The Poet Is Not In Today

Broken Spoke is the quintessential Texas honkytonk, located in Austin, Texas.

I had been there once before since coming to Texas. It was then I met James White, the owner, who remembered me from a band I had been in for a minute called the Peachtree Cowboys. James told me that “I never forget a face!” and the legend and self-laudatory analysis seem to be true. On that particular evening, James whispered not to leave before midnight “cause the Red-Headed Stranger is dropping by!”. And Willie did. What a way to be baptized into the Lone Star culture.

A few years later, I was beginning my Fall semester of teaching at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. My class met on Thursday evening and Friday. My initial gathering of students was the typical introductory class, with syllabus and getting clear about expectations. I loved teaching there in the Fall as it gave me an excuse to go to a few Longhorn football games, a singular experience.

As class ended, I decided to go to the Spoke, to grab a late supper and “wet my whistle” as my grandfather would say.

Walking out of the still humid residual air into the air-conditioned relief of the bar, I saw James, who welcomed me with his inimitable Texas hospitality. After a brief exchange, I moved into the dance hall section of the Spoke, sitting to the side of the bandstand. The traditional five-piece band was playing the usual country music with a bit of Western twang. The lead singer had on a black Western style shirt, with pressed jeans, something I had grown accustomed to, along with the obligatory cowboy boots. He had a gravely baritone voice, carefully aged with smoke and bourbon. He looked older than the backing band, named Restless Kelly, I later learned. They were in full-tilt mode singing about the highway, problematic women, mama, the lure of the Western sky, and the obligatory topic, drinking. Yes, my mama tried to raise me better.

I had not changed clothes after class so I still had on my black clerical suit, along with my matching black clergy shirt. Black is my color. It is slimming. I had taken off my clerical white collar. No need to scare the horses when I walk into the bar.

I sat nursing my beer, a Shiner, listening to my initiation to this singer and band. After a time, the band took a break, the proverbial “pause for the cause” as my old friend, Elgin Wells. would say.

I noticed the singer walked straight from the bandstand to my table, standing posed in front of me. I will never forget what he said: “You are either a priest, or Johnny Cash.”

“Well, I ain’t Johnny Cash…though I could wish.”

And that’s how it started, a friendship that lasted almost twenty years.

The singer was Chris Wall, who grew up in California but had Montana roots. He had been “discovered” by the Texas troubadour, Jerry Jeff Walker, who brought him to Austin. Chris was the ubiquitous singer/songwriter who became famous by writing the song, “I Like My Women Just A Little On The Trashy Side”, or more simply “Trashy Women”. Jerry Jeff recorded it, but Confederate Railroad had their one-hit wonder with the song. It was the #1 juke box song in Texas (they keep up with such things) for a long time. That meant that Chris was well known across the state, good for a steak and a beer at any bar in the Lone Star.

On that night, he sat down and began to tell me his story. He was in a tough space and I guess he was looking for a priest…a honky tonk priest, and I just happened to fit the bill.

I won’t go into all we talked about that night as I closed the bar along with Chris and James. Chris wound up seeing me each time I came to Austin to teach my class, even sitting in my class one night. He drove up to Tyler, and joined me and my family for a Christmas concert by Michael Martin Murphey, for his inimitable Cowboy Christmas. We became close, like brothers, as more than a few folks thought we actually were when we were seen together.

After I left Texas, he gave me the honor of officiating at his marriage ceremony, held in a rented out bar.

I flew back from Atlanta to Austin, spending the evening before the wedding listening to the Cornell Hurd Band, talking with their pedal steel player, Herb Steiner, winding up with Kinky Friedman for the evening, along with his entourage.

I stayed at the San Jose Hotel, across from the Continental Club on Congress….where else?

The night of the ceremony was a classic Austin event. Bruce Robison was his Best Man and my Texas sweetheart, Kelly Willis, was the Maid of Honor. A zoo of Austin musicians joined us as Chris and his bride made vows and begin their marriage, celebrating with an Austin-style menagerie of friends. I felt completely “at home”.

After that night, we stayed in close contact, talking at length on the phone, discussing Chris’ frustration with his progress in the music industry, talking about existential philosophy, books we love and hate, the Dodgers and the Braves, his musings about religion, and more deeply, about God.

A while back, he returned to Montana, Livingston to be exact, the home of both of one of our favorite poets, Jim Harrison. Chris spoke of enjoying travelling the highways of Montana, taking in the gorgeous scenery we both loved. I was hoping to fly out to see him, along with my bamboo fly fishing pal, Glenn Brackett, but it was not to be.

Chris called me to tell me he would be moving back to Austin to begin advanced treatment on some cancer that had recurred. He did not sound hopeful when we talked but he never let on just how serious it was. We continued to talk every other month, but he would keep it light, on baseball and songs. He always asked about my musician son, Thomas, and how he was doing in Nashville. We tended to end up our calls with the sappy stuff that emerge when tough guys sense the end.

I got a call from Laurie last week that Chris had died in the ICU of St. David’s Hospital in Austin. She was crying, weeping as she left the message on my goddamn machine, and a note on Facebook to his fans gave me a bit more news of his passing. His page was filled with person after person who registered their love for this man, their sense of connection through his music, and how he had touched their life with his lyrics. It was a testimony to his legacy, even if late.

It’s not a pretty sight to see an old man cry. I’ve been doing a lot of that these days. Brue, Dusty, Chris….they sort of all piled up on me last week.

One of the things I will miss about Chris is the honesty we shared with one another. We shared a covenant to tell the truth, no matter the cost. I don’t have many of those friends. One of the tougher things we confessed to one another was the psychic cost we paid to do what we do, me as a priest, him as an artist.

I once talked to him how being a parish priest sometime felt to me like being a hired hand to do the dirty work. That I was really not part of the family, but a “hired hand”. Or in one particular parish, I told him that I felt like a “hired gun”, brought in to clean up the town, and to kill the bad guy, or in this case, girl. Chris felt somewhat the same way as he viewed his work in the field of commercial music. He worried about prostituting his artistic sensibility in order to please the demands of the market.

Out of our conversation, Chris wrote a song that I think captured his struggle and the hard work of wrestling with his own demons. I include the lyrics as a final salute to a great songwriter, but even better friend who journeyed with me into the depths of the soul.

The poet is not in today. He did not say where he’s going or how long he’s apt to stay. He mentioned that he didn’t have a worthwhile thing to say. No, the poet is not in today.
He’s burning up his passion writing greeting cards. His soul no longer glows in the dark. He’s concerned that God cannot see him anymore, so he’s gone to try and find the place where he first found his spark.
He’s tired of writing pretty words for pretty boys. Once made him feel like Cyrano. But now with every single lying rhyme he writes, his heart begins to feel a lot more like Pinocchio.
He said he’d go back to pounding nails, a job that’s got some dignity and class. He said with guys like you it’s always “heads or tails”, and you would not know a work of art if it bit you on the ass.
Oh, the poet is not in today. He did not say where he’s going or how long he’s apt to stay. He mentioned that he did not have a worthwhile thing to say. No, the poet is not in today.

Vaya con Dios, my poet friend and brother.

Choose Your Bias

Everyone of us carries with us a bias.

It’s not our fault. We are not bad people for having a bias. In fact, most of us have a swirl of biases spinning inside of us. Everyone is given a bias from the family one emerges from. And underneath that, is a cultural bias that provides the bed of bias that you receive.

There’s simply no way around it.

When you emerge from your mother’s womb, presuming you are an actual human being, you begin to pick up the messages from the world in which you live about the nature of existence, or as I like to say, the “lay of the land.” It goes with the territory of being a human being.

While everyone is given a bias, the question is “are you aware of what your bias is?” And the answer to that question makes all the difference.

News Flash. Breaking News: Most people are not aware of their bias.

Bias is generally assumed. Like a fish swims in water unknowingly, you operate out of your bias. One inherits it from your mother, father, or other sponsoring people in your young life. When you move around in your neighborhood, in your schools, your church, or other social groupings, there is a bias that is floating in the air. It has to do with the values you hold dear, the assumptions you make about what is of value, or not, notably what is to be avoided, even shunned.

There also tends to be some parameters placed initially on valuing our kin, folks like us. That sense of “family ties” can extend to other identifications like neighborhoods, school teams, states (I lived in Texas for a decade), and even extended to our native country. This is our native identification which simply happens. It helps to form our sense of who I am.

I watched the opening ceremonies to one of our iconic gatherings in the world, the Olympics. I was moved as various countries entered the stadium, many wearing traditional garb representing their unique culture. I was prompted to remember that amazing time of seeing it close up here at Atlanta in 1996. The sense of our global connection was palpable. And then as the huge team from the United States entered, there went up the familiar chant “U S A”, which I have participated in in the past. But this time, I felt some tension within, and wondered what that was all about. Perhaps after the chest-beating nationalistic politics that fueled some crazy antics in our country, I’m a bit shy in terms of what it means, or telegraphs.

The fancy word for that is ethnocentrism referring to a special feeling of connection, that can get riled up when it is questioned or challenged. If we feel like that sense of “special” is slipping away, or worse, being taken away, we can get really upset, as it seems to threaten our sense of worth.. In terms of this bias of who “us” is, we largely just “pick them up” by breathing the air, listening to the language and nuance.

The biases that we operate with both define what we see and focus upon, as well as block our seeing things that don’t fit. One of the difficult truths for us to face is that we indeed have a bias. What are the ones that you are aware of currently? What effect does the bias have in terms of what you see and what you don’t see?

One particular dimension of bias is broadly recognized as confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias states that we welcome information and data that confirm what we already think is true. At the same time, confirmation basis points to the fact that we resist information and data that does not fit our preconceived notion of how the world is. We are limited in how we can see what is going on around us by the biases we carry around with us. It is impossible to rid ourselves of bias, so the trick seems to be focusing on increasing one’s self-awareness of the biases we have.

We resist that work, even if we recognize that we have blind spots. This follows another bias that goes along with the primary one: we prefer the easy way, the comfortable. It’s hard work to look deeply within. It’s much easier to “go with the flow”, keep it simple, even though the reality we face is complex. You might call it laziness but sloth, as one of the original seven deadly sins, sounds a little more dire. I just like the way “sloth” sounds, exotic and all, as opposed to ordinary old “lazy”, which was the tagline for a Spanky and Our Gang song.

Sloth is our reticence at working hard. We gather with people “like us”, in gated communities, in media audiences, in isolated groupings that are easy to be in.

I recently went to dinner with a couple I did not know. The table conversation was polite as we did the usual, marking connections to past places where we had lived, people we knew…you know, the regular drill. Near the end of the meal, one of the couple made a curious statement, “We almost never fight.”

I bit. “So, when do you fight?” What the hell was I thinking?

“We’ve had three big fights in our marriage, and they all were about politics. So we just avoid that subject.”

I laughed, nervously, and said that might be a wise, strategic decision. I wondered aloud how they managed to avoid that in the past year of the election, and with the events of January 6th. At that point, one of the couple launched into a rather animated diatribe against one side of the political divide, taking no prisoners. I watched the other member of the couple literally recede into the background, disappearing for a time, while the partner held forth.

I remember thinking to myself, this absent partner must choose to practice this tactic a good bit. And as the other partner went on, and on, and on, I remember reflecting on the quiet one, “This is a smart person, very wise.”

And, of course, I was tempted to respond in kind to the assault by countering with a pithy retort. My wife nudged me under the table, fearing my typical move which would rend the “nice” evening with conflict. I am frankly surprised that I did not respond, but weighing the value of such an engagement with someone that I did not know was not worth the price of admission. So I merely offered a comment on the preparation of the fresh fish of the day, grouper I believe. A tasty catch. Check, please!

I offer this scene as an overt decision to not engage because I consciously decided not to do so. I was exercising my slothful nature intentionally, self-consciously, or at least I told myself that. I am coining a new clinical phrase: sloth in service of one’s soul.

This came out of many encounters I have had over the past four years that make me reticent to engage in conversation that promised no-win. I keep getting that lesson over and over on social media when trolls want to play “let’s have an argument over something I know nothing about, and have absolutely no desire to learn!” I was opting for comfort over the hard work, and potentially costly price of engagement. That was a relatively easy choice, a conscious decision. Truth is, that’s not how it usually happens. We act without intention, defaulting to a comfortable level of ecstasy, a Lyle Lovett reference. It’s normally unconscious. That’s the way bias operates. We don’t even know it when it happens.

It may not come as good news, but the news is we can become more aware of our biases, our all too familiar defaults, if you will, our prejudices. But it is hard work, and we may prefer to simply get the check, and move on.

We’re back to my own fundamental bias about the nature of human existence. It is best and most fully lived with self-awareness. One is always in process of gaining insight and clarifying the depths of one’s self, but it is possible to grow intentionally and develop that awareness through time. Self-awareness is the starting point of the human capacity known as emotional intelligence as one seeks to master one’s own emotions, deciding how to respond in various situations, as well as knowing how to exercise empathy with others and function in groups. And again, the good news is this capacity can be increased by paying attention to one’s self, the emotions you feel, when they arise, and what triggers them.

As I am suggesting, another way to develop your self awareness is to pause, and reflect on your biases. Pause.

PAUSE is a favorite word of mine, a word I have used for my own growth. I have placed the word “Pause” in various place in my environment. On my desk, on my dashboard, even in my wallet, which is a prompt to stop in the middle of my busyness and business, and reflect on the present moment, or a Howard Thurman would say, in the NOW moment. It’s a neat trick I have learned to use, particularly in times of high stress. Pause. How often do you allow your Self the time and space to PAUSE?

If you do, you can simply savor the moment of being, tuning your various senses to what is happening around you. As my friend, Elgin Wells, told me, there’s an extravaganza out there just waiting to be noticed! Or maybe it was Thoreau…..No, definitely Elgin.

But there’s deeper work to do, if, if you are up to it.

Are you willing to begin by admitting that you, in fact, have biases? And then, can you articulate them, perhaps tracing where they come from in your personal history?

Finally, do you have the courage to examine those biases carefully to see if there are some that are due for revision, or a deeper look? It’s not an easy, quick task. It’s not for the faint of heart. But it is a worthy project that may surprise you with some insights and clues as to who you are. Brave journey.

Good bye is the Hardest Part

I really hate people dying on me.

It started back in my high school class at Briarwood in East Point, Georgia, a southside suburb of Atlanta. An unusual number of my boyhood friends died in some odd ways in the year after we graduated high school from the Municipal Auditorium in downtown ATL and the end of my freshman year in college. It must have affected me, as I chose to work in an arena where I seemed to end up around death.

Odd, I think. But it’s my life, I know.

I received an email blast from my brother that went to all of the consultants, past and present, of Galloway Consulting. It forwarded a note that one of my Galloway colleagues, Brue Chandler, had died. It was a complete shock to me, as we had talked recently.

Brue had undergone a colon resection, after the removal of a cancerous tumor. Chemotherapy was the obvious protocol but he happened to be in the 1% who did not have the enzyme that put brakes on the chemo effects. It shut down his body, resulting in his death this past week. completely unexpected.

Brue had pretty much retired from our work, living in Knoxville, where he was an avid fly fisherman and enjoyed his family, being a superb loving grandfather.

He, Gary Auton, and I had started working with Galloway at the very same time. As a result of that, we wound up on a team together working at a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, which meant we would be together throughout the week at the hospital and then, spend the evening at a local restaurant processing the day’s work, as well a being culinary critics of the eatery. It meant we got to know each other pretty well, pretty quickly. Or, as Larry David would say, pretty, pretty, pretty well. It’s the nature of the beast known as consulting.

The three of us hit it off well, and we wound up doing a lot of work at a variety of hospitals. From Jacksonville, we went to Ann Arbor, where in the time we were ‘in country”, we had a grappa tasting at a fine Italian bistro. I still get notes from the owner.

From there, we went to Chicago working with a large healthcare system, but also exploring the incredible restaurants in the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago. We found one special Italian cafe near our hospital, Nonna Silvia’s, that we made our base camp. Luca Brasi was our personal waiter. Seriously, I kept looking for Don Corleone but we did find some serious veal.

Chicago was, say it in Mafia accent, “unbelievable”, but the high point was the summer Brue and I tag-teamed a hospital in Butte, Montana. Brue and I were both fly fishing aficionados, and so after work each day, we would head to the nearest river to “match the hatch”. Brue also had done some research and found a phenomena known as “supper clubs” that were in these mining towns. The most notable was the famous Anaconda Mine which had, by reputation, the best supper club in the territory.

Brue also was witness to my dust up with a young Native American man who charged at me unexpectedly, with wild eyes and no shirt, claiming I was blocking his view of the sunset. The kid was obviously tripping and rather than call the police, I tried with my Grady Hospital-St. Luke’s mojo to talk him down. This all happened in an drug store parking lot, and honestly scared me to death…..but I wasn’t going to let him smell fear on me, recalling the clinical protocol of Jimmy Buffett and the drunk bear. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I was able to get him to let us take him to his home, which was a lesson in and of itself for Brue and me.

I tell you all this to give you a sense of my deep connection to Brue. He was a brother, as we worked closely together trying to transform troubled hospitals. But it went beyond that. Being on the road is like being in a band on tour. You do everything together, performing, eating, travelling, relaxing. Yeah, Brue was my brother.

Brue had served as a medic in Viet Nam. He had a kind of practical wisdom that came from having to get it done in a second, under pressure, where lives hang in the balance.

Brue moved slow, but was steady. He even spoke slowly, his words well-chosen. After awhile, I learned to watch his face, observing the color redden, but he would never lose his temper when people didn’t get it. He was patient, until he wasn’t. I often described him to others as having a kind of Andy Griffith, Mayberry sheriff-feel, wise but with a country drawl, just to throw you off scent of just how smart he was.

There was a quiet confidence in Brue that my rabbi teacher, Edwin Friedman called non-anxious presence. It simply means that you don’t let the hysteria of all those people around you going crazy in a crisis catch you up in it. You stay calm and collected, like you got Katy Winter’s Secret on (an old pop culture reference). You are like Fonzy,,,and what is Fonzy like according to the guys in Pulp Fiction? No, not a Hawaian Burger….but cool! Brue was cool in a crisis moment….which a valuable thing in a urgent moment when everyone else is losing their stuff. I imagine Brue might have learned something about non-anxious presence in a Huey helicopter dropping down in combat in Nam. Just a hunch.

Brue and I worked at a hospital in Lexington, North Carolina. He was there “in country” for a couple of weeks before I could arrive. He had done copious and thorough research in the celebrated Lexington-style barbecue of which I was unaware.

I almost said “look it up” but how unhip is that? Google it. It’s a style of North Carolina barbecue sauce that is “red”, produced by tomatoes and vinegar, and red pepper flakes, and is applied to the famous pork shoulder of the hog. It is also inexplicably applied to a slaw that did not pass my grandmother’s test, but it is all a matter of taste…..or life and death, depending on where and when you are talking. Brue gave me literally the “cook’s tour” of the area, having personally gotten to know the various pitmasters. It was most cool.

So, I guess by now, if you are still reading this free-association on Brue, that you know how much he meant to me. In fact, I loved the guy.

And as you are coming to the recognition of how much I enjoyed him, respected him, loved him, I am coming to the realization that I am using this time to begin my grief work on losing this good friend.

It’s hard to lose family members because they are genetically, historically linked to your sorry ass, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it, as my old uncle Mac would say. You are stuck, like it or not.

But there’s another family, the family that you choose.

In my experience, it sort of evolves. You don’t know how close a certain person will turn out to be. You begin in some sort of association with that person, maybe through work, or school, or neighborhood, or activity. But then, the relationship deepens due to shared values, experiences, especially crises…..especially crises. You start to weave deeper bonds with those particular and peculiar folks, and you not always sure why.

And other associates, not so much. Again, you may not know why, although many times it’s painfully obvious. Those people remain acquaintances, but they don’t linger on your mind, unless they are particularly heinous. There’s one staff member I remember, and one consultant, but let’s not go there.

But these chosen family members, the family you choose, not dealt by the cosmic lottery….they are special. That’s what Brue was. These folks are gifts along the journey. If you are wise, you notice them in the moment, not just in some blog retrospective. You recognize them, you value them. Brue was one of those.

As you get older, those special “chosen” family member will slip away. My academic advisor died a few years back. My clinical supervisor has left the building as well. You just can’t replace those persons in your life as they served specific, formative roles. I call them up in my memory, and on rare occasions they might grace me in a dream.

Most of my companions, my chosen family, are still around. I call them to check in, see what’s shaking. Wendell, Lee, Keith, Nancy, Mark to name but a few. But they too will slip away, if I don’t beat them to the punch.

Having served as a priest in a number of congregations, the numbers of the chosen family members tend to increase natively, but not always.

Brue’s death reminds me of why I value these special people in my life. And while I am even in the act of grieving, it reminds me to pay better attention to those folks who have graced my being with their presence.

My grandmother used to sing the old hymn, Count Your Blessings, and the verse admonished or advised, “name them one by one”. Might be time to do that with my chosen friends. How about for you?

Brue Chandler, good friend and colleague and fellow adventurer….brave journey. Blessed be his memory.

Wedding Bells or Ding-a-lings

Seems like everyone is getting married.

There’s been a log jam created by the disaster of 2020, now cramming into the normal rush to the altar.

I hear from my high school friend, Julie Stevens, that her amazing wedding venue, Kimball Hall in Roswell, Georgia, is in full-tilt boogie mode, which is how she likes it. It’s a fabulous setting in the north side of Atlanta, and there is no better caring and enthusiastic wedding planner than my Julie. Truth is, I have killed and buried three wedding planners underneath the Cathedral….but let’s keep that quiet.

All these weddings got me thinking about that social event that surrounds the basic thing called the “blessing of a marriage”. I thought I might take a break from my hard work of saving this Republic and have some fun reminiscing about my vagaries of weddings in my wide, wide world of marriage sports.

Let me establish my credentials. As the former Canon Pastor at the Cathedral in Atlanta, I have officiated at more than my fair share of marriages. We did three weddings every weekend at the Cathedral: Noon, 4 PM, or as I referred to it as a “Matinee”, and the Evening soiree at 7:30 or 8 PM. I was shocked that the old priests, like me now, were so “kind” as to pass on the weddings to me. It meant I often had three rehearsals on Friday night, and a string of nuptial events on Saturday. In my six years there, I did more weddings in that period than most priests do in a lifetime. Lucky me.

Sheer numbers of weddings will produce an increasing number of possibilities for the unusual. And I feel like I have had my fair share. Here are just a few that POP:

A mother of the groom is dressed in black garb that resembles an Amish outfit, ringing a large brass bell, outside the church as members gather, proclaiming a doomed marriage.

Aunt Bessie in the Cathedral pulpit, armed with new Sony video camera, meticulously recording and accounting for each person in attendance seated on the pews. I had to remove her to start the ceremony. I threw her out like the umps removed the argumentative Bobby Cox, God bless him…not Bessie.

The maid of honor was murdered in her hotel room at the Doubletree Hotel on Saturday morning. When I informed the bride of the death, I thought she might call the wedding off. Bad call, Canon Galloway. Without missing a beat, the bride said, “Melanie can fill in”. The wedding went on as planned, with the “fake news” that the missing murdered maid (alliteration rules with 3m’s) was merely missing with malady (three more). I had the additional job of informing the wedding party of the real facts at the Piedmont Driving Club, including the girl’s date.

I did many celebrity weddings but none as fancy as a famous ABC persona whose daughter was married at a white-tie affair at the Cathedral. Barbara Walters, Hugh Downs, and my favorite, Howard Cosell, were all in attendance. I tried to put some reality to the moment by using a stand-by line: “I wish I could wave my arms in a magical incantation, blessing you, and sending you off into the setting western sunset in a horse-drawn carriage, where you will live happily ever after.” Damned if there was not a team of white horses and white carriage out front of the Cathedral horseshoe drive to whisk the charmed couple down Peachtree Street to their reception. At the reception, Barbara made note of how smoothly I had woven in the horse and carriage into my remarks. I could not help but ask if she knew of any sit coms for a priest in the works.

I did a gorgeous wedding, returning to the Cathedral for a special bride and groom. Their wedding was covered by Southern Living and so there I am in the folds of this favorite journal of my mother. I only wish she could have seen it.

A physician and therapy nurse were getting married and wanted their therapy dog, a Bernese Mountain dog, to be in their wedding. Ever wanting to please, I allowed the dog to process down the aisle to stand by her master, the Best Dog. To my surprise, the dog paused and knelt as she came to the middle of the crossing in front of the altar. Talk about being upstaged. Letterman’s stupid pet tricks could never top that. But, I paid dearly with the Altar Guild who were incensed that I would allow a canine to enter the Holy Space. I retorted, I let in wedding planners! I will let you do the verbal math.

I’ve done a number of wedding in exotic settings. Recently, I did something I swore I would not do: officiating at my daughter’s wedding. It was on the marshes of Glynn, here on St. Simons Island. It was mid-Covid, so it was just immediate family with a drone from Iraq dive-bombing the event. Reagan, my Black Lab grand dog served as Best Dog, but no bowing, or even a nod. I did catch a lick, if I am not mistaken.

I did several weddings in one of my favorite spots, the old Dekalb County Courthouse. As I had worked for an attorney next door while in college, it has a certain mystique. I once did a wedding of a well-known rap artist who wanted his bride and him to “jump the broom”, an old West African slave tradition, which was most auspicious and fun.

I officiated at a wedding in a back yard in Sandy Springs, where the bride was of an Episcopal/Roman family, and the groom was Jewish. I consulted with my friend, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, who helped me with some of the ritual aspects of the Jewish rite. I got to put the glass down for the groom’s STOMP and had the privilege of offering the wonderful blessing of Mazel Tov. Not bad for a reconstructed South of God guy from the Southside. Mazel, indeed.

Most of the weddings went off without a hitch, with the wedding contract dutifully signed by the bride, groom, me, and then sent to some gray filling cabinet in a county office. The weddings for family, friends, special acolytes of mine who grew up, all are special in my mind and memory. And there was ONE special wedding that I helped to derail when it was obvious to me it would be a disastrous end. It something I am actually quite proud of.

Of course, you want to ask me “what was the worst wedding ever?” And it would be my own. It was packed with Atlanta physicians and Delta employees, and the people and youth of Decatur First Baptist where I had served as an associate minister before beginning my doctoral work. The officiant was my former boss, “roommate”, and friend, Dr. Bill Lancaster. I was surrounded by my friends and fraternity brothers as groomsmen, my dad as my Best Man, no doubt. My high school best friend, Paul McCommon, sang the Ave Maria in the Baptist church with his gorgeous tenor voice. That part, the marriage ceremony went fine, but it was the wedding that was seriously lacking.

The wedding was THE worst. The reception was in the ubiquitous Fellowship Hall found in all Baptist churches. We could not get the Druid Hills Country Club as it was booked. And so there was no champagne, wine, liquor, not even my Southside go-to Boones Farm. No, Baptist punch. And no band. I had contacted James Brown, as I am still digging on him. And my buddy Elgin Wells and Extravaganza was booked, so no band with which to get down. Rather, I wound in a receiving line, the ONE thing I swore I would NOT do. My dad quipped, this is to get you ready for marriage and a family. Jesus, what a comedian.

To top it off, I had the photographer from HELL! He allowed, while taking my family pictures before the wedding, that he was called by God into this ministry. With my mother, dad, and brother in full pose, I asked him how he knew. Did the Lord drop an Nikon on your shoulder? Actually, I used another part of his anatomy. He was not amused.

The photographer was a Nazi, ordering folks around like a prison camp commandant, taking picture after picture, following the ceremony, holding us up from my beloved reception line. As we were trying to get the hell out of Dodge to our honeymoon, he kept “getting one last shot”. My favorite picture is of my forearm-lifting God’s photographer into the ceiling as we made our escape in my betrothed’s classic white Malibu….the Boo, as my decorated Jeep sat patiently to the side.

It is my experience that weddings, like funerals, bring out the best and the worst in families. I once opined at a Marriage and Family conference that a wedding was like a funeral, in that, something was dying, that is. the family of origin. Things will never be like they were before. The family, as it was, is ending. That is why people cry at weddings. Not just out of happiness, but because they recognize at a deep level, there is a death. Hopefully, the birth of something new is happening as well, which also brings tears. The profundity of the moment breaks through the cellophane pink surface of a social event to make known that something significant is happening. Reality breaks through.

I’ll close my Southern hero, Will Campbell, who would do weddings in a prophetic style. He would take the wedding license, in triplicate, from his coat pocket, look long and hard at the document, in a conspicuous way. Then, he would take his pen, sign the license, hold it up in the air, let it go, allowing the paper to flutter unceremoniously to the ground, or floor. Then he would utter in a somber tone, “Render under Caesar what is Caesar, but unto God what it God’s!” As the document lay lifeless, he would break into his Southern mountain twang, “Now that we’ve taken care of that, let’s get on with the marriage!” An old minister/priest can get by with that sort of thing.

So those are the weddings I remember. I hope it has prompted your memory, and perhaps your sentiment. Blessings.

Galloway: A 4th of July Legend

Every 4th of July, I can’t help but think “Galloway”.

Originally, it was Jeff, that I met years ago who began the fledgling Peachtree Road Race. He talked me into running in it in a moment of weakness. Then, it became a habit, until it was NOT.

Jeff is the owner of Phidippides, a running shoe store tradition in Atlanta. He recently suffered a heart attack, but after tending to it, he was back to run in this year’s race. Jeff is indeed a legend.

But my thoughts these days turn to another Galloway, Elliott, Jeff’s father. Elliot Galloway is a legend in education in Atlanta.

Elliott had grown up in Moultrie, Georgia. After military service in the Navy, and education at Wake Forest, he returned to Georgia, to work as a principal at Westminster School. then moving on as Headmaster at the fledgling Holy Innocents Episcopal School. He brought with him a philosophy which was child-centered, focusing on the needs and specific challenges of each student. This brought him into conflict with the board, and resulted in his being fired by Holy Innocents.

Taking this setback in stride, he went on to found the Galloway School, funding the renovation of a former building used for housing the poor. The benefactors were parents from Westminster and Holy Innocents who saw great value in his educational approach. The Galloway School has grown into one of the premier private schools in Atlanta with a special mission to bring out the particular and peculiar gifts of each individual student.

I had met Elliot years ago, and we kidded each other about our “Galloway” Scots connection. I always claimed him as a relative if you owed him money, and he said he did the same. But when I became Rector of Holy Innocents, and thus the Chairman of the Board of the largest parish-based Episcopal school in the United States, we now had a new connection.

As I was intent on improving the quality and spirit of the education at Holy Innocents School, I was natively drawn to engage Elliot not only in his history as a former headmaster, but also his educational philosophy. I came away with a clarity as to the fact that Elliot “imprinted” his DNA of child-centered education on the Holy Innocents School. And I was most thankful for that, as my two kids attended that school. It served us well.

As a part of our attempt to “up the voltage” of the Holy Innocents School, we wanted to insure that we kept that original spirit, that Galloway DNA. Our translation of that came to be expressed as “balanced excellence” which emphasized the three aspects of education: academics, arts, and athletics. Where as some of the other top-tier prep schools focused on one or two, we wanted to “do it all”, in a way of best serving our students and their future. We also included “a caring community”, but since it did not start with an “A”, it was kept as the base for the three in our rebranding.

Truth is, Holy Innocents Episcopal School was the gift of this time in my career as a priest. The outstanding, committed, passionate teachers gave sacrificially in their work with the children. The parents, although sometimes misguided and self-centered, were “all in” for their children, and invested heavily in money and time to provide this special style of education. And the members of my board were a challenge and a pleasure to work with in forming a vision for the future. The kids were so much fun to be with, from the young children, whose imagination and playfulness was still in full-tilt boogie mode, to the teenagers struggling with identity and self-differentiation from their parental units, and young adults weighing their alternatives of careers and college selection. To have my worked framed in the mix of this crucible of development was a dream come true. I loved Holy Innocents School and am proud of what we did in my tenure.

At one point in my career at Holy Innocents, we had made a number of changes to improve the culture at the school, one of which involved redirecting the career of the headmaster. At a going away party for the former Head, a couple of parents, who were not happy with the changes, took the opportunity to confront me, opining that I was “the worst thing that ever happened to their school”. I listened patiently as I received a two-barrel assault on my leadership.

As I recall, my mother’s reputation was actually called into question. I had been trained in “non-anxious presence” by Rabbi Edwin Friedman but my patience was wearing thin after their ten minute diatribe. In my peripheral vision, I caught a glimpse of a figure standing to my right. It was Elliott Galloway.

He waited until the couple, a lovely Christian couple, had finished their barrage. As I stood there, beaten and battered, Elliott came to my side, put his arm around me, and said, “Folks lose their minds when they are thinking about their children.” I smiled. I had learned that long ago, and now as a parent, I understood it even better. But his words, and his touch, communicated much more: I was not alone.

It began a deep collegiality that lasted for a number of years. In fact, I was able to get him a position on the Holy Innocents Board of Trustees, which was a recognition of his significant contribution to our school, which seemed to please him. He stands for me as a reminder of the courage it takes to be a real leader, the cost to live out of a passion that may not be understood, or appreciated.

In 2008, shortly after I left Holy Innocents, Elliott was attempting to run in his 35th Peachtree Road Race, the national event begun by his son. He wasn’t feeling well, so he stopped halfway through, something he had never done before. After resting at home, he was feeling better so he decided to complete the mileage left on his own. He chose a path that put him on an uphill grade, just for good measure. During that last run, he tripped and fell, hitting his head, causing an injury that ended his life. He was 87 years of age, saying he hoped to run until he was 90. And he also said in an interview that he “hoped he would “go” running up a hill.” He got his wish.

It was a sad day for Atlanta, particularly for this Atlantan who considered him as a mentor, a colleague, and a friend.

So on the 4th of July, I have many thoughts and memories that come to mind. I usually take the time to read the Declaration of Independence, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which always moves me, and restores my hope for this experiment in democracy. But especially, I remember my friend Elliott Galloway, who embodied a spirit of compassionate education tempered by a resilient courage. Thanks for the embrace, my friend. You still touch me, my brother, and inspire.

You Can’t Handle the Truth…or Can You?

I came across an article that was tracing the history of the Southern “lost cause” mythology. Having grown up in the shadow of Stone Mountain, the granite monolith which was the stone canvas for a tribute to Southern ancestors, the myth was literally a part of my landscape growing up.

There was a sentence in the article that prompted my memory, recalling Monticello, where I once took a private tour of Jefferson’s home during a break at a Pew Board meeting in Charlottesville. I was accompanied by the legendary civil rights crusader from, of all places, Mississippi, former Governor William Winter.

The sentence was uttered by a tour guide as he noted a present that Thomas Jefferson, a sainted figure in my pantheon of American patriots, gave to his children. The “present” was none other than human beings, who were slaves in his estate. The words shook me to my core. Imagine….giving a gift of another human being. Pause. Ponder.

It begged a deeper question. How could good, God-fearing people who claimed to follow Jesus Christ, in a myriad of expressions in the Southland, including the peculiar take of Jefferson, justify the slavery that they employed in the early days of this country? How does that work? What mental gymnastics must one perform to self-justify such an action?

Looking back from this historical vantage point, I have heard friends of mine express a rationalization that slavery “it wasn’t all that bad”. Others have claimed it was “good for them” as they were uncivilized heathens that were incapable of living on their own. Therefore, according to this person, it was our Christian duty to keep them safe and bounded in the safety of slavery.

I must admit that it was difficult to not break into laughter as I heard this reasoning offered, straight-faced, as if it was SO obvious, as to be silly to ponder anything otherwise. My sadness was the only thing that helped me exercise restraint.

As a native Southerner, I grew up going to the Cyclorama, a gigantic painting and diorama of the Battle of Atlanta, as the Southern soldiers were regarded as heroes as they defended their homeland valiantly against Northern invaders. William Tecumseh Sherman, who burned Atlanta on his march to the sea, perhaps saving Lincoln’s tenuous Presidency reelection, was cursed among many in my circles, or just not mentioned in the more polite company I maintained. I actually knew people who would not carry a five dollar bill in their wallet due to Lincoln’s picture on it. I happily relieved them on their burden in golf matches.

As a young boy, I remember seeing a slogan, “The South Will Rise Again” plastered over all kinds of things. “Hell No, I Won’t Forget” seemed comical to me, but with a twinge of sadness that goes with losing, which we reluctantly admit, a predecessor of the Big Lie.

In college, I took a history course from the noted Civil War historian, Bell Wiley, who wrote the classics, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank, chronicling the actual “down and dirty” life of the soldier. Truthfully, I was not interested in the Civil War, but it was legend that Wiley had the stroke to get one into the University of Virginia Law School, a lofty goal. The proviso was that one had to “ace” his course to get his recommendation. So, I set out to do just that, leading the class in my reading of outside texts in my obsessive quest to get not only an “A” but, as we would joke with gallows humor, the “high A”.

I did well, resulting in the accompanying legendary personal note that Wiley would write to the parents of the golden student, heralding the brilliance of their progeny…a very Southern-style “thank you” note for the privilege of teaching your child. It played well with the home folks. But it also resulted in a phone call inviting me to a meeting of the Atlanta Civil War Roundtable, which, at the time, was a small collection of Civil War aficionados including Atlanta luminaries Franklin Garrett and Bev Dubose, along with Professor Wiley. It was heady company. And I returned to the group years later when I returned from Texas, the Roundtable now able to fill up a ball room at the monthly meetings. They even allowed…dare I say it…Yankees!

Wiley’s course did introduce me to the history of the military actions in the Civil War, but I was natively more interested in the political realities in the South and Lincoln’s presidency, notably his fight for reelection in the fury of a civil rebellion, specifically in his drive for the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery. My interest in the war ebbed and flowed in the years to come, although I always took time to tour battlefields when I travelled to see the actual landscape on which the epic battles were fought. Imagine how my kids enjoyed that. Right.

But underneath all of this was a nagging question: How could a Christian person justify the slavery of another person? It just didn’t make sense to me, and it still doesn’t.

Somewhere along the way, I got clear. Perhaps it was the genius of James Carville’s admonishment, “It’s the economy, stupid!” that finally made sense out of this chapter in American history. Follow the money. Slavery was behind the economics driving the South, and the North. The economy of the South was embedded in agricultural crops, cotton and rice, that were labor intensive. Cheap labor comes no cheaper than slave labor. So that provided the rationale for this evil arrangement.

As America’s better angels began to prompt a lagging conscience, people in the country, both in the North and South, began to question the ethics of the matter, most times basing the critique in biblical principles, but also recalling founding principles of the republic, such as equality. Abolitionists began the call to live up to the principles on which our country was founded, connected to the deeper biblical admonitions and commandments. And yet, as not uncommon, economics trumped ethics.

Slavery is the original sin of our country. We began with a Constitution that was purposefully ambiguous in its treatment of slavery. Politically, the issue was avoided in order to get ratification from the Southern states, a Faustian deal with the devil. It prompted foreign critics to point out the hypocrisy of heralding this “land of freedom” which allowed for slavery to remain, with impetus present for expansion.

We continue to struggle with this reality. Our teaching of history has tended to soft-sell this reality, including the failure of Reconstruction, the practice of Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation, and the bloody struggle of civil rights to assert the right of blacks to vote and other equal rights. At it’s heart, it is the assertion of a white supremacy that must be used to justify unequal treatment of others. And, underneath, there lies a deep fear of losing a privilege that one must maintain.

Changes in demographics, whether it’s the Irish immigrants early in the 20th century, or the growing numbers of people of color today, it’s always been fear bubbling below. And, politicians have used that fear to manipulate folk to turn on others as the enemy, duped into believing their huckster slogans. We are an easy target for these con men who will push us to sell our souls, as they smile toothy grins at our gullibility.

Critical Race Theory pushes a more adequate telling of this story. Some say it is pushing a radical agenda, painting our country in racist hues that they feel is unfair. It has become a “straw man” along with Mr. Potato Head, and Sleeping Beauty, to allow reactionary comments to emerge in order to stir up emotions. Truth is, we need to tell the truth and face the reality of the role of slavery in this country, as well as the white supremacist intentions that have been behind the bias of structures in our country.

Thankfully, we have made tremendous progress in this country as we try to live up to the principles of our Constitution as to the extension in terms of “who counts” in our country. Blacks, women, homosexuals have all had to fight for their right to count. Because of their pushing, we have slowly moved to improve the nature of our union. Though if you look carefully, we don’t like their “pushing”, calling them “troublemakers”. I remember hearing a family member make that remark upon hearing of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr.. He was just a troublemaker who deserved what he got. You may recoil at such callousness, but pause and look deeply into some of the things you say about folks pushing an equal rights agenda.

The truth and American principles threaten some. They are trying to deny the reality of demographics as they chant “replacement” lines in their white supremacist rallies. I remember the chills of watching and listening to the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, with their tiki torches and preppie uniforms, resurrecting the white supremacy of the Jim Crow era in this country, a sentiment that had gone underground until promoted by hate mongers who gin up anger, and then have the temerity to pronounce that these were “good people”.

We have come a long way, and we can be proud of that. But, we don’t have to deny the history of our past streams of racism and white supremacy. Like any addiction, the road to recovery begins with admitting we have a problem, something that needs addressing.

Demonizing Critical Race Theory is just another way to deny our clear history of racism in this country. We need the Truth…..but some folks seem to be unable to handle the Truth. That’s why it has always required people who push the envelope, “make good trouble” as my hero and Congressman John Lewis courageously said. We can not fail to continue the development of justice for all, ALL, in this country. We must continue to push, and “make good trouble”.

A Fish Tale: A Freight Train, Bourbon Street, A Drug Runner, A Bouncer, and A Leopard

I have lived my life by way of stories.

It comes with the territory of being a preacher. I have carefully written down, chronicled, recorded many of my stories in my blog, South of God, writing down experiences in my life. And, I have attempted to make sense of life through these stories, as I author my own,

I have also collected stories of others, filing them away in my mind, computer, and manila folders. I have a particular affinity for Sufi stories that literally seem to dance. And some of the Hasidic stories I got from Rabbi Abraham Heschel are particularly poignant. But a lot of stories come from simply listening and paying attention to the stories folks tell. I used to love sitting with old men and women, as they shared their stories. Now, I R one.

My friend, John Claypool, who was recognized as one of the great preachers of a generation, once told me of going to a church while on vacation. John was a bit surprised to hear the preacher trot out one of his stories with not so much as a head fake, acknowledging the source. As John left the service at the conclusion, the preacher thanked him for the story, adding, “When I buy someone’s book, I feel like I own the stories they share. They are mine.” Brass.

John shared the story with me over a glass of wine, with a smile on his face. My academic self-righteousness must have been showing, thinking it was the unforgiveable sin of the academy: plagiarism. As my elder brother in the art of preaching, John responded with a wisdom I had not yet attained: “David, we’re all just passing the biscuits.” What a perfect way to put it. God, I miss my elder brother.

My daughter gifted me a year ago with a birthday present that sends you a prompting question for you to reflect on your life and the stories you have both heard and made. This week, the question was asking what was my favorite story. I have many, including a fateful trip to New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl that had the Dooley Dogs tangling with the Irish from Notre Dame, bringing together two mammoth fan bases for the tilt. At a New Year’s party, I convinced my brother to hop a Delta jet, (thanks Dad!) in order to chase down a girl I was dating. I found her on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse….and she became my wife.

There is the story of the two leopards on the beach on Cumberland Island. And there’s the hopping a freight train at the Emory campus, hoping it might be going to Athens. It didn’t……but almost landed my ass in jail. There’s my time as a bouncer at a hot club at the Prado. And of course, the plane flight over the island of Eleuthera, piloted by the leading drug runner in the Caribbean, winding up being questioned by a banana republic police captain. almost ending the careers of a future doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, a business man, and a priest. As Buffett says, ah, the stories we could tell.

My favorite story is paradigmatic to my approach to life. My grandfather took me fishing with “the boys”, the members of the Friendship Class, the old men’s class at Oakland City Baptist Church. It was a rite of passage, a Baptist bar mitzvah, as a sign of becoming a man, though I was probably pushing seven.

We were at Dr. McCartney’s lake, a friend of my granddad who had a farm/ranch in West Georgia. His pond, referred to as a tank in Texas, was not big and provided relief from the hot Georgia sun for his cattle, which could make for some interesting fishing.

My grandfather had provided me a Zebco rod and reel. His one goal for the day was for me to catch my FIRST fish. He wanted to share his love of fishing, of being in nature, and he hoped to witness my initiation in the club. We fished from a boat in the deeper part of the lake where the cows would not go. We fished from a jon boat in the middle of lake. We fished from the bank of the dam, usually highly productive. No luck. The fish were not biting.

As the day wore on, my grandfather looked concerned. Finally we moved on the bank with a slight grade, where the cattle could easily enter their watery relief, their bovine spa . After many casts, and my grandfather exhorting me to hold my mouth “just right”, my red and white bobber suddenly went down, signaling a fish had taken my bait. He cried out, “Reel ‘er in boy!”

I laid back on the Zebco and reeled as fast as I could. My pole bent with the weight and force of the fish, my Zebco reel screaming resistance. The large bass, the delicious kind that Napoleon Dynamite would cook for his girl, broke the surface of the water, shaking his head from side to side, as if to say, “No you don’t, little man.”

But I kept at it, reeling him closer and closer to shore. Finally, I saw his silver skin beneath the water, darting here, then there, reflecting the lowering sun’s rays.. I had him….or at least I thought I did.

As I got the fish to the bank, his belly slid on the red Georgia clay of that pond, which caused just enough friction to cause a pause, releasing the critical tension, allowing the hook to come out of its precarious place on his lip. He was free from the pull of my desire. Free, and yet he did not yet realize it.

This is part of what theologian Paul Tillich meant, when he waxed about the Eternal Now, the invasive present moment of eternity invading into our lives. I have framed that moment in my mind, both my sense of pause, and the fish’s ignorance of his own freedom.

In the moment, out of my peripheral vision, I saw a flash of movement from my right. It was my grandfather choosing to dive into the water, wanting to save my first fish for me. I remember the explosion of the water as he hit, and my surprise accompanied by my native child laugh, the kind of laugh you offer before you are taught better. “Unbridled” is a favorite descriptor of mine, and could be used at this Now moment.

There he was sitting in the water of the lake, droplets pouring off his bald head as his straw hat floated on the water.

Now, when I was preaching, I would tell this story and refuse to tell the end of the story. Did he get it? And I would respond,”That is not the point.” My point, and what I carried away from that moment was that he wanted something so badly, he was willing to dive in, to give his all, put it all out there, 110%…I’ve heard it expressed in a variety of ways. Now that I am his age, I now know just how big a risk that was….life and limb. But he jumped in.

And I took it as my special experiential gift from my beloved grandfather, Glen Pollard, a retired Atlanta policeman. That’s how he was. That moment held the essence of who he was as a person. And, by God, that is how I wanted to be. Just like my hero, my private John Wayne, with a heart of gold. And as Merle Haggard nailed it, I tried.

And by the way, the fish was delicious.

Where You Step, You Stand….

As I have said in the past, I found myself finishing college, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life.

I had purposefully tried on a lot of hats in my life. I had worked for a former Congressman in a law office. I worked in the pro shop at a golf course. I did a summer working for the city manager. And worked in an emergency room of a hospital. I had worked in a local church as the youth minister. And as I mentioned recently, I worked as a glorified bouncer/host at a hot night club. Doctor, lawyer, tribal chief.

Jethro Bodine, the cousin on the Beverly Hillbillies, once confessed a similar confusion to his oil-rich Uncle Jed, “I don’t know if I want to be a brain surgeon or a soda-jerk!” I reluctantly identified with that goof.

I had strategically planned my variety of experiences with the hope of clarification. All that left me thinking about a bunch of options, but no clear path. In fact, my curiosity widened the road I was looking down.

So I finished college early and had some time on my hands. I thought of the “gap year” before it had really been invented. I had been thinking about medicine or ministry, so I begged my way into a chaplaincy program at Georgia Baptist Hospital. All of the students were either in seminary or were already graduated and serving in churches. I here I come, twenty years of age, baby-faced, a college-educated “Jethro”, entering into a three month clinical training program. What could go wrong?

I could write a book about what could go wrong, including me trying to be of spiritual counsel to folks in crisis. I talked to a guy who was twice my age now the night before a surgery that could end his life. I talked to a young man who had an accident that put him in a cranial halo, where he would never walk again. I sat with a young husband you lost his wife and unborn child in a car accident. I met with a family whose mother died suddenly with a heart attack. And that was just the first day…..of course, I am exaggerating….it was my first week. Gallows humor reigns supreme in trauma wards.

Those stories are for another time. I want to tell you a lesson I learned from my clinical supervisor, a lesson I have cherished throughout my life. It’s a lesson I shared with a person that I coach who is looking to change his life’s work in the near future. It was the best I had to offer in the moment. And I hope it might be helpful to you.

My supervisor was from Memphis, and had a kind of country accent I had not heard before, though I knew a bunch of folks from Memphis, and the girl I had been dating was from there. He actually sounded like he had just been dropped off a farm truck in front of the hospital, and seemed to be rather proud of his home-grown sense, almost like he was playing up a Mark Twain persona.

Now, you have to have some sympathy for him, because he had the youngest clinical training student in the history of the planet, not to mention Georgia Baptist. He was trying to help me learn to be of value as I put on this role of chaplain, knowing that I didn’t know nothing about chaplaining! A crash course is not hurting the patients I encountered was in order. So he was teaching me not only clinical material on depression, and grief, and trauma, and anxiety, but also the basic stuff of being a human being.

I actually forget the context of this most important piece of wisdom that he passed on to me. I must have done something stupid, but his point was much more basic. And here it is:

“Galloway, you have to be smart like the cattle farmer who goes walking in the pasture. You have to remember: where you step, you stand.”

Moments of wisdom in a clinical setting do not need to be explained. Like a good joke, if you have to explain it….it ain’t that good.

I had been with my grandfather on his farm in West Georgia where there were cows. I had gone fishing with him at the lake at Dr. McCartney’s where his cows left piles of manure, affectionately known as cow patties, strewn indiscriminately in the field. You had to be careful walking, looking where you were going, otherwise you might step into a pile. I got it.

His lesson went far beyond the pasture. It extended its relevance into my relationships, into my friendships, into all areas of my life, including my choice of vocation. Where you step, you stand!

There are consequences to your decisions.

I recently had a discussion with a person who means a great deal to me. She has been struggling with the reality of a decision that she made, and the tight space she finds herself in.

It reminded me of my basic premise of human existence. We are decision makers. Deciding comes with the territory of being a human being.

Deciding means making a choice. Choice tends to be around how we spend out time, our energy, and our resources. Those decisions have consequences in the now, in the near future, and in the long-term.

Another piece of wisdom came from my colleague, Mike Murray, who drove home the point one day by reminding me that “decide” comes from the root “cide”, which means “kill”. Herbicide, insecticide, suicide, and homicide is about killing off something. Mike made his point sharply by emphasizing when we de-cide, we are killing ideas and future options. When we face the field of life, we have options in front of us, but must decide which ones to act upon, and which ones to set aside….”kill”.

I write this as a reminder of the weight of our human responsibility of choosing. Where you step, you stand.

As an old black preacher once admonished me:: Bear this in mind.

Sure enough. Blessings.

Change….What Are You Going to Do?

The only constant in life is change.

I once found that statement to be an interesting and clever conclusion about the experience of life. The irony is apparent, even for those who find irony daunting.

My mother was fond of saying, “Nobody likes change. Not even a baby with dirty diapers.” That saying captures the sense of humor of my Scots McBrayer heritage. One hears these words, pauses to smile slightly at the clever insight, but then furrows the brow considering the deeper truth. That was my mother, my grandmother, and I presume, my great grandfather, John Columbus McBrayer.

There is often nothing funny about change, so irony seems to be a prudent approach to the beast.

I remember shepherding a major change in my high school, as we were forced to monitor the bathrooms as the smokers were bullying the underclassmen. Mr. McBrayer, the principal, no direct relation, was wise enough to let me carry the water of making the student council’s decision known to the student body. I recall making that announcement at the occasion of the infamous gathering known as a high school assembly, and getting into a shouting match with those who felt it was assaulting their freedom to bully, an adolescent “Don’t Tread On Me”. Luckily, some of the larger football players had my back, and quelled the uprising.

In college, my group of officers in the fraternity decided to do away with monetary fines for missing work parties. We thought it would be better to inspire people to show up voluntarily to keep the house clean rather than rule by punitive order. I was thrilled that my group of leaders were willing to try something new, and not surprised when the more structure-loving members felt like it was the first step on the “slippery slope”(their words) to freedom, resulting in anarchy. But even the more loose folks wondered at the wisdom of the change. I learned a lot about leadership being the leader of a fraternity my junior year, but obviously, not enough. I kept doing it.

The paradigmatic moment in thinking about change took place for me with the major change we underwent at the Cathedral in Atlanta. The Dean, David Collins, had been in leadership for decades. The Cathedral parish had been “traditional” for years, although the influx of the Charismatic movement in the Episcopal Church, in which Collins was a major leader, created literally two different “congregations” under one roof. Collins large personality had been able to successfully sit on top of this pressure cooker for years, satisfying and modifying both factions adequately to maintain the church. But Collins retirement posed a huge dilemma for change in the future.

How could we find a new Dean that could continue this cooperative collaboration or stalemate?

Bishop Child, having formerly had my position of Canon Pastor of the Cathedral parish, approached the dilemma practically. He would appoint the “search committee” with an equal number of traditional and charismatic members. Makes sense, right?

The committee met, chaired by the President of Oglethorpe College, Manning Pattillo, who tried to conduct business as if it were an academic search. It was not.

They brought me on as a congregational consultant to conduct a congregational analysis of the parish, using the work of my teacher, James Hopewell. I conducted interviews, and ran a written survey of the leaders of the parish to discern their belief patterns. Hopewell was known and admired widely for his congregational belief survey that identified four types of beliefs: canonic, empiric, gnostic, and charismatic. If you are interested in digging into his theory and our consultative intervention methods, check out Congregations, by James Hopewell.

My study merely gave objective measurement to what most people intuitively knew. The Cathedral was composed of two congregations, one centered around a canonic center, focusing on following tradition,and one centered on a charismatic orientation, tending to the the present actions of the Spirit. I was so proud of my research, carrying my results to Hopewell himself, who was in the hospital at the time. He laughed at the results, recognizing the mess we had on our hands.

When I presented my findings to the search committee, they listened attentively, nodding their heads politely as Episcopalians tend to do. Dr. Pattillo thanked me for my work, in his halting, careful cadence of speech, with a modicum of enthusiasm, typical for the session.

The committee quickly “deep sixed” my report, burying it so no potential candidate would be hipped to the awaiting dysfunction for a new leader. Who in their right mind would want to come voluntarily into such a situation?

The committee continued in denial as to their deep differences, assuring one another as to their “unity” in Christ, that is, until the first vote on candidates. The predictable split emerged, and the committee members seemed surprised by the conflict. Meeting after meeting continued with no consensus. Finally in frustration, they went with a “lowest common denominator” candidate, a great guy and good priest, but a person who could not bring the two factions together. The result was a Cathedral parish that was split almost in two as a good number of the charismatic group found other communities to call home.

Could this have been avoided? Probably not. The split was built into the congregation’s constituency, by the accident of history and the personality of Dean Collins.

Could this major change have been worked through with more skillful means? There is no doubt in my mind.

As a result of the conflict between these two factions, prompted by the selection of the LCD (lowest common denominator) Dean, I signed on for some post doctoral studies with Daryl Conner, a change guru that had studied organizational development. Conner took the ground-breaking work of Kurt Lewin and offered a theoretical construct of “unfreezing” the status quo and moving intentionally into the dangerous land of change.

One of the most important insights Daryl shared with me was quite simple, but profound: Expect resistance.

When one is announcing change that could be seen as costly to certain constituencies, it is reasonable to anticipate some push back. But the surprise to me is that even when the change is perceived as overwhelmingly positive, one should expect resistance. This is because there is a disruption in what is considered “normal”, and people natively don’t like it. People prefer comfort. At least, most people.

So, Daryl drilled into my brain a reminder to “anticipate resistance”.

Better yet, expect it.

It has been a huge gift, this “great expectation” which prompts one to plan for change. Imagine that!

First, be careful as to how one communicates an upcoming change. So many tragic outcomes of change began with bad communication strategy, or actually, no communication at all. Bad communication betrays an assumption of command-control: you will do it because I SAY SO! Good luck with that.

Sometimes, it is born of an unconscious effort to avoid the anticipated pain of such a change. Just don’t mention it, and maybe they will not notice it. They will. The lesson here is to carefully (note the root “care”) plan your communication strategy when entering the choppy waters of change.

Second, follow the communication through the organization. After planning how the “message” is going to be cascaded down through the organization, check in to monitor if it, in fact, is making it to the people who need to hear it. Redundancy is not a bad thing when communicating in an organization, as opposed to what my English teacher taught me about writing.

Thirdly, anticipate resistance by setting up moments for that resistance to bubble up. This is counter-intuitive for most leaders as one is trained to spin things positively, avoid the negative. This was the most profound, yet difficult, insight for me to operationalize in practice. Encouraging the public expression of negative thoughts about my brilliant ideas seems stupid. But as Conner taught me, better to deal with negativity and resistance in the open than to allow it to go underground where it can poison the culture. A rather earthy image reminded me of this brilliant insight for leadership: Don’t encourage people pissing in your pool! Got it.

The three tips will not insure that your change will progress successfully, but the anticipation of resistance and careful planning make the chances of the accomplishment of the change objectives a better bet. Having led successful change, and doing post-mortems on my failed efforts, these three insights are worth paying attention to. Blessings.

Coaching…My Way of Giving Back

My long-time friends often have questions when they find out that I am spending so much of my time coaching. What exactly is coaching? Is it “life coaching” that I see advertised on social media? What is it that you coach?

Good questions.

Originally I coached clergy in their personal and professional development in their work in ministry. Over the last ten years, I have been working with leaders in healthcare as well, administrative and clinical, as they seek to become more effective in their leadership. Currently, I do both, as well as work with a few folks who are transitioning in their work life, some into new fields, and some into the world of retirement.

What is coaching?

My favorite image of coaching is that of “coming alongside” someone doing a specific piece of work, pausing for a moment of self-reflection on the past, focusing on self-awareness in the “now”, and then intentional planning for the future. The way I do it is somewhat a hybrid between consulting, which involves expertise, and therapy, which is about personal growth. Add “friend” to the equation, and the hybrid is complete.

My initial image of what it means to coach came naturally from high school, coaching from the sideline, reviewing films of past games, noting strengths and weaknesses in performance. It also involves planning the the upcoming game, both in terms of overall strategy and specific tactics. And then, standing on the sideline, bringing a somewhat objective eye on the game, adjusting to the moment, and encouraging full engagement play. The athletic coach analogy breaks down at points but gave me a workable image when I first started coaching clergy many years ago. John Wooden, the UCLA legend, was known for teaching his players to put their socks on properly, to avoid debilitating blisters. Phil Jackson, the Zen master, got into the heads of his players and created a “team” spirit that was truly collaborative. These, and others like Mac Brown were in my mind when I began this coaching thing.

When people ask why I enjoy coaching, I joke that I prefer sending in plays from the sideline, and not having to absorb the body hits that are a part of parish leadership. And that is no joke.

These days, I also spend a good bit of time working with executives and clinical leaders in healthcare, mostly around issues of leadership. While healthcare professionals are well-trained in the clinical moves, I have been surprised at their lack of training in organizational leadership. Most are trained in a command-control format, ordering change by memo. Most have learned that such a method is no longer fruitful, but don’t know what to put in its place.

I often think that I spend most of my time around making change happen on time and with the least amount of blood on the floor. I learned this method after studying change management with one of the change gurus who was leading the way in understanding that process. We were facing a profound change of leadership at the Cathedral in Atlanta and I intuitively sought out someone who had spent a good bit of time studying the process of change. Daryl Conner, who wrote the pioneering book, Leadership At The Speed of Change, still whispers insights to me about the process of unfreezing the status quo and provided a framework for my practice.

I started doing organization development coaching working with churches as they were trying to figure out how to grow. In the Diocese of Texas, we were particularly interested in growing our numbers, that is, the numbers of members. We framed this in terms of The Decade of Evangelism, which I found humorous in the Episcopal context, where we typically were not exactly enthusiastic about inviting others to join us in worship. Submit a financial report, a genealogical record, and academic transcript….and we’ll get back with you. My favorite cartoon at the time was a priest on an examination table, telling the attending physician, “Doc, I am not sure that I have a decade of evangelism in me!” Humor is funniest when close to the bone.

I found myself as a South of God refugee needing to reframe the marching orders of evangelism. I did that by reframing the charge as 3-Dimensional Growth, in three dimensions, or 3D, as I described it. The first dimension is in terms of increasing the number of members. This is how most people think about church growth, but I have expanded the meaning. The second dimension is “scope” in terms of the width of acceptance, that is, who counts and is included within the bounds of community. In my own Episcopal tradition, this has moved along racial and sexual lines, which proved to be a push for some of our members. The third dimension is also strong within the Episcopal tribe, that is, the dimension of “depth” as to their spiritual growth. The intent of church is to grow disciples, making them more transparent to the Christ that is within each person, an identity that goes with the territory of being human. We just need to discover our true nature…and the nature of all who share the planet.

These days, I find myself in the C suite, with administrative and clinical leaders trying to figure out these complex and fast times, especially in the wake of pandemic. I have particularly enjoyed helping leaders form teams of high functioning members. Casting a vision, setting realistic goals, and executing plans is the bread and butter of organizational leadership but the main work is finessing the hard work of transformation and change.

At the same time, I find that I am enjoying my work of coaching clergy more than ever. I have a number of young clergy, fresh out of the gate of seminary, hungry to learn how to be effective. Most times, these people are like me when I finished seminary, well-trained in the intellectual disciplines found in theological education, but little clue about how to lead and how to organize a group of people. My own hard-earned lessons and the organizational skills I have studied prove to be helpful in managing transitions that are the normal part of parish life.

As I mentioned earlier, the image that operates in my mind when coaching in that of “coming alongside” an “other” person. This “other” is not only trying to DO something, sometimes something very particular and peculiar to the time and place, but the person is also intending to BE someone, namely herself/himself. Both must be engaged or it is an incomplete act of coaching, in my book.

The “how to” is the actionable piece of the work, the technology of how to get something done. In my leadership model, The Leadership Wheel, the basic tension is the polarity between creating vision and getting it done. First, and primary, where is it are you intending to go? This is the visioning process, that is, the intentional direction that you are hoping to go, and as a leader, where you hope to lead your people. This process of casting a vision is critical part of leadership, whether you tend to work off building consensus or promoting your own vision of the future. There are many variations between those two extremes that can work, but the central notion if to get clear within your self as to how you are planning to work.

Of course, “context” may be the most important aspect of all in this first dimension. If there is an immediate, pressing climate, consensus building may take up too much time, time that you don’t have in a press. You may have to exercise authority in the moment just to do something, which seems to be a tendency or default for a lot of folks. Generally, there is time for consultation, in order to get other views, checking your own myopic tendencies. But there are occasions when a decision must be made NOW. Again, being self-aware of your tendencies and aware of how you are operating is primary.

Second, executing the plan, that is, making it happen is a critical next step. There are many churches and hospitals I work with who have had a history of long, involved planning processes, long-range and immediate, that produced voluminous research,, dialogue, and planning, only to wind up in a file somewhere in a back office, never seeing the light of day nor action in the field of play. At Galloway, we have used a simple process, formulated by our teacher, Robert Miles, which involves procuring Commitment to Action (CTA) from the various players in the organization, a public way to monitor process by way of metrics, and a means of “cascading” the vision down through the group, checking for completion.

This is the Texas Two-Step of organizational development, with both pieces critical to producing fruit from our labor. Simply put, Vision and Reality. A vision to plan for where we want to go, an action plan that will get us where we want to go.

It sounds simple, but I am amazed at how many people and organizations founder between those two rocks of reality. Just by paying attention to this balance, a coach comes alongside the leader to assist in both the awareness of the present moment as well as beginning to think, to imagine a future. Once a vision is captured, the coach prompts the planning as to how to make it real. And along the way, the coach presses the monitoring of the progress, the resistance that the emerges, and the supporting forces. The essence of the coaching relationship is providing a trusted “other” set of eyes, to drill down on the depth of the context, to focus on the present moment, to plan for the future, and to monitor the progress.

Coaching is all about looking deeply into the situation, and asking the clarifying and probing questions. I feel amazingly alive when I am engaged in this work with the people I am committed to, and I get such a sense of meaning when I am able to deliver this valued presence. Can you sense how much I love coaching? I feel like I am using all the experience I have had, my knowledge of organizational leadership, and my gift of encouragement. No wonder I am energized by my work of coaching! It is work that deserves my best time and energy. Blessings.