Dream, Dream, Dream….

Last week, I recalled a dream that was prompted by my learning of a friend’s diagnosis with late-term cancer. The dream was transformational as it called me to reorient my attitude toward reality, and I was unusually wise to take that message seriously. This week, after several questions from readers about my process, I decided to describe my way of playing ball with my dreams and other promptings.

From early on, during college, I began a process of journaling each day. It be began when a professor walked into class and put a simple question on the blackboard: I am…… He asked us to spend the next fifteen minutes to write down whatever came to mind. He tellingly used the world “invest” as it conveys the sense of value implied in setting aside one’s limited time to look within. Back then, time seemed cheap. Like my peers, life seemed unlimited, time would go on and on. Later, when winter comes, the notion of time takes on a new dimension of scarcity. There is only so much to go around in this wild, crazy life. “Invest” takes on an urgency in tone.

But the professor was trying to lead us with his words as a tonic against our careless notions of time: he implored, invited us to “invest”. This time was to be a reflective process of thinking about one’s self. He asked this group of mostly freshmen to ask a basic identity question, writing down identifiers of who one thought one was. He offered some direction in terms of setting aside time to think about how you see yourself, how other people see you. He encouraged a type of free-association, jotting down whatever floats to the surface of consciousness, not judging them as good or bad, just writing on the page in front of you.

This proved to be a method I have used all my life. I call it journaling. Although I have evolved a process after years of research and practice, encountering the rigorous discipline of Ira Progoff and his Intensive Journal method, and the free-wheeling style of writers who use their journal to surface fresh material, it remains, at heart, a simple process. This journaling, which I have written about here in South of God, primes the pump as it situates one between the conscious awareness and the inner world of the unconscious. Between those two worlds that are within each human being, there is a threshold that is permeable in some of us, and quite segregated, even highly defended in others.

Tending to the connections between the inner world and the outer world is the overarching topic of a book I pulled off my Jung shelf. It is called Balancing Heaven and Earth, which is the memoir of noted Jungian analyst and writer, Robert Johnson. I have been moved by his transparency in relating his life journey, his insights, his blindspots, and his wonderings. Most fascinating to me are the moments of life he names as “slender threads” where connections are made that seem to come from the “beyond”, moments that seem to be guided by some transcendent force. In my early work in South of God, I termed these moments as “twists of fate” as opposed to the defining moments in which we have to decide our course. Most of those moments for me seem to only be seen in retrospect, or in the rear-view mirror of reflecting on one’s life. I tend to make those assertions of “guidance” much more slowly than Johnson, but he was older and wiser when he was writing. Perhaps there is hope for me yet.

One of the things Balancing Heaven and Earth does is relate actual dream content, a dream that one has that is a message from the inner world with some symbolic hint as to what may be going on. Johnson has a rich dream life and is generous in sharing elaborate dreams with his readers. I have had some rich dreams as well in times when decisions were on the line, dreams that I took seriously in determining my path for the future. I will be sharing a few of those in the next few weeks in the hopes it might prompt you to begin paying attention to these messages from your inner world.

But first, let me give you what I promised: a method.

I keep a journal, which I keep dated as I go, writing a time stamp at the top of the page. both the date and time of day. In my swirling world, I like to keep my journaling in one volume so I can 1) get to it quickly and 2) know exactly where this soul material is. I began by using those composition books used in college, easily picked up at the drugstore or office supply. I’ve gone through some elaborate models with formats built in. And I’ve built my own using the latest from productivity purveyors. These days, I am back to where I began, a simple composition book, in homage to T.S. Elliott.

In the journal, I simply record my thoughts in the present moment. I try to note what is happening in my life, so that I can refer back to how I reacted to events in my life, trends of mood at certain times of day. If I had a dream the night before, I will record that first, trying to get a bare-boned description of the dream, capturing the narrative in its most basic form. Later, I can fill it out with dimensions that I missed, forgot, or avoided.

I record in the journal in my first few moments after waking, and then throughout the day, ending with a kind of recap of the day’s event. This free-flowing schedule works for me and my personal quirks, but others seem to find a much more structured method more productive. Here, my pragmatism kicks in. Whatever works is the way to move forward.

In times of intense decision making, or emotional turmoil, I have been known to be much more intensive in my journaling method, going back to the Progoff method. If you are looking for that intensity and careful structure, I recommend the books Progoff produced in order to get a ready framework.

In my everyday journaling, after a significant dream, I will set aside a time to focus on the content and the feel. Either in the flow of the daily journal or in a set aside section dedicated to expansion, I will play off the dream content, with free associations, musings, wondering, with no notion that it will yield anything but additional thoughts. Every so often, the image of Alice chasing the proverbial rabbit enters my mind, and most times, I get a small chuckle, if not a full guffaw. I frame this whole enterprise in the words that my teacher gave to me: playful seriousness, serious playfulness. The implication is both balance, intention, and joy. Wrapped in a spirit of exploration, it works for me.

And so, why not use this Fall, for me always an inviting time of beginnings, to begin a practice of tending to your inner life. It begins with the act of the simple “pause”: to stop in the middle of the action of your wild, crazy life and reflect. To gaze both inside at what is going on within your person: your identity, your roles, your hopes, your fears. Take time to write flowingly or jot quickly the things that come to mind.

Then, pause for another moment, as you reflect on your context: your relationships, your community, what’s going on in your world and note how you are thinking and feeling about the world you are living. Again, it can be a fluid flow of descriptive words or a spackling of words and phrases. Inside and outside, what is going on? What does the surface of your soul look like: calm and serene, choppy, or stormy?

Finally, could this be a time to attend to your dreams? Could you prompt yourself to dream by quietly inviting your dreams to come as you go to sleep? Would you be attentive enough to record your dreams upon awakening? And can it be worth your time and energy to reflect on what you inner self may be trying to tell you? Like my early professor prompted, might you invest?

I’d love to hear your response and decisions. I will be relating to you a few dreams that have come to me in the past in hopes it might be helpful.

Brave journey as you cast off from the safety of the summer harbor, and move into the deep waters of the Fall.

Go and Grow

At a point in my life as a priest, one of my colleagues, another priest, Father
Gary Garnett, received word that he had lung cancer. It was in an advanced stage, with no medical hope. He shared the news with me in my office at the Cathedral, leaving us both in a pool of tears.

It was ironic, because Gary had stopped smoking, adopting a healthy life style, began to work out, especially on an old Schwinn exercise bike that I can still see…not exactly a Pelaton! He was on his way to health…or at least that’s what he thought.

I had met Gary years before. As a young, newly ordained priest, I often was the scheduled Celebrant at the daily Noon Eucharist in Mikell Chapel. The schedule gave each resident priest, called a Canon, one day a week to celebrate the rite of Holy Eucharist, a fancy Episcopal term for communion or Lord’s Supper for Baptist south of God.

I thought it was so generous of the other senior priests to “allow” me to celebrate on their assigned day! Little did I know of the motivation behind their generosity but I was thrilled to get the opportunity. Almost every day at Noon, I would celebrate the Holy Eucharist in that small, intimate chapel tucked beside the massive stone Cathedral. I felt like I was the luckiest priest in the world….or the most blessed (sounds more holy!).

For a number of days, I saw this distinguished looking man, graying hair, with eyes, attentive, with a sparkle, black readers perched on the end of his nose, held in place around his neck with a black cord. He was there, day after day for about a week, which made me wonder, in the immortal words of Butch and Sundance: who is this guy?

Like any bar, we had our regulars. Elizabeth Dickey who lived behind the Cathedral in the high rise retirement facility, Cathedral Towers. She was a cousin of the writer, James, but preferred not to talk of him, just saying, as she laughed nervously, he was a rascal. Phil Sapero who was around the Cathedral any time the doors were open. I was never sure of how he make a living but he was faithful in his attendance.

Elizabeth and Phil were like salt and pepper shakers in my life. Elizabeth always had a good word of encouragement, Phil would offer his latest complaint at the drop of a hat. Phil was always half a second early in his liturgical responses, as if to say he was just a little ahead of the other communicants in his personal holiness. Elizabeth who suffered with Parkinson’s, silently, was about a half a second late in her responses, with a kind of stutter. This irregular cadence kept a young priest on his toes in terms of keeping the rhythm of the rite right! Syncopated liturgy is not pleasing to the nostrils of the Most High God, or at least that is what Bishop Child taught me.

So Gary stood out from the regular crowd that shuffled in. I would always stand in the back, after the Eucharist, to greet the worshipers. It provided a great pastoral moment to check in with folks, what was going on, what was on their hearts and minds. With Gary, it was a perfunctory hand shake and polite hello for many days until I finally was overcome by curiosity.

“I’ve noticed that you are here almost every day for about a week. What’s up with that?”….a shrewd pastoral move I learned from fellow Southsider, Kenan Thompson.

Gary disclosed that he was, in fact, an Episcopal priest. He had been a “a fast track” priest in North Carolina but had “burned out” in the tornadic life of a parish priest. He had left the church, went into the antique business. I did not know him well enough at the time to ask him as to what the difference was! I asked him to join me for lunch, a daily offering of food at the Cathedral by two other players in my personal sitcom, Lamar and Christine. He joined me and told me his story, a fascinating journey of faith and self discovery. It was there, over a carefully weighed salad, that a new friend entered my life.

We continued to have lunch on occasion during the next season, with me finally asking him if he would like to celebrate the Eucharist with me at the Noon service. His eyes lit up like a Tiffany lamp. As we celebrated the Holy Mysteries together at the altar, I sensed his deep spiritual connection which flowed through his presence at this ritual action that, for many priests I had observed, had come to be a pedestrian routine. There was a naturalness, a flow that came easy, but a sense of awe that pervaded his being.

Long story shorter, we slowly increased his presence around the Cathedral with me getting him on the regular schedule of weekday celebrants. I had learned such graciousness from my elder priests! I was able to hire Gary to come onto my pastoral staff as the Pastoral Visitor, visiting our parishioners at the variety of hospitals. He became beloved by those he visited when in extremis in the hospitals as well as the Elizabeth Dickeys of the world. He was a good man, a faithful priest, and a fun guy to be around. He became one of my closest friends and valued colleagues.

So it was peculiarly hard to hear his death sentence. I went home that night very upset, at that time, self-medicating with single malt scotch. When I eventually fell asleep, I had a peculiar dream, one that was rare for me, very distinct. I dreamed I was standing alone in the same chapel where I first met Gary. Except the chapel setting was positioned on the side of the mountain in my beloved Pine Mountain area, Dowdell’s Knob to be specific, a place where FDR would picnic, a place where my grandfather would take me as a child.

I remember being in tears in the dream, a sadness deeper than the ocean of salt water tears. I looked up to the sky and cried out a damnation directed toward the Almighty that I knew dwelt there. “Damn you for letting my friend Gary die. It’s not fair!”

Silence.

And then in a deep basso profundo voice, with a Southern drawl, of course……He sounded just like my mentor, Carlyle Marney, He said a simple sentence of reassurance that I reckoned was from on High: You let me worry about Gary, and you go grow roses.

Silence.

That was it? I was expecting a bit more. No ontological explanation, no epistemological argument. Just this simple sentence that was distinctly remembered when I awoke.

I have to say I was gifted by a serenity that even Glenlivet could not give me. There was a calmness that was real, peculiar in the face of my previous sense of upset. I got the part about giving Gary’s fate to God, trusting in God’s grace to ferry him across the river of transition. I had given that pastoral admonition to many who has consulting with me about the vagaries of life. Trust is at the heartbeat of a living faith. Trust Gary to be cared for by God. Check. Got it.

But what about roses? I had no history of roses other than wearing them on Mother’s Day at a Baptist Church to proclaim that my mother was alive. It was a fine unquestioned Southern custom that was just one of many. But grow roses?

I can’t remember the exact sequence of events but I took the godly admonition seriously enough to consult expert rosarian, Burl Brown, as to how to grow roses…and, as he framed it, how to do it right.

Basically, Burl said the key was to amend the soil. I live in a part of the country that is known for its red clay. Good for making pots but not so much as a soil for growing plants. Burl advised me to dig out the clay in my proposed rose beds, about three to four feet down. Are you kidding me? Do you really want to grow roses, Burl asked.

Install French drains. What the hell is that? Add a soil mixture of sand, peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, and a special super secret mix of additives that if I tell you, I’d have to kill you. The alchemy of rosarians is magical and mystical which seems that it should leave you with a cosmic high. It does not. It leaves you sweaty and smelly, and not of incense.

Burl told me that a precise, predictable amount of water if critical. He counseled me to install a drip irrigation system, with scientific timer, individual tubes that would measure the number of drops of water to each plant. Wow. Amazingly, I installed it and when I turned it on for the initial watering, my house did not blow up. Good so far.

What about disease? In the humidity of the South, black spot is just waiting to ruin your gorgeous perfect roses. And insects love roses, LOVE roses. The amateur answer: pesticides, more accurately known as poison. When you have to wear gloves, a face mask to limit the inhalation of carcinogens, you might get the message that this is some dangerous stuff. And it is. Burl was clear this was to be avoided, that I was to be an organic rosarian. This is possible if you choose your roses carefully, prepare the beds, amend the soil, fertilize properly, monitor the water. Your roses should thrive. And you, you will experience a self-satisfaction, a pride that is remarkable. Being an organic rosarian, you will feel special, a cut above. But I already felt that. I am an Episcopalian.

That year I grew some amazing roses. And my thrill was taking them to share with my staff, particularly Gary.

But the real lesson was hidden immediately but revealed in praxis. All the hard work which my friend Burl had prescribed was simply living life. Of preparing with care the things you could, tending to the things given to your charge, caring for them by properly giving them what they need, and enjoying the beauty right there in front of you. That was the secret I discovered. Taking care of the little plot of ground that has been entrusted to you so that things can grow. For me, the word that captures that clear attention is FOCUS.

It proved to be true in relationships, in parenting, in leadership, and in living. Advice given in the flow of a dream, delivered with a Southern drawl.

The Rock

This week, Mary and I celebrated thirty eight years of marriage. The “old saw” Rodney Dangerfield joke is to pause, and add: we been married for 45 but seven of them were not so hot. Rim shot from the drummer….I’ll be playing here all weekend.

Kidding aside, we have had a pretty good ride for the thirty eight years, with the normal peaks and valleys. Mary surprised me and brought out a crumpled, yellowed scroll where I had written a song for her, a song about the love my granddad, who was my real-life personal hero, had for my grandmother. I sang it for Mary the day I asked her to marry me. Yeah, I know, high-handed, manipulative, even cheesy. But it was from the heart….and it worked!

I played my Martin D-35 rosewood dreadnought guitar that my mother had given to me, which had all kinds of meaning to me, given her life story. It was a much better guitar than I deserved or warranted with my skills, but she knew I wanted to be a songwriter. She had forbidden me from playing a guitar when I was a kid, religating me to a tenor saxophone or the 88s. But I bought a cheap Yamaha the moment I got beyond her locus parentis. This classic Martin guitar was her attempt to atone for the prior prohibition period. And that guitar, she was sweet. I thought it was in my genes. I got sidetracked by the whole God thing, but I am thrilled that my son, Thomas, is carrying on that dream in the Mother Country of Nashville.

I thought it might be good to share the song with you, which gives you a sense of the tradition of love I carry from my McBrayer/Pollard roots. As I anticipate the work of the American master, Ken Burns, on the heritage of country music, this song reminds me of the deep headwaters of Spirit that came from Scots who immigrated to the hills of Appalachia, some even lucky enough to make it to Texas.

I hope you find a smile, in this tough time, tight space of being in this country these days. A smile, and maybe a tear or two, for a vision of love that might connect us across divides of time.

‘The Rock” by David Galloway

Granddad said he loved his gal, as he bit off another chew, Spent his whole life loving her like there was nothing else to do

Ain’t that much to spare when you’re working as a cop, Just enough to live on, sometimes, and not enough to stop..

He said, ‘Gal, we ain’t had that much as we rolled down through the years, Shady Lane, two good girls, and a cop’s wife fill of fears. So Dave, ‘ole man’, I’ve decided to give her this here ring, This rock and gold will have to say the words I can not sing’

So he spent his stash of money that he saved up for a boat, and with that Ring he gave her, a loose-leaf piece of note. It said:

“My love, you have given me the best years of your life. I thank the Lord for my lucky day when you became my wife, Your faith in me, your love for me has shown me a true light, And I’m thankful you’ll be by my side, at least for one more night.”

She took the ring with a smile that told him of her love, She wondered were he got the cash, or was it from Above, She hugged him in her own weird way, and protested, “Oh Glen!”, I thought how nice it’d be to have a lover and a friend.

Before she woke one morning, he left her sleeping good, He whispered that he loved her, and always knew he would. I found him in the afternoon, asleep to wake no more, His tired old heart and robbed us of a friend we’s see no more.

Now, she sits and rocks on the front porch in the Spring, Her knobby hands keep fumbling with the feel of that ring. She tells me of the good times and sometimes calls his name, The love that grew between them that bastard Death can’t claim.

And now and then, she asks me to read again that note, While she looks into the diamond, and recites the words by rote:

“My love, you’ve given me the best years of your life, I thank the Lord for my lucky day that you became my wife. Your faith in me, your love for me has shown me a true light, And I’m thankful you’ll be by my side, at least for one more night.”

And in that crystal rock, she sees him once again, a kaleidoscope of memories now swirling in the wind, A young man’s love, a father’s care, and grandpa’s spoiling ways, That rock contained the treasures of a thousand golden days.

Now and as her life seems to fade into the Night, She called me up to ask me, “Will you carry on the fight? The fight is for a song that we’ve forgotten how to sing, forgot to sing about the love that’s written in this ring.”

She said, “When you find that love that’s worthy of your heart, Give this ring, and your love, until you too must part. And don’t forget that song that your Granddad taught you, Son, Live your life by it’s tune throughout the course you run!”

Then she sang: “My love you’ve given me the best years of your life, I thank the Lord for that lucky day that I became your wife, Your faith in me, your love for me has shown me a true light, I’m thankful that you’re by my side, even on this night.”

This song now rings in my mind and in the life I live, I learned that before you can receive, at first you have to give. I sit here in the morning, just thankful for my life, and how I hope to share with you my lover, friend, and wife.

And so, my Mary, now this ring I give to you, I’m hoping that this song, together, we can sing it too. There’s a treasure here within this stone that jewelers can’t unlock, A song of love that’s buried here deep within the Rock. And on this Rock we’ll build our love and life to be, a song to teach to others, a song we’ll teach for free.

I hope that you will give me the best years of your life, I pray the Lord will bless me and let you be my wife. Your faith in me, your love for me, it points me toward a life. I’m hoping you’ll be by my side in just a few more nights…..

David Galloway 2-23-81

Going In to Move Out

There is a basic paradox in the spiritual life.
One moves in in order to move out.

The motion is odd as the move to one’s inner life has the paradoxical effect of connecting one to the surrounding reality.

By stilling the self, becoming quiet, and centering, one paradoxically comes to sense a deep connectedness to all being. From the clarity of contemplation, meditation, centering, or mindfulness, one senses reality as inherently transcendent of one’s limited perspective as an individual. One emerges no more connected than before. What has changed is one’s awareness of that connection. This is the basic movement of becoming “woke”, that is, awakened to a primal sense, an awareness of connection.

Sensing that connection comes mysteriously. I am not sure if it’s the process of slowing down to look around that finally allows one to connect the dots. The precise mechanism evades me. I can only know it’s been true for me. And it seems to be true for others who have taken the spiritual life seriously.

It happened to Thomas Merton from the confines of his hermitage at his Trappist monastery. After spending significant time in the “monastic therapy” of his Benedictine community, he begged for the freedom of moving out into a modest hermitage in which he could experience solitude in an even deeper modality. And it was in this setting, Merton discovered his connection to other means and systems of reaching God, as in Buddhism, as well as an awakening and discovery of his deep social consciousness. It led him to write his conscience-fueled protest to our war in Viet Nam and to connect with the spiritual and social movement of civil rights. Odd, don’t you think? Solitude in order to discover connection.

It was a gift to my self during the desert of my doctoral work to study Merton’s spiritual development through the lens of Faith Development. While I could not interview him in person, he had left a trail of clues within his journal writing in which one could look in on his soul’s work, the way his viewing of existence altered, and the very way he thought about things changed. It was a transformation of consciousness that followed a pattern of spiritual development that we were in the process of codifying in the faith development theory.

One of the first books of Merton that I read was his spiritual autobiography of his early life , The Seven Storey Mountain. This book popularized Merton as a modern person searching for meaning in life. His questions were intriguing to other moderns who struggled to make sense of the world, and Merton offered an honest account of his personal quest which led him to visit that Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Like most of us, he was searching for Truth and found a glimmer of hope in the structure of Roman Catholic theology. And so, he went for a visitation to the monastery.

The book gives an account of a person who had bought into a system of thinking which divided the right from the wrong, the righteous from the unrighteous. He wondered if the monastic life might offer him a way of life that would center him in God and tame his surging passions. He concludes that it is, and prepares to make the change, to take the vows of a monk.

As his visitation period ends, Merton goes into Louisville to catch a bus back to New York in order to tie up loose ends and prepare for his new life as a monk. There, as he walks on the street with the masses, he is overwhelmed by his sense of the sinfulness of those who are not aware of God’s presence. He feels revulsion and runs into a Catholic church in order to escape the scene. Kneeling at the altar, Merton offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God that he has found his special path, the path of monasticism. This sets him apart, as “special”. Merton thanks God that he is not like other men.

After a few months, he returns, enters the discipline of the novitiate, and embraces the life of a monk in community with other monks. He describes this tough process of living with the idiosyncrasies of these other men who share this time and space with him. It occurs to me that it is not unlike the process of any relationship, such as marriage, of bumping up against the reality of the “other”, someone who reminds you constantly that you are not “unto your self alone”. Merton, like me, found comedy in the interplay of others who you are “stuck with” who talk too much, have annoying habits, sing off key, snore, not mention the maddening sound of one’s eating and drinking from a cup. This therapy, provided free of charge in a marriage or monastery, grinds of the edge of a sharp edged self-centeredness and affords one a fresh sense of ordinariness and participation in community.

Years later, at the same exact place, the corner of 4th and Walnut, in the middle of Louisville, after decades of monastic therapy, Merton finds himself looking at those same masses of people moving down the street, doing business, doing life. Only this time, Merton falls into an attitude of prayer,standing there among the people, thanking God that God had created him just like other men. What a transformation, an alchemical change in the character of the soul. This dramatic change took place over years of prayer, study, challenge, and search. But the truth is stark: he “moved inward” in order to connect with that which would have seemed outside, something that was “other”.

There are other stories of faith that track in a similar way. I value reading about the spiritual path that others have walked. How has it been for you? How do you find time to stop in the middle of your busyness to reflect on your journey? How do you slow down to notice the world that is spinning round you? Your journey may not take you to a monastery but it is the same journey for us all to find our place in God and in the Creation that God loves.

Throwing Up

This past week, I engaged in a two hour phone call with an old friend of mine who is a minister in Minnesota. Like me, he emerged from the Baptist womb of the South, with all the blessings and curses such a spiritual genetic code allows. Bob got a heaping helping portion, given that his father was a Baptist minister. I missed that rodeo, although a Southern Gospel quartet is hidden in my closet.

We have lots of common connections and share a questing spirit to find what is true. Bob landed in the United Methodist Church while my spin took me into the Episcopal church. We both found that sacramental worship was lacking in our heritage, and sought to fix it by study, experiential learning, and finding a liturgical community in which to make our home.

It was great fun reviewing our common experience of the Candler School of Theology vibe we both shared in the late 70s, early 80s when Emory had arguably the finest theological faculty in this country. This stature was thanks to a windfall Robert Woodruff gift and some deft leadership by President Laney and Dean Waits. Rather than serving as a farm team for Yale and Harvard, the monies allowed us to keep the stellar teachers in the stable. I count myself as the fortunate one for that gift, and therefore put an obligatory Coke product on the lectern when I speak. Coke, Tab, Diet Coke, and now blue-tint, green cap Dasani…the evolution of my shameless sponsorship.

As a side note, I spent my first year of doctoral studies living in a Buckhead mansion with Mr. Woodruff’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Jones, as she had a habit of hosting young, very poor Emory grad students. This happy circumstance allowed me share the dinner table with Mr. Woodruff and to thank him personally on several occasions, to which he was most gracious. An Atlanta visionary that I admired, I am sure that he did not fully grasp the depth of impact he had on the wider world’s theological landscape.

In our phone conversation, Bob and I took the time to tell our stories to one another, to update the record from our prior entries. Twists and turns, victories and defeats, we caught up as to where our journeys had taken us, both having experienced long, strange, trips. It was a satisfying time on the phone, reminding me of the inherent power of story that we sometimes lose in the brisk memos of email and the clutter of social media. Our stories bear the weight of our souls as we seek to make sense out of what we have done and what has happened to us.

I made a habit early on of collecting these things called stories. It began informally by listening to people talk around a fire, at a table, or in a room, listening to the narratives that they told. Stories are part of my Southern ethos but more deeply, a work that all people share, of constructing a narrative collection of events that tell were we have been and what we have done. Clearly, there is a particular and peculiar style of the Southern story that formed me in my listening and telling. While in Texas, I learned of an old adage: don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story. My wife and kids know I can embellish, or make a story pretty, or even better, dance. But the story is the underlying form I learned from my grandparents, elders and my tribe.

Moving more formally into research, I listened and recorded people trying to make sense of human existence as they told their stories to me as a part of my work at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. Interviewing people for three hour lengths, transcribing, analyzing… it remained at its heart a process of listening to stories.

Later, I followed my teacher, Chuck Gerkin, listening to people in a clinical setting as I attended to the “living human document” they presented in telling their story. It took me to listening to homeless folks on the streets of Atlanta as well as perched penthouse persons in the deflective shimmer of Buckhead. And I continued this in my priesthood and clinical practice over thirty years, paying attention to the contours of meaning they weave in their stories.. Everyone has a story. They drag it behind them, use it to present a front, a reason for the way they are. And some even tell it well.

Recently, I have begun a gathering of clergy who meet to talk about how it is going in their lives, how it’s going at the churches they serve. We meet regularly to share our stories as well as pregnant moments of interruption that threaten the cohesive frame we have come to rely upon for identity.

I conceived of gathering these people using an on-line platform, Zoom, it’s called. However the form of our gathering was wrought many moons past. Years ago, the Bishop of Texas had asked me to meet with young clergy who were in transition from their seminary studies to their first parish assignment. Canon Kevin Martin, from the diocesan staff, joined me in the project of helping the young clergy use that first year in the parish to learn some good habits. And, not to crash and burn.

I loved working with Kevin. He and I come from differing theological positions but share a common desire to make the church a more effective presence the life of our community. He and I would meet with these folks once a month for nine months, a natural gestation time. We would gather at the holy space know as Camp Allen, the diocesan conference center in Navasota, just northwest of Houston. It is a gift to rejoin with him now as we create new groups of gathering.

We would begin with a check in, with two pregnant questions: How is it with you? Or How is it in the place you are? I had gotten the questions from my mentor, Carlyle Marney, who famously led a previous gathering of ministers known as Interpreter’s House, which occurred at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. I had studied Marney’s method, and used it to design a retreat format for clergy while working with Jim Fowler at the Center for Faith Development at Emory.

The format that Marney used was quite simple. The first week, he gathered the group of ministers in a circle as they told their stories, how they came to the ministry, and how it was currently going in their place. This primitive gathering was the initial step. He called this “throwing up”.

The second week involved some fresh input from a leading thinker in the world of Christian faith, usually intended to push these  ministers beyond their pastures of comfort. Allowing them to ponder deeply, ask the questions they brought to the fire, and most importantly, applying to their own lives, this was the crucial time in which the ideas, wonderings, and hunches percolated.

The third week was critical. It was a time when they would make plans for how they might take these fresh insights back into the communities from which they had come, or fled, or as Marney would say, sentenced. Some would make action plans, others would talk of internal changes, and some would make vows. Some would find the courage to leave the formal bounds of ministry and find fresh, honest work.

My colleagues and I took Marney’s genius and spirit, and condensed it, distilled it. Marney would have loved the word “distilled”, I think. We scoped it down to one week. We kept the idea of “throwing up” but put it within the vessel of a small group rather than a large group in order to maximize “air time”. Small groups of four went through the five day experience together.

Our input was a deep remembrance of a central image of passage-making, utilizing both the Exodus motif and the Paschal appropriation of the Exodus story by the Christian church. How does your story fit The Story? What was your “burning bush” encounter of calling? How was your journey? How have you been in exile, enslaved? How were you freed, liberated? What did your wilderness feel like? What were the contours of your desert? Just how dry was it? How long did you wander? What promise did the new give you? What might the Promised Land look like for you?

And, the week-long experience kept the context from which they had come and to which they would return in mind, granting a pause, a silence for thinking and reflecting to occur. We called it Pilgimage Project, testing our design with only clergy, using cohort groups of similarly experienced ministers, three years out of seminary, ten, twenty, and thirty years, with the postulation that there would be similar issues in play developmentally.

It wound up being published and used not only with clergy but in parishes and other gatherings of faithful people. Truth is, all people have stories. I have used it in the back of my mind as I have worked with all types of people who have been trying to make sense out of life, going through particular transitions, and looking for new beginnings. This image of pilgrimage provides the paradigm for the work I do.

How might you tell your story? What would be some of the things you would note as to the beginnings of your journey that set your direction? What significant choices did you make along the way? What surprises came in the process? What gave you joy, what brought grief? How does the trajectory of your story form the way of your future? What are your greatest hopes and fears? What limiting beliefs do you hold onto that no longer serve you well? What do you need to let go of? Where is your growing edge?

To transpose a line from poet, Mary Oliver: what do you have left to do with your one, wild, amazingly crazy life?

I love my work of being with people as they ponder these deep questions and make plans to make the most of their journey on this good earth. It is a wondrous adventure. And I love listening to those stories.

To Infinity and Beyond

We are in the middle of celebrating a memorable moment in the history of humanity: a human being arriving on the Moon.

All kinds of archival footage is being played across the various platforms of media to commemorate this gigantic event in our common history: we made it from the fragile, island home that we call Earth, to an even smaller island that circles us, illumined magically by phases, even spectacularly, as if on cue, in full moon on Tuesday.

We looked; we gazed; we wondered; we dreamed; we visioned; we planned;we invested; we built; we dared; we risked; we went. All were critical parts of a process to move from a wonderment as we looked up from our gravitational holding place to a journey to that sphere that occupies the night sky and our imagination. We chose to go to the Moon, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard…..as President John F. Kennedy envisioned. Beneath that drive pulses the lure of discovery, of a curiosity about our world, in a word, wonder that abides in our soul.

What strikes me, in our reflection on this event on the Moon, that occurred some fifty years ago, it that it was a “we” moment for humanity, not just another “USA” national pride chant, but a global moment where everyone identified with the human spirit that drove the quest. The three NASA astronauts, upon return to Earth, toured the world to the cheers of everyone, shouting, exclaiming, “We did it!”, a collective “Yes we can!”.

What could possibly unite this world today in a similar way? What might unite our country in the midst of our separation, our adversarial posturing? Seriously and sadly, I don’t have a clue. The last time, we experienced a national “we” moment was when we were attacked, evoking a hot, burning revenge reaction. Like you, I felt it. I lived through it. I don’t want to relive that, as it was a huge cost that keeps on collecting a fee in human lives. Could there be a positive event that could bring us together? I wonder.

I find myself going back to my younger days, when innocence was fresh and smelled like a new car, full of promise and adventure. Is that a mere memory, or could it bring hope?

My memories of the space race came early. In the West End Sears in a tiny book department, I remember choosing a book of a photographic hype of the Mercury 7, the seven chosen few, my new heroes displayed in their space suits and shown training for their flights in odd machines that simulated G forces and weightlessness. That book filled my time and imagination as America prepared to put a human into space.

I carried that passion to my first grade classroom at Tull Waters Elementary in south Atlanta. It was in that classroom that I learned to “duck and cover” in the case of an atom bomb, a pall that was exacerbated by a forced march home to make sure we could make it in event of a bomb. I am sure there are psychological studies filed away somewhere on the effect of such drills, but I have never seen them. Guess I am afraid to look!

Counterbalancing that fear was the pervasive hope of space exploration. It was a hope that was pervasive in that time, a bold lean into a future of progress, unrestricted potential. My teacher, Miss Nail, allowed me to listen to the launch from a gray particle-board institutional radio in the back of the class. That became my role in all my classes as the word had obviously gotten around about the Galloway kid who was obsessed with space. I was the first grade Walter Cronkite delivering my version of “That’s the way it is.”

That was my first experience of a teacher bending to meet me in my passion, sponsoring my native curiosity and nurturing my discovery as a child. That would be the hallmark of the good teachers I encountered along the way, as well as the bar to which I held all who would assume that noble profession in my orbit. Wildly, my niece, Gracie Galloway teaches today in that same school building, now called by another name, Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP. Gracie embodies that same spirit of teaching that I experienced and valued in my own journey in school.

Thanks to my teachers, I followed the astronauts in their missions, from Alan Shepherd in 1961, John Glenn’s three orbits in 1962, to the last, Gordo Cooper in Faith 7 who spent a day and a half in orbit. This initial foray would lead to Gemini’s two-man team, space walking and docking, and then, on to the Apollo mission to the Moon.

All those memories came flooding back as PBS aired a superb video chronicle of the race into space. It was a time of competition as the Soviet Union was hell-bent on beating us in the technological game of tag. And pride was on display as Aldrin and Armstrong placed an artificially flying flag on the Moon’s surface, the red, white, and blue against the gray, barren landscape.

Again, the surprise was the global celebration of this human achievement. As the trio flew from country to country, they were regaled as heroes of the human race, lifted up on our collective shoulders to celebrate both our technological prowess as well as the “right stuff” that showcased the human character of courage.

My own moment of meaning came when Armstrong took control of the lunar module, guiding it by manual control, some half a mile farther than the planned landing site. His split-second decision to “fly the thing” rather than go through the automatic landing sequence, risked the whole mission. Knowing that he was running low on fuel, indicated by the on-board sounding alarm, he nonetheless scanned the lunar surface and coolly improvised a new site. With the words, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”, Armstrong allowed the folks in the control room to breathe again. That moment of decision was defining for me, Armstrong’s command of the lunar module.

They then proceeded to venture out, dancing in the moment of exploration that was truly out of this world. The paradigm-shift happened with the mystical view of our planet from the surface of the Moon., our tine planet set in the vast blackness of space. The astronauts clearly felt the shift, but we were able to vicariously experience that new perspective as well. Like the discovery of fire, a new sliver of consciousness was birthed.

There still was the hanging question of firing the rockets to propel the craft back into orbit to rendezvous with the circling command module. It was telling to see the recently recovered memo written by speechwriter William Safire for President Nixon to release should the astronauts be marooned. Fortunately, that piece of poetry went into a gray filing cabinet, exchanged for a bottle of celebratory champagne.

So this is our celebration of our signature moment of technological advancement coupled with the human spirit of discovery. How are you celebrating this special mark in our history? Any thoughts on how might we recover the sense of unity that points toward the spiritual truth of our connectedness? Especially in the face of efforts to divide us, how can we move beyond a mere jingoistic focus on things that separate us, and rather, reframe our existence as a human race. It would be a giant leap, indeed, but worth the jump. Our future seems to hang in the balance of that question.

Ledell, A Man in Full

When I was the pastor of a downtown parish in Tyler, Texas, I found that there were two critical jobs at the parish. Neither were my responsibility, except hiring them.

The first is the receptionist. She/he sets the tone for the entire parish, welcoming people into the church building with a spirit of hospitality. OR, acting like a fire-breathing dragon that looms, threatening people who might dare to come inside. Luckily, I have had some superb people in that role that make people feel at home from the moment they walk in the building. A welcoming smile and a word of welcome are gold in this kingdom. You can’t put a price on the value of that first face the person sees. If your sign outside says “WELCOME” and yet the reception is cold, guess what?

The second, equally important person is the janitor. This is the person who is responsible for seeing that the building in clean, that it is in order, that it is set up in a proper way. This person has to be willing to be flexible and responsive when needs change. The skills match that of an ambassador, working with foreign heads of state, or in the church’s case, leaders of women’s and men’s groups. It’s not an easy job.

In the Episcopal church, we call the janitor a “sexton”, which I sort of dig. It has a kind of English spin, a Downton Abbey, feel. To me, it better captures the role: the sexton.

At Christ Church in Tyler, following the exit of a long-time sexton, we went looking to find just the right man, or woman to fill this critical role. We were fortunate to find a man who had been laid off by a large company who had all the skills we needed, and then some.

His name was Ledell and he reminded me immediately of New Orleans soul singer, Aaron Neville whose first hit, Tell It Like It Is, characterized my new sexton’s style of communication. In a word, he was “built”, with a muscular physique which would have been more at home on a linebacker on a pro football field. As it turns out, Ledell was tenacious in his work-out regimen, going to the Y every day. He also was a bit of a physical health evangelist, getting me and other staff members to join him in his gym routine. He was a drill sergeant as he ordered our routine of cardio and lifting weights. I’ve been around the weight room most of my life and have had no one more rigorous in his demands than Ledell. He was an animal. A monster…friendly, smiling, but a monster. And, he would tell it like it is!

Through our years together, I came to view him as a friend, if not a brother from another mother. He and I would talk about life and share meals. Some of my best memories are of going with him to the annual East Texas State Fair. We must have appeared to be the original Odd Couple: me, a white bearded dude in black clericals, and Ledell, a goatee-sporting black man in his work uniform. What a pair. We would go in his truck, hit the midway, observing the menagerie of God’s creatures, animal and human, on display, feasting on outrageously fried fair food. It would cost me the next day with a punishing work-out. Pass me the Lipitor.

Ledell had a gift for working on automobile engines and often rescued me with his handiness, tending to my Chevy K-5 Blazer. I came to admire his wisdom, his resourcefulness, and his faithfulness. He was a single father of two children, and made sure he was in their lives to form them. He was to me, a man in full, as Tom Wolfe once wrote. I admired him greatly.

Near the end of my time in Tyler, Target decided to put a distribution center out on I-20 and was looking for a custodial manager. I got the word that Ledell had been courted for this position as his reputation has gone viral. The coconut telegraph told me that he had gone out to look at the opportunity. I wanted him to take the job if it would bring him some pay increase that would be important to his life. But, I didn’t want him to go. I valued him as a co-worker and as a friend.

One morning, having coffee in our library, Ledell walked in. Typically, I began by kidding him about his being courted by Target, angling around in order to ask him about his intentions. He looked at me in the way he would when my lifting weights was waning in enthusiasm. He asked me to follow him.

He took me down the hall and then into our gorgeous church building. The stained glass in the morning light puts on a light show that would rival Disney. As we stood there in that sacred space, he began to talk to me.

“I was out of a job when I came looking here. You listened to me as a man and took me seriously. You gave me a job that was a good one. It gave me what I needed for my family. It was the kind of work I enjoyed and that I am good at. I like the people here and enjoy messing with you. But the most important thing is that I have a job that lets me take care of God’s house. Look at this. This is my job keeping God’s house looking good. Man, I can’t imagine a better thing to do with my life. I love working for God.”

I had been in the God business for a long time. You would never have been able to hear me wax as poetic as Ledell, describing the work I did for the Almighty. I guess I could have, should have been embarrassed by his godly description of his work, topping my more professional way of framing my career. But instead, I was inspired, called to do better in the way of thinking of my vocation.

Ledell is one fortunate guy. He would quickly retort, claiming more accurately that he was blessed. And he is.

To have the work you do have a heavenly purpose, that is the trick. To know that your work makes a difference is one of the greatest things a human can possess. It’s the old notion of work being a holy endeavor, whatever it is. It is an unstated goal for most of us. To make that connection between what you do with a purpose larger than yourself. Work like that provides an energy and a satisfaction that is prized. It is a state of the soul that I find missing in many folks that I talk to.

Business analysts tell us that most workers have anything but that feeling about their work. It was stunning to me to find that most workers are not engaged, wish they were doing something else. They are mailing it in, giving the minimum effort, with a small investment of energy. The real surprise to me was to find this rampant in healthcare, a most noble endeavor of saving lives. I’ve spent the last ten years listening to healthcare workers, nurses, physicians, and administrators, who have been been overwhelmed with bureaucracy, losing the original spark that sent them in pursuit of this career in medicine.

This is not only true in healthcare, but in just about every industry. Teachers who burn out, lawyers who hate their work, business persons who just get by, priests who are looking at pension time, folks who mail it in. Workers seem to struggle to make the connection to the purpose that Ledell natively lives and breathes.

I often have people coming to me to ask me help in recovering that spark. They are at the end of their rope, sometimes showing clear signs of depression, sometime self-medicating to relieve their pain or boredom. They are considering just chunking their current work and doing something else, go into another field that they fantasize will deliver them.

Sometimes, that decision to make a change is a good one, a necessary one. But I have found that often reframing the work that people do, are engaged in, is all that is needed. In Tyler, I developed a method of helping folks assess where they are currently, think about options of change that would address their needs for a more satisfying career, and then get creative as to how they could make that happen in their lives.

The good news is for many people, the answer was not found by ditching a career, but finding a new way to frame what it is they are doing. Sometimes it means letting go of some limiting beliefs about the way to do their work. One healthcare executive I worked with thought that he had to be “the biggest sumbitch in the valley” to get people to do their work. The effect was that he was disliked, even worse, disrespected. Once he figured out that he didn’t have to be mean, his true nature came to fore and the opinions of his employees changed, evidenced by his 360 assessment by those who worked for him. He came to not only enjoy his work but increased his productivity, not to mention the attitude of his employees.

For others, it means refocusing one’s work, letting go of of certain parts, and redirecting energy in new ways that bring satisfaction. It has particularly exciting to me to work with folks who are seeking to connect their work with service to the community or common good. It’s what David Brooks has called the Second Mountain, an endeavor that brings meaning and significance to one’s life.

This entails a process of coaching, with an initial assessment as to where one currently is, as well as becoming more clear as to where one wants to go. The process moves one to a decision, some planning culminating in an action plan, some encouragement and accountability as to making the change happen. It’s a process that I have enjoyed, helping people move through into a more satisfying life.

Ledell found his Second Mountain, as he would say, he was blessed by God. Most of us are not that fortunate. Sometimes we have to decide to make a move and address the sense of emptiness and lack of meaning in our lives. How is the state of your life? Are you happy with the life you are living, or do you need to make a change, small or large? I’d be happy to help you think through this or point you in some fresh directions. Feel free to contact me.

I am glad I was fortunate to come across a person like Ledell. That encounter changed my life. I was educated by some of the finest minds, trained by some geniuses, had my head shrunk by some world-class therapists, but it was Ledell that spoke into my life in a way that made a real difference.

Ledell…. a man in full. And my friend. Come to think of it, like Ledell, I am blessed.