My Nobel Prize

Will Spong was one of my best friends. He was a priest, a professor at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, a superb musician, a synthesizer of ideas, and a dreamer with the capacity to imagine an alternative future. He also had the gift of courage, a capacity I find seriously lacking in the current church, but that’s another column.

Will had the wild look of a Muppet puppeteer, not unlike Frank Oz. The old image from the band, War, in 1970 with the song “Spill the Wine”, that of a “long-haired, leaping gnome” came to mind often when I was with him. He had a rare capacity to be present to the other person, which is why he was a popular therapist and spiritual director in the Austin area.

He and I were thrown together when I was brought on the faculty at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest as an Adjunct Professor to bring my experience in faith development theory as well as my work in leadership. Will and I began to conspire immediately as to how we could fix this broken world.

I have to admit that Will took the lead early on in terms of shaping the world to our favor. It involved a parish in the Austin area, St. James. They were beginning their search for a new Rector. For you unwashed masses who do not know the thrill of the arcane nomenclature of the Anglican tradition, “Rector” is one of those words that you will find Episcopalians throwing around right regularly, making them feel superior to the uninitiated. It simply means pastor, actually the lead or senior pastor in a congregation. Guard that word, “rector”, with your life, and be careful how you pronounce it. Rectors are sensitive about such things, which is amusingly appropriate.

St. James was a parish in the middle of Austin. At the time it was predominantly black, with many professors from the small Texas university close by. That’s a joke, son, said Foghorn Leghorn. In the Episcopal Church, it was midsized and therefore, according to my bishop, not in the appropriate flight path for my career as an Episcopal priest. However, Will had big plans.

In his mind, I would come to St. James, bring him on as an assistant. We would both teach at the seminary, but begin a Clinical Pastoral Education center there at the church. Most CPE clinical training takes place in a hospital setting. It is the historical tradition, affording this student intense experiences of relating to a broad wash of people. It is a fine model, training many young ministers, including me. But, those of us in the world of theological training find that it was often difficult for CPE students to transfer the learnings from the clinical hospital setting to the work of the parish. When you think hard about it, you can see the issue at first glance. Will had the idea and dream of combining the two, building a program where the student has some exposure to the clinical setting of a hospital, but also in the daily ministry of a parish, hopefully making the connections more easily and integrated for long-term development.

Will actually envisioned us as a dynamic duo, he mentioned “Butch and Sundance”, which made me laugh, but I secretly loved it. I am not sure how he parsed the two in terms of who was who in that classic duo, I just wanted to be the one that wound up with Katharine Ross. For you careful readers, here she is again in my psychic archetypes. Noted.

To get the ball rolling, Will secured a difficult appointment for me to serve as the keynote speaker at Laity Lodge, a famous retreat center located on the Frio River in Texas, built by grocery magnate, Howard Butts…aka Piggly Wiggly. My hero and friend, John Claypool, had served in the capacity of keynote presenter a few times, before he became divorced, thus disqualifying him in this pool of shamanistic presenters. I actually stayed in Madeline L’Engles’ cabin, a famous Christian writer.

There were two churches in residence for this weekend conference, a Presbyterian church, and St James. You see that Will is always thinking, just like Butch. You can call it strategic…. or sneaky, your pick.

In evangelical circles, such well-known conference speakers are regarded as gunslingers, voices and brains to rent. Butch had brought his gunslinger, Sundance, to bring his trick pony, faith development, to dazzle the folks with psychological lingo, deftly comingled with theological terms, and critically, biblical words, dusted off for modern consumption. The Kid was just the man for the job. Reach, pardner!

Will had made sure that the main leaders of St. James would be on the retreat at Laity Lodge. So, it was up to me to bring the goods and fulfill the plans. I had done such retreat work for twenty years, so this was not my first rodeo. In fact, it was my most comfortable venue for my stand-up routine of faith, although the panache of Laity Lodge gave me a few moments of imposter’s syndrome, but I got over it after the flowery introduction of the director. I got the distinct idea he might have been trying to reassure himself as to my bona fides as he had risked inviting The Kid from Tyler by God Texas. At least, he convinced me.

I spent the time redefining the image of faith, suggesting the normal human developmental process of growing in faith, and then making the practical connection by employing my secret weapon, stories. It was a high moment in my career, made even sweeter by my time at table with these people from Austin. I was on a high as I made my drive back to East Texas in my K-5 Blazer.

Back at Christ Church in Tyler, I got a phone call from the Senior Warden, another Episcopal word which is the name for the Chairperson of the Board (Vestry) of St. James. He said they would like for me to allow them to place my name in the “search process” to become the Rector of St. James. I want you to pause for a minute and think of all the Episcopal nomenclature you are picking up. You’re welcome.

The Seach Committee showed up the next week at my very white parish in Tyler. They did not go unnoticed in the sea of white. I was proud of my ushers and parishioners for making them feel at home, but the questions from the Christ Church members were immediate. What are these folks from Austin doing here? Being from Austin was probably more disturbing to East Texas folks than the fact that they were black.

The readings for that Sunday liturgy were right in my sweet spot, with the Gospel of Mark, my sugar stick, right in front of me. I am normally proud of my sermonizing, as I put a lot of work into research and then, imagining a connection for folks to grab onto. But this particular Sunday, I was good. I was so good, I had to take notes on my own damn self. We had lunch afterward with the four committee members, with them asking questions about my theology and vision for what church might be. We concluded the day with a good feeling on both of our parts.

Monday night, I was home for dinner and had moved into the den. Our home phone rang, back in ancient times when we had landlines. I took the call at my desk, the one I am sitting at now as I write. It was the Search Committee on a conference call from Austin, led by the Senior Warden. After some typical pleasantries, the Senior Warden told me that they had voted and unanimously decided to call me as their next Rector. We needed to make arrangements for my family to go down to Austin, to worship in a Sunday morning service to get a feel for the place, but they were excited to extend the call to me.

I thanked them, told them how honored I was, and would talk with my wife, setting up a time to visit St. James. Then, I hung up the phone.

I wept. The tears may still be lingering on my desk. It had been a long time since I cried like this, from deep down in my soul. Not simple tears of joy, but of deep connection. For a white Southside boy from Atlanta, this was monumental. It was my Nobel prize, to be engaged, to be honest, and be accepted, valued, embraced. It was quite a moment for me, definitely on the highlight reel of my life.

Looking back on it, it is even more important in terms of how I lived my life, the decisions I have made. After visiting the parish, a talk with my bishop, I made one of the most unselfish decisions of my life by saying “no” to this opportunity. It definitely disappointed Butch and his plans for our ride into history.

It will require another column to explain why I did not accept this wonderful offer to go to my favorite city on the planet, Austin, partner with one of my heroes, and serve a faithful and courageous group of committed disciples. For one who could be criticized for being opportunistic on most occasions, this was perhaps my most difficult decision, one that in all candor, I regret.

As I do the elder work of life review, this is at the top of my list of regrets. In that review work, I see the amazing consequences of small decisions on the course of one’s life, but the effect of pivotal decisions is staggering if we dare look. But the psychic relief comes with the realization that this is just the way life is. As we used to joke in Texas, “You pays your money, you take your chances.” Texans are tricky when they philosophize, sounding simple in the deep waters of Truth. Maybe that’s why I miss Texas so. There has to be SOME reason!

By the way, this is an example of how I “fill out” one of my chapters that made the list on my “Chapters of My Life”. It’s an exercise in playfully describing a moment of experience in time, remembering specific pieces of life being “seriously playful and playfully serious”.

Watching the Olympics, I marvel at the motion and movement of these fragile humans, frozen in a mid-air leap and twist. Sometimes they “stick” the landing perfectly, sometimes they fall. But they are “all in”, having worked uncountable hours, minutes, seconds to gain their skill. Then, they fling themselves into that precarious moment we know as human experience, carrying inside those childlike souls who somatically know the thrill of joy and wonder. It is a symbol of what we do every day, unnoticed, unscored by an expert panel of judges, but judged nonetheless. We watch the drama in motion of life, feeling both our awe and connection.

And we smile. And what, for God’s sake, is that tear all about?

Can you tell me?

That’s My Story

Last week, I cited a famous line about writing: It’s simple, just sit at your typewriter and bleed.

I am so grateful to those of you who took the opportunity to affirm my bleeding, although one old friend lamented me breaking the illusion that it was Hemingway who wrote it. But the work of writing about writing, “meta-writing”, gave me the gift of recalling something I learned a long time ago.

I was working as the assistant to Jim Fowler at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. My work had me interviewing a broad variety of people about their life history, the fancy term for an interview on their psychosocial history. I would generally begin a three-hour interview by asking for a chronological overview of their life story. That was the fun part, at least for me. I was always surprised at the variety of stories, the intriguing twists and turns of what each person has experienced in this thing we call life.

My trouble was that I became fascinated with these stories, rather than moving on to the the “real” part of the interview which dealt with ascertaining the cognitive structures the person was employing to make decisions about their life, specifically the way in which they were able to make decisions around ethical issues. Were they trapped in a conventional framework of answers that had been passed down from sources that were accepted but largely unexamined? Were they caught in the conflicted tension between competing sets of values? Had that tension resulted in placing this person in the dreaded “vortex of relativity”? Had he/she moved through that vexing vortex to a self-critically chosen frame of reference? Was this person able to use the structure of reason to assess the moral question that was pressing? Had the person been able to achieve an integrity of thought on the far side of the complexity of the problem presented? This was the stuff of careful research. You had to force the process of reasoning that would reveal the “how” people were thinking, not being seduced by the “what’.

This interview would be transcribed and then assessed by a group of researchers trained to identify the cognitive structures being employed. Were there points of evidence around the use of formal operational thinking? Was the logic employed dichotomizing in a strict determination of right and wrong in a binary way or was there evidence of dialectical thinking that found tension in the decision-making process. What level of cognitive functioning did we see at work?

Again, it’s important to note that this is not about “content”, that is, philosophical or theological reasons given for one’s thinking but rather the “structures”, how one is thinking about the moral question addressed. Simply put, it was more about the “how” people thought rather than the “what”. These questions were fascinating to my research colleagues as we tried to prove the truth of our theoretical work of identifying normative, progressive cognitive stages that people move through in their development. My problem was that I was more fascinated by the stories they would tell in the process. As a result of my predilection, my interviews, following the same guidelines as my colleagues, would go for almost twice as long as theirs.

This thrilled the team of folks who transcribed the interviews, making me the least favorite of the research interviewers at the Center. But more importantly, it gave me a clue as to where my real passion resided: stories. I found myself veering off-script to ask probing questions that might look beneath the waterline, to pull back the curtain to see who or what is actually running the show. This tendency made me an expensive research interviewer but a hell of a sleuth in getting at the real story. Asking the probing questions has served me well in my work as a therapist and coach….not so much as a structural cognitive researcher.

As a part of my work at the Center, I was asked to be a part of the design team of events we would hold at Emory and at various sites. In one particular project, Jim asked for me to come up with an activity for the very beginning of the event. In design lingo, he was looking for an “ice breaker”, intended to get the participants engaged with one another and, most importantly, within themselves. I came up with an exercise that came to be known as Chapters of My Life.

We would begin the exercise by prompting the participants to imagine that they had been asked to write a spiritual autobiography. We asked them to review their “life story” in a chronological approach, naming each chapter within that continuing narrative. The project was for them to write down eight to twelve chapter titles that would give a sense of the flow of their lives. After a time of reflection, writing the chapters down on notebook paper, we asked them to give their “autobiography” a title that captured the “feel” of their life.

Then, we wanted them to transfer this work onto the infamous newsprint that educators bring with them to such events, using a wide variety of colors of magic markers. We told the participants, upfront, that we would then ask them to read the chapter titles in front of the group, with NO explantory comments, nor questions asked from the group. Simply read your chapter titles, followed by the naming of your story with a title.

In introducing the exercise, I would “prime the pump” by showing my own chapter titles, which modeled the creative imagination we were wanting. “Abandoned…Yet Loved”, “Grace by Adoption”, “Doctor, Lawyer, Tribal Chief”, gave them some examples of what we were looking for, as the chapter titles were images of that time in your life. I would always pause to tell them of an early participant from within a certain religious denomination, that will not be named (think United), whose titles took this form: “Early Childhood”, “Childhood”, “Late Childhood”. Nervous laughter among the troops ensued. That was not what we are looking for. Rather, we were looking for rich, vibrant, descriptive titles.

Finally, I would admonish them to work on their own, that there would be plenty of time to talk with one another, but this was not that time. I would pause and say dramatically, “No Cheating!”. I would quote Woody Allen that it was cheating to look deeply into another’s soul……this was in a galaxy, long ago and far away, when Woody was popular, and it played well with the groups at the time and got my point across.

And so, it began, I would remind them of the process as they thought deeply in reflection, and then wrote the Chapters of My Life down on paper, transcribed onto the newsprint, and then hung on the wall.

When everybody had finished, I would gather them in a group, standing in the middle of the room. I would lead the group to one corner where one of the participants was asked to begin. That person would read each chapter title, with no comment, allowing no questions or clarification, and then offer the “title” for their life story. Then we would move as a group to the next piece of newsprint, repeating the action until we had gone around the circle, giving everyone a chance to read their chapters and title.

You will remember that the genesis for this was to serve as a mere “icebreaker” to kick off our week’s work. It turned out to be much more.

We moved in a circle, around the room, each person reading the chapters and titles. As we moved around that primal circle, not unlike the fire in the middle of a primitive camp, a sense of the Holy arose. Each life told a sacred story, full of intimated hope, dreams, tragedy, and death. Often tears flowed, voices cracked as memories flooded the room. Participants felt an existential connection with other members of the group as we shared our experiences and the basic work of homo poeta, humans being meaning-makers, making sense out of our lives by constructing narratives, stories. We were standing on Sacred, Holy Ground.

Let me assure you that this was a surprise to our design team, especially me. It felt like a kind of revelatory moment as we touched something deep. It became a highlight of the week’s work, prompting deep dives into each chapter, and rich, appreciative sharing.

Never looking a gift horse in the mouth, I threw a saddle on the beast and rode it for most of my career. I learned a great deal in this accident of design, about the power of story, and the sacred space of sharing it.

I have used it with pastors needing a pause, and a “refresh”. I have used it with seminarians, in the middle of their coursework and in transition into their first parish. I have used it with boards of directors, and all types of groups, even churches. I even used it once with a group of nurses whose spirit had become so depressed that it was lower than whale poo. It has never failed.

So, for grins, you might, in the middle of this crazy time in our country, give yourself a gift. A pause for the cause. Take a moment to:

  1. Write your chapter titles for your life, in chronological order.
  2. Try to capture the “feel” or the spirit of that time in your life with the chapter title.
  3. Give the “story” of your life a title that names where you have been.

You don’t have to share it with anyone. It’s yours, your story. But, you might want to, as it brings the communal spirit into play, which introduces another dimension. But that’s your choice. For it’s your story, a wonderful, amazing testament to the life you have lived. It may grant you a secret wish of seeing a trajectory that is embedded in your life that will allow you to sense where you need to go next in this wild, crazy, precious life. I hope you find this process intriguing, enough to invest some good time and energy in reflecting and naming the chapters of your life. If you do put in the time and energy, I would enjoy hearing about the results. Enjoy.

What’s your story?

Just Sit and Bleed!

Intrigued by the process of writing, I often find myself, late in the afternoon, reading about the art of writing, as recorded by writers.

One of my favorite quotes, for a long time, was attributed to Hemingway.

When asked how he writes, he reportedly responded that it was easy. “Just sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”

As much as I love the quote, and wish to God it was Hem, it was actually not said by Papa, but by a sportswriter commenting on the work of cranking out a weekly column. Regardless of the source, the insight seems true to my experience, although most have evolved from the clunky typewriter.

My means of writing has varied.

The implement of destruction has changed, at least for me. I had a Smith-Corona typewriter when I was in college that I lugged to the dining room or library in my fraternity house. I wrote long-hand in my graduate days, relying on my good friend, Susan Ashworth, to decipher my handwriting, and pound out my work.

I was one of the first people on the planet to have a portable computer, a Compaq beast that resembled a Singer sewing machine. Lord, “portable” was debatable but much more versatile than the industrial models that sat in the basement of the Cathedral. I have since used Dells for my bleeding although I do have an ultra thin Surface that I carry with me at times, just for sport.

These days, my Dell resides in my home office, sitting on my Texas desk, connected to a large screen monitor as a concession to my waning vision. Books stacked threaten to overtake me, my stereo system provides my musical bed for my time at work, varying from the Dead, to Joni to Emmylou, to Trane, and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Eclectic is the operative word, though my son, Thomas’ music brings me my biggest smile. It’s a fine environment in which to work.

The other morning, I jumped up out of bed, ready to write.

I’m lying. I did not jump, not even “rolled”. My wife had left the house early, so there was no early morning repartee. I moseyed out of my bedroom toward the kitchen for a cup of my Death Wish Strong Coffee. The Best. I took the filled large copper Yeti cup and ambled to my office, sitting down at my Logitech keyboard, ergonomically arranged, and began to write.

About an hour later, my wife got back home. I could hear her because the door to my office was open. I heard her call my name, “David”, with some alarm.

“There’s blood all over the hall.”

I paused, wondering if I had killed someone. And then, in a Hemingway flash, it came to me. I remembered hitting my toe on a wooden piece that connects the kitchen floor tile with the wood of the hallway. I recalled almost instantly, that I had hit that small piece in my slog to the office, momentarily threatening my progress. With coffee in hand, I remembered the surge of pride that I had not fallen down, nor spiled the magical elixir. Rather, I was upright, at least in my bodily position, and moving forward to my goal.

I looked down to see that my big toe on my left foot had a small gash on the front edge, and I was bleeding onto the floor of my office. Papa’s attributed words came to me in an instant, like one has upon waking from a dream. I laughed to myself that I was fulfilling this aphorism. I was bleeding as I was writing, literally, if not literarily.

After I doctored myself, the way my biologist mother would have been proud, I came back to the desk and began a slowed pause, to ponder this moment. How is writing like bleeding?

Of course, “writing as bleeding” was pushing the notion of an organic connection with the work of writing, sharing one’s thoughts with others. Surely, writing should come from one’s innards, but there are all kinds of bodily fluids that may flow. I will spare you my thoughts on those, but I imagine you are filling in the blanks. But blood, blood gets to the heart of the matter. I have tended to love the notion of “life blood”, which captures the essential nature of pouring one’s self out. In writing, one becomes clear that there is a cost, and I know it for a fact. But, there is a pleasure that mixes with the pain, somewhat like birthing. To create usually has a cost, as well as a gift. A mixed blessing, which seems to be the only one I know.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about writing recently. Prompted by one of those ubiquitous “profiles” that one is asked for, I was surprised that my lead in “who I was” was that of a writer, not priest, therapist, or coach. It made me pause, which is a dangerous thing to do.

Writing has always been a part of my life, from writing essays in honors English for Ms. Hinkle (Katharine Ross, the Sundance Kid’s girl) who I was hoping to impress: to columns in a sports page in the Tri-Cities “suburban disturber” (my dad’s name for the local paper); to music reviews in an entertainment magazine in Texas; to my weekly column in a church publication. I have always been writing SOMETHING. And as I mentioned a while back, my boss, Dr. Lancaster, used to say: Sometimes I have something to say, and sometimes, I have to say something. Spot on, Bill.

And then there was sermon writing. I loved that part of my work of being a priest. Following my ministerial mentor, Carlyle Marney, I made a vow at my ordination that I would never enter the pulpit unprepared, and I lived up to it…at least one vow pristinely kept. I enjoyed the research into the background of the Scriptures appointed for the day, and it’s connection to a particular liturgical season. I loved the challenge of seeing a new way to look at an old horse, to make the beast run, even gallop. Bringing the sermon “home” to show what difference it made in one’s life was the payoff pitch. Sometimes, I am sure that I missed that crucial moment, but it was not for a lack of trying. I cared, really cared, to make that connection.

The proper question comes as to “why?”. Why did I care so much? What was my motivation?

To attempt to deny my ego’s part in the equation would be foolish, particularly to those of you who know me. It was an opportunity to show both my learning, but even more, to show off my creativity. I revel in my greatest gift, and burden….my curiosity. It’s my only super power. There’s nary a rabbit that I will not chase, as I said for good and for ill. But I took pride, using that slippery word advisedly, in my creative way of connecting things, the old with the new, the past with the now. Ego is a part of it, but not all of it, not the heart from which the blood flows.

There is a sense of art in sharing with other human types my experience of our common world. When I read a writer, I am overhearing his/her description of their encounter with the world, their observations, their feelings, their wonder, their fear, their hope. It’s a moment of connection with another person who is, like me, bound by our individual perspective, but is valiantly attempting to communicate with the “other”, another being who shares this world.

When I sit down at my desk, I am trying to dive deep into my soul as to how I am experiencing life, in both the light and the darkness of human Being. My persona is obviously in the frame as it is a part of my identity, constructed in the effort to make it through the day. But in diving deep, I touch my shadow, the unconscious part of my Self, that I natively try to hide. And I bring my memory, an objective reality that receives my interpretive spin that is unavoidable, trying to wrestle with its amorphous form to find and forge meaning, even purpose.

When I come clean, most of my writing springs from stories. It’s a Southern thing. I fell in love with storytelling, listening to my grandfather. That became more intentional and structured as I became a cognitive developmental researcher at the Center for Faith Development. I interviewed a variety of folks about their lives, recalling the events of their life, and then pressing them to share the meaning, the coherence, the thread of trajectory that runs through their personal narrative. Every so often, I get a feeling that, when I am writing, I am conducting a self-interview, asking myself the same probing questions I previously asked others in an academic research setting. It seems only fair. And I am trying to be honest, allowing the blood to pour.

I’ll end this foray into the art and work of writing by noting a quote that I KNOW to be of the man, himself, Papa Hemingway. It hangs over my desk, along with his picture. Howard Thurman, MLK, Bobby Jones, and Jesus share the space…how’s that for a team.

Hem’s framed words come from A Moveable Feast. It’s his advice to any writer. It comes from his reflections on his time in Paris….. France, not Texas. It’s the reassurance, the self-coaching he would give himself in the pregnant moment, pondering his work while looking over the rooftops of Paris. “Do not worry. You have written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

I say those words occasionally, like a prayer. As he knew, it’s easier said than done. For there are voices that holler from the cellar of your life that remind you of your failures and lapses of courage. “You, a writer?” they laugh. And current voices that warn you of saying too much, of revealing past secrets and current tensions. Keep your voice down!

But fortunately, there are those balcony people, like Papa, who call you higher, to your aspirations, your passion, your greatest self. They urge you to dive into the deep end, write of the experience you know, daring to risk connecting it to the thing we all know as our life. It starts with one true sentence. And that requires bleeding.

King for a Day

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. is a day I dedicate to the prophet every third Monday of January.

I was too young to know him, but know and knew some of his lieutenants. And I met and knew his momma and daddy, heroes themselves. In fact, I went to visit the King family on that terrible day when Mrs. King was shot and killed at the organ of Ebenezer Baptist Church. It was on my birthday.

I have read everything that Martin said or wrote that I can find. I was just gifted with a book entitled The Radical King, edited and introduced by my man, Cornel West. I used this volume for my annual reading of King’s powerful Letter from the Birmingham Jail. It nails me every time, bringing tears and resolve, my criteria for greatness. I am participating in a group here in Glynn County, on the coast of Georgia, that is reading this book, remembering Martin’s prophetic words and looking to make it real in our own day, our own community. It’s good to be re-minded, to sense the call from his truth.

On King Day, I always recall an interview I gave to a reporter who came to Tyler, Texas during a time of racial crisis. A black grandmother had been shot and killed during a botched drug bust by the Smith County Sheriff’s Department. The Texas NAACP decided to bring it’s annual meeting to Tyler, to highlight this travesty. This announcement prompted a local Ku Klux Klan group to get a parade permit for the same weekend. It was a disaster ready to happen. A church member brought me a copy of John Grisham’s book, A Time to Kill, a book that I read overnight and now sits on my desk. Businesses boarded up downtown windows, expecting violence. Citizens took a convenient weekend getaway to Dallas, or a quick vacation to the Texas coast.

A reporter from the national paper began the interview by asking me “what did you do to get “sentenced” to coming to serve in Tyler, Texas?”

I laughed, the way you have to laugh, when arrogant reporters who don’t understand the situation, ask a stupid question.

“It’s not like that. You need to understand something. My grandfather helped to integrate the Atlanta police department. My parents worked to get Andrew Young elected to the Congress of the United States. But I was too young to march with Martin. I would pray at night to God, asking why God had birthed me out of season? Why couldn’t I have been born earlier so that I could have taken my place in line beside Martin and the movement as he marched for civil rights?……And God heard my prayer, and sent me to Tyler, Texas.”

The reporter included that quote in her article, which made me understandingly popular with the Tyler Chamber of Commerce.

Many times on MLK Day, I was at Ebenezer. However during my Texas sojourn, I actually marched in the first MLK Day parade in Tyler in 1991, gathering downtown and marching up Broadway to the Roman Catholic Cathedral. My close friend, Rabbi Art Flicker used to kid me about “teaching him how to march in an MLK parade” by holding up a bull’s eye target. On that cold January morning, you could see the silhouettes of the SWAT team on top of the buildings as we gathered to march. There had been threats to our safety.

A few years later, I was the keynote speaker, bringing my Atlanta cred to the event, even though the black singer before me upstaged me. I remember quipping as I began to speak, that I felt like Dennis Menke. Dennis Menke has to stand in the batter’s circle while he watched Henry Aaron at bat.

Regardless if I am in Atlanta to attend the ceremony in person, or have to watch it live on a television feed, I am present to the moment. I do have to say that in my younger days, I loved watching the older politicians and ministers who were stuck on the podium. Particularly, the white folks who had no clue that this thing was going to go on for a while. You could see them get fidgety when their biological clocks were ringing, maybe ignorantly having a few too many cups of coffee prior to the service. No coffee for this white boy on MLK Day. That’s the only blessing when I can’t be at Ebenezer in person. Unlimited coffee and bathroom access!

I am happy, proud even, to dedicate the third Monday in January to remembering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. My whole day. I read speeches, books, sermons, maybe write like I am now, always pausing to attend to the service. It is a re-minder, a refresher to the ethical call that Dr. King brought as a voice to our community, to our country, reminding us of our high ideals and aspirations, linking them to our spiritual values.

Some folks forget, some were not around to know that Dr. King was not popular in his day. You could expect that white folks would get upset by the social justice demands that he could make, both with the domestic demands around civil rights and fair wages, but he also began to point out the imperialism of our country, its outrageous military budget, and our involvement in the Vietnam war. He also lost popularity among those blacks who thought non-violence was too passive a response to inequality, and still other blacks who got anxious with his insistence on justice. A majority of black citizens disapproved of his opposition to the Vietnam war. Oftentimes, King found himself opposed by black religious leaders who wanted to maintain the status quo due to their own economic self-interests. But Martin consistently found the courage to set his chin forward to the prize of democracy and human dignity embodied in the right to vote.

A point made by Cornel West is that we have domesticated Martin King to a more palatable form, that is easier for folks to take, much like the pussy cat we have made of Jesus, rather than the roaring lion of justice. We prefer the cute Baby Jesus, cooing in the manger, as opposed to the Jesus who is turning over the tables of the money changers. Have we forgotten the radical King as we make him presentable to the home crowd? When you take the time and energy to read King, and situate him in the context of his speaking, you find a radical advocate for the beloved community. It is galling for senators who quote Martin on a convenient day with little at stake, but fail to rise to the occasion of courage by safeguarding the right to vote for ALL people. Shameful, as if that sentiment still exists in politics these days. Expediency and protection of one’s literal seat is the coin of the realm.

I was thrilled when I heard that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, had been asked to keynote the annual event. I knew he would be good but did not know just HOW good. Curry has used his tenure as PB to push our church as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. He had made it plain that the general marching order for the Episcopal Church is to follow Jesus in his message that Love is the Way. I would refer those of you who have missed the boat, train, and treat, to pick up Bishop Curry’s book, Love is the Way, as a glorious way into the soul and spirit of his passion.

On this day, he took that theme, but played at the variation tuned to our present moment in this country. He pressed for REVIVAL, that is, coming back to life with the common values of our country, namely loving one’s neighbor, regardless of their race, ethnic background, religious tradition, sexual orientation, or, God help us, political party.

Curry got all radical asking Republicans to love Democrats, and Democrats to love Republicans. He quipped that Independents get the chance to love everybody! Love everyone, even if you don’t like them.

Now, this is not new stuff. It’s part of the Hebraic Shema, to love God with all one’s heart, beginning with the centrality of God’s presence in our existence, expressed in Jewish foundational Scriptures and in their daily prayer. Jesus, grounded in that tradition, claims that foundation and radicalized the implications, including loving one’s neighbor, pulling out the admonition of Leviticus. He goes even further with his parables to blow out the full expression of love as even extending that to one’s enemies and praying for one’s persecutors, literally mind-blowing.

Let’s be honest. It simply makes no sense to most reasonable folks. In a transactional world based in the reasonable mantra of quid pro quo, this for that…. such talk is crazy talk. But in the Kingdom of God, it is THE way. The way, Jesus taught. The way of love that Martin took to the streets, even to a bridge. Loving ALL people.

And here it is, and you are not going to like it if you are still with me. They killed Jesus for it, for parading it in front of the religious and political rulers. They shot Martin for it. “They” still aren’t real high on it, because it means they are no longer in control.

Love is the way, even to the radical note of loving your enemy. That’s a high note most trumpets just can’t hit.

Bishop Curry pushed this notion of returning, reviving this basic commitment to love God and neighbor. He pulled out all the stops, brought out all the poetic lines from hymns, even did a Delta commercial, as he deftly knew he was in the Jerusalem of Atlanta. He even danced a little, and for an Episcopalian, that’s taking it to the limit. Michael was “all in” on this thing called love.

And I was moved. Tears rolling down, lips quivering. The preacher, channeling Martin, got to me. And that’s a good thing. But the question is, are we going to hear the call, really hear it so that our narrow perspective of ego is exploded out to the Other, the Neighbor, the Enemy? Can we dare say ALL?

Each Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we remember the Dreamer, and his shimmering Vision of the Beloved Community. And every third Monday of January, the existential question is posed anew: Will you carry that Dream forward? Every third Monday of January, there is King for a day, but what about Tuesday…and Wednesday?

Justice for Ahmaud

I am writing this on January 7th, the day after Epiphany. It was the day of sentencing in the trial of the convicted killers of Ahmaud Arbery.

Having written extensively throughout the trial, it seems like the right thing to do in bringing the story to its conclusion.

I went to the courthouse this morning for a prayer vigil held by the clergy of Glynn County. I then went and watched the sentencing process on an online feed from the courtroom.

It was wrenching to hear the mother and father of this 25-year-old man who was killed on Feb. 23, 2020. February 23 sticks in my mind because it was my ordination date to the diaconate, St. Polycarp’s feast day. He’s my kind of martyr….he waited to get into his 90s before getting killed as a martyr for the faith. And February 23rd is the date on which my mother died. So the 23rd of February is highly valenced in my soul.

As you would imagine, both the father and mother expressed a deep love for their boy, a young man with so much promise. They fought through emotions to express themselves to the court and to the defendants they faced as to the cost of this act of chasing down their son who was running through the neighborhood, and then shooting him with three shotgun blasts, killing him on this neighborhood street. I can not begin to imagine their pain, though I tried my best to empathize with those feelings.

After they had expressed their pain, it was time for the attorneys of the three defendants to offer their best shot in bringing sympathy for their situations. I tried hard to listen to these attorneys who did their best to defend these three men in their trial, and who now faced the Herculean task of squeezing some understanding as to why they should not be punished to the fullest extent of the law for their deed of murder. I was surprised at my own upwelling of feelings for these three. Their lives are basically finished due to some bad decisions made on a winter’s day, “driveway decisions” is how the prosecutor described it. I think of the cultural prompts that all three of these guys had been receiving through most of their lives. The scary privilege that sometimes goes with law enforcement folks who assume they are still “the law” even when they are no longer in that role. What made them think that running down this young man in a truck was the right thing to do? And for that lapse in judgment, Ahmaud’s life was taken away.

As the statements concluded, Judge Timothy Walmsley took a moment to pause before he rendered his judgment. He prefaced his sentencing with some thoughtful remarks as to how he saw this case, this murder. He empathized with Ahmaud’s parents, noting the pathos in the loss of this promising young man’s life. Throughout the weeks, I was struck by the judge’s appropriate professionalism in managing this high-profile trial. But he seemed to yield to the moment, amazingly human in the moment just before pronouncing judgment.

Judge Walmsley almost seemed pastoral in his demeanor as he made a point to speak to this particular time in the community’s life. Here, I am thinking of the community in concentric rings, extending from the town of Brunswick, to the State of Georgia, to our divided nation, to our fractured world.

The judge framed his statement in an unconventional move, something that reminded me…of me, that is, something crazy that I might do from the pulpit to drive a point home.

He said, ” I do want to put that time period in context, and the only way I could think to do so- it may be a little theatrical, but I think it’s appropriate. I want us all to get a concept of time. So what I am going to do, I’m going to sit silently for one minute.” And so we sat in silence for one seemingly endless minute.

The judge clarified that this one minute period of silence was only a fraction of the five minutes that Ahmaud was running away from his pursuers, chasing him down with pickup trucks, with a pistol and shotgun, yelling threats at the young man, to “blow his f***ing head off”. The silence was deafening, and seemed to go on forever, giving those in the courtroom an experiential moment of empathy.

When the minute ended, the judge said slowly, “When I thought about this, I thought of a lot of different angles, and kept thinking back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores.” This is a grand example of emotional intelligence, namely an empathetic moment of perspective-taking.

Judge Walmsley went on, “I read somewhere and I don’t remember where it was, that at a minimum, Ahmaud Arbery’s death should force us to consider expanding our definition of what a ‘neighbor’ may be and how we treat them. I argue that maybe a neighbor is more than the people who own property around your house. I also believe that assuming the worst in others, we show our worst character. Assuming the best in others is always the best course of action.”

The judge then rendered his verdict, sentencing the shooter and the driver, son and father, to life without the possibility of parole. The third defendant, the driver of another truck who served as the camera operator, was also sentenced to life, but with the possibility of parole.

The judge, as did the community of Glynn, tried to redeem to loss of life that took place when these killers took the law into their own hands. Trying to wrestle a lesson out of this tragedy, the judge sounded like a teacher of mine I once heard on the side of a mountain, talking about loving your neighbor like you would love your own self, that is, seeing the other, the neighbor, as connected to you.

After the trial, there was the ubiquitous press conference in front of the courthouse. Various folks spoke, but my attention was on the parents who had sat through repeated images of their son being gunned down with three shotgun blasts, watching him fall to the pavement, seeing his body on the asphalt oozing the lifeblood. They had to sit through the black and white photos from the morgue exam table. Through it all, they showed dignity and restraint, but with an insistent demand for justice for their son. In front of this crowd gathered in support, they said they finally got it, justice, that is.

I stood to the side, watching, listening. My new friend, Ms. Annie Polite, stood beside me. She had been there every day from the beginning. An 87 year-old black woman, a native of Brunswick who has spent her professional career in New York City, had moved back to her hometown. When I asked her, she said she was an activist, with a particular passion for education. But for these long weeks, she was here at the courthouse, usually the first one to begin the chant, “Justice for Ahmaud!”. She didn’t have a megaphone. She didn’t need one.

I must confess that I was initially bothered by the jubilation in the crowd. My own mood was somber, with the deep sense of pathos for a young life stilled by the worn-out Southern gothic story of a black man chased down by rednecks in a pick up truck. I am tired of this story. I’ve heard it too many times.

But then, I looked to the courthouse steps and caught sight of a robed black minister with doctoral chevrons down his sleeves. He was clapping his hands, doing a dance that would rival my man James Brown. His face was beaming with a smile that would light up the night, as he looked heavenward, saying repeatedly, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”

That was then I got it. Why jubilation is in order, “meet and right so to do” as we old Anglicans say. This represented a reversal. Folks who had been downtrodden, denied their rights under the law, made to feel like second class citizens by a culture that pushed them down and to the back of the bus….this verdict was a symbol of America paying up on a promise made too many years ago, a promise too long forgotten. I know I only caught a bit of the joy, but it was powerful stuff. Enough to bring a smile to my face, and perhaps restore my hope in this country that seems to be foundering on the old rocks of denial of our democratic principles and our original sin of slavery.

In that moment, as the sun was setting to the left, over the East River, I was able to join Ms. Annie, propped up on her red rocker walker, in chanting that mantra of both demand and hope: Justice for Ahmaud. Justice for Ahmaud.

Post Note: To listen to the actual judge’s voice, Go to the podcast, Buried Truth by my friend, Hank Klibanoff, in the third season, and the most recent post, Killers Sentenced. Available at most podcasting sites. https://www.wabe.org/episode/killers-sentenced/

Home By Another Way

To forget your lines in a dramatic production is unforgivable. But it happens…or should I say, it happened.

I was a senior in high school and had been asked to take the role of one of the Wise Men in a musical production. I only agreed because the coolest teacher at Briarwood, Phillip Hood, was going to be playing one of the other Wise Dudes….Mr. Hood was black, and he seemed to be my ticket to cool, if there was any chance in hell. I studied his moves, how he interacted, his style. We didn’t have many models for cool at my high school. So I signed on.

I had rushed to the school for the dress rehearsal, right after finishing a golf round, so my mind was still gnawing on the last putt I missed. That is where my mind was, at Canongate Golf Course, when I made it just in time to be at the procession of the Wise Men.

We were to enter from the back of the gym, process down the left side to the front where the stage was set. We had the three gifts: a Georgia clay brick, covered in gold foil; a wooden box that was to bear the fragrant frankincense; and the large suspicious green bottle of cologne that was purported to hold the precious myrrh, though I was thinking Polo.

After the long processional walk, with spotlights upon us, a prefigurement, a proleptic moment for my future, I had the first line: The star over yonder stable is.

I had practiced my lines- I was “that” guy who you could count on to get it right. Even with the missed putt pounding in my brain, I got this! No problem.

Except as I followed Mr. Hood into the gym, my mind must have wondered as I wandered. Instead of the intended line, my brain free-associated with Shakespeare and I suddenly became Romeo, not Melchior at all. This is what came out of my mouth: The star over yonder window breaks…..

Mr. Hood, a.k.a. Balthasar, turned his Afro-topped head and began to laugh, and everyone else joined in. At that point, my mama’s teaching kicked it in, as she said that when folks are laughing at you, laugh along, as if you meant to do whatever it was they were laughting at. It proved to be a good strategy on that particular night, at least in the moment. Just call me Forrest.

But I did not, mean to do it, that is. I was mortified. I was in the tender time of being an adolescent who was still negotiating the Copernican revolution that I was not the center of the universe, I was one among many. And the scariest thing that was happening intrapsychically was that it was breaking into my consciousness that all these “others” were looking at me, watching me, determining if I was “cool” or not.

The whole incident did not take but a moment, but it seared itself into my memory. I have wondered since: How is that? Why is that? Our brain, our memory is such a funny thing in terms of what gets remembered and what simply flutters to the floor of our mind.

What’s interesting to me is how each January 6th brings up that memory for me. It’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the last of the twelve days of Christman in the Western Christian calendar. If you are moving the figures of the Nativity like a chess set, the Wise Men are finally arriving at the manger to present these symbolic gifts. I can’t think of the Wise Men without remembering that fateful moment when I forgot my line. On the night of the performance, I nailed it. Gold costume on, sweating like a porcine runaway, my bronze make-up perfect, spotlight focused, I said my lines perfectly, chastened by my lapse of concentration the night before. I thought I heard Hood, snicker when I got the line right, but I was probably just my imagination, projecting, aware of my stark lack of cool, glaringly apparent.

But in spite of getting it pure perfect, why does the memory of the slip-up dominate my Jan. 6th epiphanic memory? I have thought about that, not only about the crazy way I was wired from birth by my parents, but from my church with its puritanical perfection, and the culture of my portion of the American Dream. It was the illusion that one could and should be perfect.

Every Jan. 6th, on the Feast of the Epiphany, I think about that mistake, caused by a lapse in my attention. Although, I have to admit that the events of last January 6th with the insurrection at the Capitol, now may trump my memory in the future. Those moments of violence and acts of ignoring the law may in fact rid me of my slip, even as unforgiveable as it was in my young, impressionable mind.

That scene of the Wise Men came back to my mind last Sunday as we listened to the infancy narrative read from the Church’s tradition. It prompted the priest to talk about those wise men. Picking up on the tradition, the priest reminded us of the symbolic meaning of the three gifts given to the infant Jesus. The gold denoted power, the frankincense was a reminder of the priestly presence, and the myrrh pointed to the prophetic role, but also a connection with that of death as it was used in the ancient embalming process. This trinity of gifts combined in a divine Venn diagram: the kingly power, the priestly presence, and the prophetic call, but interestingly framed in the context of death.

The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel account that included the Wise Men, or Magi, in the birth narrative. There’s no note as to there being “three” wise men, only extrapolated for three gifts named. In case you’ve been missing in action from the Baby Jesus birth story, it was written in the 2nd chapter of how the Wise Men had come searching for the infant that prophesy had foretold. They went first to Jerusalem asking about this promised child that would become king in the future. The current king, Herod, got nervous with the questions. Herod sent them on their way to find this special child, and charged them to return to tell him when they found him so that he, himself, could pay homage. Of course, he was fearful of losing power, like most rulers are, and he planned to squash it out. This is an old, repeated story plot, which was recently played out on our own stage of democracy,

In the story, there’s good news/bad news. The Wise Men do follow the strange star in the sky to a place in Bethlehem where they give the Baby Jesus those three gifts. But these Wise Men are hip to Herod, and rather than follow Herod’s nefarious plans, they outsmart him by going “home by another way”.

“Home by another way”. I love that phrase. It sounds subversive in my ears, as they would not fall sway to the powerful King. James Taylor wrote a moving song about this story, Home By Another Way. I commend it to you. It’s appropriately found on JT’s album, Never Die Young. Take a listen as an Epiphany gift to your own damn self.

Oh, yeah. The bad news. Herod is enraged by the subversive wise guys who did not bend to his power. He ordered the male babies killed, and the Church has remembered them as the Holy Innocents, which should remind us of how power gets used by self-possessed rulers in order to stay in office….oh, I meant to say, keep their kingdom. The innocent get the short end of the night stick throughout history. Same as it ever was.

So what are we to do with this story in 2022. I want to take a prompt by the Wise Men to be a gift-giver that honors the people we love. But I am wanting to follow their lead by going “home by another way”. Rather than gold or other gifts that we can order through Amazon, what is something that I have in my possession that is of value that I might give? What valuable treasure do you have?

For me, it is my time. I can become intentional in presenting my time to others, being present to them as a gift of my being.

An old high school friend that I know is isolated due to health, I can call and give him some time. A former parishioner has just lost his best friend to death, I can call and simply listen to him tell stories about his friend and grieve. A person is hurting from a job change, I can invite them to go for coffee.

The gift is my time, my presence, being with an “other”. The giving of that gift will demand giving up something of value, my time. Rather than hoarding time, pressing it for productivity, what if one might find the alternative, the subversive, “the other way”. I am finding it strangely fun and joy-producing in giving my time away, freely and generously. Give it a try to manifest your joy in this season of Epiphany.

A Person for All Seasons

Last week in my column, I said I was going to be looking on the horizon for the color “purple”. Little did I know it would turn out to be the purple vestments of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

This was to be a typical “end of the year” summary type of article, an “all but the kitchen sink” kind of conclusion to a year that begged for a benediction. But I had none, really.

I woke on Sunday, to ready myself for the drive back to the island. And I saw it. Desmond had died on Boxing Day, a final joke perhaps. With that knowledge of his death at 90 years of age, I had the long drive to ponder its meaning to me.

Is it luck, providence, or just the way it goes? It all depends on your worldview, how you think this thing called “life” is wired. It was my job for a number of years, before becoming a priest, to interview a wide swath of people about what sense they made out of their experience of living in this world. It was called a faith development interview, as they recounted their journey in life and revealed what meaning they had found.

It was a great job there at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. I was much more interested in the stories of the people I was listening to than in the research of “scoring” of their cognitive structural stages through which they made decisions, found value, and assigned worth. And that was my problem, or gift, again depending on perspective. I was more interested in people, their mystery, as opposed to the data they presented to our cognitive stage theory. It eventually led me out of the academy to a more clinical playground.

Back to luck. providence, or the way it is. I was serving as the Canon Pastor at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, at the time the largest Episcopal parish in the United States. At my age and experience, I should have never had this job, but vacuum has always been my friend. We were “in-between” Deans, it’s called an interim. In this strange time, era, or error, an assignment came my way that was either the luckiest day of my life, or a providential grant of favor. Your choice.

Desmond Tutu was coming to the United States on a fund-raising tour, and he was specifically coming to Atlanta, as he was to receive an award from the Martin Luther King Center. The call came from Bishop Swing of California who was arranging his tour. Bishop Child, of Atlanta, referred it to me. Would the Cathedral like to host Bishop Tutu on a Sunday? Does a bear play the Pope in the woods? my scribal gloss!

It turned out that Bishop Tutu was going to be going about the southeast and I would serve as his chaplain during his time. Excitement was an understatement of my reaction but I had a number of surprises to face during his visit.

First, as soon as his visit was announced, we began to receive threats to his life. At the time, I found it shocking, as I had been squirreled away in the proverbial ivory tower. Some were clearly people spouting bile from their basic unhappiness with no intent. Others were detailed with scary specificity. I learned that this is nothing new for the Arch, as he is called. When I first met him upon his arrival at the Cathedral early on a Sunday morning, he emerged from a limo in the center of the horseshoe drive in front of the Cathedral off Peachtree. Camera crews lined the driveway, numbering about as many as the security attached to the Bishop.

Desmond and I embraced, and then turned to go into the Cathedral. Suddenly, his eyes caught some children playing to the side. He broke from the entourage that engulfed him to go say “hello” to the kids. That became my image of his presence, a child-like joy in the moment that was infectious amidst the officious protocol. I followed him as did his security force, waiting for his informal greeting to conclude, shifting back to the slow movement into the Cathedral for the waiting procession.

We had bomb-swept the building early in the morning, and had security positioned at strategic points. He came to my office and we talked briefly, with me asking him if he ever thought hard about the threats on his life. He giggled and told me “no”, as he confessed that he was a bit fatalistic about it. I mused aloud that with his small size, 5’5″, against my 6’3″ linebacker physique, it would probably be me to catch the bullet. He laughed loudly, scrunching up his nose like a mischievous child, and said, “I choose my chaplain’s wisely!”, getting the last laugh.

Prior to his arrival, I learned another thing about hosting Bishop Tutu. He had a full schedule of touring that would take him all over the southeast, but it began here in Atlanta. His schedule was arranged by Bishop Swing, but he was pausing to accept an award from the Martin Luther King Center, the Non-Violence Prize. With that, Mrs. Coretta Scott King thought that she had control of his schedule. I was caught in between a bishop in California and a Queen in Atlanta. It was not going to end well, I feared.

I called my friend and former teacher, Dr. Joe Roberts, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Mrs. King wanted Bishop Tutu to preach at Ebenezer and he was scheduled to be at the Cathedral to preach. What were we to do?

First off, my mama, did not raise her first-born to be a fool. I know how to play a bad hand of poker that you are dealt: every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser (thanks to Kenny Rogers).

Joe (did I mention he was my teacher) insisted that Bishop Tutu’s proper place on Sunday morning was the civil rights “Cathedral” of Ebenezer, where Martin King pastored and preached. I countered and reminded him that Bishop Tutu was an Anglican bishop, and rightly should be in the Episcopal Cathedral. He then played his trump card, the Queen of Hearts, reminding me that Mrs. King’s award is the reason he was here. I then reminded him of how important the Blessed Sacrament was to him and that a bishop would be desirous of Holy Communion on a Sunday, which I bet was not on the menu at his house.

We settled the dispute by agreeing that he would preach, then celebrate the Holy Eucharist at the Cathedral on Peachtree at 9 AM and then would be whisked down to Sweet Auburn to preach at Ebenezer. Amazing what compromise can do when motivated by mutual respect, with just a dash of fear.

The Sunday morning went like clockwork, with Bishop Tutu preaching and celebrating at his Episcopal cathedral, receiving his communion, honoring his Anglican identity. Then, we would go to the hallowed hall of civil rights, Ebenezer, where he would ascend the pulpit to deliver a rousing sermon, appropriately there in the shadow of Dr. King’s spirit. It was a blessing to see him fit perfectly into both the high sacramentality of the Buckhead Cathedral and the spirit-driven worship of Ebenezer. Truly, a person for all seasons.

Interestingly, while he was in Atlanta, the Church in South Africa was voting and confirming the decision to make him the Archbishop of Cape Town, the first black to hold that role. In our trade, such a thing is referred to as “elevation” though Desmond would see it more as widening his responsibility. It would give him for leverage in continuing his amazing work of reconciliation between blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa. During his tenure, he would return to Atlanta for both a sabbatical and later upon retirement, as a Visiting Professor at Emory.

Finally, I learned about joy from Bishop Tutu. His giggle, chortle, guffaw, and laugh….but mostly a giggle were infectious. He could get serious, deadly serious about human rights. It started with the rights of black people in apartheid South Africa, but he extended the scope of his attention beyond his homeland, and he widened it to gender and sexual orientation. His eyes were focused in a way that let you know that he meant business. But just beneath the surface lurked a readiness for joy.

That was a needed lesson for me, as I would get wrapped up in some serious business about civil rights, or justice, and I could easily lose my “self” in the drama. Humor has a way of keeping one connected, to avoid self-righteousness, and high-headed prancing. There is one moment in an interview in which the reporter queries Desmond about his astonishing popularity. He giggles to himself, and then displays his humor in full force: “I think that I am lucky to have a name like Tutu, it gets people’s attention.” Perfect. I have tried to nurture my sense of humor, and often have thought of him as my guide for joy.

On New Year’s Day, the Church in South Africa will be saying their goodbyes to their Arch. I have been moved by so many people’s tribute to his impact upon their lives personally and on our world spiritually. I count myself blessed to have bumped up against the spirit of this person, who demonstrated the power of integrating both a radical commitment to justice, while keeping one’s sense of humor. “I choose my chaplains wisely!” It still makes me laugh.

Desmond Tutu…..rest in peace and rise in glory. Blessed be his memory.

The Color Purple

After praising my finding a sense of home here on the island, what the hell am I doing traveling to Atlanta?

I am asking myself the same thing as I wind my way up the interminable I-16, through Metter and Dublin to the South of God hub of Macon, where Mercer shines. Then, on up I-75 to the Big Peach. Why? It’s complicated.

I am hoping your holiday season is filled with joy and connection. It is fun for me, now that I am not responsible for any Christmas Eve responsibilities for the occasional visitors to the Episcopal stage. I used to feel a particular burden for the outsider, who wandered into a church on Christmas Eve, looking for something he/she could not name. Because, that had been me.

No live-television production of the Christmas Eve liturgy to orchestrate, coming from the Cathedral in Atlanta on WSB, with Monica Kaufman’s 1, 2, 3 intro.

No three service extravaganza from a northern Atlanta suburb.

No packed services from Christ Church, Tyler with a touching Silent Night sung after Christmas Eve communion, in a candle-lit church.

All of those services will go on without me, and my accompanying blood, sweat, and tears. Life goes on, as does the craziness, without me, a good spiritual lesson for priest-types.

I may be back in my Camelot as my monastery church is closed for renovations.

I hope you find a familiar place to celebrate this joyous season of love, with those you care about most. And keep in mind those who may face the holiday sans a dear companion, or friend. I know a few that I will be thinking about this year particularly.

So in this holiday mix, let me share a few presents of thoughts.

First, after my last article, one of my good friends, and faithful parishioners at Christ Church, made a perfect comment. Bobby Fry said, “David came to love Tyler, and Tyler came to love David….at least most!” Perfect. I responded that he called it right. And, that I take pride in the enemies I made….and I am not making a list, and checking it twice. Though, you know who you are! Although, some are dead. Selah, as my hero, Furman Bisher, who now resides in the Christ Church, Frederica graveyard, would say. It’s on his headstone there. It’s a Hebrew liturgical instruction to “pause”. I need a lot of Selaha!

Bobby’s comment reminds me of the Festscrift which was written to honor my mentor, Carlyle Marney by his congregation at Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte. Inside the cover, it says: To Carlyle Marney, from those who loved him, and some who didn’t. Truer words.

Second, use the hiatus of these next two weeks to reconnect. That connection may come in the opportunities afforded by families gathered for holiday. Don’t let the pressure of the moment distract you from the opportunity dead-head in front of you. Take the extra effort to get the alone time with someone who you need to talk with, and rather than exchanging presents, invest the time in some good questions as to what is going on in their lives, and then listen, leaning into their answer. There’s nothing quite like being “heard” and thereby understood. In this crazy time, the gift of being with someone who really “gets” you may be the best present they received.

Another way to approach these two weeks surrounding Christmas is to become a little more intentional. Like Santa, make that damn list! I natively prefer to go on instincts, responding “n the moment”, and there will be time for that. But (big “but”), taking the time to make a list of folks to reach out to in this special time of year can be a game-changer.

Two years ago, I got organized and reached out to some old neighborhood friends, classmates, college friends….all who remain in my heart, but through time and space, I had lost. What a gift to them, perhaps, but in fact, a gift to yourself. That year, I reached out to two “Fellows” from the Center for Faith Development, two Dominican priests, that I had not talked to for over thirty years. They were pivotal in my discernment of vocation and held a special place in my heart. A simple phone call reconnected us, and brought precious memories to the fore. Such efforts don’t always yield such results, but I have a pretty good batting average.

This year, I chased down an old friend who delivered both of my children, Dr. Steve Moreland. He was a member of the Cathedral at the time and did yeoman’s work on the Outreach committee. We were so close that he is one of the folks we asked to be the godfather to our daughter, just before we loaded the covered wagon for Texas. We spent over an hour on the phone catching up. It was my favorite time so far this season.

So, make that list, and your intention to reach out during this magical time. I remind you that if you miss the connection during press of Christmas day, the season has twelve days….remember the lords a leaping and maids a milking! I trust it would be a worthy investment, even better than what your broker is telling you to do.

Third, try leaning into your week with encouragement. I am taking a hint from my Franciscan order in an intentional effort to love. I know that word, “love”, feels worn out for me. But, recently I have tried to make that love real by putting it in the framework of encouragement. For the past few months, I begin my week with my planner looking for opportunities to be encouraging to people that are in my orbit. The “prompt” surprisingly tunes my eyes and ears for occasions to offer words of encouragement to those in the thick of life.

You might begin by trying it on for a day to see if it works for you. I was surprised that if I enter my day with that intention in my spirit, the opportunities seem to “pop”. I am pretty sure such opportunities have always been bountiful but it took me being attentive. And the good thing, the added bonus, is that it feels so good giving these words of encouragement. Give it a try.

Finally, here’s a gift I was given in a moment of my quiet time on my back deck during this Advent season. I was investing twenty minutes each day to being silent, meditating in the middle of the day. It’s been a hectic time, so the gift of centering quietness is a definitely needed “pause for the cause”. Selah.

In one of my sessions, I ended it as I heard some weird sound coming from my left. With my eyes closed, I found my solitude disturbed by this intrusion of noise. As the coastal breeze brushed my cheek, I wondered what rare species of bird this could be. A pileated woodpecker, a blue heron? My ornithological wits were coming up with zero ideas for what bird this could be, and so I slowly opened my eyes.

There to my immediate left was no bird at all. It was a squirrel, sitting beside a planted pot. As he looked me over, he seemed to be as curious about me as I was with him. I had never heard a squirrel make sounds like this particular fellow. He had gotten my attention. As he scampered away, my attention was transferred to some small flowers in the pot. In a bed of green, these small flowers seems to radiate the color purple.

The color was dazzling, but minute as it emanated from a tiny flower, drawing in my attention. The free-association took me to an old text penned by Georgia author, Alice Walker, in her classic, The Color Purple. I used it in one of my first sermons at the Cathedral, which got rave reviews…..several people called the Dean raving about my audacity.

I had referred to a particular, peculiar passage as the young girl tells of a comment made by an older, and much wiser young woman: I think it pisses God off if you walk by a field and don’t notice the color purple.

That one line grabbed me. And still does. There are so many wonders, so much beauty around us that we simply miss in our hurried lives. These small viola flowers reached out to remind me of this spiritual truth. Prompted by a squirrel sound, conveyed a simple flower, there is an abundance of beauty in this world we share.

And so, in response, I have taken up an odd practice as an antidote to my spiritual amnesia. I am training my eyes to spy the color purple in the days ahead. When I see it, I intend to pause, to breathe, to give thanks for the world that our Creator has gifted us. Selah.

Purple. Pause. Ponder, Praise.

I’m just hoping I don’t run into Barney the Dinosaur.

Hope you have a wonder-full season of Christmas as we open ourselves to the Mystery of God’s presence among us. Pause, please. Selah.

Falling In Love

“How is your wife’s toe?”

That’s the question that the young woman at the cash register asked me on the first day of my family moving into Tyler, Texas. I had been sent midday to purchase a trash can at the local grocery store, Brookshire’s. I was in a University of the South sweatshirt and was wearing an Atlanta Braves hat.

“What?”

“How’s your wife’s toe? You are the new Episcopal priest in town, and I heard your wife broke her toe moving in today.”

I knew then, exactly then, that I was in trouble. I was in a small town, where everyone knows your name AND your business. If this is Mayberry, where is Floyd, Aunt Bee, and Otis? I would find each one soon enough. But the point is, I was now living in a small-town environment.

I had grown up in Atlanta, once small but now a bustling metropolis, readying to host the Olympic Games, an “international city”, no longer a mere Chamber of Commerce hype byline. This realization of a small-town scene scared me to death. I was just getting used to wearing the public clergy collar, but now I would be known as THE priest everywhere I went. The love of my personal freedom and privacy, one of my higher values, was in jeopardy.

In the privacy of my mind, I began almost immediately to look for a fast train to Georgia to get me the hell out of Dodge, or Tyler. In the Episcopal major leagues, this involves activating what is known as the Clergy Deployment Office profile, indicating to anyone that cared to notice, that you were interested in making a move to somewhere else. Add a polite, Southern plaintive “please”.

Those search relocation processes take some time. I had spent almost six months in the search process in Tyler. Within a year, I had a call to a major parish in New Jersey, but it did not fit my bill. So I was still in Tyler.

Tyler was a major shock to my system. It was actually a mid-sized city, but nobody had told the folks there that they weren’t still Mayberry. The people acted “as if” it were a small town. It was more Southern than it was Texas, It was a bit gossipy and class conscious. I got a “pass” since I was THE priest, invited to various social soirees in spite of my economic rank.

Fortunately, or blessedly, according to your theology, I was invited by Fred Smith to go with him and the Chief of Police, Larry Robinson, to a meeting with a professor in Chicago, Ray Bakke, who had written a book entitled Urban Christians. He was knee-deep in the revitalization of some of the tougher parts of Chicago, using some basic skills of community organizing. There was this other dude you may have heard of there, with the last name of Obama. I forget his middle name.

Long story, short, we toured Chicago, particularly the work in Cabrini Green, a renowned housing project. After dinner and a trip on the L, see Ferris Buehler, we were walking on the streets of this urban behemoth late in the evening, cue Paul Simon.

I had a chance to talk to Ray alone, and I asked him what I thought was a simple question. “How do you go about changing a city?”

Ray’s answer produced steam in the cold air of the night, and a chill up my spine, “You have to love the city.”

That was not good news to me. “Ray, I don’t even like my city. How can I love it?”

I remember Ray pausing, and looking off to the horizon before responding to this impudent young priest. “That will take prayer. Much prayer. If you want to change your city, you must begin by praying to God to give you a deep love for the city.”

Damn.

That is what immediately came to mind. How am I going to do that? Seriously, I don’t naturally like Tyler. There are some people I like, even love. But the city? Racism, class distinction, late to the dance of integration of schools, proud of parochial thinking….any one of those could stop my affection for the city.

But I took Ray at his word. And so I began to pray that simple prayer, every morning in my Morning Prayer. Every night in my Evening Prayer. That two-fold rhythm of prayer had lodged in my bones while training at the Cathedral in Atlanta as we did the Daily Office together at the Mikell Chapel Monday through Friday. I packed that practice up and brought it with me to Tyler, Texas, by God.

And so I prayed.

I can not tell you when it happened exactly. I believe it was gradual, incremental. No Damascus road experience for this South of God boy. Slowly. Slowly, as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Geshe Pende, taught me, about the prolonged process of transformation. But it happened. I came to love Tyler, Texas. I found an energy, a concern, a commitment that I had never known before. I was, how do they say it, “All in!”.

I stayed for a decade, pouring myself out, not only for my parish, Christ Church, but for my city.

I left Tyler, weeping as I drove my Yukon across the country on I-20 for Atlanta. And then twenty years later, I drove south to the Georgia coast, in a Tahoe, to my new island home. This island is connected by a causeway to a South Georgia town, Brunswick.

I have been following my Chicago friend, Ray’s advice once again in the middle of this pandemic. Dear God, give me a love for my city, my town. It’s been more difficult in some ways in the time of Covid, and then again, not. Plenty of isolation, time to sit in my natural refuge of a backyard that was once hole #8 on Sea Palms golf course. My new-found, newly formed Franciscan spirituality was a God-send to this old existentialist.

As you have read recently, I have been baptised into the life of this community through six weeks of the trial involving the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. And I am amazed that the same miraculous transformation has happened again. Lightning can strike twice. What’s that line about an old dog…or priest?

I took a drive yesterday, a Saturday, through my new city. I drove through downtown. I went to the courthouse square, with old majestic Southern courthouse that could fit in Harper Lee’s story on one end, and the modern brick structure where the trial took place on the other. The news trucks are gone. The protesters are gone. Empty. Quiet. Pastoral. One of the most beautiful places I have ever been, even though some bad things have transpired right there in broad daylight and in the cover of darkness. This is where I sat with the family, this is where I prayed with my new community of Glynn County. On this gorgeous December day, I paused, and prayed again.

I drove down the highway that follows the river in the port of Brunswick. I turned onto Albany St. which took me to St. Athanasius, a historically black Episcopal church that sits a block from another predominantly white downtown Episcopal church. I would be attending church at St. A’s by way of Zoom the next morning, and then a jazz concert there in the evening. It has a freshly-minted priest who has a verve that reminds me of that time in my life.

I drove on, following Albany to a new community center, Risely, which stands as a promise to what might be here in Brunswick as an opportunity to do things right, for ALL people. I turned right, and then right again onto Altama, which becomes MLK as it nears the downtown area. This is my new city, a city that I am discovering that I now love.

I made my way onto the Golden Isles Highway, Hwy. 17, veering right on the causeway that takes me to St. Simons Island. I can look out onto the St. Simons Sound, now cleared of the wreck of the Golden Ray, cue Gordon Lightfoot. Down Frederica Road to Christ Church parish, where I enter into its iconic graveyard. Three young deer await me there among the tombstones, flicking their tongues in the December air from the marshes of Glynn. I pause for a prayer. It comes naturally, effortlessly, flowing from my soul hewn by previous times of pause and offerings. This time, it is a prayer of thanksgiving, of gratitude, for place, for home.

Not a bad day’s work for an old, broken-down priest on the eve of Advent Three: Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might, come among us; and because we are sorely hindered by our sin, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us.

Grace again. Grace, indeed. Amen.

My Personal Camelot

Thanksgiving marked the third anniversary of my writing this blog, South of God.

I have not missed a week of cranking out a column. As my old boss, Dr. Bill Lancaster used to quip, ” Sometimes I have something to say; sometimes I have to say something.” Bill was one of a handful of preachers I would actually go out of my way to hear. He was the pastor of Decatur First Baptist Church, a thriving suburban enclave east of Atlanta, if not Eden.

Decatur First Baptist served as a progressive front in the Baptists South of God. Bill not only allowed folks to think, he sometimes forced them to. He was quick to extend grace to people who might have been turned out of a “regular” Baptist congregation. Unfortunately, he was not able to call on that same grace when he went through a divorce, leaving the pastorate and his unique voice behind.

He had hired me as I was beginning my seminary work at Emory, having fled the narrowing straits of the Baptist seminary that I attended for a semester. The straight-jacket of literalism/fundamentalism chaffed my soul, so I left Louisville in the broad daylight headed back to Emory. Bill said I was “running FROM the Baptist Church” and hoped I would take the time to experience a progressive congregation that was smart, creative, and lived in grace. I am thankful that he gave me the time and space to find a place to run TO.

That place was the Episcopal Church where I experienced the sacramental symbol of God’s love and grace in the ritual of the Eucharist, what my South of God friends call the Lord’s Supper. I found that I needed that “experience” of grace every week, which is the case in the Catholic expressions of faith. It was the “pearl of great price” for which I was willing to give everything I had in terms of background, to have for my own. As I age, I find this is even more significant in my life of spirit.

The place I found it was St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta. My first exposure had been in college with Tom Bowers, a pie-faced communicator who talked about Jesus like he was our next door neighbor, that is, he made Jesus real for me.

Later, I returned to Luke’s as a part of the Training and Counseling Center, working mostly with street people, many who had been turned out of psychiatric hospitals. That was an incredible experience in and of itself, with the Rev. Palmer Temple serving as my clinical supervisor. But it was the whole staff and congregation that stole my heart. These folks were actually serious about changing the city, of serving ALL of God’s people, not just folks like us. I got in trouble once calling out the “homo” church in a sermon. I was not speaking of the then-current “hot topic” of homosexuality, but rather the damnable tendency of the church to gather around those who were just like them.

Luke’s had the ringmaster of the Rev. Dan Matthews who had the brass to surround himself with staff who were as smart or smarter than he was, a lesson I took with me. Ray Parkins, Gene Ruhle, Peter Gorday, and Palmer Temple formed an All Star team that I would take into battle, or a cocktail party, any day of the week. It was assisted by a utility infielder, Bill Bolling, who began the Atlanta Community Food Bank there, Mary Ann Kennedy who managed the money, and Doc Willis, my partner in crime at the daily soup kitchen.

I am the boy at the end of Camelot who listens to Arthur talk about that magical place that happened. The admonition was to go forth and witness that such a place is possible. And, by God, that’s a good description of my life, at every parish I served, some willing to follow the vision, some….not so much.

In writing this article, I went back to listen to Sir Richard Burton sing the haunting lyrics from the end of the musical, wistfully recalling that perfect place where even the weather cooperates. In the melancholy of remembrance, King Arthur tells that lad, Tom, to recount the story of Camelot, that “one brief shining moment”, penned by writer Alan Jay Lerner, not some CBS Sports basketball announcer. Arthur exhorts Tom:

“Each evening from December to December, before you drift to sleep upon your cot, think back on all the tales that you remember of Camelot. Ask every person if he’s heard the story, and tell it strong and clear if he has not, that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot. Camelot. Camelot. I know it gives a person pause, but in Camelot, Camelot, those are the legal laws. Where once it never rained till after sunset. By 8 am, the morning fog had flown. Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one bright shining moment that was known as Camelot.”

My phenomenal high school drama department tackled this musical, searing the lyrics in my brain and lodging them in my dreams, my imagination. Prior, in 1960, the musical spawned the dreams of a New Frontier here in our country and prompted the appellation of the young, bright Kennedy administration as a Camelot. It forms and funds part of my personal and collective mythology, the hope of such a land and people.

And so when I came into the ’80s with my experience of an idyllic community of faith, I made the unconscious connection of Camelot with Luke’s.

It seems meet and right so to do…..an Anglican phrase as to the proper place of service and worship… to give thanks for the gift in my life of St. Luke’s. It continues to this day to lean boldly into the future than God has for this congregation on the hallowed Peachtree Street. The mission lives on in the heart of Atlanta, but extends out through the disciples of the way of love, grace, and service that carry it into the world God loves.

My hope is that you have found your own personal Camelot, a community in which you find Spirit and a vocation to lean into life with verve. If you have not found such a place, don’t give up hope. Use this Advent season of expectation to scan the horizon for communities that might offer the opportunity to participate in something that is bigger than you, that extends your reach as a person. Those places aren’t easy to find, as you probably know. But the search is well worth your best time and energy.

Tell me about places that get it done for you, your Camelot. Or places you may be looking to see if they fit the bill.

May this Advent be a time of hopeful leaning for you. Blessings on your courageous act of leaning into the future!