The Proper Christmas Rush

In this pandemic world, my Christmas Eve will not be like any other.

Normally, I would be rushing about, finishing up a Christmas Eve sermon, encompassed by preparation for Christmas services at my Episcopal parish.

It would entail a lot of prep, living with the Nativity story for the season of Advent. I would dig deep, trying to find a transposition of the gist of the Christmas story to the current moment. Looking for a twist, a new angle on the story, I would sit for hours musing about a way to make the familiar story accessible in a fresh way, particularly for those searching in their particular and peculiar darkness.

I would sometimes resort to sitting in the back of the church to watch the children rehearse the infamous Christmas Pageant. On my knees praying for inspiration, I would find myself busting out laughing at the wonderful interplay with Christian education mavens, casting the children and working as simple a choreography as possible to relate the story from the Gospel of Luke.

Recently, I thought up a fiendish plot to press my Christian ed genius, Betty Barstow, to do a new version of the Christmas Pageant, this time, in this dastardly pandemic, using the Gospel of John. There would be only one character, the cheekiest kid in the parish. He or she would come to the center of the stage and simple say, I AM, and stand there holding the space for seven minutes. It would be epic. So much less to worry about. Betty?

The story, the infancy narrative, as it is referred to by scholars, is romantic in conception, but turns tragic as the plot thickens. This cute, cooing baby will turn into someone who has demands for his listeners, not suggestions. This child would develop into a teacher, a rabbi, espousing love and caring for all people, even those folk the society would marginalize and show bias against.

The gentle Jesus, meek and mild, laid in a manger, makes the mistake of growing up. He grows up, develops in the Covenant of his Jewish people, loving God and Neighbor with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. It culminated in his Sermon on the Mount, which we politely domesticate and basically ignore, except for the parts that comfort us. Blessed are the rich and famous….no wait, he didn’t say that.

The Baby Jesus grows up into what some people today are calling RADICAL, and by that, I mean, someone who takes, with ultimate seriousness, the rule of the Kingdom of God, not the current reign of whoever happens to be in political power or office. If you are IN power, that kind of a view seems RADICAL, and not a mere spiritual cheerleader for the status quo, the prescribed order, or as St. Bruce of Hornsby framed it, “the way it is”. The “powers that be” perceive correctly that this dude, this once cute baby, was coming out, making demands, disrupting.

Baby Jesus, all grown up, rolls into Jerusalem at the major festival, Passover, and enters with a crowd size that didn’t require exaggeration by a press secretary. And it obviously got under the skin of the religious and political leaders of his day. Wasn’t this the winsome kid from Nazareth? You remember, the smart kid from Nazareth who knew his Scripture and Tradition when he was a mere lad of twelve. What the hell went wrong? Bad parenting? How did he become so RADICALIZED? What are we to do with him?

The question had changed so radically with him. Back in the day, on that day heralded by a conjunctive Christmas star, the question was “what gift do we bring a Baby King?”. Gold, myrrh, frankincense? And now, the question is “how do we stop him?”.

They figured it out. The religious establishment and political players sought to quiet him as we typically do with a message that annoys. They decided in the temple and in the palace, the places of power: we will snuff the boy out by crucifying him, lynching Palestinian style.

But wait, I can hear you saying. Don’t ruin Christmas for me, Father!

Let’s stay with the soft lights, the sweet hymns, and why not throw in a real Christmas pageant with cute kids, that make the grandparents feel good about the future. And so we do.

Ready on set! Lights, camera, focus on the small part of the action, the feel-good story of a birth in a stable that becomes world changing, with angel wings flapping, shepherds gathering, and even that cultural injection of a little drummer boy drumming. Can you turn it down, please?

I always felt a little sheepish about hyping this cute Baby Jesus, who is so adorable, and comes with a blanket, just like the one in the adorable St. Jude’s Hospital promos. Shouldn’t I tell the folks about the fine print in this contract of laying down one’s life? The hard part of loving those that persecute you? Of turning the cheek when one is struck? That doesn’t sound American. Should I come clean about the end of the story concerning what this Baby will cost, with compounding interest?

No, no, that’s for another day. Let the people be happy…..for a while. They’ll get to Gethsemane and Golgotha soon enough. Trot out the lovable characters, cue Silent Night, and call it a day. Cocktail time, y’all! An acceptable level of numbness.

When I had my live radio call-in show in Texas, I had a person once call on the Sunday night before Christmas. The caller noted that he loved to drive around and see the beautiful Christmas lights. And he went on to say that he had a certain fondness for the manger scenes, they call them “creches” in Paris, Texas. He loved seeing the various characters: shepherds, wise men (early), Joseph, Mary, and that cute little baby. But my caller lamented that one particular manger scene in the front of a Baptist church had a cross behind the manger stall. It troubled my caller to see a reminder of the ignominious death by crucifixion of this infant. The caller said it well in his Texas drawl, “They don’t even let the little feller grow up before putting him up on that Cross!”

I remember chuckling as he said those lines. Not exactly a surprise, because I wrote the lines, and they were adroitly delivered by my producer and friend, Paul Kyser, now a physician in Longview, posing as a character we had created, Buck….from Bullard. We used Buck as a plant, to pose pressing question, disturbing questions, disrupting questions. It was my way to posing the deeper question implied in this story: who is this baby, and what does it mean for me?

This need for “truth in advertising” raised its ugly head here and there throughout my career. It was counter-balanced by my love, my heart for the seeker who is looking, searching for meaning in their life. Christmas Eve is THE event that seems to bring in the crowds, some merely following the cultural Christmas rush, but some come, sincerely seeking an answer to their deepest Questions about life.

The love for the seeker led me to use the cultural shadow of a holiday to push the winsome message of the Christ, sent by a loving God to point us a way through our dark night, point us to the truth wrapped in flesh.. Jesus represented God’s love for the Creation, captured in the image of sending his Son among us, to be like us, to embrace us. This is Good News that has won the hearts of many down through the years. And it’s here, being heralded again, even in a pandemic.

That was the way it happened to me in 1972, going with my girlfriend to the Midnight Christmas Eve service at St. Philips in Atlanta. She and I were refugees, like Mary and Joseph, from the Southside, looking for a place in the night, though she was not with child, thank God.

We entered into the unfamiliar space, with the nose-bleed high worship of the Anglican tradition, music bolstered by members of the Atlanta Symphony. These boys looked like they knew what they were doing. I remember looking at the transcendent architecture, the stained-glass and stone tracery, the measured movement, the reverence of the people, the unfamiliar immediacy of the approaching and receiving communion, the pregnant message of God’s love, all combining to strangely communicate a connection of depth that had eluded me to point. There was a spark of spiritual connection that I could not explain, a depth that defied my chemistry, biology, physics, and logic. But in spite of my questions, I knew that this experience was real. I would have to deal with it.

It was the beginning of a journey that would lead me to a commitment that I could not have imagined on that starlit night. The Mystery of Incarnation grabbed me by the soul and would not let go. What if I hadn’t made the effort to break my familiar pattern of Christmas Eve? What if we had gone to our normal Christmas Eve candle light service? Or stayed home to watch It’s A Wonderful Life? How might my life have been different, better or worse?

I don’t know, but my hunch is that there are people, like me fifty years ago, who are hungry for a connection with something bigger than themselves. In this crazy year of 2020, it may be that the time is ripe, the moment full, for someone to experience the incredible joy and awe implied in this starry night.

It may be in a small gathering of people meeting safely, with masks and a necessary distance. It may even happen under a tent pitched in a storied graveyard, like at Christ Church here on my islasnd. Or, it just might happen through this amazing technology of Zoom that will creatively tell the same old story but in a fresh way that miraculously connects despite cynicism, doubt, disappointment, and boredom.

That is the hope. That was God’s hope in trusting us in this Incarnation, this birth. And it’s our hope as once again, we give it our best shot in telling the story in a winsome way. Blessings on you in this mysterious Christmas season. May your Christmas rush be to that manger, to that Mystery contained in a trinity of words: God with us.

A Golden Thread, or Woven Chord?

I have lived most of my life, guided by the Erik Erikson’s view of human existence as moving in developmental stages. A psychoanalyst by training, Erikson predictably spends more time in childhood, with a focus on the development of trust, autonomy, initiative and the finally emerging identity.

He originally only tipped his hat at old age, as a time of reminiscing, of looking back over one’s life, a life review, he called it. He offered the idea that in that review, one is seeking to find a thread of meaning that runs throughout the narrative that gives meaning and significance. If one discerns that thread, one enters the later stage of life with a sense of integrity, granting a sense of hope. Ruefully, if one does not find that thread, one sails off into the sunset with despair, that is, there is no meaning.

Theoretically, I sensed the power of this observation in my work as a research assistant at the Center for Faith Development at Emory, interviewing a variety of persons about their lives and the sense they made out of it. Our intent, being structural developmental psychologists, was to identify the cognitive structures they were using to think about their lives and the decisions they made. As a more analytically inclined person, I also kept an ear out to the dynamics in play within the psyche of the soul I was interviewing.

Older people fascinated me as they were clearly in a more review mode, looking back over their life, with a profound sense of assessment. Though they were not familiar with Erikson’s theory, they were engaging in the life review work. Some clearly had a sense of integrity, that their life was worth the ride, and there was deep joy that I could sense. And then, there were some persons that seemed scattered, feeling adrift, “at sea”, disconnected, with a feel of depression under the reflection, an inkling of regret that permeated the person. This was my observation as a young adult, full of expectation, great in the Dickens sense, and anxious, in the Kierkegaardian way. I was making life notes as well as doing my job of developmental research.

Later, my first job at the Cathedral was to work in pastoral care with the seniors who lived at the residential high rise behind the campus, Cathedral Towers. There had been several suicides among the residents, pricking the concern of the administration, and motivating them to double down with a therapeutically oriented approach to the job. While initiating a variety of programmatic work, I brilliantly instituted a “happy hour”, after all, most were Episcopalians. But out of those gatherings, I began groups that encouraged life review, or as we called it, “reminiscence’.

I borrowed from my prior work at Emory, working with ministers as they took a pause in their career for an assessment. Gathering cohort groups of ministers of similar tenure, I had developed a starting point exercise which we titled, “Chapters of My Life”. We asked people to list the chapter titles of their “autobiography”, giving transparent titles in images that would capture the “feel” of particular times in their lives. We asked them to frame it in eight to twelve chapters, although we went easy on our restrictions. We also asked that, after they completed the chapters assignment, the participants offer a title to their imagined “book”. What would be the title of your autobiography? we playfully probed.

It was a surprisingly effective exercise that I initially designed as a mere ice-breaker for the gathering of folks before we got to the “meat” of our didactic work. Surprisingly, the exercise emerged as one of the most powerful moments of the week.

I would have the participants, after completing the assignment, take the proverbial educational magic markers of various colors, and write down their thoughts on newsprint. Sprawled on the floor, or spread out on tables, the folks would record their work in interesting ways, some with precise careful lettering, meticulously measured, and others in varying colors and shapes and emphases.

They were instructed to put the newsprint up on the walls in the room. After all the work was posted, I gathered the group in the center of the room, explaining the next step. We were going to move around the room, pausing at each posting on newsprint, allowing the person to read their own “chapters”, in their own voice. I imposed one restriction that was disturbing initially to these ministers: there was to be no commentary, no questions. Just read the text. A tough restriction for those ministerial types who were used to asking questions and “splaining” things. But I was determined to maintain the time limits. The result of the silence was a complete surprise.

What happened was what I call “holy” or sacred space, as there was a deep recognition of the depth of the words being uttered. This was the “stuff” of life, and a sense of awe and reverence was indeed meet and right. We moved around the circle, listening to the voices reading the script of chapter titles, some spoken proudly, some with nervousness, some with emotional breaks, tears, occasionally weeping. Regardless, one got a sense of the power of what was being captured in that “now” moment, our common sharing of the pilgrimage of human life that we all shared. No “splaining” was necessary in that moment. Awe ruled.

I borrowed this for my elders at the Cathedral Towers, without putting it up on newsprint, merely read. There turned out to be something missing without the written words in print, so as we continued the work, I had some volunteer scribes who could assist in the transfer to newsprint. And the circle, with the movement, though problematic dues to mobility issues, it turned out to be worth the trouble. Again, the holiness seemed to shimmer as these older voices shared their “chapters” with their fellow pilgrims.

The “Chapters of My Life” became a starting point for some of my people, as I encouraged them to unpack the various chapters. Some used time to edit their chapter titles, adding more titles, removing some titles, shaping their sense of narrative as they worked. It turned out to be a powerful method to get at this thing Erikson pointed to in the continuing developmental arc of these persons.

That was almost forty years ago. I can hardly believe it. It seems like yesterday, gathering with the Peytons, Don Hinkle, the Snoddys, and my favorite, Elizabeth Dickey. What a group of teachers I had, as I learned what it meant to grow old with grace and grit. And I was the blessed student of the wisdom of these witnesses as to how a faithful Episcopalian who keeps an eye on the horizon for what was coming. These persons were my adjunct professors.

My own work of writing reflects some of the “lessons learned” from these teachers. I’ve been listing my “chapters” for years, filling it out, amending, adding, extracting, and as my kids would remind me, embellishing…..after all, I am South of God. And when I go to my list of twelve, I natively cast an eye to find that thread, that one thread of meaning that unites the variety of experiences that made up my life.

What’s dawned on me recently is that there exists several strands of meaning in my life, woven together into a cord of transformation. I have studied how individuals grow and develop as persons. I dove deeply into how individuals join together in bonds of intimacy and closeness. And then, I shifted my focus to how families form, functionally and dysfunctionally. Extending that, I expanded to gain the insights of organizational development as groups of these things called humans seek to join their visions and wills to make something happen. Eventually, I found myself studying the power, positive and negative, of culture. Centered in transformation and development, I discern my thread has evolved into a cord with a variety of strands, woven together in complexity.

It leaves me feeling excited about what’s next, hungry for the next chapter of exploration, insistent on pushing on down the trail of discovery. Recently, I shared with a trusted colleague my wish of sixty more years to discover, to deepen, to explore. That’s not a bad place to be, psychically. I hope to continue my journey in my new island locale, with a childlike wonderment as to what is ahead. Expectation seems peculiarly right for Advent.

How is it for you? No matter how far down the trail you might be, why not take the challenge to write down your “chapters of my life”? What would be the “title” you would choose to capture the flow and direction of your life? Do you discern a thread, or a cord of meaning and direction that weaves your life together, or are you in the process of putting it together?

Some of my best time these days is coming alongside folks who are in that process. Assisting them discern those patterns, chase those threads of meaning into a cord of trajectory that leads to their destiny and future, it has been my joy as a coach, a therapist, a spiritual director, as a person.

Why not use some of this strange time of holiday in the middle (preacher word: midst) of this pandemic to invest in this exercise of self-awareness? What are your chapter titles? What is the title of your life story? Dive into the playful exercise of review, whether you’re a dinosaur like me, or not. I think you could discover some valuable insights from the past and promptings for the future. Blessings.

Blessings From the Pandemic

Thanksgiving brought me an insight and a gift.

Normally, the Galloway family, my brother’s family and mine, gathers on St. Simons Island for a family feast.

In the past, we would gather at our condo in Panama City Beach, the Redneck Riviera, for a family gathering hosted by my dad and mother. Dad would pick up the tab for lunch at a Thanksgiving buffet at Hamilton’s , a local restaurant. It was a hedonistic feast that would jar my senses with the overabundance and consumption of my fellow Redneck Riveraens as we walked down the buffet line and then rolled out.

Then, we would cook in the afternoon for a family gathering, as I showcased my grandmother’s Southern cornbread dressing and my sister-in-laws fabulous sides. In the interest of full disclosure, my culinary work was significantly fueled by a buttery Chardonnay all afternoon, which made for some interesting variations on my Southern Baptist grandmother’s recipe.

It was a good time, but that tradition faded with my parent’s issue with traveling and finally their death.

We transitioned to a new tradition by renting houses on East Beach on St. Simons, a definite shift from the gorgeous emerald water and sugar sand of the Gulf to the darker blue and sand of the Atlantic coast. After several years of us enjoying that new tradition on the coast of Georgia, both my brother and I bought homes on the island. This terrible year of 2020 would be the first time of celebrating this new tradition with us both as residents of Glynn County.

I almost pulled the plug on the deal as we were cautioned about a family gathering in the face of COVID. My wife and sister-in-law championed the gathering as our two sets of children would be coming from Washington D.C., Nashville, and Atlanta. To say that I was nervous is an understatement as I had been isolating probably more than most, as the pandemic gave me an easy excuse for being my native hermit. But as usual, the women led the way. Selah, as Furman Bisher and the Psalmist would say.

We gathered at my brother’s house on East Beach. My nieces engineered an amazing setting outside on a porch with two tables set across from each other, separated by ten feet. The chairs were arranged so that our two families faced each other, across the gulf of separation.

Now, here resides the engineering magic. In the past, we sat at a long table, with the adults at one end, with the kids and significant others filling out the rest of the table. The result was an unintended segregation of the conversation and dialogue, with boring parental talk on one end, and fun-talk popping on the other. I enjoyed those gatherings, to be sure. Seeing the Galloway clan in one place is always a treat with the variety of interests being represented, vociferously so. But it was not something I looked forward to with great expectations.

Enter 2020. Speaking of expectations, I had none. Rather, I was a bit fearful, leaning into the moment with resolve. The menu went pretty much as normal, turkey and ham, delicious sides, a chess pie awaiting, and my provision of grandmother’s dressing sans the Chardonnay inspiration. But the conversation that ensued across the space was unexpected and amazing.

After niceties and congratulations on dishes well done, we settled into a conversation across the two families. Two invaders, otherwise know as cousin spouses, sat with a proper fear/wonder as the Galloway cousins began to spark and flame. The talk literally was electric as the sun went down, and the owls overhead, my new spirit animal, began to hoot.

The topics were far ranging: aging parents; the scary prospects of introducing a love interest to this whack family; what one thinks about death; how one wants to be buried, just to point out the kind of upbeat talk we entertain in a Scots-Irish family. We discussed the phenomena of squatters in beach houses when absent owners vacate. We actually talked about the reasons that my brother and I found our way into the Episcopal Church, with Mitch specifically thankful for a group that allows him freedom of thought.

The real star of the show was Mitchell, our first grandchild for the group who was present at our last gathering in utero. He arrived right after last year’s Thanksgiving. His command of the gathering was impressive while he shared his bounty with the dogs who knew a good thing when they saw it.

The highlight for me was the disclosure by the children in my brother’s family of the “sign” they have developed to note that the story that is being told has been previously related…..many times!. The cousins simply raise their hand with the index finger pointed up, notifying said teller of story that they are repeating a story that is well known. I was on the floor laughing as they demonstrated this signifying through the evening.

Family gatherings are something that we have taken for granted most of our lives. We would gather in large McBrayer gatherings, my maternal grandmother’s family, in West Georgia.

When my brother lived in Omaha, and we lived in Tyler, Texas, we would gather in the summer on the Gulf coast in Florida, giving “the cousins” an opportunity to have time together. Later, my brother’s family moved back to Atlanta and in time, so did we. The result was “the cousins” going to the same school, Holy Innocents Episcopal School, giving them a unique opportunity to grow up together. This made for a closeness that was never carefully engineered but simply happened happily. I know that my parents were thrilled with the resulting proximity.

It struck me at this year’s Thanksgiving gathering how fortunate we are to have these family gatherings. I do not take it for granted as it has not been a huge tradition, certainly not in the Galloway side of the family. But this year, in particular, it struck me how fortunate we are to have the sense of connection. And it’s a connection that is not “forced” where one feels obligated. Rather, there seems to be a deep desire to gather around these holidays to check in with one another.

The need for social distancing prompted a change in the status quo, a reconfiguring of the normal way of seating. And that alteration “changed it up” in terms of how we related, bringing about a freshness to the encounter. If not for COVID, we would have had the old “familiar” way of segregated seating, with the same predictable outcome. That’s an insight, or as we say at Galloway Consulting, a “lesson learned”. I don’t won’t to lose that.

It’s hard for me to be thankful for this pandemic. So much has been disrupted, made more difficult, and actually caused death. But the disruption can bring about, or force innovation and creativity.

I have seen it with the pastors/priests that I coach, finding creative ways of using Zoom and online platforms to gather congregations for worship and study. Every Sunday morning, I spend my time watching a variety of cyber worship offering. Some simply “mail it in” but most have show incredible creativity, actually seizing the opportunity to do a new thing.

I have observed the adoption of telemedicine that has been around for years, but rarely utilized, becoming a lifeline for patients getting care and attention. The health care leaders I coach have been force-marched into a new way of treating patients, made even more difficult by the urgent treatment of COVID patients.

I have been a part of an organization, EQ-HR, that exclusively had used expensive and involved gatherings in remote venues to deliver its core message of Emotional Intelligence. COVID forced us to get innovative, producing a new way to gather via a webinar that is at once more convenient and more effective. This has produced a change in delivery that will live on beyond the pandemic, a change that had been resisted by folks who would say “that’s the way we always have done it!”

We all hope to go back to a point where we can gather without fear and anxiety. If you live South of God, you long to be able to give one of those traditional hugs, or as one my favorite Southside folks says, “hug your neck”…..which has always been a curious saying to me anatomically.

We all pray for a vaccine that will give us, return to us, the gift of gathering. But, did we learn some things to take with us into the future? Are there gifts to garner as we move forward?

I know that next Thanksgiving, we Galloways will be using what we learned from this year. My hunch is that we will take the new table configuration inside, and be together in a new way that promotes our gathering in a fresh way.

What have you learned from COVID? What blessing did you wrestle from this pandemic that you will not let go of as we emerge? What “lesson learned” have you received from this crazy time?

An organizational development colleague of mine re-minds me, every so often, of a favorite saying: All of get the experience; some of us get the lesson.

Which one are you? Good news is: it’s not too late. What have you learned about yourself, about life? Why not take a proverbial “pause” and write down some notes as to what gift you have received from this rather odd gift-giver. Blessings.

Pushing Off From the Dock

Early morning, but it was already getting humid. The lake surface looked like a mirror, and I wasn’t liking what I saw.

What I saw was a young man that was caught between a drive for exploration and a fear of the unknown. It was not the first, nor the last time, but became a paradigm for life.

I had bought a sailboat, a Cal 25. It was a flush-deck, Lapworth-rigged with a huge amount of sail area, but the over-glassed hull needed all of it to make way, to move the mass through the drag of the water. I would learn that such boats are made for steady, strong winds, not the capricious winds of Lake Lanier.

I had sailed with my college roommate from Chicago, who grew up on Lake Michigan. During Spring breaks, we had sailed in the Caribbean thanks to a fraternity brother from Nassau. After graduation, Kevin had bought a San Juan that we had tooled around on Lanier, me providing the grunt work with hoisting sails. Being the captain of a sailboat was just a dream I had stolen from Stuart Woods and William F. Buckley. It was a fantasy of mine, and yet here I was, on the edge of adventure.

I had taken delivery from the Gainesville boat company that left it tied up at the end of a dock at Aqualand, a marina that catered to Atlanta escapees and wannabes. I had dropped a check off to secure my title, and then made the drive in my SAAB north to my rendezvous with this fiberglass beast.

She was not pretty, not in the least. She had spent her youth in the Caribbean , running from island to island, doing nefarious things, I fantasized. But now, here she was, waiting for me like an experienced woman of the night, willing to teach me how to catch the wind.

After inspecting the boat, like I knew what I was doing, I thought I might wash her down, show her some love. In the back of my mind, I knew that I was going to have to move her to my slip on F dock in another part of the marina. It was not far away. I could simply start the Evinrude motor to back her out, motor her to her new home, and call it a day. But the challenge that yelled at me was not unlike a lady I once knew: Sail me! she insisted.

The thought of pushing off from the safety of the dock teased me, both thrilling me with the possibility of setting sail into this new day, full of promise, and scaring me to death with images of grounding her, ramming a dock, hitting another boat, tangling the lines hopelessly…..namely, looking like the landlubbing fool I knew that lurked beneath my Lands End polo and trunks. A “poser” was at the top of my shit list, my greatest disdain, and yet, here I was.

I gathered my courage, which was running on empty, but my resolve to catch the wind prevailed. I cast off the dock lines, jumped aboard, by myself, single-handed fool that I was. In a moment that remains on the mantlepiece of my memory, I pushed off from that dock, and its illusion of security, headed out of my little harbor into the open water, small as a mountain lake but as challenging as a transatlantic passage for this Atlanta home boy.

That’s really my story. It has been my paradigm, my model for living. Pushing off into adventure. That day, it went surprisingly well, hoisting the main, setting the genoa, sailing up the lake to the dam, an easy sail, a simple series of reaches, tacks, and eventually beating my way against the wind, putting the rail into the water, bringing a smile. It was a great day for the home team when I brought her home to her new slip in Aqualand where she would be my learning lab for two years. I was to graduate to a new Cal, with prettier lines and a more livable cabin, but my first boat, my first love still catches my breath. I imagine that ‘s why they cast boats in the feminine.

My memory of this peculiar and particular morning was prompted by listening to Bruce Springstein talking about the night he left Freehold, New Jersey as a nineteen year old. “Nothing like being young and leaving some place”. He was on the top of a flatbed truck, feeling the wind, looking at the stars overhead, and embracing the freedom of leaving home. The thrill of adventure, of pushing off the dock, leaving the safety of home or harbor, or both. Exhilarating. Just the stuff of youth? Wasted on the youth? I think not.

I felt it again a few months back, as I pushed off my dock in Atlanta, headed south for the island, a new life. Thrilling, and sad, at one moment, sensing a promising new chapter while sadly aware of an ending. Maybe I am a bit wizened or beat up to get beyond the illusion of full freedom. We all are pulling trailers of the past, regardless if we are nineteen or ninety. But the thrill remains.

A new place, a blank piece of paper, or the blinking cursor on a screen. New. Possible, Adventure. Birth. Or rebirth.

What words come to your mind? Your heart? Your soul?

In my tradition, my tribe, it’s the season on Advent. It’s a pregnant time of looking to the horizon with hope, hoping to catch a fresh wind in one’s sails, to sense the magic of movement, powered by the Bernoulli effect or the spirit of discovery.

Advent signals four weeks of preparation, of looking for the fresh, anticipation, of hope.

Dare you hope, in the deep wake of a pandemic, in the split, divisive play of politics? In this dark darkness, dare you squint you eyes to catch a glimpse of the new, the possible, the fresh wind of the Spirit? That’s a question that actually confronts us each morning as we awake to start a new day. Is it just a grind, another day to check off, or is it a time to be embraced with hope?

I have recently written about mindfulness, including a pregnant pause, centering, and journaling. All of these are tactics that serve a deeper strategy of living fully, being present. The image of being awake has always been appealing to me. I once played with the image of the proverbial “snooze alarm” that we push when we don’t want to wake up. I employed it in a tense, tight moment of racial tension in Texas, but the truth is, it is applicable every day. Do we want to wake up to the possibility of the Now moment, or do we choose the zombie way, merely moving without awareness?

Advent gets us in touch with the choices we have made and are making in terms of how we want to live our lives. Four weeks to try to wake us up. It seems timely as it comes in the darkest time of the year, when the nights are longest. Will we grope for the snooze button, or shall we choose to wake up?

For me, it has always been facing the challenge, embracing it, especially the risks, for I can no longer plead youth. But then, I get to choose, the unique existential burden and glory of being human, the “deciding” that is distinctively human. Can I muster the courage to push off the dock again, into the deep water of adventure?

Play with it, if you find it intriguing, or suggestive. What is the dock you are tied to? What makes it secure and comfortable? Why in the world would you want to leave it? What adventure awaits? What dangers are there? Where are you in this time in your life? In my book, the key is in the act of deciding, you making that decision as to what you want to do, what you need to do?

Advent is a precarious season. It threatens to wake you up, to bring you to the cold-faced awareness that there is a decision to be made. To push off and head to open waters….or to remain at dock. What a blessing and curse it is to decide. Regardless, it is our call as creatures on this earth.

I remember the feel of the wind on my cheek, promising to take me away. Do you feel it?

Write It Down

Keeping a daily journal has been part of my discipline of life from the very beginning.

This brief article is a part of a series on self-awareness, as I share some tips around some simple ways to increase your capacity of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the ability to monitor one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others, using that knowledge in decisions and action. Since the identification of this capacity by Daniel Goleman in 1994, EQ has been seen as a major factor in leadership capacity and effectiveness. I have been teaching a four session class through the EQ-HR organization to introduce the science of Emotional Intelligence and practical tips for applying those insights to your everyday life.

In this blog, South of God, I began two weeks ago with a method of spiritual, meditative reading, or lectio divina, using Psalm 139, prescribed for me by the spiritual doctor, Dr. Howard Thurman.

The next week, I highlighted a method known as mindfulness, focusing on the simple act of eating. Savoring the present moment seems to get real in the Now Event of eating, or drinking, as one attends to the multiple levels of reality contained in the object of focus, even that of a grape, “Moby” by name.

This week, I want to turn our attention to the discipline of journaling, that is, writing down, in an intentional way, notes and reflections on the events of one’s life.

I have been writing down the events of my life, along with my thoughts and feelings surrounding those events since my days in college. Beginning with writing in one of those infamous composition books where I segregated my reflections, it was a simple system of just noting the occasions of the day, and jotting down some thoughts. Unclear as to what prompted this journaling, I think it came from reading journals of certain spiritual writers such as Merton and humorists such as Twain., There was no sense of a system of journaling, rather a more Freudian free-association ruled my the day and method. Trying to enter daily notes, the only consistency was my utter lack of consistency.

The whole endeavor of seminary prompted an uptick in self-awareness. Part of the gig was to write down, get on paper, objectify one’s journey in faith. “How in the world did you get to seminary?” seemed to be the underlying question when one enters the seminary arena. In fact, you are asked to write a spiritual autobiography when you submit your application, trying to form a believable narrative as to why it’s a good idea for you to become this thing called a minister.

It leads to a turn of the eye inward, remembering formative events in one’s past as they conspired to lead one into a commitment to the Almighty. As I was writing my first apologia of my life, I remembered, with a chuckle, the comment made by Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farm, the organization that birthed Habitat for Humanity, that plowing in the hot, Georgia sun called many a man to the ministry. That is, rather than hard, honest work, why not go into the ministry? It was a joke told by Clarence when addressing aspiring minister-types, but there was a deeper truth that cut close to the bone.

This process of deepening self-reflection started my habit of journaling. During my doctoral work, Ira Progoff visited our Center for Faith Development at Emory to introduce us to his careful method of journaling called Intensive Journaling. This method involved an almost obsessive-compulsive concern with recording events, thoughts, imaginings, and then cross-referencing them to prompt further reflection. Ira provided me a framework that I have tweaked to fit my way of being, and has helpfully made linkages and connections more explicit.

One of our Fellows, Father Bob Perry, took this method and began a number of groups that did that individual journaling, and then shared the contents in the community of a group. This is when my journaling became more systemized, entering a notation on each day, expanding those thoughts in a separate section, and then cross-referencing with a section in which one revisits the entries.

The sharing of journal entries was a good exercise in community, but I have to say that the primary value of journaling for me is the privacy it provided. In my public life, it was so important for me to have that ONE place where I could have complete privacy. There, in the privacy of my journal, I could express any feeling without holding back, out of anxiety of who I might offend, or upset. Now, maybe that’s not an issue for you but it was for me in my married life, my work experience, in my academic circles, and in my community of faith. Where else could I express my raw feelings? The journal provided a safe space for my emotion, raw and unwashed, and then I could process them in a way which it could be more effectively expressed. The other options are to blurt out feelings without regard for the other, or the polar opposite, to repress those feelings and live a false life that lacks integrity. I happen to like this method that worked for me more often than not.

In coaching others through this method, I encourage daily journal entries, with a morning session anticipating the coming day, a midday session that is a simple “check-in” as to how it’s going, and and evening session that is a review of the day. Those that I coach adapt this to their own style, but the basic concept is clear: be aware of what’s going on inside yourself.

One can merely record one’s present state of emotion. Or one could record a list of events that are upcoming and those that have happened. “Checking in” gives you a chance to jot down some quick notes as to what is going on. Later reflection can be added, using the date as a cross reference.

After a time of forming this habit of simple journaling, additional sections and sessions can be added. Recording one’s dreams is often a very beneficial act. Reading back through a week’s entries can prompt a reflection on the trends occurring in your life. All of this gives you leverage in an investment in your own self-awareness, the hallmark of emotional intelligence. This pays off bigtime in the way you are able to become more true to your self, as well as becoming more thoughtful in your relating to others.

This coming Sunday is the beginning of Advent, four weeks preparing for the Feast of Christmas. Add another week, and you are looking at the welcomed end of 2020 and the beginning of a new year.

Why not make a commitment to begin a simple method and commitment to journaling, discovering what is going on inside your Self. It’s a great way to get a handle your thoughts and your feelings. Pick up a notebook at the drugstore, or a fancy Moleskin journal at a bookstore, and use the next period of time before the new year to check out this way of intentional being in the world. As Bluto would say in Animal House, don’t cost nothing.

Actually, the cost is your time and energy in focusing of what is going on inside your Self. For some, that’s simply too high a price. They opt for an unexamined life, one that’s free of reflection and pondering. But for me, that’s way too high a price in this one precious lifetime we are afforded.

So, write it down, Rather than a ring, put a note on it.

Savor the Moment, the NOW

I have been meditating for over forty years, a practice I refer to as centering. With so many distractions and competing voices for my attention, I have found this centering essential to my health and to my productivity.

Last week, I told the story of how part of my practice flowed from an encounter with a spiritual giant, Howard Thurman, who provided me a way of “abiding in the moment”, traditionally referred to as lectio divina, or holy reading, It has been a part of my habit and practices that I use in keeping me centered in the middle of overwhelming activity. Over the next few weeks, I am going to line out a few of these skills that may be helpful to you in keeping your balance and maintaining your Center of Self in the busyness of life, as the pandemic hovers over us and the hectic holidays approach.

The word that has my attention this week is “SAVOR”. This practice of savoring is rather simple in technique but has proven to be profound in building my sense of connectedness, even in the midst of this pandemic.

Did I just used the word “midst”?

Side-track: When I was a kid, I heard the pastor of my church use the word “midst” a good bit. In the sermon, he would say “midst” and I would think that it must be a holy word because I heard no one else using it. “In the midst”. Initially, I thought he was referring to a “mist”, like when it was lightly raining, foggy, implying a sort of spookiness. Then, I determined that it must be a place to be, like a location, somewhere one wound up being.

Actually, my intuition was pretty spot on for “midst” implies being in a time and space, a locale. It refers to being in the middle of something, with the “something” being between the past of where you have been and where it is you are going. To be in the “midst” meant being in the middle of time, between past and future, literally in the present moment, for as my aforementioned teacher would say, the Now.

Being in the midst, it’s easy to focus one’s consciousness on the past, reviewing where you have been, asking the David Byrnes question, “How did I get here?” Or one may be leaning into the future, considering options and decisions that will take you to a future yet to be determined. With past and future clamoring for you attention, one’s mind may tend either to remember or to project, while avoiding the reality of the present moment, the now.

One trick is to practice mindfulness, which is to be present to the very moment you are in. The Now. An interesting, playful way of experimenting with the Now is to practice, intentionally focus, on the present moment of eating a meal, or drinking some liquid. A Buddhist monk once invited me to play with the word “savor”. I rather liked it, as it felt playful, subversive even, compared to how I had been taught to engage in eating and drinking.

I confess that I often see everyday meals as a necessary evil to bring me sustenance that will fuel my work. A necessary evil. I slug down coffee in the morning to jump start my mind and heart to get “after it” in my work. I have been cajoled into breaking up my day by a lunch, usually very simple, and quick, in order to get back to my work. And then, a more elongated meal at the end of the day, usually engaging in a replay of what happened in the “midst” of my work, and making plans for the future, usually the next day, or the imagined weekend. Meals were pit stops in my race of life.

The invitation to “savor” felt odd at first, even exotic. My instructor invited me to center myself with a few deep breaths. A body scan was initiated, beginning with my toes and moving intentionally up my body, noticing tenseness and pain along the way, finally arriving at the top of my head, or as he called it the crown. I observed that I tend to localize my tenseness in my shoulders and neck. I often use a body scan to get myself to the present, to BE present.

He then invited me to take a piece of the food that was in front of my in a bowl. We had been prepped to bring some nuts, or fruit in abowl. I noted the terse instruction to bring NO candy, which of course sends my mind down the road to imagine a Butterfingers, or a Reece’s devilish combo of chocolate and peanut butter. Damn. I had grown up with all the Baptist rules about “don’t” and now I find even godless Buddhists are forcing compliance. Did I mention “damn”?

He invited me to pick up a piece of the food from the plate in front of me. There were pecans, walnuts, almonds, raisins but I chose a grape.

I was asked to pick up this object (I named mine “Moby”) with the non-dominant hand, for me, the left. Taking this object, to place it in the palm of the dominant hand. You guessed it, my right. We were invited, told, to roll it around on that palm, noting the feel. It was round, so it rolled easily, giving me relief that I did not make the rookie mistake of going with my favorite nut, pecan. Hard to roll that puppy, but my mind began to imagine how I might accomplish that feat. Back to the grape.

After getting to roll the grape for a few moments, we were invited, told to bring it up to our ear and to listen to it. Grapes, not the best conversationalists.

Then, placing the grape in front of my nose, I was invited, told to smell said grape. It was light, subtle.

We then turned our eyes to focus on the color, variations of shades, and hints of light.

Finally, we were invited, told to place the object into our mouths. As I rolled it around in my mouth, the temptation to bite down on that juicy globule of grapey goodness was acute, but having been properly trained as a Baptist to delay gratification, this was a cinch. I promptly lapsed into a pridefulness of restraint, just as Jimmy Carter lusted in his heart, I longed for the bite.

After sufficient toying with us, this sadistic Buddhist monk invited, told us to take a bite.

Oh, my, God. A delicious squish of pure grape juice emanating from the skin. Luscious. Bright, tart, sweet goodness. All from this little fellow I had named Moby, giving his life for my pleasure. The Now moment was sweet as I was invited, told to swallow said object.

The monk’s point was to be in the moment. It seems obvious, simple. But in our rush to move on, to make plans, or execute said plans, we move too fast to capture the moment. Like St. Ferris of Buehler offered his godly admonition: Life moves fast. Pause. Savor. Or you just might miss it. Or words to that effect, you literalist!

He then repeated the process, taking another grape, going through the sensate review of the object. But this time before inviting, telling us to put it in our mouth, he asked us to think about how it got there. The farmers who grew the fruit or the nut. The workers who picked it. The people who packaged it. The truckers who transported it. The grocery clerks that arranged it for viewing. The cashiers who took our money in exchange for this product. This proved to be an amazing moment for me, bringing into awareness the interconnectedness of the network that allowed me to have this grape in my hand for consumption. With that in mind, I was invited, told to eat the grape. It seemed a bit sweeter, more complex.

Slowing down, becoming aware, being mindful, using all the sensory data that comes in touching, seeing, hearing, and tasting. Remembering the wide network that brought this grape to this moment,. This simple grape becomes the sacrament of being. The grape is a silent teacher, re-minding us of the lusciousness of life.

And the grape becomes the gateway drug for savoring life, all of it.

Taking the time, investing the attention to the world around you, and diving deep into your Self for the illusive self-awareness.

This is not a bad way to move into our traditional time of Thanksgiving in which we are called to intentionally exercise gratitude for the various components of our life.

My Buddhist teacher invited me to an experience of mindfulness through this morsel of food. I would invite you to try on this mode of being, of being mindful in this coming week. Just take a moment, at a meal, on a walk, in even just sitting in a chair. To pause, to notice, to be aware.

You up for this? Are you up to it? Savor. Even in the midst of a well-marketed holiday?

Savor the moment. Savor the time. Savor your life. It’s a gift you can give your Self. Savor.

You Know Me!

His face seemed elongated to me, perhaps lengthened by years of stroking his chin, wondering. Wondering about this crazy life we are living, and structures that confound.

His name is Howard Thurman. His face is blazed in the back of my mind, but I have his portrait, a photograph, right in front of me at my desk. “Eyes of age”, implying a hard-won wisdom, look at me daily, reminding me, warning me, inspiring me. And as you will hear, centering me.

I had been encouraged to meet him by my preaching professor, Dr. Joe Roberts, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. For those of you unfamiliar, Joe succeeded Daddy King, Martin’s father, in that storied church on Sweet Auburn Avenue in Atlanta.

I confess I had not heard of Thurman, but Joe’s insistence clued me into the importance of making this happen. It was of cosmic importance, life-or-death kind of moment. Got it.

Joe warned me that I might find Thurman out talking to a tree, which seemed strangely comforting to me, a native Druid myself. I learned that Howard Thurman was known as the mystic, the soul of the Civil Rights movement. It is said that Martin Luther King kept two books in his briefcase at all times; one, the Bible; the second, Jesus and the Disinherited, a book by Thurman.

Thurman was viewed with suspicion by both academicians and activists. Too radical for the careful world of theacademy; too removed in the proverbial “ivory tower” for those marching on the line of fire. He was a “man without a country” in some ways, but seemed to be resolved to living in a tension between those two polarities. My sense was that he experienced a loneliness at times but deep within, his country, his home, was found in a deeper realm.

I was meeting him before he was to speak at Spelman College’s baccalaureate service. Instead of talking to a tree, I found him alone, squirreled away with a few select books and a legal pad. He graciously welcomed me into the empty classroom as we sat. I felt like he was peering deep into my soul as his tired, hound-dog eyes surveyed my soul. What was this boy’s story?, he seemed to be asking.

Young, stupid, and curious, Dr. Roberts knew that Thurman had the medicine I needed for my sin-sick soul. I was serving in a Southern Baptist Church as the “youthie”, the youth minister, while attending a Methodist seminary, trying to figure out my life’s calling, my vocation. Doctor, lawyer, tribal chief? Where should I spend this one, wild, precious life? as teasingly framed by Mary Oliver.

I tried to give him the spiel of my “spiritual autobiography”, a required narrative that every seminarian is obligated to carry in one’s back pocket, and present upon request. He seemed to wave me off the story-telling, getting to the heart of the matter. How might I live my life with integrity? He had read my mail long before I faced him. I was just another one of those young people who had come to him looking for the illusive way of centering one’s Self. And I am sure, his advice, his offering was not specific to me, but in the next few minutes, he offered a method of centering which has provided an anchor for my life.

He described a way to focus, to center oneself in the biblical narrative, notably the Psalms. This is an ancient method referred to as “lectio divina”, or holy reading or holy attending to the text. Christian hermetic monks had employed that method of reciting the Psalter in the context of communal chanting, as well as utilizing it in their private devotions. It was a way of “abiding” in the text rather than studying it, analyzing it, or in good Baptist style, memorizing. I used to joke that a typical Evangelical tactic was to memorize more verses that you are willing to do. This was a subversive approach. “Lectio” intends to engage the text with an expectant heart, waiting upon the Spirit to speak. The trick, as it always seems to be, is listening.

This was not a new method as I had been introduced to it experientially by the Trappist monks of Conyers, Georgia, where I would go to drink in the mystical silence of the monastery. The monks methodically went through the 150 psalms in a cycle for year upon year. Further, Dr. Glenn Hinson, the Southern Baptist mystic, who fed my hunger by directing me to Bernard of Clairvaux, reiterated this subversive method of listening, attending to, rather than the typical way of exposition.. So Thurman’s directions were not unknown to me, but his specificity was.

He “prescribed” a particular psalm for my focus, Psalm 139. He directed me to focus, to abide in Psalm 139 for a month, and then to call him to check in. Being the quintessential student, trained well by twenty years of performing stupid human tricks mandated by teachers, I hopped to it. A month of mornings, meditating, basking, playing in Psalm 139.

After a month, I called Howard to tell him of my excellent work. He congratulated me, and then told me to do it again. The next month, same thing. After five months, I asked if this was going to be the same thing each time. He laughed, and said YES.

I think I got it.

It became my center, my story that could expand me as I breathed in, and center me as I breathed out. The native infinity loop of breathing in….breathing out.

I never asked him why he chose Psalm 139 for me, some sort of psychic mojo? My hunch is that he sensed the profound drift in my sense of identity and intuited my need for home. a center from which to explore. I only know that on that initial day, he began his remarks before the graduating seniors at historic Spelman, with his eyes closed, reciting the first verses of that particular Psalm:

“O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar.

Thou searchest out my path and my lying down; and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.

Thou dost beset me, from behind, and before. and layest thou hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.”

The Psalmist poetically speaks of the deep connection with God, a connection so deep, that one can not avoid it, even if one were to try to escape that love by climbing high or diving deep. There God is, is with you, like it or not.

The Psalmist rhapsodically speaks of knowing you when you were knit together inside your mother’s womb. Your inward parts, even though mixed and convoluted, are known and valued. The days of your life touched and marked by God’s knowledge of you. You are precious. Wherever you might go, God is with you.

This is just the therapy, the healing that I was needing. A brokenness, a psychic tear rending my soul from birth was cauterized by the searing love of God. Other therapists, priests, shaman would assist in the soul surgery, but it was all baptized in these waters, these healing waters of the Psalmist.

And as if to send me off on my journey, charged with the quixotic mission of self-awareness as I travel my path, the Psalmist closes:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my restless thoughts. And see if there be any wicked way within me, and lead me in the way that is everlasting.”

I am convinced that Thurman saw me, really knew me, and gave me the immeasurable gift of Psalm 139. I was fortunate to spend more time with him before his death, but this directive changed the course of my journey. I was blessed to cross paths with this saint who graciously shared his wisdom, centered me, and pointed me toward the Light.

And I enter this new day, this next chapter, wondering where it will lead. But I trust, I know, that it will be a path more deeply into that Center.

Thank you, Joe, for the tip. Thank you, Howard for the insight. Thank you, God, for the journey.

Blessings, indeed.

What Does It Mean to Cast a Vote?

Cast. What does it mean?

I have cast a dry fly on my river in North Georgia, the Cartecay that runs along Highway 52 in Ellijay. I cast a nymph when I first started fly fishing in my early twenties, when I used the weighted line to cast the attractor into the gin clear waters in the Chattahoochie River, up above Helen. During my Texas sojourn, I was relegated to cast a bug for a big bass on Lake Fork and a small fly for bream on Lake Palestine. And I’ve cast flies all over the state of Montana, in the prettiest streams I have known. It’s a favorite thing for me to do, particularly in solitude, casting a fly. Trout seem to prefer God’s most beautiful places in which to live.

But I’ve also cast a play, a production, a musical, in fact. It involves finding just the right person to play a special part in a dramatic production. In a musical, it entails combining a vocal ability, along with the capacity to dance, and add in the ability to not suck at acting. I’ve been lucky to find “just the right person” so many times, and failed on the rare occasion. Some say that I have a good eye and ear, but that sounds like the kind of braggadocious claim that led me to cast my vote in a particular direction.

But the casting you and I have been engaged with recently focusses on casting our vote. We may have mailed in our vote due to concerns of the corona virus, or perhaps with mobility issues. It’s the one time when “mailing it in” is a good thing, a responsible thing.

Or we may have dropped it in a ballot box at a polling area, having secured an absentee ballot, filled it out, and then driving by to drop it in.

Or, we may have gone to vote early, avoiding the long lines to cast our vote at a designated early voting place. Those have seemed to have become scarce these days, which is a bad thing. Voting needs to be encouraged, as my friend John Lewis said, and put his derriere one the line to make it be so.

My way to cast, I say, in the voice of Foghorn Leghorn, to cast my vote is to go to my particular and peculiar voting place on Election Day. I love the excitement of the day, this day that makes us Americans, deciding who it is we want to represent us on the city council, to serve on the board of education, to be on the judicial bench, to make wise decisions in terms of prosecution, to be representatives in the state legislature, to represent us in Congress, and yes, even to go live in that big white house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

I enjoy going to my polling place, to have Kitty, a retired person who was a member at the Cathedral where I served, check me in…..she always does, as she has been a faithful volunteer. Regardless, she dutifully checks my ID to ascertain that a clone is not trying to steal my vote.

Kitty and I were both members of the Rose Society of Atlanta, with her knowing light years more than me about growing roses. She is the quintessential volunteer. Except this year. This year Kitty handed off her duties to someone who was not so susceptible to COVID. And, me, I had moved to Glynn County in coastal South Georgia, with a poll place at a community church on mid-island. Things have changed. Notice how that happens.

How did it feel for you? This felt different, perhaps because of the lingering pandemic, perhaps because of the seeming importance of the outcome. Both parties hyped that it was the most important election in the history of our country. And it is, each time we make that decision as to who will represent us.

Elections give us either/or decisions. You vote for one candidate, and not the other. It’s usually a binary choice, this person and not that person. It leaves those who have chosen the winning candidate with a sense of victory, a feeling that things are going my way, of being in the majority in the city, state, or country.

But it simultaneously gives those who vote for the one who did not win with a bad taste, a feeling of losing, which is rarely a good thing. I’m about fifty-fifty, so I know how it feels how to win and how to lose. And as Tricky Dick infamously said, it feels better to win. For a while, he might have added.

As was recalled in the movie about the Obama-McCain election in 2008, many McCain followers were dismayed, even angry that they lost. I remember the incredibly gracious and reassuring way that McCain congratulated his opponent and urged his voters to abide by the results of the election. He squelched the over-zealous Palin who wanted to beat the drum of dissent in those hours following the historic moment. That’s the kind of patriot John McCain was as he realized the historic moment as we elected the first black man to be President of the United States. While I happened to be working that week at a hospital in Tyler, Texas and on that particular evening, I joined many black citizens in their pride at the change, the increase of opportunities in our country, along the vision of Thomas Jefferson, made more inclusive in the expansion of that idea by Martin King. From counting as only a fraction of a human being, a black man would be the President of the United States. Righteous.

And before that, when I was still a Texan, I remember the magnanimous response of Al Gore to his apparent loss to George W. Bush after a court battle. Gore took the high road of accepting the Supreme Court decision which disallowed the votes in Miami that would have given him the victory. Gore showed his patriotism and his love of country by allowing the process to reach a conclusion. That is the kind of statesmanship that we see and want in our public officials who supposedly serve a higher cause.

I am writing this on the morning before Election Day. I am wondering what the aftermath of this current process. I am struggling. To try to write that one true sentence, I am scared to death as to what will follow this week. Threats of violence, people claiming that there is no way their candidate could lose, the conspiratorial virus that seems to have infected a good portion of our country…..this is the emotional bed in which this process of election will play out.

I am praying, pausing, diving deep to find some sense of hope that we will see our way through. My rabbi teacher used to tell me about something called “meta-awareness” which allows one to rise above the hysteria of the moment.

Pundits and political consultants are trying to stoke the fires, the passions, that just might burn it all down.

Remember when we would send delegations from the Carter Center to monitor elections in so-called banana republics. And now, we are one.

I have been disappointed by the run up to this election. Is this the end of our democracy, or damaging wreck at an intersection? Or will this challenge strengthen us in our resolve to secure the vote to every citizen? Buoyed by the registration of new voters and the pre-vote in record numbers, it is as if we have gotten a whiff of a threat to our way of life and are responding proactively. But are we still going to be wrestling for the next decade, with a persistent taste for crazy conspiracy theories in pizza parlors while ignoring the meddling by outside interests that intend us harm. The vote and decisions on such matters still are in flux, in process. Too early to declare, they will chirp tomorrow night.

My hunch is we will be in a holding pattern. An extended holding pattern, like the planes I used to fly around Atlanta back in the good old days. The flight attendants would bring me Chivas as we banked round and round the metro looking to slip into a descent, even though I had begun my own. I would make my move to Drambuie to signal my sophistication to my lovely flying friend, before tray tables were to be hoisted into their upright and locked position. Man, I picked the wrong election cycle to stop drinking, as Lloyd Bridges might say. Ironic, don’t you think, that he was the biological father of The Dude?

At my desk, I am flooded by Neil Young’s plaintive Helpless, poetically selected for me by the Spotify gods. Followed by Neil’s earlier incarnation in the Buffalo Springfield, urging me to stop, and look around, see what’s going down, a song from my elementary days, the first protest song that I ever “got”. How funny to find out fifty years later that it was written “in protest” to a curfew at a local teen club in LA, not the far-off war as I thought. And then the stereo gods speak with John Prine’s voice, urging me to blow up my TV, throw away my newspapers, eat a lot of peaches, and find Jesus on my own. What the hell algorithm am I riding on this holding pattern?

Finally, my man Jerry of the Grateful Dead punctuates my time of reflection with his one, poignant question: What I want to know is…..are you kind?

God, or gods, you know I’m trying. Flaps down.

And the Daily Double is….

What if you could ask Jesus one question? What might it be?

One of the most famous passages in the Gospels is a moment in which a lawyer asks Jesus a question about what is the most important thing in life. Jesus responds from the depth of his Jewish roots, from the Shema, a prayer-mantra that was repeated every morning by faithful Jews: Love the God with your whole being, and love your neighbor. All you need is love, prompting another four, the Beatles, not just the Gospel writers, to trumpet the simple call to love.

This past Sunday, in the middle of political wrangling, the Church trotted out this famous press conference where Jesus has been confronted by a variety of questioners, attempting to trap him, to expose him. It culminates in this question about the greatest commandment, and Jesus responds with a return to first principles.

Let’s pause for a brief side trip into how the Church presents this powerful moment.

In the Episcopal Church, our readings for Sunday are prescribed in a three year cycle, not at the whim of a preacher. It’s called the lectionary, and it includes an Old Testament reading, a portion of the Psalms, a reading from the letters of Paul, and then a reading from one of the four Gospels. This prescription keeps the preacher from only riding his/her favorite pony every Sunday.

It reminds me of the wisdom of my preaching professor, Dr. Joe Roberts, of Ebenezer Baptist Church, who told me once that most ministers have one sermon that they preach over and over. It’s sort of like the practice in music of a variation on a theme. A theme is repeated but with various instrumentation, different tones, addend enhancements, but underneath it all, the theme remains.

The lectionary, with appointed texts (some texts that one would wish to God might go away) forces the preacher to deal with a panoply of subjects rather than remain on their favored topic. It is the gift of the lectionary to the congregation that ministers and priests can’t just remain in their same old message each Sunday. At least that’s the idea.

As noted, this past Sunday, we heard the pointed answer from Jesus as to the centerpiece of life: the command to love God and neighbor. The priest at my parish on the island made a valiant effort at using this moment to frame our current predicament in this country. How do we enter into this political season of red versus blue?

He creatively pointed to perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of Scripture, the “love” passage in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.. It’s one of the passages that is prescribed to be read at weddings as it touts the properties of love between two people about to enter into this time of bliss. It has been chosen by many of the couples that I have officiated their wedding ceremonies.

You remember it, right? It describes what love is and what loved is not. At a nuptial Mass for my wife and me, the Trappist monk read that 13th Chapter of Corinthians, but inserted Mary’s name, or my name, to accentuate the call to both of us to be loving to one another. It was powerful in the moment. “David is not arrogant or rude.”, the priest read. I remember distinctly my mother laughing. Damn if Mary has not learned the same laugh.

But the point was clear, love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous. That is what marriage is all about, as a crucible in which a person learns about how to love an “other”, someone other than oneself. It’s hard work, but it provides a perfect laboratory in which to press the labor of transcending one’s native self- interest and bending toward loving the other as one’s self. I’m in my fortieth year of this labor, “Forty” being the Hebrew idiom for “a long damn time.” The Hebrew tribe wandered forty years in the wilderness….. point made.

However, my priest made a powerful point. The original setting for this passage was not a wedding in the glitz of Buckhead or even in the edge of a marsh. Rather it was Paul writing to encourage a community that was wracked by division, pulled apart by divided loyalty to one leader or another.

Now, I know it’s hard for you to imagine such a thing. A community divided. Right?

A collection of humans split by loyalty to parties, to do-or-die propositions and beliefs. But, I am asking you to stretch your imagination a bit. This is actually what Paul was addressing, not some Hallmark card poem to two love-gorged humans but to an actual community of persons who were ravaged by diverse beliefs and conflicted loyalties.

So what does Paul recommend? What’s his advice?

Paul implores those in the community to treat one another with an attitude of love. He calls people in Corinth not to insist on their own way, but to take seriously the common life they share. Simply stated, he urges folks to be patient and kind. To avoid being irritable, to not boast of one’s own position, or to take advantage. To resist being irritable, or resentful. Can you imagine one of our current debate moderators offering these guidelines, rather than just a mere caution of clapping at the wrong time.

But push it further. How might these admonitions be embraced by our wider community in the middle of this polarized political landscape? Are we able to regard those who differ from us in political affiliation and loyalty without demonizing them in the process?

The answer on observation of social media is a resounding “NO”.

How did we get here? I remember growing up in spirited debates on issues of how to deal with foreign engagements, fiscal responsibility, programs for health, education, and welfare, and civil rights. And there were honest disagreements as to how to best approach these dilemmas, that is, issues we must negotiate continually, never able to finally solve. I remember opponents being able to engage one another on the floor of debate, and then embrace in friendship and collegial relationship, even have a drink together. Those days seem way gone with the hot wind of contempt.

I have no illusion in our current culture that we can all join hands, sing a few verses of Kum Ba Ya, and suddenly find a sense of community and love one another. Hell, I would take singing the chorus of the Beatles’ Come Together, and not killing one another. Unfortunately, even that seems like a stretch these days.

But I thought I might give it the old college try in this meager article to suggest that one pause as we move toward the election day, and in the aftermath of posturing and lawyering, to listen to Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians. Might we be able to become a people of love, recognizing the worth of the other, seeing value in our sister or brother, rather than reducing her/her to an opinion with which one disagrees. Or as Jon Meacham pull from history, could we attend to our better angels, rather than listen to our worst instincts.

I am going to try to take my own advice, preaching to my own damn self, as to the aspiration of love, and my pledge to follow with my heart, mind, and very soul.

I am at my desk looking at Martin King standing by a photo on his wall of Gandhi, reminding me of his image of the Beloved Community, and his tactic of non-violence. And directly in front of me is the portrait of my teacher, Howard Thurman, who taught me to dive deeply into the waters of my humanity to find connection through the modality of prayer. And finally, I am captured by the icon of Jesus, Pantocrator, the one who taught and teaches of this love. I have pledged my intention to follow him in his way of being. And what the hell does that mean in this current situation?

It occurs to me to reread that 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to re-mind me of love, a way of being that is a subversion of what our culture tells us about winning, of beating the “Other”. Dare I dive in again to this quest, or should I just take a number and get in line in this show of bravado by political pundits and putzs ?

We’ll see. Won’t we? The Daily Double….loving God and Neighbor.

How To Change The World

On my last Sunday in Tyler, Texas, having served a decade as the pastor of Christ Episcopal Church, I had shaken my last hand at the traditional spot outside the door of our church on Bois d’Arc. I was headed back through the church for the last time when I saw a small group of women near the front of the church house.

Bitsy Wynne, the mater familias of Christ Church, called to me as I was hurrying to get out of my hot vestments. In typical style, Bitsy queried, “Well, I guess you’re off to Atlanta to go write about US.”

I paused, and it must have been the Holy Spirit that prompted my response, because I am not that quick, “No, Bitsy. Just about you!”

Funny, Bitsy called it right. For all her bluster, she had a heart of gold, which is what I found in most of the people in Tyler. And it’s that soul that I have written about often in South of God about my Texas sojourn to Tyler.

I had spent most of my life in Atlanta, a large progressive metropolis, where blacks and whites had hammered out a relationship in the crucible of the civil rights movement. It wasn’t perfect, but there was a kind of synergy brought about by the work of leaders in the old Atlanta money, the upsurge of black political power, and the odd mix of religious leaders. Atlanta was heralded as the Empire City of the South and hyped as being an “International City”. It actually became an international city after we brought the world to Peachtree for the ’96 Olympics. Up to that point, it was more of an aspiration in the 80s when I was playing ball.

Tyler was quite a different gig. There seemed to be a deep division between black and white, with the additional dimension on Hispanics quickly changing the demographics of the city. While oil had been the economic driver through most of the century, the bust in 1983 redrew the picture of reality. There were some good things going on in economic development, a rise in the opportunities for higher education, the centering in East Texas for medical arts, the influx of some new industry, and an effort in diversification. But the city seemed to me to be at a defining moment of moving forward progressively with more seats at the table for new constituencies, or the more comfortable option of staying stuck in the “way it was and had to be.”

I have mentioned that there were a number of people who were attempting to make improvements in our common civic life. They were visionaries in their own way, fueled not of just oil, but of heart and hope. The Texas spirit is hard to beat.

One was Larry Robinson, our police chief, who had initiated community policing long before it was fashionable. Larry brought his faith commitment to bear on his work in public safety and had an ethical sensitivity as he worked in his difficult role.

Another colleague was Fred Smith, who worked for Leadership Network, which freed him to devote a lot of energy and time working with the non-profit world in Tyler. Like Larry, Fred operated out of a faith base, and it moved him to enter into the mix as Tyler sought to define itself.

Our faith commitment threw the three of us together to make a trip to Chicago to meet with a person who had experience in the work of developing community in the city. His name was Ray Bakke, a professor and consultant at International Urban Associates and the author of a well-regarded book, The Urban Christian.

Larry, Fred, and I flew to Chicago in the hopes of picking Ray’s brain in terms of how we might make a difference in Tyler. Ray had planned our brief visit carefully. He took us to several urban ministry projects to give us a sense of the energy that can be focused through community solidarity and training. He took us specifically to Cabrini-Green, a storied public project known for its roughness, but showed us how his organization was transforming the neighborhood. It was impressive.

For me, as an Episcopal priest, it was challenging to see this older man who had spent his personal capital investing his life, his days and years, his blood and guts, trying to help this part of Chicago become a better place to live for all people. The four of us wound up on the L Train, traveling at night through the heart of Chi-town, down by Wrigley Field, and other landmarks of this place.

We had asked the raft of questions we had brought with us, and Ray had dutifully, and soulfully answered them to the best of his ability. But I had one question I had been carrying in my back pocket for a while. When the night seemed to still, I decided to ask it.

“How do you change a city?”

Ray paused in the silence and chill of the late evening, looking me square in the eyes….I still remember it.

“You have to love the city.” Ray said quietly, but firmly.

My response erupted from my gut, not editing it as I would have in grad school to impress the professor. “Hell, Ray, I don’t even like Tyler. How can I love it?”

Ray smiled at me with what I experienced as compassion. And then he knocked me flat, “Well then, this will take a lot of prayer. Pray that you will learn to love Tyler.”

It was not the answer I came to Chicago to get from this high priest of urban ministry. But it was the answer I got, to the question that most pressed my soul. You see, I was trying to figure out if I could hang is this medium size city that seemed to operate with a small town mindset. It was, as we say in the trade, an existential question.

Larry, Fred, and I went back to our rooms at the Drake Hotel, caught a plane the next morning, taking us back to Tyler damn Texas. But my life was forever changed, like old Nicodemus who came inquiring of Jesus under the covering of darkness.

I begin to add a specific prayer to my daily regimen that Anglican priests commit to: Morning and Evening Prayer. I had been trained well at the Cathedral to say my prayers in a structured way in order to provide some rhythm, some centering in my life. It was the Anglican way of taking the monastic discipline of cloistered prayer and making it palatable for folks in the world.

I added a simple, but heart-felt prayer every time I paused to pray, morning and night: Give me a heart for Tyler.

I have no idea how that prayer thing works.

I decided some time back to stop pretending that I knew how it worked….and didn’t work. I don’t tend to get all spooky about such things. A pragmatist at heart, I only know that my heart changed. My attitude and service was transformed. Driving me now was not an anger over the injustice, the racism, in bias that I saw. My anger, the fire to make things change remained but my motivation was clearly different. I loved the city of Tyler, and the odd menagerie of people that inhabited that town…..MY town.

I remained in Tyler for a decade. It was a hell of a lot longer than I thought I would stay when I first landed and started looking for the first train out. I turned down a number of opportunities to “move on up” like George Jefferson, due to my commitment to be a part of the transformation in Tyler. And when I did make a move, I confess that I wept at having to leave a city and a people that I loved.

I was thinking about that decade of my life recently. I was reflecting on where our country is these days, our polarization. The spirit in the country is one far beyond hatred but is expressing contempt for those who do not share our views. This is a scary place that we are in, a perilous time at the upcoming election. I quit predicting political outcomes after 2016 and have no idea other than a predictable chaos ensuing regardless. It scares me, and that’s rare.

In the shadow of this apprehension, I am taking a lesson from the time in Texas. I have committed to praying for the country. Not just my little island off the coast of Georgia, though we need it. Not my region of the Golden Isles. Not my state. But my country, and the gaps and blindness that plague us. I am praying for a healing to the hatred and contempt. Praying for rationality to clear the suspiciousness that flourishes in fear and distrust, that winds up in the vortex of conspiracy. I am trying to remember my love for this country that has seemed to have forgotten its first principles.

Is it possible for such a diverse country, with two coasts and a heartland, to come together around a common vision? I grew up thinking it could.

I fervently thought that we might form that illusive “more perfect union”, with good hearts, sharp minds, and hard work. I committed myself to that mission early on in my life, finding my place as a faith leader as one way to make a difference. I decided to spend my one, precious life working for that goal in the way my fellow Atlantan did, knowing full well that it cost him his life. As I listen on this afternoon to a plaintive song by Rodney Crowell, my mood mellows, saddens, and wonders.

And it occurs to me, I’ve been here before. Ray Bakke’s admonition echoes to re-mind me that this takes prayer. Some serious prayer. I got to go with what I know. So I am entering this season with a commitment to prayer, with hope.

What are you doing to make things better? How are you pouring yourself out to contribute to our common life? My friend Ray suggested prayer as a starting place to change the world. What do you think?