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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it got worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving Atlanta in the Broad Daylight

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

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

I moved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving God and Loving Neighbor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love God and Love Neighbor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To respect the dignity of every human being!

Can We Talk?

This has been a tough week.

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

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

Some of you are probably stopping your reading right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, here it comes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, can we talk? Will we?

Are You Ferocious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our litany went like this:

I would ask: Are you ferocious?

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

Repeat sequence……forever. And I mean forever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, time to PAUSE.

Shift to FOCUS.

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

Are you ferocious?

The Pesky Question of “Why?”

If there is a hidden blessing in this damned pandemic, it is the renewal of the question of “Why?”

Why do I “do” life the way I do?

Why do I “do” what I do?

Why do I spend my time doing THAT?

This forced pause allows for questions to emerge that can be life changing, leading to transformation. But those questions can prove to be disruptive, breaking our normal routines that are comfortable. And that may be the original sin…..Comfort.

The communal pause we have taken, or has taken us, raises a question that comes up at certain times of life, in a pesky way. By pesky. I mean troubling, getting under your skin, or as Alton Brown, my culinary philosopher would say, a “bother”. You become bothered by the question “why?”.

It happens when you’re a kid and some adult who has nothing better to say, asks you, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”

And it happens again after two years in college and you have not settled on your major, and your academic advisor, who is struggling to get tenure, presses, what do you want to major in while you are spending your parents’ money? Sorry, that was not my beleaguered advisor, but my dad.

Every so often, that pesky “why” reemerges, sometimes predictably, sometimes out of the cleat blue.

With the terminally cute intro of the year 2020 by Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen, using a wonderful parody of Barbara Walters’ pronunciation of Twenty-Twenty by Cheri Oteri, who the hell knew what was in store for us?

I find myself asking what so-and-so (fill in the blank with relatives, political figures, writers) would say about this pandemic. For some reason, I would love to hear the take from my microbial fascinated biologist mother, or from my Grady-trained doc father-in-law. It would be insightful, and more importantly, funny. What would they say about this odd time?

And what can be done for and with the lack-of-luck Class of 2020? The disruption of graduation exercises put a highlight on the role of such rituals in our lives as they push the questions of existence of “what?” and “why?” out on the dance floor. What are you going to do next? And, why are you going to do that?

Graduation exercises mark the ending of one phase of life with the presumption of something else coming, the beginning of another phase: the end of high school with the presumed beginning of college; the end of college and the beginning of grad or professional school; the end of boot camp, and the beginning of deployment. That is where the Big Gulp should come: between endings and beginnings.

And the in-between time of summer was spent, bouncing around, wondering if you had made good decisions, even in the middle of making some very bad decisions. That in-between time is what we of the ritual type call the liminal time, as we are literally “between”, as we are paused.

This pandemic has caused a pause for many of us. Keeping us home, not venturing out into the world. Connected by Zoom and phone lines, interminable emails that make us pine for paper memos that we could touch….that we could wad up and crush, tossing into a trash can for messages doomed for incineration. It was a pause for a “why?”.

For some of us, our very jobs put us at risk, more so than normal. Working in a normally functioning hospital, or even in the normally organized chaos of an emergency room, we faced the fear of a real threat to our existence by a virus that we were not too sure about. We still aren’t, if we are being honest. It raised a deep question that we had pushed deep down, beneath the sedimentation of routine, and pension, and mortgage, as it asked the pesky “why”, and reminded us, some of us, of our lofty ideals that got us in this mess in the first place. Remember those noble goals of healing, helping, saving. Oh, yeah, I remember.

For others, there was little time for pause. Maybe a slight pause for fear as we got ourselves to work. It meant rendering service to our society, delivering our particular work in spite of the risks involved. While our remuneration was not consistent with the degree of risk we were entering into, we made our way to work, in grocery stores, to restaurants, in trucks, on buses, in order to keep our world turning. And, perhaps, naggingly, the pesky “why” came calling.

Why? Why do you do what you do? Why are you spending your time and energy doing what you do?

This is the basic human question of meaning that most of us confront at certain moments of our life and answer as best we can. Sometimes a disruption in life, due to disease, divorce, the loss of a job, or retirement, trots the pesky question out to bother us again. But who knew that 2020 would shout that question so loudly, so insistently?

For some, the pause to question “why” brought about a clarity that was shattering. I have talked to a handful of mid-career folks for whom this pause woke them up to the fact of their unhappiness in their work. Their life had gotten crazy and they were caught in a system that keep them moving so fast that they lost the ability to ask a probing question, particularly the taxing question of “why?”. Some have decided to change their jobs. their direction. Some have decided to listen to the proverbial question of “why?” and have found a fresh sense of commitment.

How’s it been for you? What “why?” has been dogging you?

Here is one dog that bounded my way, unanticipated.

I had a long talk with an emergency room doc, who was waist deep in COVID-19. He is used to the frantic pace of emergency medicine. Triage is his middle name. Cool, ice in his veins, some say cold, but I’m not buying. I know this guy. He stitched up arteries on the battlefield, held the hand of men who were bleeding out. He knows about death as well as I do and speaks of it clearly and cleanly, no platitudes, life and death….that’s how the scoreboard reads at the end of the game. Win, lose, back to play again the next day.

But when he called me a month ago, his voice was different. He still spoke in clinical terms that could be dictated into a medical record, but there was a crack. Not big, but enough to allow me entrance into his heart. He was facing that pesky “why?” that is not allowed in the rush of emergency, urgent care is the name. Now…..or never.

From the clinical description, he trailed off, and then, I heard him sobbing.

I was honored that he trusted me with his broken heart, as he said he had never seen this level of death. Body bags stacked,. refrigerated trailers waiting to receive the cargo, lined up in the side lot, out of the way, but not out of mind. Sixteen hour shifts, bunking in a break room because he didn’t want to expose his family. He grabbed sixteen minutes twice a day talk to his wife, trying to not let on where his head was at, how scared he was. He told me that the intensity was worse and more pressing than the battlefield, because the bullets weren’t flying in the OR, while the virus is, most def..

I know it was the long hours, his fatigue, the blood, both fresh and crusted on his scrubs, that allowed the pesky “why?” entrance into his psyche. But once in the room, it was pressing, intrusive, bothersome. This would turn out to be a brief encounter, enough to cauterize the bleed, to slow down the flow so he could make it through the dark night. It would turn into a number of sessions that dove deep into his soul. What does this mean? Why am I here? Why am I risking my life, a life that I love, with people that I love? Why?

I don’t know how this turns out for my friend. He’s still working his shift but taking care of himself. I did hear him say, emphatically, that he has some things to figure out. That pesky “why?” has him and will not let go. I’m betting on him to figure it out and glad I can be there to help.

If you are wrestling with a “why?”, take time to journal about it. Share it with a trusted other, or with a group. If you are needing some help, reach out to those who can give you the attention you need. A coach can give you some perspective that will give you some room to move, help you to discover some options you may not be seeing. A therapist might give you some relief, some clarity.

Funny thing about that pesky “why?”. Like COVID-19, it’s contagious. It’s catching.

Mixed Blessings on My Mind

So, how long have we been in this crazy time? Depends on how you count, I guess.

I decided to free-form the article this week, probably because so much is going on. Hope you might grab something worth your while. Funny, I originally typed in “free-from” which may be one of those Freudian slip things. Or, maybe I just can’t type well when I’m tired.

  • I went for my physical this week. I love my internist who is a stable middle-aged guy who was referred to be by all my physical therapists in the wake of my quad tendon surgery. They all go to him and swear by him. In fact, the hand specialist has a huge crush on him, which is a bit comical for me. Going to his office building and his office, just off Pill Hill here in Atlanta because of the close cluster of Children’s, St, Joe Emory, and Northside, was a little scary. I wore the worst mask I have ever worn, supplied by my lovely wife. Hotter than hell, not an N95 even in its dreams. But I wore it, black, a flannel sort of thing that I thought looked appropriate for a priest. I just have to say, the office staff, the nurses, nurse assistants, and the doc could not have been more friendly, so accommodating to this crazy guy who uses a well-honed defense mechanisms that I like to call humor. I made it in and out in a reasonable amount of time, with a deep sense of victory getting this behind me.
  • My wife has taught at the famous Schenck School for some time. It was begun by a man, David Schenck, who had a dyslexic kid. In his effort to care for his child, he started a school in the basement of an Episcopal Church. His early, simple dream is now one of the preeminent schools in the world for dyslexic students, giving them the skills to deal with their specific learning issue and then helping them transition into mainline education. Families from all over the country make the investment of moving to Atlanta to avail themselves of the Schenck School magic for two or three years. It has caught the attention of Richard Branson who has provided some publicity and support for its method. For me, I have become a huge fan, cheering on my wife and her co-teachers in their noble cause. My wife taught her last day last week, having been relegated to ipads and computers. figuring out how to educate through this new medium. on the fly. Tomorrow, the teachers will line the circular driveway around the school, social distancing, while kids, driven in family cars. will honk and say good bye as they end this year. I would wish her end of serving as a teacher could be a bit more up close and personal, but my bet it will be a special moment. I have laughed each morning as each kid in her class signs on, their faces popping on the screen, and the laughter as they recognize their classmates in cyber space. I have been amazed at the creativity of these teachers and the resilience of the parents. My niece, Gracie, will begin teaching at Schenck next year, keeping the Galloway connection intact. Did I mention, I love Schenck?
  • I have been worshiping by internet for the last few months. Christ Church, Frederica, signs on with Morning Prayer at 9:15 each Sunday, and does an excellent job of producing the broadcast from either the church building or from home, when regulations mandate. Then, I watch another parish, Holy Nativity which is near the village on St. Simons Island, at 11 as they celebrate the Holy Eucharist. It’s an odd feeling, worshiping this way, but I have been shocked at moments of deep holiness breaking through the digital broadcast. I am proud of the clergy and professionals who make this all work, as they do so with great creativity and with a deep pastoral sense of connection. However, it is a study of the role of media in communication. Music seems to work well, although I love live performance and crave singing with others…..I grew up South of God, remember. And television is a cool medium, not great news for preachers. McLuhan is worth a revisit.
  • We are in the process of moving from our town house in the shadow of the Braves home park, and around the corner from my beloved Weather Channel. I am praying to not be visited by Jim Cantore during the upcoming hurricane season. First time I went to move my daughter in after her college graduation, we ran into my Atlanta neighbor, Jim, on Front Beach, where he was covering a tropical depression about to make landfall.
  • We are packing boxes, mostly of my crazy collection of books. It is a bizarre time to be moving, and with my physical limitations of my torn quad tendon. It’s tedious at best, dangerous at worst, and sporty on a good mood day. We are moving to St. Simons Island, a coastal island of Georgia, with a rich history that I am excited to explore.
  • Many of you will connect St. Simons, with Glynn County, which has been a bit infamous of late. It is the county where Amaud Arberry was murdered as he was jogging on the streets. He was a part of the Gullah Geechie culture of the coastal islands, a culture my friend, Pat Conroy, connected me to years ago from his coastal South Carolina roots. It was almost a year ago, I finally allowed myself to read Pat’s last work of fiction, South of Broad, in order to get some closure on my grief at his death. I only hope I will inherit the twinkle in his eye as he talked of his love of low country. I’m betting on it. However, my eyes have been focused on racial justice all my life, and I am finding it curious that this is happening as I make my move. My Texas friends are noting the irony.
  • This move gets me closer to my beloved Cumberland Island, where my friend, John Miner, used to take me to his bungalow off the Greyfield Inn. John introduced me to so many characters on this remote island, but my favorite was an old fisherman who got it just right: Cumberland Island ain’t nothing but the Good Lord a’talkin’, and my, do He go on!
  • John had hunting rights for the Carnegie portion of the island which meant we were free to roam over a good part of the island. So here’s my story from the island. On one occasion, we were down around Halloween for a hunt. Miss Lucy Ferguson, the grand dame of the Carnegie clan invited us to a clam bake on the beach after our dinner, libations, and drive on the beach in John’s trustworthy Bronco. When we returned from our adventure, we found the group sitting around a huge bonfire. John and I ambled up toward the fire as if approaching a sacred ritualistic gathering, which in a way, it was. As far as I knew, there were no virgins to sacrifice. To my surprise, sitting in the sand by the fire were two honest-to-God leopards, one traditionally spotted and the other midnight black. I knew that I had been drinking but this was a bridge, or feline, too far. Turns out, Miss Lucy had invited this animal trainer dude who provided animals for movies to come to the island.. He had brought these two big cats, along with a menagerie of other creatures. I was fascinated by the gorgeous black leopard, the sheer majesty of this cat. Aided in my chemically-induced confidence, I knelt before the magnificent creature and began to talk to him/her. The cat seemed nonplussed by my presence, when all of a sudden, it used its declawed left paw to send me sprawling into the sand, with not so much as a by-your-leave. Turns out, this leopard was brought by the now infamous Bhagawan Antle, otherwise known as Kevin, who owns and operates Myrtle Beach Safari. He was part of the human menagerie of folks featured in the infamous Tiger King series, now ensconced in the collective unconscious of this damnable pandemic. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
  • I have been using this odd time to attend some training opportunities. The Absolom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing is offering a series of conferences online on the human experience of lament. Led by Dr. Catherine Meeks, this series offers a fresh, faithful look at our experience of facing times of crisis. Google the Center to get the dates and times.
  • In the wake of the pandemic, as predicted, we are seeing a significant rise in mental health issues, including depression, domestic violence, and addiction. Post Trauma is particularly on the rise among our healthcare workers who have born the brunt of this crisis. Being sensitive to others, taking the time to ask “how are you doing?” may be the difference for someone on that particular day. I’ve had more than a few off-handed queries responded to with desperate responses that got my attention. Take the time to ask. There are a lot of hurting folks out there.
  • Monitor your own self. If you find yourself down or troubled, reach out to a trusted friend just to talk it out. Most times for me, that’s enough. But if it gets tough or repetitive, pay attention to your internal prompts. Call the Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-273-TALK. Or, as I counsel folks deep into crisis, get yourself to an emergency room, or call 911.
  • My friend and colleague, and old Southside Boy, Lou Koon, continues to offer online seminar opportunities to be trained in awareness and suicide prevention. On Tuesday, May 26th, an online seminar is being held from 9AM to Noon., three hours to equip you to be sensitive and respond to those who may be in despair. You can register for this seminar, offered at no charge, by going to , or . I have gone through the training myself and recommend Lou’s expertise and accessibility.
  • Journaling is my longtime means to increase my self-awareness. It’s what I teach the people I coach, and the folks who work with me in therapy. Attending to your own emotions as they emerge, monitoring the shifts of mood, exploring the triggers are things that you can tend to in your journal. I enjoy writing my thoughts, wonderings, things that make me smile, things that make me angry. These days, I start my day with a time of gratitude, and end it the same way, listing things for which I am grateful. Framing my day in gratitude works for me. There is a lot of research that supports this practice as a healthy means to live your life.
  • Finally, invest in connections. Take the time to call. Write that note to someone to express a thought or appreciation. I found a note to me by my eighth grade teacher, Ruby James, that renewed my spirit and gave me some encouragement this week. Though she is long gone from this planet, she was still her for me this week. Connect with someone.
  • As we move into this Memorial Day weekend, I am reminded that it used to signal the beginning of summer for me, a more relaxed time. This year seems different. I am going to remember to give thanks for the women and men who gave their lives in service, and I am going to be reading a new book by my friend, Joe Galloway, who wrote We Were Soldiers, Once….and Young. He’s got a new book out about stories of soldiers he knew in Vietnam. He was in the thick of it, and he’s a hell of a journalist and writer. I know I will learn something important about life. Blessings on your Memorial Day weekend. Make it memorable.

What Is Your Image of God?

What is your image of God?

By that, I am asking: how do you think of God, when you think about God? What images come to mind?

Some of my friends tell me quickly they have absolutely NO image of God in their mind. For them, God does not exist. And others tell me their image is pretty negative, a judgmental God that seems vindictive at best and capricious at worst. horrific images perpetrated by mean-spirited spokespersons and congregations that accentuate an angry God. And I have a few friends that tell me plainly that they just don’t think about God at all, not in the equation.

I sometimes wish I didn’t think about God at all, but I have little choice. I grew up in a family, in a community where God was all around, at least in our talk, our songs, and our minds. Like fluoride in the water, God was in my life. As Steve Harvey says, I had me a lot of church, 24/7. And so I had to do something with this God that figured so “deep and wide” (those in the South of God club know what I am talkin’ about) in my life.

My life question emerged as this: Why do some people have faith and some people don’t? Maybe I was fortunate, lucky or blessed (depending on your perspective) but I met up with the leading thinker on the psychological aspects of faith, Dr. James Fowler, and I joined him at Emory in his research in the emerging theory of faith development.

We developed this exercise at the Center for Faith Development early in the 80s, to prompt people to think about how their image of God changes through time. It’s actually a pretty simple exercise but it led to some profound discoveries for people. I am inviting you to take a pause in your busyness and give this your attention.

The exercise began by asking people to either describe in words, or in a drawn image, how they thought about God when they were children. What did you think God was like when you were a kid?

We then asked our participants to think about how they thought about God when they were adolescents.

Next, we asked the very personal question of how they were imaging God in this present moment. How does God show up for you in your life now?

The clear result of this exercise was an experiential recognition that our images of God change through time. The image of God we had as a kid necessarily develops, or changes, as we experience more and more in the course of our life.

The early image often was that of a grandfather in the sky, looking down from heaven. Interestingly, the image often had the God-figure with lightning bolts in this hands, ready to catch someone doing something wrong. But there were contrasting images of a God-figure with a huge smile on God’s face, sometimes with a hand reaching down from clouds offering help along the way. It begs the question, what kind of environment were these people brought up in? What images of God were they being fed by their parents, and by the congregations in which they grew up? Almost everyone had an early image of God that was powerful. And again, the takeaway was that the early image was not adequate to them as they grew up, thus changing it to fit their experience.

And so, here it is: our image of God changes. We can debate the issue of whether God stays the same all the time, which is a traditional view from religion. Or, we may adopt a more evolutionary view, put forward by process theologians, that posit that God in fact changes along with the Creation, developing, unfolding, if you will. That’s a worthy discussion for another time. Today, our focus is on our image of God, what is it? Clearly, it does develop, or change through our journey in time, hopefully becoming more in line with our experience and more adequate to give us a living image of connection and meaning.

It was interesting to me that when we asked people to focus on their image of God in adolescence, their teenage years, there was a profound shift from “The Guy in the Sky” to more of a close, intimate presence. In our mostly Christian audience, the shift was clearly from the Old Man Judge to the young Jesus who is my friend, even my “best friend”. As cognitive structural psychologists, we found it fascinating how this image shift in content followed the cognitive shift to that of reflective thinking, that is, we come to the Copernican revolution of realizing that there are other people out there, the community, and that they are looking at us, or more tellingly, “ME!”. We comprehend, in a new and sometimes scary way, that people are looking at us, and assessing us, judging us. I don’t need to cite studies that teens are painfully aware of others, as they literally become self-conscious, We have all been through that painful, exciting journey, and for some of us, we have had kids who have taken the ride. It makes sense that their focus would shift from the all powerful God, removed in the sky, to a God that is intimate, able to put an arm around us, and love us. This is the psychological mechanism that fosters that shift in many people.

Again, the insight is that our perception of God changes as we grow. It is a natural process that happens, although there are many examples of how certain experiences, such as abuse, grief, trauma, can interrupt this development.

As we continue to grow and mature, our experiences and our education help to form us and our images of God. It was fascinating for me to interview persons across wide demographics about their journey: what content they were given by their home churches, what they adopted as their own, what they rebelled against, even rejected, and images that came from other sources. My interviews which lasted for three hours, revealed a depth of experience, and mysteriously, a process of making sense out of the world.

This was the raison d’etre of our work. How do people find meaning in their life? While I had studied and mastered the theoretical concepts of the faith development theory, I was astounded to hear the stories, the narratives, of how people had negotiated the shifts and changes in their life. Each person developed a guiding sense of what is going on in this world we live in. Homo poeta, is the term I loved as I was beginning my study. It states that human beings are meaning makers. We try to make sense, even when there is mostly chaos and disruption all around. Sometimes, people align their sense of the way things work, the nature of reality, with a biblical story that seems to make sense, reading their life experience through that lens. Other times, people who have experienced a barrage of violence and suffering, their conclusion is that the world is not trustworthy, you have to watch out for yourself. Their way of living life will prove to be much different than the way one who has a foundational trust in the goodness of life.

Homo poeta. Humans are meaning makers. I had this theoretical concept get flesh and bones for me one day interviewing a young girl in a clinical setting. She had landed in this home for children as her family setting was judged to be inadequate…that’s the word on her patient’s chart. In interviewing this young adolescent in my role as a chaplain at this treatment center, this girl revealed to me that her father, who was an addict, would take her to a local park in Atlanta, and sell her for sexual favors. Her depression, mixed with explosions of rage, reflected her visceral reaction to being used by her father in this way. I felt if I was interviewing a ticking time bomb, embedded in a beautiful doll, who had already learned how to sell herself as sexual object. To be honest, I was struggling with my own anger with this son of a bitch who would use his child in this form of sexual violence, not exactly the clinical objectivity I had been taught, but that’s the purview of my supervisor.

I mustered a simple question, my mantra given to me by a grizzled clinical professor: What do you think is going on? She shifted her posture, from a seductive lean to a seated position, hands clasped across her lap, as if sitting on a bench. She looked out the window, I’m guessing that she was wishing to escape, but after almost a minute of silence, she said, “I guess I must have done something really bad for my daddy to do this to me.”

I’ll never forget it. Unable to make sense out of her father’s action, she would construct a web of meaning, even it it were to pin the blame on herself. Better that than no meaning at all. As humans, we are wired to resist the notion that there is no underlying meaning to our lives, so we become creative in drawing out a construction of sense and purpose. We become authors of our story, a story that tries to make sense out of the events that make up our life. Homo poeta.

Turns out, she was fortunate, lucky, or blessed (depending on your web of meaning or faith) to escape the hell of her family and be placed in a good environment where some healing could begin. I followed her for years, as she wound up in a foster home that was a healthy one, where she was given images that contrasted those of her early life. She taught me the rough and raw clinical meaning of this rarefied human developmental theory. It is both beautiful and puzzling that we humans are indeed, homo poeta, makers of meaning.

After 9/11, my office had a line of folks who sought me out, trying to make sense of this terrorist attack on our civilization. Where was God when those planes were crashing into the Twin Towers? Where was the Almighty when innocent people on those top floors waited for rescue, before the collapse of those structures? That’s cinematic in proportion, but it happens all the time as we seek to make sense of our lives. A heart attack ends a life, a devastating cancer diagnosis is given, a suicide is reported. How do you make sense out of that? How does your faith deal with those hard facts?

For some of us, we simply paper over the gap of meaning, moving on to the next frame. Others, construct underlying structures that make bad things happen even in the world that is God’s. Others choose not to deal with it, put it aside, keep moving. Others enter into a wrestling match with reality, much like Jacob, trying to gain a blessing, even if one’s faith exits with a limp, sometimes profound. And some simply check out.

How is it for you?

What sense are you making from this pandemic, this intrusion of a virus that goes by the name of COVID-19? How have you dealt with the isolation, the deep pause? Does it feel forced, you giving in with compliance, or have you chosen to enter in with a thirst for learning? Do you see this as a part of living in nature that is filled with disease, or do you blame someone, here at home, or abroad? Have you constructed or bought into a meaning scenario that carefully constructs a conspiratorial group that hopes to control your life? Have you abdicated your responsibility to the experts, trusting, having faith, in those scientists, or government officials? What a sense are you making of all this, homo poeta?

How does this time fit into your view of the world, of how God works, or doesn’t work?

I began this article with an invitation for you to take a look at your image of God.

You might begin by reviewing your life by my old Image of God exercise. What did your childhood God look like? Did the image change as an adolescent, young adult, or in middle age? What does it look like now?

We all have images of God, even if we don’t believe in a Supreme Being. That’s an image of absence and it has its own consequences. In fancy philosophical language, it is called a cosmology, that is, how you think the world works. Some people frame it as a “world view”, that is, how do we see the world that we are in? What lens do you use to see the world?

Sometimes, this image or view is largely unexamined. Sometimes it comes from the groups that we inhabit. What have you learned from your faith community about all that? What has this country taught you about how the world works, or should work? And if you live in a certain part of the country, particularly South of God, what did your culture tell you about the lay of the land, the way things are? Who counts and has value, and more telling, who doesn’t?

Examining those internal images, the lens you use to see the world, can assist you in becoming more self aware. How has the experience of the pandemic informed your view of life? Has it increased your sense of gratitude for the gift of life or had it made you more frightened, scared of losing it? Or both? Many people tell me that life feels like a roller coaster these days, up and then down, and then up again. How are you making sense of all this? How does it fit into the image of life you brought into this time? Are you feeling more vulnerable, more anxious, more at risk? Is this time of pause giving you an opportunity that you were looking for or needed?

Truth is, COVID-19 has affected people in a variety of ways. some positive, some negative, some mixed. Talking about your experience with a trusted other can be helpful. Discussing your experience in a community of others can bring insight and connection, even in the face of isolation.

I know we are faced with all kinds of limitations, but I want to encourage you to find a way to talk about your experience with another person. It can be as simple as calling a friend on the phone. Yesterday, I reached out to my friend who happens to be a psychiatrist, and we both shared about our stress, our anxiety, even our boredom. It felt good to be completely honest about how I was feeling, how I was experiencing this odd time. It was a fruitful time. We happen to share a faith perspective that allowed us to dive into the deep end of the pool which turned out to be surprisingly insightful. The key is making time to make a connection.

One side note: for those of us isolating in families. Our closeness and the increased amount of time in close contact sometimes does not make the kind of honesty I am talking about easy. It’s our very closeness, our intertwined life, that may keep us from diving deep in this precarious, tension filled time. Sometimes, it makes good sense to reach out to someone who has NO agenda for you, and is just there to listen, to clarify, to respond. Think about what it is you need in this time.

Our time of isolation seems to be lifting, but life as we knew it has changed. Be kind and easy with your self and others as we move into this new way of being. I encourage you to reflect on your life, your images of life and of God, and what you want in this life we are given. And I encourage you to renew your connection to others, family and friends. As St. Jerry of Garcia noted in his spiritual notes, what a long, strange trip it’s been. And as the inimitable Penny Lane reminds us, it’s all happening! Be there. Blessings.

Taking One’s Life

Lorna Breen was a vibrant woman who had dedicated her life to saving the lives of others. But on that day, her own sense of self led her to a moment of a profound decision.

Lorna decided to take her life. There are various ways to say this, to describe what happened.

She committed suicide.

She killed herself.

She did herself in.

As her physician father described it, she sucummed to the coronavirus.

The “what” happened at the end of April, in the infamous year of 2020. The “why” is always up for grabs. The reality of the results are clear.

Last week, I received several notes of contact following my writing about Lorna and the impending wave of mental health issues, a wake following the speeding pandemic through the waters of our common life. One note was from a high school friend who reminded me of the suicide of one of our close friends, a death that was a surprise to most folks, leaving us wondering what the hell happened. What had snapped in our talented and fun-loving friend?

Another note reminded me of a friend who had been very deliberate in her taking of her life in a graveyard, as her reflection on the nature of life itself led her to stand before the grave of her beloved, unwilling to carry on in the face of her loss. No real surprise here. But the pain for her friends remained even in the moment of understanding.

Others wrote notes to tell me of how suicide had touched their life in an indelible way, writing deeply into their hearts and minds.

I had originally thought to write the article to encourage people to go to a suicide prevention workshop by my friend, Lt. Col. Lou Koon. I used one of my favorite stories about my dad as an easy intro into a difficult subject. My “desired outcome” was to encourage people to tend to themselves and to the people around them as this wave of despair sweeps over our land in the time of pandemic. There is, in fact, a workshop coming up on Tuesday, May 12th, that I encourage you to register for by googling Armed Forces Mission. Lou tells me he posted an announcement on Facebook this morning. The training provides a good, basic way to train yourself to watch for signs of distress in yourself and others, and equips you with some action steps to try to help. In the time coming up in our country, this training may be priceless. I encourage you to consider investing the time.

Every time I bump up against suicide, a list appears in my brain, connected to my heart. The list is a group of folks that I have known, many I knew well, who have committed suicide. Many are members of my various parishes, or people in the communities I served. Some were friends, some were family. But I unconsciously rehearse the roll of those folks and the stories connected with them.

As some of you have read my work, you know that I experienced death early and intensely. Suicide loomed early on my morning horizon as an option that humans choose. In my world, it was not lambasted as an unpardonable offense against the Creator, but rather, talked about quietly, softly, the way Southerners do when they talk at all. It was handled more secretly, with a look, with a clearing of the throat, as if there were a phrase of truth stuck in your craw.

I learned my most important lesson early on in my clinical career, a lesson that I try not to forget, and a lesson I share with my students.

I had a patient I worked with when I was a doctoral student. He was an adolescent at a psych hospital connected with Emory. I had made real headway with him. Before I left for the weekend, he told me good bye, which seemed odd. Following my training cue to stay curious, I asked what he meant by “good bye”? I asked if he was thinking about hurting himself. He confided that he had decided to kill himself. After talking with him for a while, I informed him that I was going to have to report this, and it would result in the order of restrictive clothing, a straight jacket, and monitoring. He was furious with me and said he should never have trusted me. At that early point in my training, I was devastated by his disappointment in my action, wanting to be the best, most trustworthy therapist ever. It bothered me, deeply.

I left the hospital at 5 PM, and went to spend the evening with a nurse I was dating at the time. The next morning, I went to the hospital to check on him, and the nurses on the unit said they had been trying to reach me all night…..before I had a beeper! He had gotten up on his bed, with the jacket on, dove off, broke his neck, killing himself. It took me a while to process, but I came away with a clarity that if someone really wants to kill themselves, they will. All one can do is try to help them think it through, which I have done many times. But it is amazing how that event freed me from any misplaced sense of guilt or responsibility….after a lot of therapy myself. But it also impressed me with the need to ask the hard, uncomfortable questions to help the person test their reasoning and realize the consequences of those decisions.

Another memory always invade my psyche at the time of a suicide. It participates in the phenomena known as gallows humor, laughter used to assuage the sheer pain of death. Those of us who work in hospitals often use humor to get us through our dark nights, those tights spaces of pain, suffering, and death, three dimensions of life, all too well known in such human settings.

This moment of gallows humor was provided by an unlikely source in my mind at the time. It happened unexpectedly in a class in pastoral care, taught by the Dean of pastoral care in the Baptist world, Dr. Wayne Oates. The class oddly was meeting at night, on a cold Fall evening in Louisville, where the wind and chill pierce your inner being. After teaching a three hour class on suicide, he dismissed us. We were up from our seats, ready to flee the classroom, but then asked us to sit back down. He paused and said he was sure some of us were wondering, Wayne, have you ever considered suicide? And Dr. Oates answered his own rhetorical quesstion. “I have to admit, yes I have. Then your next question should be, Wayne, how would you do it?”  He paused, for an extended time as we twisted in the existential moment. Then he replied as he dramatically leaned out over the wooden lecturn, “I plan to laugh myself to death with all the bullshit I have to put up with around here.”

Humor has saved my life several times.

On that same windswept night, like The Gambler, he did pass along an Ace that I could keep. Dr. Oates hipped us to the reality that the cemetery is filled with people who really didn’t want to kill themselves but made a mistake. They didn’t know they were taking a lethal dose. They really meant to just alert those around them to their pain, their need. Those are the people I aim to help.

The reality of the effects of isolation are becoming clearer with each week. Some of us find ourselves reacting in defiance to the order that we shelter. There are some pretty crazy acting out of our need to display out independence from any government interference. I would ask you to think carefully, for yourself and others, as you exercise your God-given freedom. I would remind you that God also gave you a mind with which to think, and a heart to care for your neighbor.

For those of you isolating like me, there are a series of suggestions I would make to keep you healthy in this odd time: Move, Mindful, Meaning, Master, and Meet.

Move: The first aid in depression is movement, that is, getting your body moving. It can be as simple as a walk or as complex as a thorough workout. That expenditure of energy does all kinds of good things, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. MOVE!

Mindful: I have written several articles about the ways in which I practice mindfulness, using breathing with awareness. There are all kind of apps you can employ, like Calm and Headspace, but simple, mindful breathing makes a difference. It literally re-minds you.

Meaning: Reconnecting with your inner sense of purpose is empowering. Spending some time scratching at the “why” in your life can be transformational. Many of us lose that “inner fire” in the busyness of work and the grind of daily work. Finding that fire can feel like rebirth. One of my favorite things in my coaching is helping physicians, nurses, executives, lawyers, clergy, and teachers to rediscover that “why” that got them into their profession. This pandemic has accentuated the deep passion that may have had sediments of routine cover over and almost extinguish that flame. The gift of the pandemic may be to find that thread of meaning. Rediscover your WHY, the meaning of why you are here on this planet.

Master: Get creative and think of some area of life that you would like to discover. I have heard of people working on their guitar chops, their piano playing, or making a run at a foreign language. A Trappist monk friend who has been in training for this pandemic for over fifty years, is rereading one of my favorite pieces of writing, The Four Quartets. Tom says he’s reading it very slowly, chewing the cud of the words to get all the meaning. I have taken out a paint brush and tried to play at a skill that my mother, wife, and kids are gifted in. Not me. Humbling, but exciting to play with colors. Good for my soul!

Meet: Wait a minute. What about that social distancing? I am very serious about maintaining that distance physically, but I have used this time to reach out each day to people in my directory that I have lost contact with. Three fraternity brothers joined me on a Zoom call that was a blast. I called a priest colleague that I had not talked to in years. And your imagination and daring is the only limit. Make that call and reconnect by meeting through a variety of means.

Move, Mindful, Meaning, Master, Meet. Five M’s that will connect you to your life force that will keep you moving, get you on track to enjoy this wonderful life that we share.

If you find yourself struggling in this time, or know someone who needs some immediate help, you can call the national Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Georgia Crisis line at 1-800-715-4225. There are trained people who care that can assist you in finding a way through this dark time.

My prayer as that we move through this odd time with a renewed spirit of connection and care. The pandemic is our common experience, throughout the world. The question for us as human beings is two-fold: How will be choose to deal with this reality? and What will we learn from this time? May we be surrounded with a sense of our community, family, local, nation, and global. Blessings.

Do You Have Koons in Your Church?

I was so lucky to have my favorite human being I have ever met as my father. Those of you who knew me in my early days know that Olin Galloway was smart as hell. He graduated from high school at 16, moved to Atlanta and got a job with Delta Airlines. He worked as a cost accountant while going to school at Georgia State. He rose through the ranks of Delta to finish his career as the Senior Vice President of Finance in a company that he loved. He was a part of the special family of folks that started with founder, Mr. C. E. Woolman, who took it from its crop dusting background to an international airline. He was a great father to me, loving me as unconditionally as any father can. There was NO question as to who the “Best Man” would be at my wedding.

This is the set up for a quick story that get me to a deeper point, a pressing point a provocative point.

My dad had taken me with him to the local barber shop to get our hair cut. The owner, Jimmy, was a good ol’ boy who cut hair as something to do while he talked. He loved to talk to people, and his barber shop was not unlike other such places that I remember growing up. It’s kind of a men’s social club, with gossip, political discussions, and awful jokes. Jerry Seinfeld did NOT get his start in a barbershop. No observational humor, here. Just yuk-yuk jokes, the kind my grandfather called a “knee slapper”.

My dad was in the classic barber chair that probably came from the turn of the century while I waited in one of those 60’s plastic bucket seats, looking at Sport’s Illustrated, Sport’s Afield, and hoping for a stray Playboy that wandered over from Jimmy’s secret stash. I was an observant little boy and hungry to learn.

The setting was Southside Atlanta that was undergoing a sociological shift as blacks were moving in, and whites were moving out. I learned later in my Urban Geography class by Mr. Cason that this phenomenon was called “white flight”, with whites moving out of the neighborhood.

So, this was just getting started. My home church, a progressive Southern Baptist church had been visited by black folks which caused a bit of our furor. Our pastor, a PhD in New Testament, took a stand and opened the doors of the church to all people, including blacks. The board of deacons met that Sunday night and voted to make this pastor a Rhodes Scholar, saying “hit the road, scholar!” They fired him.

This was a formative moment for me in coming to an early recognition that the Church of Jesus doesn’t do a very good job in following the teachings of the one they call Master. “Loving your neighbor” seemed to apply to only those who look like me. This was my first experience of realizing that disciples rarely measure up to their teachers. I wish I had taken more notice of this as it might have saved me other moments of disappointments, but that’s for my therapist.

So white flight was just beginning, that is the context. Jimmy, ever the conversationalist, is using the clippers on my dad, when I heard him ask, offhandedly, “Olin, you got any coons in your church?” Now Jimmy’s question betrayed his native prejudice as he used that derogatory term to refer to black folks as “coons”.

I paused, wondering how my dad would respond, as he was someone I would characterize as financially conservative but socially progressive. He had been supportive of our pastor’s move to open the doors of the church to all of God’s people, and so I braced for his reaction.

But my dad’s native innocence overtook him from behind, as he was probably not really paying attention to Jimmy’s usual banter. Come to think of it, I am probably the only one paying any attention to the conversation, seeing as how I had not found any stray Playboys among the dated sports magazines. My dad responded, as only he could, “Yeah, we have some Koons. There’s Pete Koon, and his family. I believe he married into the Folsom family, you know, Homer Folsom, who was a Baptist minister?”

I do not recall Jimmy’s response, just my laughter at the comedic miss. I told my mom when we got home and the story has become legendary in my family. Still one of my favorite stories. Your welcome, in this not so funny time.

The last six weeks have been quite a time in our country. I have been focusing on the “second wave” I see coming in the pandemic, which is not from the infamous opening of bowling alleys, tattoo parlors, and hair salons by our Governor in Georgia. No, I am talking about the mental health crisis that is coming in the wake of isolation and stress of disrupted life structures that typically relieve the stress we experience in the course of life.

This isolation acts like a Petry dish for developing incipient mental health issues that bubble quietly in our normal lives. Both the isolation and the close quarters exacerbates the tensions that exist within, bubbling up in some odd ways. It is predictable that there will be an increase in depression, domestic violence, addiction issues, to mention just a few. I am particularly worried about the Post Traumatic Stress that will predictably occur in the next few months among our healthcare workers who are pulling sixteen hour shifts, with massive exposure to suffering and death. Two ER docs that I know in New York, both vets from Nam and Afghanistan, say this is overwhelming, worse than they experienced while in a combat zone.

I have been working with healthcare leaders to proactively deal with this surge that will occur in the wake of this pandemic. Setting up natural breaks, conversation points, huddles, check ins, buddies….all ways to help people process their experience and to unload their stress. Most hospitals I work with are not staffed or structured to make this happen and so we are in the mode of nimble redesign to respond to the need. I have been impressed with the willingness and ability of healthcare leaders to make the appropriate and timely investment to make this happen proactively, rather than as our country has responded, which has been more reactive and piecemeal.

Yesterday, news of one of the first victims of this stress turned up, Dr. Lorna Breen. She was a middle-aged ER doc from New York City who had thrown herself into the fray, combating this virus. She actually was infected, went through recovery, and returned to the battle. Her body and psyche were obviously depleted by the stress and the disease. In her weakened state, she left the hospital to go recover at her sister’s in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, it all caught up to her, and she took her life. This suicide will not be isolated, as I have heard of two more suicides among our first responders this morning.

As a priest, therapist, and coach, I find myself wondering “why?” She was an experienced pro in emergency medicine, so she knew trauma. Her father, a physician himself, said that she had never suffered with depression but was swamped by the massive experience. Any one who has lived in the healthcare world knows of that “swamp” of emotion, of the dark night that can come. While this story fascinates me, it is more helpful to use it to prompt our responsiveness that might avoid further despair with ways of meeting those needs.

My colleague, Mike Murray, pointed out a book written by a Holocaust survivor that noted some coping techniques that got her through that horrific experience. She noted four observations that seem instructive to those of us in the middle of this dark night.

First, she noted that people afflicted with perfectionism died within a month of arrival to the death camp as they could not cope with disruption. As the social scientist, Jimmy Buffett, says, learn to roll with the punches. Be creative with this disrupted time and the lack of structured activity.

Second, “loners” also succumbed early as they did not have a small support group of people who cared. This is a great time to reconnect to friends from the past. With the technology of Zoom or even the simple phone call (no more Sara on the party line in Mayberry) you can use those old relationships to get you through,

Third, survivors created “small victories” where they would celebrate wins that would get them through the night. I have used a journal most of my life, to list the Big Three things I was going to get done today. I also use it to begin my day by noting my blessings, things for which I am thankful. And I end my day by jotting down things that I am thankful for. Try journaling if you aren’t doing it now, and double down if you have some practice at it.

Fourth, survivors were strategic, thinking their way through the situation by being smart in the moment. Think through how you are experiencing this time. Talk it through with a partner, a friend, or a coach as to where you are struggling and where you are thriving. Set yourself up for a positive mindset. Be smart! Learn something new. Did I mention, Be smart?

Now, some of you are wondering how we got from Koons in your church to four recommendations to getting through the Holocaust? Fair enough.

I wanted to wind up telling you about an old friend of my Kenneth “Lou” Koon, who grew up in the church I mentioned. In fact, he is the grandson of the aforementioned Rev. Homer Folsom. Lou has developed an amazing group that seeks to intervene in the rise in suicide within our veterans and first responders. Lou can quote a bunch of statistics that clearly show that we are seeing a huge increase in suicide deaths in these groups, as well as in our general population. This was true before our current crisis and will only increase the severity and frequency.

Lou’s mission is to get people to be more aware of the people around them, to be attentive to people’s behavior, to what they say, to signs they give off, indicating they might be at a point where they might hurt themselves. His payoff pitch is to get people to be comfortable in asking the hard question of “Are you considering killing yourself?” If answered in the affirmative, Lou helps people to know how to then connect them to the people that can save their lives. Lou’s point is that by observing and then asking a question, you can save a life.

Lou heads up an organization that runs seminars and training in suicide prevention. They are geared for regular folks, both those in various first line caregivers as well as normal citizens. They are offering some online training that you can do from home during this time of sheltering. The name of the organization is Armed Forces Mission, as Lou is an Army chaplain, but he has extended his mission to a broader audience.

You can find opportunities for training at or .

You can also connect people to folks who can help immediately by calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225. I encourage you to put these numbers on your phone directory. You never know when you might need it for others or yourself.

So Jimmy the Barber asked my dad, “You got any coons in your Church?” And my answer is proudly, Yeah, got this dude named Lou Koon, who can save you or your friend’s life!