In Touch

When I was a young priest at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, I was blessed to have an old grizzled priest as a supervisor. He had served as a Navy chaplain but wound up as the director of a halfway house for drunks in Atlanta, St. Jude’s House. He said he learned a lot about life on the battlefield of war and on the battlefield of addiction. Both are hell, he would quip.

He was from Texas and had wonderful stories of life there that led me to a romantic view of the state. His stories of Del Rio, of rough and tumble living in the hard scrabble plains appealed to the romantic in me. I was still discovering my Texas roots and he was a good saddle pal on the journey. In his latter days, he joined the staff at the Cathedral and was cast in the role as the wizened old priest. His name was Herb Beadle.

With his down and dirty experience, he was my supervisor as I came on the staff as the lay pastoral assistant, working with the indigents who stopped by the Cathedral in their game of Peachtree pinball, going from church to church, seeking funds. It was a tough job of discernment, trying to determine who had a real need, who could be helped, and who was trying to con you. It was a good place for me to learn about the reality of the street, both good and bad. Perhaps that’s where I learned about “the gray”, the not black and white.

My job also entailed providing pastoral care specifically to the elders of the parish…..that’s a euphemistic term for old people… me, now. Old. Aged. Ancient. Experienced. Seasoned. Oh heIl…OLD.

I provided programming for the elders of the Cathedral in a gathering called The Prime Timers….again a euphemism, I got the job by answering honestly in an interview, in which I was asked by an elder professor, why in the world did I want such a low-paying job, given my credentials. My answer was truthful but beyond my wisdom at the time: I want to learn how to be an Episcopalian. These folks can teach me that.

I got the job, over many more stable and qualified folks. I heard later that it was this answer that turned the tide. Call me Deacon Blue.

Part of the joy of my work was tending to the people in the residential high rise behind the Cathedral known as the Cathedral Towers. It was one of the last cooperative projects between the government and church where funds and land were shared to create a space for elders to live in community. As it was just down the hill from the Cathedral, there were a majority of the residents of the Towers who were members of the Cathedral.

I was an immediate hit, beginning a wine and cheese gathering every Friday in the community room, just to get people together. Imagine a former Southern Baptist plowing the fields of salvation with the wedge of cheese and wine! If it was good enough for Jesus…..

When I arrived, the Towers had experienced a rash of suicides which I was not so subtly charged to address. In the past, I had used my doctoral work to get people to begin to talk about their life’s story. I did this with some creative writing, some journaling, and even some exercises that would be called mindfulness exercises today. I wanted them to talk with me, to reminisce.

This is the primary work of old age, said Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst who schooled me with his notions and images of human development. This is the same guy who came up with the term “identity crisis” for young adults. When he turned his attention to old age, he talked about the process of life review. According to Erikson, one gets to the end of life and does the work of reviewing the events of one’s life experience. If one can find a thread of meaning running through one’s life, there is a sense of integrity, your life literally “holds together”. That is good news. However, if there is no sense of integrative meaning, resulting in a kind of randomness, there emerges a sense of despair. This is one of the reasons, clinicians conjecture, for the rise in the rate of suicide among older population.

My therapeutic intervention was in small groups of people gathered to share stories. These gatherings spun off into individual sessions, often revealing the struggles of meaning and faith. One particular man revealed his past failed attempts at suicide. He joked “I can’t even be a success in killing myself!” He allowed me to intervene as his therapist. Truth was, the loss of his wife had been unprocessed, and with just a little work on my part, and stunning courage on his part to face his pain and grief, he took up his paralyzed life, rose up, and walked again, enjoying the life he had left on this planet. Being a single man in a building full of widowed women has it perks….

There are many stories like Don’s, some more dramatic, some tragic. But it was the stuff of life that I was blessed to share with these people, who did, in fact, teach me about being an Episcopalian, but more importantly, taught me about being a human, fully alive.

Back to Herb. One Friday, after a particularly hard day of work, dealing with folks looking for assistance, counseling with folks getting married, and leading groups of older folks getting a hold of their stories, I came to Herb’s office and literally poured myself into his captain’s chair situated in front of his desk.

I looked across the desk at Herb, who was leaning back in his green leather desk chair, a chair that I would later occupy.

I offered up a sentence that was more of a cry for help than it was declarative: Damnit, Herb. I’m depressed on my ass!

Herb replied without a noticeable pause: Ah, lad. Glad to see you are in touch with reality!

Perfect. Truth, unvarnished. No bull, nor horse, or any other excrement. Pure T Texas Truth.

Herb did not launch into a pep talk, a Hallmark card plate of platitudes, nor a coach’s half-time inspirational speech.

Life is hard, at times. It sucks, at times. It can seem unbearable, at times…until you do.

That was the gift my broken down, priest supervisor gave me on that late Friday afternoon.

I have that moment emblazoned in my memory, and I have remembered it, with a laugh and an acknowledging nod throughout my career. Life is a tough go. Let’s get real. As the old song expresses our deep wishes that life could be sunshine, lollipops, rainbows, and everything that is wonderful. And it is, at times, a veritable wonderland. But, and there’s a “big butt” here, boys and girls, sometimes life is hard, really hard.

My experience of human beings is that we have a profound tendency to go binary in our thinking, in our processing of what in the world is going on. It’s appealing. It’s more simple. No fussing with complexity. Keep It Simple Stupid, KISS, the advice goes. Either/or, yes/no, black/ white thinking. The fifty-cent word is dichotomizing thinking. All good, all bad. In my mind, I see this image of Frankenstein, bellowing “good”, “bad”. “Fire bad” the green one would opine loudly, that is, until he wanted to barbecue.

And most of us, if we take a moment to reflect, to think about it, realize that life is “both”.

For me, in my moment of despair, Herb was there to re-mind me that life is bad at time, tough sledding, tough stuff, a cluster, FUBAR as my military trained colleague says. What’s your expression to describe how it feels when it all goes sour? Being in touch with reality is not a bad thing. It’s like my Scottish grandmother was known for calling a spade a bloody hoe. Sometimes, admitting how bad it is becomes the first step to recovering.

Truth is, it’s hard to hold two contrasting truths together at one time. We tend to focus on one side of the equation or the other. So how do you keep the balance? How do you keep both sides of the reality in view if you don’t have a Herb Beadle to collapse in front of?

For me, journaling helps. Sitting down, writing down my feelings, owning them, good and bad, happy and sad, joyful and angry, helps me to remember that life is full of both sides. I want to be in touch with reality. Not in denial as to the rough spots, and not forgetting the fantastic parts of merely being alive and aware. Abiding in silence grants me the time and space to “center” in the moment to feel the really good and the really bad. It what works for me. How about you? How do you maintain that balance, staying in touch with reality.

As an older person, I am clearly doing the work Erikson said was the particular work of old age, the work I used to help others do: life review. But this critical review is not the exclusive domain of the elders. It may come to a crescendo in later years but it’s work that we do all along the way. It’s part of life.

I find myself incredibly grateful for having had people like Herb Beadle in my life who taught me some important lessons on the lay of the land in this place we call life. And I am also thankful for the gift of being Herb Beadle for other travelers on the way, helping them to find that balance, assisting them in staying in touch with the wonder of this ride, this long strange trip.

The Perspective of a Spectator

With the eyes of a hawk, I watched the people enter this Episcopal church on an overcast day upon this island, the first Sunday after Christmas.

In the “biz”, we sometimes refer to these Sundays that follow major feast days such as Christmas and Easter as “Low Sundays”. Mostly, it’s descriptive as to the reduction in numbers. We clergy get sensitive to numbers, particularly after “packing the place” on the culturally conducive attendance dates. The attendance is boosted by the holiday car ads of St. Nick driving a Benz or the bunny who lays Cadbury Cream eggs. It’s called collateral marketing and it is a thing.

We clergy tend to be a sensitive sort, and so “Low” can refer to our spirit as well. Sometimes the sheer abundance of activity tends to deflate our balloon of spirit and we leave the major holidays “done”. Smart clergy sometimes leave town, and the conduct of the liturgy, “the work of the people”, to their assistants. Maybe that’s just me. My fellow clergy are probably more sanctified.

So, here I am, still energized by the Christmas Eve craziness, meeting my daughter’s new relatives in-laws, heading to my favorite liturgical spot on the planet, on what is typically a “low” Sunday, but not for me. Not this Sunday.

I have am rarely an observer like this, as I am either cast in the role as actor or director. It’s rather odd, looking on, with no nerves of performance, no blast of adrenaline. Just watching. Observing people in their comings and goings. Odd, that I do not really know these folks as of yet, so my projection and imaginings are as pure as they can get, at least for me….liturgical Rorschach.

I love the people, as they come through the door which is oddly at the side of the church building. The door is closed, so the people have to open it, like a package at Christmas, not knowing what is there: an empty church, a convention of Amway Diamond Distributors, or merely other sojourners ducking inside on their journey in the storm. Was it St. Augustine who opined that life was like a box of chocolates? Wrong saint.

Some enter with anticipation, looking up, to left and to the right. Some look bored, same ole thing, one more time. Some come looking for a place, a seat in which to sit, a pew in which to ride the magical, mystery tour of worship. Some are looking for a simple seat on the bus, to get on down the road.

One of the things I have learned through the years is that each person, no matter how plain or weathered, has a story. It may be that they do not know how to tell it well, but they have a story. It is a story that tells a narrative of how they wound up in this particular and peculiar place at this time. It’s not by mere chance. It may be pure whim this morning, but their presence here is over-determined by many factors that go back to the very eternal moment of their birth. They may not have a natal star, but they do have a story. So many things could have stopped them from being here in this moment.

The car that hydroplaned on the interstate, sliding their vehicle through the median into oncoming traffic.

The bar fight when someone pulled out a gun and shot randomly into the crowd.

The closed artery called the Widowmaker that shut down blood flow.

The drunk driver who crossed the line of sobriety and roadway.

The indigent visitor who pulled a gun on you in the office. Surprise, surprise!

The drug addict who tried to rob you to feed his ravenous habit.

The Klansman whose racism drove him to break into the home.

The angry parishioner who challenged you in the parking lot late in the night.

Wait. That’s just me and how the hell I got here. I’m the spectator, remember!

The truth is that everyone has their own story that could have been truncated by a variety of decisive moments of fate.

And yet you are here. Entering, Looking. Exploring, Deciding. Sitting, Being.

And I find myself watching, spectating, wondering, imagining.

A large man, ruddy-faced with a bushy white beard, like a Santa substitute from Central Casting, but too burly. Perhaps a retired ship’s captain who has found his port of rest.

A couple, old and bent, who enter holding hands in a non-posed way, smiling without words at one another.

A thin woman in grey, who looks like she’s missing someone, a widow perhaps. Her kneeling, her demonstrations of piety speak to deep spirit, still hungry for the Mystery. Or is it routine, something to count on?

A family enters, led by the mother hen, children and husband in tow, taking what I presume is their regular pew, that no one else dares to sit in.

A retirement-aged man, enters alone and sits in the middle of the pew, seemingly inviting someone, anyone, to join him. I did mention “projection”.

A young couple, in their twenties, enter giggling to one another, about the night before, that God might be blushing about, or a joke that only they know.

A preppy boy, with one side of his shirt tail out, who seems to feel out of place, wondering why he is here. But he is.

A twenty-something woman in a jean jacket who literally slides into the building and into the nearest pew she can find. A refugee perhaps, but from what?

A large bearded man, with slicked back hair, very PBS Scots-manor looking, with two red-headed daughters. Or one daughter and a very young wife….which is it? They take up a whole pew and a space in my imagination.

These are just a few of the “all sorts and conditions” of humans that have made their way to this spot in the woods on an island for a time appointed to worship a Creator God, a Spirit that joins us together in our common existence, our birth, our living of our days, and our death. And at a time I dared to call “low”. Not for them! This is life, ordinary, and sublime.

As we gather, I pause. I lean into the space, dragging behind my particular and peculiar story, like a U Haul trailer, and offer my prayer.

A spectator, no more. A participant. A player, perhaps.

What shall it be? The music begins, “Joy to the World”,and my soul begins to dance. Definitely, a player.

Definitely. I’m an excellent player.

Definitely, joy. Thanks, St. Forrest. Or was it Ray?

To Infinity…and Beyond!

The quixotic mantra of Buzz Lightyear is playfully inspiring and funny at the same time. Its represents our finest aspirations, at the same time, revealing our tendency to overreach.

It’s why I am employing it to title the last blog article of South of God this year. It was just over a year ago, in the glow of a Thanksgiving feast, I made a resolve to write a blog “once a week for the next year”. I did the necessary work of setting up the blog with WordPress, launching it into the darkness of cyberspace. A year later, I celebrate the fact that I, in fact, did it!

I know I work best under deadlines, immediate ones, that set boundaries on my illusion of infinite time. Sunday sermons were a perfect form for my work as they were coming, regardless. The structure, the pressure was a good way to squeeze out my thoughts and reflections. I don’t miss climbing into the pulpit, delivering a sermon in front of a congregation, shaking hands at the conclusion. I do miss the process, which I find myself coaching younger colleagues as they take on this bucking bronco called preaching. I find myself grateful for the time I “get” to spend writing South of God, as it has taken the place of such sport.

On this last week of the decade, I thought I would encourage you, as I do myself, to get ready for the new year: To infinity…and beyond…. but let’s do it week by week, day by day.

When I got the assignment from the Dean of the Cathedral to organize the pastoral care of 5000 people, give or take a thousand, I knew that I needed to get organized. I attended a productivity seminar sponsored by a calendar company, aligned with Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits. I learned a bunch of principles of time management that have served me well. In fact, I wound up teaching the method to the young clergy of the Diocese of Texas that were moving from the rarefied air of the seminary into their first parish work, a tornadic change of pace that tends to overwhelm, even swamp the best of intentions.

The basic premise is to set goals and then to commit to blocks of time to advance progress towards those goals. Pretty simple, huh? They used a powerful example of taking a large Pyrex beaker, the kind you used in lab experiments, only larger. The teacher would then show a collection of rocks, asking the class to predict how many rocks could fit into the beaker. Let’s say “seven” to follow the Covey line, and they were placed in the beaker. Then comes the trick question: Is it full? Unsuspecting, we say “yes”.

The teacher takes out stone gravel, proceeds to pour into the remaining space. The question is asked again, “Is it full?”. Smart people, like me, are only fooled once. Ahead of the game, and with knowing confidence, I answer emphatically, NO!.

The teacher smiles, takes out a bag of sand, begins to pour it into the beaker, filling it to the brim. “Full?” I may have been born at night, but not last night. NO!

The teacher takes out a jug of water and begins to pour the liquid into the beaker, all the way to the top. Full? the rhetorical question posed, and at last, the slower students confidently state: that sucker is full! And they were finally correct, just like a broken clock.

I loved this example, a scientific parable, if you will. It has stayed with me for forty years, a long damn time.

There are lots of lessons to be inferred from this example, one being to think through your answer before blurting it out. But the point that is relevant to time management is that if you didn’t put in the big rocks first, you could not have fit them in. Lesson: start your week off by scheduling the “big rocks” or projects into your week so that they have a better chance of getting done.

I have refined that insight in a methodology that I have used to schedule my life over the years but the insight has remained the same: plan in blocks.

With that in mind, what are the big projects you want to tackle in this coming year?

I want to suggest you take some time to reflect and think about that before the new year kicks off. I always take a solitary day in which to reflect and then to write down my goals for the coming year. You might want to start out with a dedicated hour, a half of a day. Anything is better than nothing. And in the aftermath of Christmas, it might be in the first month of January before you get to it. But as I continue to champion in this blog, it is your gift to decide, the human distinctive, within limits, how you are going to spend your time and your energy.

Why not start this new year with a simple decision to decide to decide?

If you do, I would encourage you to begin with a look back over the past year, noting the accomplishments of the past year. This begins the planning process with a positive momentum. It also respects the fact that our new beginnings are tied to the endings of the past. This is the nature of reality. So take a moment to name where you have been by looking over the past year.

Then, begin to set the goals for the coming year. My style is to go free-form, just allowing the possible goals to surface as they will, in a kind of popcorn fashion. After a time of brain storming, begin to cluster similar projects together and clarify. I literally draw a map, clustering the ideas, the hopes, the dreams. I draw them, use colors and shapes to give me a picture of my coming year. That must be my mother coming through, the artist I have never been. Finally, channeling my analytic father, I narrow the list to eight to twelve projects for the coming year. Write them formally on a list that will stay in front of you in the year 2020.

However, you are not finished. After the list for the year, specify THREE projects for the coming quarter. My colleague and teacher, Robert Miles, who wrote Big Idea, Big Result, has studied the process of change, namely what makes for success and failure, and pushes for a limitation of only three initiatives for a person or an organization in order to focus and align the resources to be successful. The resistance to limit your view to three is massive. I have fought boards and staffs across the country on this simple point. You must FOCUS, align, on the most important three. I have seen this principle work over and over. I commend it for you consideration and experimentation. The operative word is “focus”.

So, here you are, at the end of a decade, about to begin another. I hope you will take the time and invest the energy in planning for this next year. Decide how you desire to be spent in the year ahead, in the quarter, in the week. These decisions come together to form a life. Where do you want to be in 2030? Time to get started. Now.

How many rocks do you think will fit in this container?

Put the Camera on the Bishop!

Thought I would share a quick, fun story from my past Christmas exploits.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I was a Jedi knight, otherwise known as a Canon in the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta. I was the youngest Canon by a long shot, most of my colleagues being just a bit older than God.

It was the tradition at the Cathedral to broadcast the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass on WSB-TV each year LIVE! LIVE means “live”, meaning anything that goes wrong remains wrong, no do-overs, no second takes. To say people got a little nervous was an understatement. I absolutely loved it.

We had this long Atlanta tradition partly because the station manager at WSB was a Cathedral communicant, Don Elliot Heald. Growing up in Atlanta, with WSB being the bastion of electronic journalism, Don Elliot Heald had saint-like status with me and my grandparents and parents. He would do editorials on the need for civil rights, a vision for a progressive South, and general good stuff that pushed the envelope for folks South of God.

When I first met Don Elliot Heald, it was when he came to hear me at the formidable Cathedral Forum, where I was presenting a book review on a book about Catholic mystic and monk, Thomas Merton. it was like me meeting a folk hero. Don was so gracious in his lavishing praise on my work that morning. Through the years, he completely lived up to his image, being one of the finest human beings I have known, on top of having a wicked sense of humor that I enjoyed and shared. Don had the ability to not take himself too seriously, and I am sure that helped in running his landmark television station. Some of my favorite memories of Don revolve around preparing for and producing the Christmas Eve telecast.

Every Christmas Eve, people across Atlanta would turn on WSB to catch the Midnight Mass from the Cathedral. I had done so at my Southern Baptist home, and finally went to see it live with my girlfriend in high school. Actually, it became nationally broadcast for many years, something Atlanta was proud of, joining the Pope in Rome and the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C..

My first time of participating in the live broadcast, I was asked to fulfill a special role. I was to process into the Cathedral, dressed in my heavy and stunning cloth-of-gold vestments, shed the duds, a la Elvis “Thank you very much!”, go out the back door, run down the side hill on Andrews Dr. off Peachtree, climb into Ted Turner’s production truck, normally used for Braves games, and assist the director of the television production. Got that? Piece of cake for the kid.

You see, the director was from the tribe of Southern Baptists, South of God, and had no clue what a Mass was or looked like. A Mass for this guy was something a surgeon removed. While he would be making sure the television signal was just right, it was my job to actually direct the shot by telling him what the important action was and what to anticipate. There was one stationary camera in the balcony, one on the side, behind a column, and two portable cameras, being carried by cameramen.

The director was the normal type, looking for the interesting shot to go out over the metropolitan Atlanta. He seemed to have a fancy for one particular woman in the choir, the stained glass of the nativity, and for the creche, a manger scene with a peculiarly white Baby Jesus. Jesus had golden hair and blue eyes, not Palestinian in the least. Every chance the director had in the beginning of the service, he had the cameramen put the camera of the girl, the glass, or blond Baby Jesus.

Watching the camera shots with more than a passing care for what was going out to Atlanta, I became a bit amused, actually kidding the director for his attraction to the one chorister, and that damn blond Jesus. There’s another story about me kidnapping the blond Baby Jesus, but that will have to wait for another day. Back to the service.

It has started as usual. Monica Kaufman, in her signature winsome smile, inviting the WSB TV viewers of the 11 o’clock news to join the Christmas Eve worship service at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip. As Episcopal parades on such high feast days tend to be longish, the live broadcast caught us in the middle of the opening hymn.

The opening processional was going well, with the brass instruments from the Atlanta Symphony playing their hearts out, the tympani being struck with majestic rhythm, the Robert Shaw singers intoning the sacred sounds, dressed in Elizabethan garb. It was a spectacle, a spiritual extravaganza, proper for the heralded birth of the long-awaited Messiah.

I could see on the monitor from the back stationary camera that the Bishop was coming to take his place at the center of the high altar where he would deliver his open acclamation to the crowd assembled and to the television audience.

And yet, the on-air shot was going back and forth between the choir, the trumpets, and the blond Baby Jesus. I knew what had to be done.

I said in a calm tone, trying to maintain my Zen cool, to the director, “Put the camera on the Bishop.”

The director said to the cameramen, “Put the camera on the Bishop.”

One of the cameramen on his headset replied, “Which one is the Bishop?”

Hearing his question, I pointed to the monitor from the stationary camera at the Bishop, “That’s the Bishop!”

The director fired off his precise direction to the cameraman, “Put the camera on the fat guy with the pointed hat”, describing the Bishop of Atlanta, The Rt. Rev. Judson Child, pretty damn well. And the cameraman did as told, just in time, as they say.

The shot came off without a glitch. Bishop Child offered the traditional Christmas acclamation, and the Grinch was foiled again. The Baby Jesus arrived just in time.

The clergy always gathered after the live television broadcast, out behind the Cathedral for a moment of Christmas cheer, usually involving some brown whiskey, maybe champagne, to celebrate our successful work. It was to become a tradition that was the favorite part of Christmas to me, the collective celebration of Christmas, stoked by the inimitable thrill of being on the air “live”, the appreciation of the comaraderie of a job well done, and the exquisite joy of the season. Nothing like it, before or since.

On that night, as I told Bishop Child of what had happened in the production truck, no one laughed harder than him. “The fat guy with the pointed hat!” he kept repeating. Judson knew and recognized the joy of the mystery of Incarnation as well as anyone I have known. I think of him on Christmas Eve, each year, and smile, and once again taste the joy of the Good News birthed in that night.

I wish you a grand time of joy as we pause in this celestial moment of darkness to dare offer a laugh and cut an eye for the Light that gives hope, and joy. Blessings.

Finding What Was Lost

Last week, I offered four questions that might prompt your reflection during this season of Advent, as time of expectation and hope.

One of the four prompts was to reach out to folks that might need a word.

Guess what? I took my own advice. I reached out to a number of folks who had been crucial parts of my development about forty years ago. By the way, you may have missed my insight into the deep meaning of “40”, forty, in the Hebrew tradition. Forty is a Hebrew idiom that means “a long damn time.” The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness, on their exodus from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land for forty, count em, forty years. That’s a lot of wandering. I should know.

Two of the three I reached out to were Fellows at the Center for Faith Development where I worked at Emory. Both were Dominican priests, Bob Perry and Paul Johnson. They were in the same seminary class so they know each other well, the kind of knowing that families and married couples have. They are both eighty-seven years of age, speaking of a long, damn, time.

Bob had done his doctoral work on the psychology of Carl Jung and the theology of Bernard Lonergan. When I first heard him tell me that, I thought to myself, ” What kind of masochist is this dude?” To take on one of these thinkers is a huge task, but two, and then try to integrate….. gargantuan. Bob always had a practical side and tried to make his scholarship helpful for regular folks. Because of this drive, he had become a proponent of journaling as a spiritual discipline. He introduced me to it as a spiritual exercise and invited Ira Progoff, famed founder of the Intensive Journal Workshop, to come to Emory. Bob formed a group that met weekly to work with the journaling methodology, my new wife and I being members of the group. Those of you who have followed South of God over the last year know of the importance of journaling in my life.

Like Columbo, I searched for clues and found Bob living in the God-forsaken Lubbock, Texas. Actually, Lubbock is one of the five places the McBrayer brothers of my ancestry wound up when they came to this country from Scotland. I was reminded of some lyrics to a song: happiness is Lubbock in my rearview mirror. Moses would add a verse about “Egypt”, I guess, but let’s leave the Lubbock jokes for the moment.

When I talked to Bob, he is still active, involved in some campus ministry and doing some work as an itinerant preacher, in the Dominican tradition. I specifically wanted to thank him for the importance his ministry had on my life in introducing me to the spiritual discipline of journaling. His life had made a profound difference in mine.

Paul was also important. He was always involved in campus ministry. It was his passion, and as he came to Emory as a Fellow, he continued that as he interacted in his normal pastoral manner. For me, he was a willing ear for my struggle to make sense of my Southern Baptist heritage and my new-found love of the larger and longer Catholic tradition. Having an understanding and listening ear when one is wrestling with spiritual issues is quite a gift, and Paul gave it to me graciously.

I found him in the Dominican house in Chicago, now struggling with reduced heart functionality and other health problems. He lives in a community of priests, which has a rich common life, but he is limited in his activities. He voice was still welcoming and affirming. I took the opportunity to tell him how much his pastoral presence meant to me, particularly when I was wrestling with what to do with my life. Paul gave me holy space in which to figure it out for myself. I will always be grateful.

The third person I found in my reconnaissance was Jeremy Miller, also a Dominican priest when I knew him. I had just departed Louisville to return to Emory to pick up on my studies. He was one of my first seminary professors, the only Roman Catholic one, in the predominantly Methodist seminary. He introduced me to John Henry Newman, who had been a noted Anglican priest and scholar, who eventually wound up as Roman Catholic priest, a Cardinal, and recently given saint status. Jeremy’s teaching brought a Catholic way of thinking to my life and introduced me to the pristine logic of Newman’s way of deciphering the development of doctrine. Jeremy’s erudition, and his sophistication of thought proved winsome, as he gave me a model of a human I could aspire to. On top of that, he had played basketball in college and was quite a worthy opponent on the Emory court.

In many ways, Jeremy taught me to think like a Catholic, which was broader in scope, qualitative in assessment as opposed to the more binary thinking of my past, that is, right or wrong, in or out. The Trappist monks assisted me in that development as well, as did many Episcopal priests, as well as a few maverick Baptists. But I specifically wanted to thank Jeremy for the role he had played in forming my way of thinking. By the way, I found him outside of Philly, retired from teaching in a Catholic college, married, with two grown sons.

So, this week, I reached out to three people, who happened to be Dominican priests, to thank them for their gifts. But I had a surprise coming.

My old saddle pal, Chris Wall, called me out of the blue, and gave me the gift of reaching out. Chris is a singer/songwriter in the best of that tradition. I met him when I was teaching at the Episcopal seminary in Austin, the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest. I had flown in from Tyler to teach my class that met in the evening. When the class finished around nine, I took off to enjoy the music scene of my favorite city on the planet.

I was still in my clericals, meaning my black suit, black clergy shirt and white collar. I went to the quintessential Texas honky tonk, the Broken Spoke, and entered the front bar, saying hello to the owner James White who my UT friend, Peter, had introduced me to long ago. I took off my collar, and sat down at a table with the drink that James had given me.

It was my first time to hear this band, fronted by Chris, and they were a typical hard-driving group that was easy on the ears. They were doing mostly original songs that Chris had written, lyrics that caught my attention. By the way, Chris is famous/infamous for writing the classic, I Like My Women Just a Little On the Trashy Side. It had been a favorite of mine and is legendary on honky tonk jukeboxes throughout the territory. Chris’ lyrics are both clever and close-to-the-bone, just the way I like it.

When the band took a break, Chris walked over to my table, looked at my black outfit and offered: Well, you are either a priest or Johnny Cash?

Friendship on.

We wound up talking that night and several other times that quarter. Chris actually came up to Tyler to visit me, and went with my family to see Michael Martin Murphy’s Cowboy’s Christmas at our local University of Texas university. Chris and I continued developing our relationship over the next few years. He honored that friendship by asking me to officiate at his wedding in Austin.

We stay in touch, with his recent move to Montana and my many changes. He has been dealing with some health issues, as have I, and we have compared notes along the way. He picked up on some signals from me that I was struggling a bit, so he took the time to give me a call. What treat for me to get a call from my friend from Austin, just checking in on his pal.

I told him of my struggles with the diminished mobility from my torn quad tendon. I am able to get around okay in my home and in my study, but times out in public rub my nose in the limitations I am dealing with. No more jumping around on the deck of my sailboat without worry of falling. No more dancing to the funky beat, even with the additional handicap of being a white boy. That’s when it smacks me aside the head and reminds me of just what I have lost.

Chris sat and listened to me talk this out, both my frustration and anger, as well as my gratitude at being alive and joy of my work. He gets it, like few do. He gets me, like few do. That is a gift indeed to have that person, or few persons who actually understand you in all your complexity, and simply let you be. Not try to fix you, or set you straight, just let you be. Chris gave me that gift in his call and his patient willingness to give me space in which to be. I am grateful, and give thanks for the people like, Bob, and Paul, and Jeremy, and Chris, and Wendell, and Phyllis, and Judy, and many others who are there for me.

There’s nothing like bad times to sort through your Rolodex of friends to find how who is really there for you, and who is not. It’s a tough lesson to learn but it is true. Those few loyal friends are the real gift. That’s why I try to be that good friend to others and provide that kind of support. Like the quote from Doc Holladay, “I don’t have that many friends.” I have learned to value the ones I have.

There are a few more weeks in Advent before Christmas. Take a look at the list of suggested questions from last week. But right now, think of someone you need to reach out to, that would make a difference with a call or a note. Who might that person be in your life, in this particular moment, and then do for them what Chris did for me? Reach out!

You don’t have to be a priest or Johnny Cash. Just a good friend.

Ready or not

Advent comes at the end of the year OR the beginning of the year, depending on your perspective.

In terms of the solar calendar, it is timed with the Winter Solstice when it is the darkest time for us in the northern hemisphere. It is a time when nightfall seems to invade the day earlier than normal, always affecting my spirit. The time of daylight is diminished making a not so subtle point as to the dominance of darkness in the fluid polarity with the light. Just as the sun goes down each evening, the sun seems to be absconding with the light that brightens our existence. As if there were a cosmic theater director, it is accompanied by colder weather, adding to the feel and tone. For me, it messes with my mood.

This is when the Church has chosen to dramatically play with the theme of darkness and light. On Advent One, a single solitary light maintains its place within the darkness. Each week, one light is added to the Advent wreath of greenery to make the sensual point of the light coming into the darkness. Liturgically, it is the season of hope coming into despair, of light breaking through the darkness with the very Light of the World, what Christians claim is the key to understanding what life it ultimately all about..

I remember before I became a catholic, sacramental participant, Advent wasn’t even on my radar screen. After the Thanksgiving parades, Georgia Tech-Georgia Freshman game, a family feast of turkey and dressing, it was a countdown to the Christmas holidays, the arrival of the Sears Wish Book for perusal and coveting practice, and the transition from football to basketball.

Christmas Eve might be a service, maybe not. My first Christmas Eve Eucharist, as in communion at an Episcopal church, happened at the Cathedral in Atlanta when my high school girlfriend and I decided to attend the live broadcast of the Midnight Mass. I sensed the mystery of the whole gig without really knowing what it all was about. It was more about the romantic sharing of the time with another person, choosing just the right gift, and celebrating the special night. It was framed more in a social light, and I enjoyed it.

But my introduction to the true sense of Advent happened when I got to know the Trappist monks at the monastery in Conyers. I was introduced to the progressive notion of the season by a white bearded monk named Joachim who looked as if he was from Central Casting for Lord of the Rings. He had a kind of magic quality that seemed childlike to me, even in my old age of college. He recruited me to help him set up the nativity crèche outside the monastery church and to place and move the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph slowly toward the destination of the manger in Bethlehem.

That was Advent to me until my first Advent as a priest. I had been ordained in August, August 15th, the Feast of St. Mary, as I had requested, due to my devotion to the Blessed Virgin, thanks to that of my friend, Joachim. After all, I had carried her from Nazareth tot Bethlehem, at least there on the monastery grounds. We were close.

Advent has a special relationship to the Mary with her expectation of the baby Jesus, but particularly her receptivity of the intrusive news of this coming birth. As a kid, I was impressed by the willingness of Mary to be used of God. As a teen, McCartney’s simple phrasing of “Let it be” caught me in its radical receptivity. And then as a want-to-be biblical scholar, reading the Greek New Testament, the words of Mary shouted at me in my reluctance to hand over my agency to anyone other than myself. Let it be? Are you kidding me?

That first Advent as a priest found me in an idyllic setting of a Cathedral. It felt monastic as I was able to rise early, work-out early in the morning at the Buckhead Towne Club, steam and shower before joining in the communal Morning Prayer in Mikell Chapel. There, I would join a cluster of aging priests, often the Bishop himself, reading the Scripture for the day, chant the Psalms, and offer our prayers for the Church and the World. What a grand way to structure my day, to begin my work in prayer. It was, if you will allow me, damn near perfect.

Maybe it was the romantic sweep of the time, but I remember beginning Advent that first year, on that first Monday, like today, with the one lit purple candle on the deep green of the Advent wreath. I offered a prayer to God, doused with the young sincerity of fresh meat, asking God to surprise me, to break into my life in a way that will shake me up into a fresh apprehension of the Divine Presence.

I had absolutely no idea what I was asking. Rookie mistake.

I had no clue as to what was coming, or I would have ducked under my choir stall.

I asked. God delivered.

I don’t need to tell you the gory details of how my life was profoundly disrupted that Advent season. I will just say, it happened. Know that I could convey my meaning in a much more picturesque way….IT happens!….but I will spare you.

That first Advent as a priest, I learned to be careful on what one asks for. Do you really…..really….really desire to be receptive to what God has for you? Dare you say the awesome and awful words: “Let it be!”?

My world was turned upside down and life was changed in a profound way. Let me add quickly, it was a good change in the long run, thank you, Eagles. But in the rest of that season, it shook my foundations, disrupted my regular routine, and made me face some realities that I had been missing. This is the stuff of Advent. Expectation. A willingness to look afresh at the one, wild life one has been given.

These days, I approach Advent by looking in front of me, not so much as I do normally, sorting through my past, remembering the stories I have collected in my sojourn, searching for threads of meaning

I find that I tend to think spatially. It orients me, gives me a sense of being in place. So for me, Advent is a special season that is all about looking to the horizon, looking out in front of me for something new that is coming, even a surprise.

Surprised by an inbreaking insight, I learned something new about that a few years ago. I had wild experience when I had the opportunity to work at a hospital in Montana, in Big Sky country. The sheer open landscape made this legendary land come to life for me in an invigorating way, much as the rocky coastline of Maine redefined what the ocean was. It broke through my native familiarity with my Southern homeland, and quickened my view, giving me the eyes of a child, at least for a season, a moment.

It got even more real when a local told me about the expedition party of the famed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and how they came right through this very plot of land. After I did some research on that daunting trek, the sojourn became a powerful image for me in the Discovery Party of Lewis and Clark. After being commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, these explorers headed West to discover what was there in this wild country of ours. They planned on using boats and canoes to make their way through the West to the far edge of our country, hoping to discover a navigatable water route. Notably, they wound up hitting the Rocky Mountains, which stood as a rather imposing barrier that would test their resilience, their commitment, and notably their imagination. What do you do when the plans you made not longer fit reality? These explorers had to leave behind their boats and find a new way, one that was not in Plan A. Their willingness to change plans, alter mode, imagine anew, think outside the box, whatever the hell the “box” is, became a paradigmatic way of thinking about life. I found it energizing, refreshing. It seemed to fit with the spirit of what Advent might be.

Advent might be a time to consider another way to take as we move forward in our life. In the quiet preparation of Advent for Christmas, questions can prompt a new way of looking at our existence by pausing to ask what we are really wanting out of life? Do you dare to quiet your busyness and listen to what might be going on in your spirit. Dare you look to the horizon to what might be coming?

I have a few questions that I use to prime my spiritual pump. Take a few minutes, pause, and reflect on these four questions during these four weeks of Advent:

What gift do I have that I am not currently using?

What talent am I letting sit still inside me, dormant?

Who might need a special call, a “reaching out” to check on them that would make a big difference?

What do I need to celebrate this season and be more consciously aware of in my life?

My hope and prayer is that Advent might be or become an expectant time for you, a time to look afresh at your life in particular and the nature of life in general.

Here it comes….ready or not.

Dive In….

My grandfather’s name was Roy Glen Pollard, but to me, he was John Wayne. I know that the historic John Wayne has gotten some bad press this week, but I am talking about the American mythic creature that rides through my memory, that John Wayne.

My grandfather was tall, solidly built, with a musculature that denoted his West Georgia hard-scrabble farm roots. He had been in the army during World War I, serving as a medic in his infantry corp. Upon returning to the States, he went into law enforcement in the county sheriff’s department. He opted to leave the sheriff’s office to go to Atlanta because he was averse to arresting his wife’s brother who was a major moonshiner in the county….the stuff of a country music song.

He joined the Atlanta Police Department with Herbert Jenkins, his partner who later became a famous progressive police chief. He walked a beat downtown near Rich’s and also rode a motorcycle, the three-wheel type. He took me on a motorcycle ride when I was a kid which gave me a fascination with Harley’s, a fascination I actualized when I was in East Texas, purchasing a used Longview Police Low Rider to ride on those open Texas backroads.

I have written before about him standing up to some racist comments in a barbershop on Lee Street in the southside of Atlanta, taking himself and me out of the establishment when the N word was being tossed about. He volunteered to work within the black community as a cop before the days of integration. My granddad tried to explain his views on race to me once, couching his thinking is a pretty simple but real faith….we are all God’s children. I am not sure how he forged that out of the hard steel of Southern bigotry but it was real in the way he did life, the way he lived.

His faith pressed him to care for all people, in spite of his tight, puritanical ethics. I am convinced that he took Jesus seriously in terms of focusing on loving one’s neighbor regardless of the cultural chatter as to who counts. My grandfather answered the question of Jesus, “Who is your neighbor?” in a Christ-like way……everyone! But unlike churchgoers and religious bureaucrats, he actually did it. He walked his talk. He picked up the neighbor next door every Saturday night after Mr. Dial had too much to drink. Mr. Dial worked at Fort Mac, which is now Tyler Perry’s studio, although he suffered from PTSD long before it had a name. My granddad would pick him up and put him to bed. not saying a thing about it. It was what a neighbor does.

He sometimes led the singing at Oakland City Baptist Church on Sundays, as he loved Gospel singings in the “country”. I remember watching the Gospel Jubilee with him on Sunday mornings on WSB television before church. He played cornet in the police band, and seemed to enjoy all types of music.

His main sense of community seemed to be the Friendship Class, or “the old men’s class” every Sunday. As a young child, he would stand me up on the front table in front of the class and have me “direct” the singing. In psychiatric diagnostic manuals, it’s referred to as premature identity formation, but at the time, it was like having thirty daddies who loved on me at a critical time in my development. Maybe that is why the picture of me with the “old men” around a table, celebrating my birthday, forms a baseline for my sense of community.

His sense of humor was dry. When he would come out of the house, look on his Chevrolet which had been marked by fresh piles of bird droppings, he would remark with a Matthau-like deadpan, “They sing for some folks….”.

When he had free time, he loved to fish. He had a old white Chevy sedan he called his fishing car that he named “Betsy”. He would go out to a lake in West Georgia, owned by his friend, Dr. McCartney. Doc ran some cattle, for fun I suppose, but had a lake that was a playground for my grandfather and his friends. For me, it was like a Disneyland that I had only heard about in winsome tales among “the old men” about grand days together and the one that got away.

Early on, I had asked my granddad to take me fishing but he explained that I needed to grow up a bit, be a little older. I’m not sure what the prescribed age was but I do remember the morning getting up knowing that this was that Red Letter Day when I was going to get to go with him and “the boys” to fish.

He and I had breakfast together, strong black coffee, and sausage and biscuits, the breakfast of champions and cardiac patients. It was early morning and we were carefully quiet, trying not to wake up my grandmother, who could make it rain inside. I watched as he filled up a red and white thermos with ice water, and packed a couple of biscuits for lunch. I was so excited, I don’t think my feet touched the floor as we ate.

We met the boys at the lake that might has well been Eldorado. This was the day, my grandfather proclaimed to “the boys” that ol’ Dave was going to catch his first fish. I couldn’t be more excited as it was like a baptism-Bar Mitzvah-Graduation-Wedding combined in an extravaganza of a threshold moment known scientifically as a rites de passage, thanks van Gennep. This was MY day.

My grandfather had a plan. We would start our expedition by fishing in the shallows where the early morning fish would be biting topwater, picking off vulnerable insects floating in the water film. Then, we would take the boat out to the middle of the lake where some bigger fish would be, and then, end the day on the dam, near the deep water where the “big ones” would be holding. My grandfather was crystal clear about his goal: me catching my first fish. And he had strategically laid out his tactics, a progressive plan to make sure it happened. He had a plan in his mind, alright. There was only one thing: the fish were not biting.

From the early morning shallows, to the boat, to the dam, the fish simply were not biting. Applying scientific method, my grandfather opined that it might be the way I was holding my mouth, a favorite Southern colloquial saying. Regardless, he was not going to give up on this vision he had of me catching my first fish.

As the day wore on, even I could sense the desperation setting in. Now, this was years before I lived through many seasons of being an Atlanta Falcon fan, but I knew the smell of failure even then. It hung in the air.

My grandfather was undaunted as we stood near our original spot on the bank of the lake, near the shallows where the cattle would cool themselves during the noonday sun. Just like so many times before, I cast my worm, fixed on its steel J hook crucifix, out as far as I could. By then, I had grown tired and my spirit was flagging. I was watching the red and white bobber on the slick, still water, like I had grown accustomed to, not really expecting anything.

And then it happened. The cork begin to slide slowly to the left, and then submerged under the water, indicating the very strike it was designed to display.

“Reel ‘er in, boy!” my grandfather shouted, making no attempt to disguise his enthusiastic agenda for the next few moments of my life. He was being very directive, in coaching parlance,

I leaned back on my little Zebco rod with all the force and weight I could muster. The reel began to scream a high-pitched sound indicating the tension from the weight of the fish on the end of my line. I instinctively began to turn the crank on the reel, trying to retrieve the fish toward where I was, as opposed to where the fish was wanting to go, a classic struggle of wills. It was the proverbial fight of the century…or at least the afternoon.

“The boys” were gathered around, yelling Baptist-appropriate encouragement. I could feel some success as I was slowly succeeding in my efforts to do what my grandfather directed. But then something unexpected happened, something I had never seen before. The fish jumped up out of the water, revealing spectacularly a large bass, the kind Napoleon Dynamite might catch for you to eat.

As the fish broke clear of the viscosity of the lake water, it was like slow motion on the Wide World of Sports. He seemed to be shaking his head at me, saying, “No, I will not be your virgin catch, young man!” and then he descended back into the depths of the water.

I remember continuing to reel the fish in, finally getting it near the bank where we were standing. I could finally see him. It was the biggest fish in the history of humankind. It was, as someone of note recently claimed, “perfect”. It was definitely a “he” as he was sporting a moustache, well trimmed.

As I got him to the bank, his underside seemed to drag on the red clay silt of the shallow water, causing a brief second of release of the pressure on the fishing line to the hook in his lip. Even inexperienced, I could see and feel the hook release from his mouth, in about six inches of water. The fish seemed as surprised as me at his regained freedom, as he stopped and held there in the water.

In that moment, I saw a flash of color to my right in my peripheral vision. It was my grandfather diving into the lake to try to capture my fish by hand. There was an explosion of water as my granddad hit the water, leaving me holding the rod and reel, with my mouth open. When the dust settled, or should I say, the water cleared, the next thing I saw was my granddad sitting in the lake, with water streaming off his head, with a big grin on his face.

Now, I think this is one of the first stories I ever told in a sermon. I remember it as the first story I told at the Cathedral in my initial sermon from that storied, vaulted pulpit. I remember my early nemesis, Mary Parris, a buttoned-down proper Church Lady, opining that a story about a fish was inappropriate in such a regal locus as an Anglican Cathedral, while my friend Conroy blessed it as a fine, even epic Southern tale, bordering on Moby Dick status. More importantly for me, he laughed. Jury was in, Atticus.

In that initial telling, I remember intentionally withholding the outcome of the story, making the poignant point that it did not matter if my grandfather was able to grab the fish. The point I was wanting to make was that he tried. He dove in. He was so clear about what he wanted, he was willing to do whatever it took to get that fish for me, his grandson. I refused to tell the end of the story in order to drive my point home.

It’s funny how the story continued to live on and be relived and rewritten years later. That’s the way of a good story. It lives on, is retold, and finds new ears, and hearts. I told it on numerous occasions and in every parish that became my home. But the heartbeat of the story lived on in another way.

When my family was visiting Georgia for vacation, during our Texas sojourn, my son, Thomas caught a rainbow trout, his first fish, near our cabin on the Cartecay River in Ellijay. His fish got off his hook as he had an environmentally-woke barbless hook, that supposedly would not injure the fish. On that summer afternoon, Thomas’ fish dragged on the river gravel near the end of his retrieve, providing the break in tension for the fish’s esacpe. This time, I am the one who dove into the river, trying to save my son’s first fish.

The imprint my grandfather put on me took. Not only did he teach me by example that all people were of value and to be respected, he taught me to dive in after something I wanted, regardless. He taught me that race was not a determinant in human worth, that no mere descriptive adjective trumped the definitive noun, person. He taught me to tend to those who had fallen, who hurt with the pains of life. He taught me to love music and the mystery of nature. His imprint goes to the marrow of my bones and the depth of my soul. He taught me to dive in to life itself. And in this season of remembering, I am thankful.

And, just to be clear, I caught that trout that day, diving into the cold water of the Cartecay. Like grandfather, like grandson.