and become aware of your physical sensations. This activates the PQ Brain and develops this capacity through time and reps. It rewires the brain, altering neural pathways, adding versality to the tendency to stay in “automatic” or default mode of the Survival Brain. Feeling the physicality and sensation of three breaths is just about one rep, but other physical, body awareness can be creatively engaged. Physical exercise, daily routines, mindful savoring of meals, listening to music, participating in sports, being with loved ones can offer opportunities to build this PQ muscle.

A specific program, aided by an ingenious app on your phone, is available to focus on building these mental muscles, just like you would go to a gym to develop physical muscles.

Again, if you have questions or want to talk more about this work of identifying your Saboteurs, focusing on your Sage capacities, and strengthening your mental muscles, feel free to email me at or

Bottom line, Positive Intelligence offers a way to train and strengthen your mind so that you are more effective and happy.

What To Do With History?

Last week, I wrote about my wife’s incredible plan to get me to a research library, The Kenan Research Center, located at the Atlanta History Center in order to give me a thoughtful gift, linking me to my beloved grandfather, Glen Pollard. I am no stranger to the History Center as I have been a participating member for years, but I had never been to the research arm.

My history professor at Emory, Bell Wiley, introduced me to several Atlanta history royals such as Franklin Garrett and my dad’s friend, Bev Dubose. Both of these men of distinction have contributed mightily to the Atlanta History Center. Later, my Civil War Roundtable friend, Bill Scaife, would join me there in its hallowed halls, with maps of the Atlanta battlefield. It’s a fine resource for one wanting to dive into the heritage of this city, including the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, and the emergence of the spiritual base for Civil Rights . Recently, it added the famed painting of the Battle of Atlanta, formerly housed in the Cyclorama, located in Grant Park.

I have a photo of my mom and myself as a child, produced from one of those photo booths that would crank out four sequential pictures in black and white. I don’t know my exact age, but it was my introduction to the lore of the Civil War. I would later return many times with my grandfather to “do” the tour of the painting, led by a docent…before I knew what a docent was. He or she were the persons who talked about the battle, while pointing to corresponding parts of the diorama with an ingenious tool for it’s time, a flashlight with the tip of an arrow fashioned to focus the light.

One would emerge onto a platform, inside a building that housed this ginormous painting… was so large that I stooped to employ the word “ginormous”. Lord have mercy.

The painting has an amazing history itself, having been painted during the 1880’s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin ( I note that this is one other thing we “took” from Milwaukee, including our Atlanta Braves!). This painting was produced during the heyday of “cyclorama”, picturing all kinds of historical moments, even Custer’s Last Stand, the Chicago Fire, and one that would have been popular with the South of God crowd, Christ’s Triumphant Entry Into Jerusalem. But fresh from the Civil War, what better scene than a battlefield. It was sort of the IMAX of the day, giving a 3-D experience not unlike the stereoscope view, the ViewMasters of the time. At the time of its painting, in the North, it was to commemorate a battle that sealed the fate of the Southern revolution, not to praise the rebels, the losers with a capital L.

Like every media platform, cycloramas saw its day, enjoyed it, and then receded in popularity. The painting itself was used in a Presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate, who was painted into the historical painting to show him as a hero in the battle, even though he had not been present. Lying is not new to presidential politics. It is reported that it gave him the electoral votes due to the vote in Indiana where the painting resided at the time, publicized by the newspapers. Even though he did not win the popular vote in America, Indiana gave him the electoral victory, reminding me of another trend that is not new to our day. The deception was discovered after the election, causing great consternation resulting in the firing of the manager of the Cyclorama, but with the Presidency remaining in the imposter’s hands. Here I note the actual antipathy caused by deception from a campaign, an art that we have obviously lost.

As the popularity of cycloramas faded, the painting was sold in 1891 to a third-rate P. T, Barnum promoter from Georgia, Paul Atkinson. He moved it to Chattanooga which happened to coincide with the emergence of The Lost Cause phenomenon, as people in the South sought to rewrite history. Rather than being fought over slavery, the war was recast as a battle over states rights, most egregiously framed as the War of Northern Aggression. The original painting was to depict a significant turning point in the war, a time when morale was flagging in the North, and Lincoln’s chances of reelection was questionable. Instead, Willian Tecumseh Sherman’s victory in Atlanta and subsequent march to the sea proved to be a turning point in the war, most importantly boosting Lincoln’s political status, allowing him to stay in office to finish his work. But as the painting came to Chattanooga, the painting was hawked as “the only Confederate victory ever painted”.

Viewed in the rearview mirror, it’s almost funny. The Union generals were repainted as monsters, butchers, invaders whereas the Confederate generals were airbrushed into dignified nobility with chiseled profiles, heroic in stature. One scene in particular is telling. In the original, a scene showed some Rebels in gray being taken prisoner. And in the hands of the captor Union soldier was a rumpled, muddied, captured Confederate flag, symbolizing the end of the rebellion and defeat. This did not jive with the image of The Lost Cause and the noble South, and so some blue paint was applied turning the captured Rebels into Union soldiers cowardly running away from the battle. There is history, and then there is interpretation. And whoever owns the canvas, gets to apply the paint.

Through several ownerships, the painting was moved to Atlanta itself, the place of the famed battle, in 1891. The Cyclorama lived in a building at the Grant Park Zoo, where it stayed until my birthday in 2015, June 30th. I really don’t know how many times I viewed it at the Grant Park location. I was fascinated with the musical bed of Dixie that would play, quickening a Southerner’s heart rate. And the lighting was my first experience of the effect of a rheostat to bring the lights up and down dramatically, with spotlights to guide one’s eyes to appointed scenes in the canvas, focusing awareness in a dynamic dance. To a young child, it was mesmerizing.

I remember an odd thing, a mannequin resembling Clark Gable, dead in the foreground diorama. How did he get there? By mentioning to the mayor that the only thing that would make it more enjoyable to the real-life Rhett Butler, that he be included. Like good, hospitable Southerners, they obliged….but I’m guessing not in the way he would have preferred, mounted on horseback on a white stallion triumphantly charging the Yankee headquarters. That is the Southern way, putting our arm around your shoulder as we kick you in the ass. During my fifty years, my experience of the Atlanta Cyclorama went from awe, to reverence, to questioning, to curiosity, and finally amusement. It was a lively if tragic part of my growing up in Atlanta. Like most of my life, as I keep finding, it was a mixed blessing.

The painting is three stories high, longer than a football field, and was placed in a cylindrical building. It reopened at its current site in Buckhead at the Atlanta History Center in 2019. It was restored to its original state, removing colors, Confederate flags, and Benjamin Harrison from the painting. Some old-line Civil War aficionados were bothered by the changes, but have seemed to survive the onslaught of accuracy . As the curator commented, the Cyclorama is no longer serving in the role of a barker’s attraction, or a political ad for The Lost Cause, but is being viewed an artifact of history, something that one might study in order to gain perspective, maybe even a lesson or two. The restorers were trying to go back to the original painting of 1886, to capture more of the truth that is beneath the canvas. Again, the one that owns the canvas determines tone of the painting.

It was in the shadow of rediscovering the Cyclorama, and its hidden history, that I found myself watching the amazing work of Henry Louis Gates on the period of history least known by me, Reconstruction. It aired on my local PBS station this past weekend, and I watched it for my third time.

The first was when it originally aired in 2019. And then I watched it again last year during my facilitation of an Episcopal program known as Sacred Ground, an experiential learning opportunity around race in this country. And again, for the third time, last weekend, in this peculiar time in the life of our country, where people seem frightened of looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly of our history.

Each time I watched this remarkable documentary, I was shocked at the history of the era that I had simply not heard that much about. The enormity of attempting to alter the Southern culture with mere changes in the law seemed to me destined for failure. Fail it did, reverting to a more subtle form of domination, again economically driven. We went from a half-ass try at Reconstruction, to the white South reclaiming its rightful superiority over inferior black, codified in the Jim Crow laws, and segregation. We seem to want to gingerly skip over the fact that an African-American was lynched, burned alive, or mutilated every week from 1890 for fifty years…FIFTY. I am offended when I read this statistic, troubled in my soul as I type it in 2022. But it is fact. It is our history. And it should not be ignored as we honor our high aspirations of “all created equal” while simultaneously getting real about how poorly we have performed in actuality at times. We can not hide from this history, repaint it so that it doesn’t bother our sensibilities. We must face who we have been as we celebrate our progress, all the while striving for better,

As a student of cultural change in organizations, I know change to be daunting, full of hazards, often failing. And the main reason is: Culture is powerful. It’s in the marrow of our bones, the values, the assumptions about reality. Culture exists just below the surface of any human grouping, be it a family, a city, an organization, a congregation, a state, a region, even a country. To suggest a change in that embedded culture evokes anxiety, then fear, and eventually anger over something that is being taken away from me. We often wind up unconsciously projecting that negativity on some “other” who is perceived as the enemy. Examples are as close as the front page of your newspaper, or leading story on your newscast, regardless as to the day.

One only has to look around and open one’s eyes. But, like a fish who is merrily swimming along, we do not “see” or recognize the water that surrounds us. We take it for granted. (When I was a child, I remember saying mistakenly, “I take it for granite” being raised in the shadow of granite monolith of Stone Mountain. Looking back, there was deep insight embedded in my innocent words). We all live in cultures, that for the most part, of which we are unaware.

One might say that the Civil War was a cultural war, one that some might say we are still fighting. Recent polls show that many people in our country are expecting an armed civil war, as once again, an internal conflict emerges in a particular moment in history. But I’m not buying it. We are, at depth, better than that. We pull together in crisis, thrown together like belligerent children by their forceful Mother, when we face adversity. Pearl Harbor, 9/11 come to mind. What will it take today for disparate factions, who have toxic contempt in our hearts for one another that pull and drive us apart.

In Ft. Myers yesterday, where I have worked for the last seven years, President Biden and Governor DeSantis talked, affirming one another’s response to the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Ian, transcending, if but for a moment, the terrible partisan divide that tears at the heart of our country. Again, in the face of disaster unspeakable, recovery uncertain, we come together. Is it possible for us to look squarely at our history, world history, where we see patterns that repeat themselves over and over, recognize them, and then choose a better way?

Truly, I do not know. I find myself in despair more these days as I awake each morning to division. Our inability to listen carefully to one another seems habitual, like an addiction, a “jones” we can not kick . Rather than seizing on common aspirations, we choke on details as to how we might proceed in “purity”, as if we had a straightline to some authority we invoke. But I am committed to try to find a way through this dark night of our country’s soul. I am working by listening Care-Fully to others, finding a process of Creative Interplay by which we can learn to engage one another over things that matter to all people.

Humor helps me to make it through the day. My old friend, Mark Twain, chides me in my overwhelming seriousness. Carlin shakes me from my defensive resignation with his prophetic probes into my soul. But today it was the conservative wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill who is supposed to have said: Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing….after all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

He may or may not have said this. But as we say in the South, if he didn’t, he should have.

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.