Twelve Days: Christmastide

The season of Christmas goes for twelve days, from Christmas to Epiphany. Hence, we have the Twelve Days of Christmas song that I learned in elementary school, a list of twelve things that, at the time, I enjoyed memorizing… at the time. It is now a song that goes on forever about geese a-laying, pipers piping, maids a-milking…..five golden rings and the inevitable partridge in a pear tree. You know the drill.

Twelve days, Christmastide.

But sometimes, the dates don’t mesh or align with the “stuff” of our lives.

That has been true for me this year.

First, Christmas got an early start with my daughter taking my wife to New York City for a Mother-Daughter Christmas trip. Nothing like New York at Christmas, except maybe San Antonio, but that’s just the Texas-hidden-here-in-my-heart yodling. I watched their pictures of their adventures from my warm apartment beside the Braves stadium. It was the definition of vicarious enjoyment.

They spent four days over a weekend to get their fill. I was proud of my daughter for coming up with the idea, planning it, and pulling it off well. A comedy club owner saw these two Georgia girls coming from a mile away and put them front-row CENTER, a comedian’s easiest target. All six of the comics “roasted” them lightly, leaving them with a lifetime memory.

They also went to the Neil Simon Theater to catch MJ…the Musical, telling the story of Michael Jackson, focusing on the tempestuous relationship with his father, Joe Jackson. An amazing cast, catching the various stages of the development of Michael, presented both the vocal and dance components of this talented man. This was probably the highlight of their sojourn, with 30 Rock, Hoda, Freedom Tower, and a plethora of restaurants contributing to their memories. I was so happy they got to go, spend precious time together, and make that memory. Priceless.

Upon their return, I saw a few folks for coaching sessions before jumping into the intrepid Highlander to head for the coast. The drive down to St. Simons Island is always nostalgic as I remember the sights along the way, especially my days growing up in Atlanta. But the whole Christmastide mystique engages my emotions and sentimentality at a profound way, it seems.

Taking the downtown expressway south through the heart of the city, I saw the Turner Broadcasting Center, two modern production studios joined in the middle by the classic Georgian architecture style by the Atlanta Progressive Club. It looks a little odd to me, but it was thrown together by Captain Outrageous, Ted Turner, and he was in a hurry at the time. We held one of my Junior-Senior proms at the Progressive Club, a classy venue back at that time. My date for my junior year was a senior whose family began the Savannah College of Arts and Design (SCAD), a premiere learning center for the arts in the southeast. Pam was a gifted vocalist, playing the lead of Maria in my high school’s production of Sound of Music. We had lost connection as she moved to Savannah after college to work with the campus there. Unfortunately, I learned a few years back that she had died from cancer, this beautiful, petite songbird had suffered an early death. Seeing the Progressive Club, now dwarfed by the studios always takes me back to that special night and friend. This particular time prompted a brief flow of melancholy.

Not for long. I quickly saw to my left Emory Midtown Hospital, formerly Crawford Long, where I spent time in clinical chaplain training. But more importantly, it was where I had quad bypass surgery, by my Emory classmate, Omar Lattouf. Omar is a leading innovator in cardiac/thoracic surgery, developing a procedure to do the bypass without having to put the patient (in this case, my smart-ass white boy self) on the heart/lung machine. While I was on the table for eight hours, it allowed me an almost instant recovery from this major surgical procedure. Whenever I am talking about this event. I always add that Omar was an immigrant from Jordan and is a faithful Muslim. How about that: an immigrant, and a Muslim saves the life of South of God renegade. That’ll preach.

And it does! And has.

I barely have time to give thanks to God for Omar’s calling and gifts before I catch a glimpse of my Camelot, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on historic Peachtree Street. It was there I caught a glimpse and demonstration of a congregation that convinced me that the Church could be a player in the city, and that it could be the place where persons could be transformed. St. Luke’s provided me a vision and gave me the courage to follow the promptings of the Spirit to leave the comfort of my “home team”, that I grew up with, in order to enter into the arduous discernment process in the Diocese of Atlanta. The priests and lay people were sponsoring for Mary and me as we both made this transition. The Rector, Dan Matthews, my supervisor, Palmer Temple, Gene Ruhle, Rey Parkins, and Peter Gorday gave me the gift of seeing what was possible when talented, committed, creative people are unleashed. My heart fills with gratitude every time I pass by that building on the overpass.

Side note: Later, I was able to visit with my sponsoring priest, Dan Matthews, and thank him specifically for the gift. At the time, he had gone from St. Luke’s to Trinity-Wall St. in New York and was mixing it up with the power brokers in the Big Apple. He was there at 9/11 when the Towers came down, blinded by the billowing dust. As I said, I thanked him, but added a bit of a rejoinder. I told him that he had “skewed me”. He looked puzzled. I explained that he “skewed me” by leading me to believe that all Episcopal parishes were progressive and engaged in the social gospel. Not true. Ask me how I know this. And his staff, brilliant, energetic risk-takers did not give me an accurate view of the priests in the Church. My ever-present dialectic comes to visit me again as I was both blessed and cursed to have this halcyon experience early in my Episcopal life. Dan laughed at my comment but agreed with my assessment, I was “skewed”. Oh, happy curse.

Next, coming into the Grady curve, we cross over Sweet Auburn Avenue, directly by Ebenezer Church, where Daddy King and Martin pastored, now pastored by our U.S. Senator, Raphael Warnock. Sweet Auburn is the hub where civil rights leaders met, strategized, and acted. The MLK Center is a pregnant reminder of the commitment needed for justice, along with the cost that goes with it. Dr. King’s grave is a regular stop for me “get my mind “right”, as Boss told Cool Hand Luke. A sculpture on the horizon pictures Martin with his arm, raised and outstretched, in a typical prophetic pose, as it should be.

To the right just beyond Auburn is a building with a wall mural of my hero, John Lewis. It has a HUGE painting of the man in full, with HERO painted at the top. He is my closest link to the apostolic order of freedom fighters in those early civil rights days, along with Andy and Joe. For a priest in an institutional church, it is important to be reminded of the hard work and risk of proclaiming a realm of God that is breaking in, even now, over our heads. John called it “making good trouble” and I am trying to uphold his legacy. Advent and John the Baptizer put me in the prophetic mindset. John’s defiant face was a proper send off for me to head back south for Christmas, getting ready for Christmas Day.

I would pass by the Stadium on the downtown connector where the track and field events took place during the Olympics, an epic event making Atlanta truly an international city, not just a Chamber of Commerce hype. I would pass by the Hartsfield-Jackson airport with a stream of jets heading to and from who knows where. There’s the Porsche test track where wannabes, like me, are playing like kids with these amazing vehicles and the laws of physics. There is the wonderful throwback of the Atlanta Farners’ Market where my granddad would take me to pick out our watermelons for the church gatherings. So many scenes in my memory flood my fields. It was a good way to take leave of my urban perch for the pastoral scene of my island.

My route takes me down through Macon, veering east on I-16, down through Dublin and Metter, on to Savannah, where one exits on to I-95 which could take you all the way down to Florida, should you so desire. My wife, who is driving, goes the interstate the whole way. Me, I’m looking for side trips, coastal towns. I regularly hop off on Ga. 17 somewhere along the way so that I can see what’s shaking in Eulonia, Sapelo, and my favorite, Darien. Regardless as to how you get there, St. Simons Island is our destination. Did I mention that she was driving?

My son came into town from Nashville, bringing Scout, his dog, a Covid adoption dog who is an Australian Shepherd, one of the sweetest dogs I have known. To live with a musician, I guess you have to be natively of a sweet disposition, or get that way as soon as possible. Thomas also brought along Boudreaux, the dog of his friend, a dead-ringer for the mastiff Good Dog Carl. To say that Boudreaux commands the space with his size is quite the understatement. However, Bou was so gentle and kind as he moved among us. I posted his winsome photo on Facebook which prompted several people to opine that he looked like my kind of dog. I love me some Boudreaux, and some Scout, and my resident island dog, Reagan. All adopted granddogs. A houseful of dogs at Christmas is my idea of a good Christmas, even if it was not at a duck camp.

Christmas Eve found me getting sick in the morning, with a terrible cough from deep within my chest. I would find out on Boxing Day, Monday, that it was flu. No fun. This is the first year in a long time that I have gotten the flu vaccine shot. In any case, I was very sick Christmas Day, saw a PA on Monday, getting on symptomatic meds, and just riding this sucker out. I have missed the family gatherings to point, my son acusing me of going Buehler on the group.

It’s been a very different Christmas for me this year. In all my years of doing multiple Christmas Eve services, followed by Christmas Day service, I was never sick. It feels odd, even intrusive, but I am trying to use it to take my own counsel: to Stop, Pause, and Reflect. Nothing like Mother Nature getting your close attention.

I am hoping to get to enjoy the season in the time remaining in Christmastide. I still have nine days until the Epiphany, Jan. 6th. I’m going to give it my best shot. I hope that you survived the Artic blast, the travel woes of Southwest skies, and the “I can’t believe my relative said that!” experience at Christmas dinner. Try to enjoy this magic time when, in the deepest darkness of midwinter, a light breaks through to bring you hope, to warm your heart, to set your face for the coming year.

Christmas blessings, y’all, from my island off the coast of Georgia. Great love has been given to us, and now, our task is “to Christ it” in our time, loving our neighbors with lavish abandon. Let that be an intention as we lean into this fresh year.

Stages of Faith: Where Are You?

Last week, I was prompted to reflect on my journey of faith, beginning by recalling “my” early question that drives much of my thinking: “Why do some people have faith, and, some people do not?”. I gave a promissory note that I would fill in some of the gaps as to the formal theory James Fowler offered as to the universal, sequential, and hierarchical stages of faith that humans move through in the course of life.

I have interviewed hundreds clinically, thousands informally, about how they make sense of life. How do they see the contours of our experience, our common reality? How has their nature formed them, how has their nurture shaped them, and what is the interplay of the two? What interpretive lenses have they developed during the course of their life, and how do those lenses inform and limit what they see? How can those lenses change through time, even be transformed?

Fowler and our tribe would state that faith is a universal among humans, which I assume includes YOU. I realize that I am being optimistic, but that’s just part of particular and peculiar faith. As you may have read last week, it flows from the circumstances of my beginning, the people who formed me and my way of seeing this world that I found myself living within That original image of the world has been added to, subtracted by, and transformed by the people and experiences I have had. YOU may have been or are one of those factors. You know who you are…..

Fatih as we are defining it is not limited to creedal communities, or formal religious systems of thinking and valuing, though they certainly inform a person’s faith formation. Even a refusal to name any religious faith as one’s own is, de facto, a faith, a way of seeing the world. Ironically, I have found that some of the most adamant holders of faith are those who vehemently oppose any ascription to a transcendent reality. It’s a part of their “faith” by having NO faith. Cue Alanis Morisette, Isn’t It Ironic.

While we hold that faith is a universal phenomenon across cultures, we also offer a stage structure as a heuristic device to help us see ways in which our faith is formed, reformed, and transformed through the course of our life. As we said every time we professed this ambitious theory, we intend it as a helpful model rather than pigeon holes in which to stuff persons.

Our stage theory is largely formed on the back of Piaget’s cognitive structural theory. It also owes a great deal to the practical extension of that theory into moral reasoning by Lawrence Kohlberg. Moral development theory looks to see how we reason our way through ethical dilemmas and arrive at moral decisions.

Drawing on Piaget and Kohlberg, James Fowler forwarded a stage theory that identifies six identifiable ways of exercising that human capacity of faith. For a look at the sweep of those six faith stages, I would point you to the signature statement of our theory, Stages of Faith, which will dissect the dimensions of human faith, and will show you the debt we have to Piaget and Kohlberg, while making our unique contribution. Stages of Faith is hefty in theory, deep in humanity’s meaning, daring to look unflinchingly at our existential condition. It has the temerity to ask “my” question of how we come to faith, emerging with an answer.

In last week’s article, I did a bit of autobiographical gazing into my past journey of faith, which some refer to as a pilgrimage. It gave a personal testimony as to how my faith was formed, reformed, and hopefully transformed to where I am presently on this Winter Solstice of 2022. This week, you will be spared of my gaze turned within as I focus my attention on the three stages that touch the largest group of people living life: Stage Three- Conventional Faith, Stage Four- Individuative Faith, Stage Five- Dialectical Faith.

We will begin with Stage Three, rightly referred to as Conventional Faith. It is generally the system of truth, the life orientation that you grew up with. Many times, it represents the faith tradition you grew up with, mainly because it was all you ever knew or was exposed to in childhood and adolescence. The content can be varied. It could come from a traditional religion that offers stories, symbols, and values that are passed on to you by your parents or family of origin. This can be done aggressively with indoctrination or casually, just hoping you pick it up as you go. The content can be that of no-content, agnostic, or atheistic, or a more common form in our society, relativism. Again, this can be aggressively pushed or merely present as “the way we do things around here”. These positions can be tacit, that is, largely assumed and unexamined, or carefully thought through and discussed openly. Regardless, this becomes your way of seeing the world, or interpreting just what in the world is going on.

A person transitions out of Stage Three when you realized that you have accepted a system of thinking that has been handed off to you, by your family, your society, or culture.

You awake to the fact that there are other ways to conceive life, make ethical decisions, and see the lay of the land of human existence. For many people, this process takes flight when one goes off to college, leaves home, or joins the military service. Not only does one leave the context of home and family, but may be simultaneously exposed to other ways of thinking and valuing. This can prove to be both exhilarating and frightening, maybe both.

The vortex of relativity may cause panic and disorientation. Many times it may lead to retrenchment, diving back into what you “know” with a sense of resistance to the new, the literally “unfamiliar”. Others seem to relish the new found freedom and see the world as a smorgasbord of thought from which to experiment and choose. This exposure typically leads to a choice of an “owned faith”, something that you have chosen for yourself. It can be an affirmation of the system that you grew up within, or a choice to adopt a new community of shared belief. Let me add that for some that community is of people who explicitly don’t know and choose not to know or care. That too is a system of belief and way of faith, strange as they may be to us who are thinking in traditional terms.

I can’t help but think about the Christmas holidays, that moment when kids who are going through this process are returning to the nest. Many times, they will be asked to go with the family to a religious service that they used to attend each year when they lived at home. This can be comforting to one who has been inundated with strange and unfamiliar knowledge, returning to familiar people, thoughts, and customs. On the other hand, it may press the discontinuity in their heart, mind, and soul, making them feel uncomfortable, even disingenuous. It makes sense to be aware of what’s going on with folks who may be experiencing this transition. What a novel thought to be compassionate in the season of Christmas.

Stage 3 Conventional Faith transitions to Stage 4 Indiviiduative Faith which signals that one has self-consciously chosen a faith position. This can be a new system of belief, a system that has a few differences from one’s original conventional faith, or it can be a decision to stand in the one that brought them to the dance of faith from the beginning. The big difference is that now one has come to “own” the faith for oneself, and not merely going along for the ride of an inherited faith of one’s family. That movement to make a conscious decision is dramatically portrayed in evangelical religions as one literally “walks the aisle” to the front of the church to profess your faith. It is curious that the drive for such a profession comes in these congregations before the child has the cognitive structures that have the necessary capacity to make such a decision. Having worked with youth, this push for premature closure is driven by fear, as caring parents wan their kids “done” before they get away from them. Understandable, but it tends to be counter-productive as the adolescent develops formal operational thinking. I’ve seen the same thing happen in more liturgical traditions that use the liturgy of confirmation to formally ask questions as to what one believes. Again, this is generally done too early to be effective. Regardless, the “owning” of one’s faith represents a significant moment in the life of faith.

My experience is that, given the fear-based push, this move to Stage Four may be repeated several times, usually requiring some steady-state identity before one truly has the capacity to choose and “own” one’s faith. And some never find that capacity, choosing to hang with folks that make them feel comfortable, confirming both their values and prejudices. Formation in many traditions are relegated to learning facts, affirming dogma, rather than engaging the basic issues of faith. Thankfully, some traditions and denominations are beginning to take this question more seriously.

After one has lived out of a Stage 4 faith for a while, one will find that your system may have some holes in its logic, or some gaps in its argument. Coming in contact with other faith systems may alert you to weaknesses in your own position or may be attractive to dimensions of the world’s reality that you may have missed. This may lead you to question your faith position internally, not sharing that doubt with others. Also, sometimes people in Stage 4 react strongly to those emerging internal questions, doubling down on their firm commitment to the system that they have chosen. For some people, this self-selected system of belief is satisfying and remains their faith position for the rest of their lives, serving them well, as they say, even unto death. Whatever Gets You Through the Night, adds John Lennon.

We found that some of the people that we interviewed had their self-chosen Stage 4 disrupted by some event that caused them to question the adequacy of their faith structure. A traumatic event to one’s self or to a loved one may prompt such reconsideration. Also, we found that world events might begin the cracking of the solid structure of explaining “how things are”.

Sometimes, the overly tight rules of a Stage 4 faith start to fray at midlife, leading to an exploration of other ways of making sense of life. This transition can resemble the vortex that one felt when moving away from the conventional faith that you inherited. Once again, one becomes acutely aware of the competing systems of truth, and may be overwhelmed at times as one no longer has the certainty that accompanies a stabilized stage.

Again, one may choose consciously or by default to return to the formerly stable set of beliefs and orientation. Or, one may come to hold one’s faith tradition more loosely, recognizing the Truth of other systems, no longer obsessed with defending your own. One may still live fully and faithfully out of one’s chosen faith, while giving berth to others, looking for parallels that exist between systems of truth and values. This Stage 5 is called Dialectical Fatih as it holds one’s own faith in tension with other faiths. There seems to be a relaxing of the need for “superiority” that was a part of one’s past way defining one’s faith over and against others’ faith.

My research interviews with Stage 5 folks demonstrates a deeply held “home” faith while expressing an open view to the Truth that may exist in other’s faith. Appreciation for others’ journey and culture does not seem to diminish the commitment that one has for their chosen form of faith.

I had an opportunity to interview the mystic Howard Thurman just before his death. He was a grand example of one who was firmly rooted in his Christian tradition, and yet was able to appreciate and learn from other faith traditions, enriching his own faith. I remember admiring his gracious acceptance of others’ traditions as he described them in appreciative terms, synthesizing their perspective and insights with his own, and emerging with a transformed vision of the world. I have come to know this as Creative Interchange, which I have written about in previous articles. On that weekend, I recall witnessing a kind of faith that seemed to offer a way forward. In these days of aggressive purveyors of violent differentiation and judgment of right and wrong, I recall the real-life faith of Dr. Thurman as “a way through”, and try to do likewise.

I have tried to give you a “down and dirty” introduction to three of the most pertinent stage of faith that are offered in our faith development theory. Again, I refer you to the primary source material of James Fowler, Stages of Faith, for a winsome and provocative picture of human faith as well as a process of stage development that we found common in persons.

I am finishing up my writing of this particular article on the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. It has served as a liminal time in the history of humankind, when our awareness of the thin space between heaven and earth. In this deep darkness, people of primitive religions, those in conventional, those wrestling with relativity, and even those with more sophisticated faith look to the horizon of our world for signs of the coming light. This is our faith, our hope for the future… our future.

I hope that in this season of Light that my ramblings may provide a fresh insight into your own journey of faith as you borrow the heuristic lens of faith development. May the faith that you carry in your heart, mind, and soul bring you joy and wonder in this time. Advent blessings.

You Got Faith?

A better question might be, “What kind of faith do you have?”

Or even more provocative, “What kind of faith’s got you?”

Georgia may have always been on the mind of Ray Charles, and I am grateful for it. But it’s”Faith” as a phenomenon and experience that has always been on my mind.

More precisely, “my question” (we all have one “pet” question that we push around the room and our lives) is “why do some people have faith and some people don’t?” How and why does that happen?

As I look back, the way I formed “my question” reflects the way my “faith community of origin” framed the notion of faith: are you “in” or are you “out”. This distinction held true for your decision to be a person of faith, or not, as well as your eternal destiny. Were you “in”, that is, bound for the promised land, or were you “out”, going to Hell? Fiery evangelists could paint the scene in bold colors, making their cosmic case, and scaring you half to death. I consider myself fortunate to have missed most of those pyrotechnics, while I am sure some feel that is precisely what is wrong with me.

I’ve been pushing this question of faith around for awhile. I came to it naturally. Religion, God, faith is in the water when you are South of God.

I grew up in church, mostly South of God. We were in church a lot. A lot. Do you get my drift?

Steve Harvey has a whole comedy routine about being in church “all da time”. Steve emphasizes the word ALL: ALL DA TIME, or as we said in my family, every time the church doors were open. Steve goes through a litany of the various meetings in the black church, a meeting specific for every day of the week. Deacon’s meeting, prayer meeting, young people’s meeting, old people’s meeting, and the infamous and ubiquitous building fund meeting.

I identified with his story the first time I heard it on his Kings of :Comedy documentary, his comedy routine about church. Surpringly, his church attendance led to his life in comedy. Here’s his logic: if you have to be there all the time, you have to start looking for things that are funny, things that will keep you interested. Otherwise, you will go crazy. Steve chose comedy.

For him, it was Sister Odell. Steve mentions in his act that he grew fond of going to church just to hear Sister Odell cuss. She would be talking to his mama, referring to some of the folks that were pretending to be holy, those backsliders, who would “do right” on Sunday, putting on a show, but “cut the fool” during the regular days of living. If you grew up in church, Steve, and I, assume you know who he’s talking about.

Steve would overhear Sister Odell talking to his mama about that “worthless somofabitch” that went by the name of Deacon Smith. As a kid, Steve found the juxtaposition of a holy person telling the truth, instead of “putting on” made Steve laugh, rightly. There’s a lot to laugh about when I look at the church. And there’s a lot to cry about as well, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about faith. Human faith.

I was prompted for this piece of writing by an article sent to me by Dr. Joe Howell, a clinical psychologist who has taught me a lot about the Enneagram. The Enneagram is popular in spiritual retreat centers, particularly in Roman Catholic and Episcopal ones. I first came across the Enneagram some time ago at a Jesuit retreat house. The Enneagram is a spiritual typology, which is sort of a Myers-Briggs inventory of the soul. It offers a way to reflect upon your spiritual life and also gives you some insights into how others are wired. I have found it helpful, and have watched the Enneagram become more mainstream in the last few years. My daughter reintroduced it to me as she was preparing for her marriage. She and her husband have found it a helpful way to talk about what motivates them, what’s important to each one, and how to live their lives together. It’s like the Myers-Briggs in that sense, although more explicitly spiritual.

I dove back into the Enneagram, thanks to my long-time friend, John Adams. He introduced me to Dr. Joe Howell, a prominent Enneagram guru in the circles where I run. Joe has written the best book I know on the Enneagram. Becoming Conscious, and I receive a daily post from him on things Enneagramish, to borrow a Steve Harvey literary construct. This week, Joe was taking note of my mentor, Dr. James Fowler who put forward a theory of human development around faith. I worked with Jim for six years at the Center for Faith Development at Emory as we sought to discover the psychological contours of human faith. That post from Joe prompted me to reflect on Fowler’s insights, discoveries, and how I followed my interest and curiosity in the phenomena of human faith. David Byrne’s poetic question dogs me: How did I get here? In the rearview mirror, such a preoccupation on faith makes some sense.

My question about faith emerged in my early environment, going to church with my granddad to the Friendship Class at the local Baptist South of God Church. Oakland City Baptist. This was my first experience of Christiian fellowship and community, as the old men (my age now) rallied round me to provide a “family of fathers”. I have a picture of me when I was three at my birthday party. When my mother asked me who I wanted to invite to my party, legend has it that my response was simply, “the boys”, meaning the Friendship Class. In the picture, I am on my grandfather’s shoulder, with the boys gathered around a picnic table, with a cake and punchbowl in the center. One does not have to dive too deeply into the water of Jungian archetypes to see and sense the prefiguring of how I would see religion. Flash ahead thirty years, and you could see a similar picture of me with my “grandfather” bishop Judson Child, with a host of priests gathered around a table with spiritual food set in the center.

This early experience in community was added to by weekend trips with my grandparents to “the country” for “singings” and prayer meetings. Bear it in mind that I am a mere child, taking it all in, experiencing, seeing, smelling, hearing and then nascently interpreting what in the world, my world, is going on. There were a lot of starched white shirts, Brylcreem pomade, cheap aftershave lotion, women with big hair, and expressive holy utterances that would form the core memory of this time in the more emotionally centered Bible Belt gathering. As strange as it appeared to me, there was a joy and sincerity that impressed my young eyes and soul.

A few years later, I would find my faith community in my South of God church youth group in East Point, a southwest suburb of :Atlanta. I confess that it was more of a social gathering than religious camp meeting, and that was just fine by me. It was where we tried on our emerging identities, began rather feeble but hormone-driven attempts at intimacy. Does she like me, really like me? How far can I press these boundaries? What do I think about all this God stuff? For some, it was where people would profess their faith in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and then get baptized, immersed in the waters of believers’ baptism. For most, it was a curious comingling of spirit, society, and sex. There was nothing quite like a church youth group party in someone’s basement. There was one girl who had professed her faith, gotten her sweet self baptized, but seemed to need to make her way down front to the pastor almost every Sunday night to “rededicate” her life to Jesus. After a while, even before my training in psychotherapy, I would anticipate her walk to the front for rededication, especially if I heard that she had a date that weekend. Guilt seemed to be pervasive in this group, which ran parallel to hormonal development. It turned out that the Bible lost a lot of late-night wrestling matches.

I had been warned by a friend that the college I had chosen, Emory, would take my faith away and that I needed to prepare my soul for battle. He gave me a copy of a book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, produced by the Campus Crusade crowd. For the uninitiated into evangelical apologetics, these were the “four spiritual laws” that would locate precisely where you were on your particular road to Hell. But it would not just diagnose your sinful, depraved state but give you a map to the exit ramp to heaven. I studied that book all summer, hoping to gird my loins for the onslaught of the dual-headed enemy of science and humanism that lurked at my college of choice, otherwise known as the den of iniquity. The women’s prayer group put my name at the top of the prayer list, hoping that I would not succumb to the wiles of godless liberal professors, since Emory had earned a reputation for the “God is Dead” theology of Dr. Thomas Jefferson Jackson Altizer thanks to Time magazine. I am guessing that no one had been leafing through Nietzsche in my town.

When I got to Emory, I found that almost half my class were Jewish, about half from outside of the Southern culture that I had been dipped in. I suddenly was forced to deal with people who were radically not like me, which was one of my first experiences of good news/bad news. That dialectic would become familiar, if not my brand.

It was bad news in that my presuppositions about life were not dominant within my new tribe. I faced a clear choice. I could search out a cultural ghetto in which to hide and wait the four years out, or I could examine other ways of making sense of the world. I chose the latter. That consequential choice, that I would later learn to be existential, would make all the difference. It introduced me to an experience of the vortex of relativity, in which Truth is no longer defined tightly, but is rather swirling with competing worldviews.

I love the phrase “the vortex of relativity” because it conveys exactly what I felt like in a world without my previous moorings of certainty. In cartoons that I grew up with, this psychological scene was represented by a character, like Tutor the Turtle, who is spinning in infinity, not sure what is up or down. That was pretty much my freshman year. The four spiritual laws that I had memorized became just a part of a merry-go-round of options for my examination. It was dizzying, and I was blessed. or lucky, depending on your cosmology, to have a compassionate professor, ironically named Dr. Jack Boozer, who helped me keep it between the ditches.

So what’s the good news? It’s good to realize that you have a perspective from which you came. I got clear that my perspective was mine, the only one I could have had: white, privileged, and South of God. And now, I was liberated to see that there were many other systems of seeing the world, some that were similar to mine, and some that were radically different. And, and here’s the kicker, I had the awesome possibility/responsibility of choosing my own perspective.

Once you choose your position, your way of looking at the world, life, and God, that becomes your faith, that is, your orientation, the way that you lean into life. Good news/bad news again. Even though you have chosen your particular way of thinking, you are now aware of the competing systems of truth, so you must differentiate and defend why you decided to follow the path you chose. This leads one to “distinguish” your choice over others, most times emphasizing the superiority of your chosen system. Typically, when one is fresh to this decision process, you can get defensive when challenged by competing systems, setting up a win-lose situation. This is the fatal flaw of much of religion, that is, dividing people up into us/them. In the South of God tribe, it was Right and Wrong. Some never get over that false dichotomy.

After a while of living with your faith orientation, one sees some issues that are problematic in explaining everything one is experiencing in life. This tends to happen in mid-life, although it can occur earlier due to a traumatic experience that challenges your neat package of how things work. Or, curiosity may press you to see the truth in other systems that offer another and fresh perspective. This can open up a person to a transition in which Truth is seen as bigger than any theory or theology, transcending the limits being imposed by a religious system or one’s home team.. One is able to see the truth in one’s chosen system while valuing the truth and insights of other systems.

What I have been describing is a part of a process we came to refer to as faith development. This is that faith thing that grabbed me early with the Freiendship Class, my youth group, my Emory experience of science and religion, my experience of life. I was in a process of which I was unaware, but a process that most folks experience.

As I said, this experience led me to Jim Fowler, who had been stolen away from Harvard to come to Emory. His impeccable credentials, his overlay of psychology, and his curiosity made for a perfect fit for me in my own wayward pilgrim’s progress. His ace in the hole for me was his relationship with Carlyle Marney, having served as his young assistant at a retreat center for ministers and priests, the Interpreters House. There in the foggy mornings and crisp evenings of Western North Carolina, Marney would gather ministers to sit in a circle and tell their knightly stories of how it was out there in the fields of church. Many came battered, shell-shocked, even abused by the good church folks that they sought to serve. “Telling their stories”, or as Marney called it “throwing up”, gave them a place to begin healing, mending broken bones, cauterizing bleeding wounds, and for some, a heart transplant. Marney would feed them with rich fare of wisdom and the heady wine of scholarship, getting them ready for reentry into the parishes that awaited their return. The work and the place became the stuff of legend, and formed the frame around which Fowler and I would later recreate such an experience for spiritual pilgrims.

Fowler listened to these stories, synthesized them with the cognitive developmental theory of Piaget and the moral development theory of Kohlberg, forming a nascent theory of how people develop in their making sense of life. For Fowler, the human is a meaning maker, homo poeta, shaping one’s experiences into a story that explains who you are. Everyone pieces those incidents and episodes into a narrative that makes sense. Some folks know how to tell that sorry better than others, and some are working hard to “fit in” an event that seems out of character. But, we all have a story.

Jim recognized parallels in the structures of development and had the audacity to claim that these stages are universal. He set out to do the difficult cross-cultural research, hoping to say something substantial about this human faith and its development in the wide human family. Following prior developmental psychologists, Fowler offered a theory of six stages of faith. If you are interested in diving deeply into this broad notion of faith as well as the predictable stages of development, I would direct you to his magnum opus, Stages of Faith, which I was able to work with him on during my time at the Center. It is rich reading, provocative, and gives great insight into this thing called faith.

Are you noticing that I am enamored by this thing called “faith”? It is a thread that runs through my life and the stories that I tell about my experience of it. I have more to say, but will stop now for the sake of the reader. Next week, I will give you a skeletal view of the stages, focusing on the three stages, Three, Four, and Five, that most of us glimpse, if not live through, with hopes it might give you some markers for your own journey.

Until then, why not use this time to pull up your own stories of growing up, in faith communities, or outside of them. Do you see any patterns? Are there defining moments when you wrestled with tough questions of meaning and values? Were there times of discernment that clarified your heart’s desire or your soul’s longing? Such things are the stuff of faith. Recalling them can connect you to the spiritual mystery of being, something that may be prompted in this season of pause and of hope in Advent.

Growing Up…Hopefully, Before We Die

Every December, I coordinate a gathering of my fraternity brothers from Emory. It’s always a roll of the dice as to who comes. I put my organizational skills on PAUSE as I simply send out an invitation to a list that has grown through the years. No pressure. Just an open invite, accompanied by a timid urging to pass it along to those not on my email list. And then, I wait to see who shows up. I take comfort in my friend, Harrison Owen’s zen wisdom: “Whoever shows up are the right people.”

It began as a simple gathering of the Atlanta Sigma Chis for drinks in December. We then imagined how much fun it would be to have other “characters” from Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana that would bring some additional “color” to the gig. When I describe them later, you’ll see what I mean.

We then decided, especially for those brothers who were coming from long distances, that we might add a night to include spouses. And I, being a broad-minded Episcopalian who many doubt my kosher Christian theology, insisted on including “partners” for our brothers who were gay. All of my homosexual brothers “came out” after graduation. I have often thought of how hard it must have been for them, living in our house, hearing our jokes and derisive references to gays. But they did.

One particular brother who had “come out” attended our gathering and made a point to announce this revelation to each person individually. I appreciated his sincere efforts as he literally went around the room during drinks, informing the brother that he was gay. It was not exactly “breaking news” to anyone in that room, but I loved the fact that my brother found a new freedom in that moment, something that he did not have before. Some have not been able to make that same brave journey of self-disclosure, perhaps justly writing the group off, mired in the sedimentation of the past. But, many have told me that they don’t want to “go there”. I regret that, but honor it, inviting them each year to join us.

Our format has evolved. We now begin with a gathering on Friday evening at Manuel’s Tavern, which is in the Virginia-Highland area, next door to the Carter Presidential Center, and near Emory University. It was a major watering hole for me in my undergraduate days as it hosted a number of political players and journalists, including Reg Murphy, the editor of the Journal-Constitution. But more important for me was that it was the home of Manuel, himself. Manuel Maloof was my “adjunct professor” of political science, sitting in a booth, late in the evening, early in the morning, reviewing political writings on FDR, Truman, and Kennedy. JFK’s portrait still commands a central place behind the main bar, along with Manuel’s ashes. It’s one of Dave’s Faves.

For me, it is home. It’s where I went to celebrate when I decided to get married. It’s where I went when I decided to take the plunge into the Episcopal ethos; where I went before leaving my hometown of Atlanta for a parish in Texas; where I went to celebrate my return; and where I went to lick my wounds with some of my precious friends who showed up again this year for our December gathering. This is 50 years of me coming to the bar, and it gathers the collective feel of the sweep of all these years: the good, the bad, and the ugly… but most powerfully, the loyal.

That’s what I’m talking about. In this group of boys who grew into men, a group of 18-year-olds that pledged to a fraternity that we barely knew, had no clue as to their history, their conflicts, their divisions, and their commitments and values. We had gone through a compact time known as Rush week, going to each fraternity house on the row to get a sense of the group, have some conversation, put forward our best “self” for approval, hoping to get a “bid”, that is, an offer, an opportunity to join this particular group of humans for our four-year sled ride through our college experience.

I had absolutely no idea as to how important this decision would be for me, the power and consequence of the decision. It would form the context of a critical, formative period in my life, and yet, I had little clue as to what I was signing onto, what ports of call this ship was headed for, what dangers awaited, what sirens might call from dangerous rocks, what delights particular harbors promised. The song “Brandy” suddenly sounds in my memory.

At the conclusion of Rush week, there came a time for commitment, referred to as Walking the Row. All those Emory freshmen and transfers would gather at the beginning of a loop known as Fraternity Row and then proceed to walk down the street, making a fateful and fatal turn to the house where you would “pledge” your loyalty for the next four years. While we gather in December a group of folks from five years either side of my class, the class of ’76, it’s those persons from my pledge class that prove most profound in my memory.

My friend, Kevin, who was from the suburb of Chicago, Western Springs, lived across the hall from me in my dorm freshman year. We met the first day of orientation and walked that night to Everybody’s down in the Emory village for my first legal beer. Kevin and I have been friends ever since, living in the fraternity house together for two years, going to sail in the Caribbean, being in each other’s weddings, sailing on Lanier after grad school, him coming to my ordination and celebrations of new ministry. And we had a sacred moment the other night at Manuel’s, where we paused to weigh the value of our friendship through time. Tears flowed.

And there is the other part of the trio, Mark Hastings, who made the critical mistake of moving into my freshman dorm room, midyear, sacrificing his grade point, carousing with Getz and me. Later, all three of us lived on the infamous third floor of the fraternity house. Later, Mark would graciously provide a room in the house he was renting near Agnes Scott as I returned for grad school. Our friendship has been a constant, something I could count on. Even though he did not want to expose himself to the tirade of some of our more conservative MAGA members, he showed up for me….which defines loyalty in my book.

And one more special companion was introduced to me by Hastings, Mark Jones. Mark is an interloper as he was not part of that group that walked the row in ’72, but became a social affiliate, or as he introduces himself, a “social affliction”. Jones was the drummer in our jazz trio, with Tom Greenbaum on keys and me on bass and BS. Jones is one of the funniest human beings I have ever known. He and I once took out a pair of twins, a story best untold, thanking God for no smartphones with cameras. Jones was the son of a prominent Methodist minister in the area who became a bishop, and he carries that burden well. He famously would take out his father’s business card, shake it in the air with a proper rumble, proclaiming that he was “on the lay-away plan” for salvation. He provides me a powerful image of what friendship looks like. I was able to trade on that friendship by getting him to surprise the gathering, showing up in his Santa outfit. He was the HIT of this year’s gathering.

Other members of that 1972 Pledge Class showed up as well. Gary Phillips, from Baton Rouge, is one of my favorite people on the planet. He was the Pledge Trainer when I served as president, and he and I tried to up the level of commitment beyond a legal demand to”show up” for work parties by inspiring a sense of engagement. In our last quarter in college, Gary, a group of girls, and I decided to “paint the SAE lion” one last time. Gary got caught and had half of his head shaved…the SAE’s sense of justice. He had an interview with a prominent accounting firm the next day. Obviously, the accountants were impressed with his double dose of courage, offering him a job. Funny how things work out.

Gary is natively conservative and I am one of those left-leaning liberals that your parents warned you about. From college on, Gary and I have continued to have meaningful conversations about issues that have faced us personally and within the larger social context. He is a brother that I value and count on.

Peeler Lacey came to Emory from Kosciusko, Mississippi. To say it was a bit of a cultural shock is a vast understatement. Fortunately, Peeler was smarter than the average bear, having attended a private prep school here in Georgia. He also seemed to have an eidetic memory like Sheldon Cooper, but that’s where the comparison stops.

I remember one particular night going with Peeler to the infamous Claremont Lounge. I’m imagining that the gyrating dancers would have had trouble envisioning us as a future physician and priest in those fraternity jackets. Another night, Peeler and I were commanding a foosball table, beating endless pairs of Georgia Tech students at Denny McClain’s bar in the basement of the Georgian Terrace Hotel. After becoming “tired of winning”, Peeler offered a particular opinion as to the lack of manliness of Tech men. One of our defeated opponents chose to challenge Peeler to a fight. Being from Kosciusko, Peeler was incapable to say “no” to such offers, so he proceeded to take off the aforementioned jacket, and when his arms were bound back in that process, the Tech guy cold-cocked him, setting off a full-scale bar fight. Fortunately for Peeler, he was with a non-violent priest-to-be who got him the hell out of Dodge. Eye wounds tend to bleed profusely. Ask me how I know this.

Jeff Doussan was from New Orleans, and brought that Mardi Gras spirit to my pledge class. Jeff was one of the original wild ones in our fraternity house. He had one of the few single rooms in the house, and schooled me in the value of a large aquarium and the romantic ambiance it provides. His was a 55-gallon tank with beautiful, exotic cichlids providing an aquatic ballet, while I had a 5-gallon tank with goldfish. Like Forrest Gump, that’s all I am going to say about that. Jeff was one of the first of my tribe to “streak”, notably on the Agnes Scott campus, an all-girls college. I remember specific conversations I had with him in our shared bathroom/showers. Nothing like locker room talk with a guy from NOLA. I always smile when I hear his accent say “Dave”, “Galloway”, or “Rev”.

Fred Runner was one of the first folks there at Manuel’s this year. I remember Fred specifically from the day we walked the Row together. He had a fresh face that rivaled my own baby face. We both had a lot to learn and Fred seemed to relish that fact. Fred was a part of a trio a little different from mine. His was comprised of Howard Kempsell and his roommate, Larry Lutchen. Howard was from New Jersey and offered a rather proper, careful way of speaking, He transferred his junior year, and later became an Episcopal priest. He and I have stayed in touch, as we moved through the labyrinth of the Episcopal structure and explored various forms of spirituality. Larry was from New York and became an ObGyn, practicing at Georgia Baptist Hospital, the place I was born. He later found his passion, becoming a high school teacher, and enjoying his work with kids. All three have been back for our December gathering, adding to the spirit of camaraderie.

What struck me the other night as we gathered some fifty years after we walked the Row, having chosen to be together for these precious and precarious college years, was what a good choice we made. I dare say that such a sentiment would be the opinion of most who made that decision. But, without reservation, I make that declaration for my own soul.

This group of diverse guys has stayed connected despite the separation of many miles. We have been through the deaths of some of those friends who wore the White Cross of Sigma Chi, and who made the walk that fateful day. We have handled incredible victories, tough situations, and reversals. We have embraced the recognition of some of our number “coming out” to their true sexual identity. And, we have all grown to a deeper acceptance of our differences. One brother in particular has made a transformational change in terms of his bigoted views on race, moving beyond the deep prejudice in which he was raised. Each one of us has done some of the hard work of jettisoning shards of our cultural residue, as well as coming to own and claim parts of our heritage

In spite of all of our significant and different political, economic, and religious perspectives, we have found a way to honor the deeper value of our brotherhood and the worth of each person. Our commitment, when initiated into the Sigma Chi fraternity, was to use this intentional grouping of individuals as a crucible in which to build our character and to learn the tough lessons of true friendship. That was and is a worthy goal. Surprisingly, it was where I learned some of my best lessons in leadership and what it means to be a person in this world.

You may be snickering, or maybe even experiencing a hearty chortle or guffaw as you hear me wax poetic about this motley group gathered in a pub on a night in December, remembering scandalous stories about strip clubs, bar fights, drinking, and carousing. Writing these words down caused me a few belly laughs as my memory flowed, particularly when I realize that I am the “motliest”, a word that I made up for the occasion! But superseding my laughter is a deep smile of satisfaction, that I indeed made good on my commitment to seek true friendship among this group of men, for I have surely found it here among my brothers. On this dreary day in December, I am feeling grateful, blessed, and ready for more..

Advent: Getting Ready

It should not have surprised me, but it did. I remember putting the CD disc into my Tahoe’s Bose CD player because I simply couldn’t wait to get home. Driving down Peachtree Street, Paul Simon began this album with the driving beat of an acoustic guitar, along with steady four-beat handclap, on the first cut on his new work. I had anticipated this fresh album from my patron genius entitled with the curious phrase, So Beautiful or So What.

That first song shocked me with its theme, not at all what I was expecting, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”. A contemporary Gospelish  song, set in the context of the busyness of the Christmas season, exhorting one to “bear it in mind”, to get ready for power and the glory and the story of Christmas Day. As he sings the lyrics, talking about how crazy life gets in this tinsel-tangled time before that magic day in December, he interjects a black preacher man exhorting those unaware that one needs to get ready. And in a traditional “call and response”, the preacher calls so there is no mistaking: Get ready, ready for Christmas Day!

Now, I know. Christmas is a cultural holiday that pulls all into its powerful wake. It is all about the commercial reality of a boom time for merchants, selling goods to make a profit at the very end of the fiscal year. I’ll never forget my visit to a sporting goods/outfitter in Tyler, Texas, to visit my friend, the owner, Alan Haynes, Alan was hosting me for a festive holiday lunch. I asked him, as innocently as I could muster, how was business. Alan, with a twinkle in his eye, responded with the Texas humor I came to love, “Business is great!  I only wish Jesus had a brother born in June!” He was getting ready for Christmas Day…… but with a green tint.

Getting ready. Within the Christian community, the four Sundays before Christmas intentionally are designed to help us prepare our souls for the new time of birth, symbolically incarnated in the birth of the Baby Jesus. The season of Advent. That’s the drill for those of us in the Christian tradition, but it was chosen by the early Church to coincide with the seasonal Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year in terms of the Sun’s distance. It is about the coming of Light into the Darkness, symbolized by adding a candle to an Advent wreath, culminating in four lights ablaze, with the punctuation of the lighting of the Christ Candle on Christmas Day. Getting ready.

Approaching the season of Advent, merchants like Alan aren’t the only ones who are busy. Clergy tend to get a  “deer in headlights” look. They are busy planning for the press of time due on the onrushing Christmas festivities that come with the influx of visitors to ogle the cute Baby Jesus. There are “end of the year” concerns with money, both closing out the financial giving that may define the shape of the parish, plus preparing a budget for the coming year. In certain denominations, end-of-the-year reports and performance evaluations loom. Add to that, there is a never-ending procession of social events, some fun, most not, where the pastor is expected to attend if not perform a functional role. A group of clergy that I meet with regularly has named this time of Advent a “whirlwind”, intimating the blinding, circling chaos of activity. Finding a way to be centered in the midst of the whirlwind seems to be the trick. Get ready.

Certainly this is true for all folks in the busy seasons of life, especially this time around Christmas. How do you stay grounded in the craziness of life? And when life serves up some unexpected twists and turns without regard for your particular and peculiar situation, how does one keep one’s centeredness? How do you stay balanced?  This is something that faces us all. I will be writing of some of the ways I have found to be useful in my peculiar whirlwind with the hope it can be helpful to you, particularly in this Advent season, getting ready for Christmas Day.

One of my basic and central disciplines for staying centered has been journaling, that is, writing down what is going on in one’s life, one’s mind. Journaling may be my most basic method of advancing my personal quest for increasing self-awareness, even in the distractions of business and busyness. It really is as simple as writing down what is happening, how you are reacting to those events, and noticing the hopes and fears that may emerge. Come to think of it, that is what I listen to when I am listening as a therapist, coach, or spiritual director. It captures what my old professor, Dr. Chuck Gerkin, wisely told me to look for in my life and in the lives of the people I was trying to help by asking a simple but profound question: What’s going on?

Journaling has been a constant in my attempt at being self-aware in my life. I was introduced to the general concept by a high school teacher who encouraged me to read Walden, the journaling of Henry David Thoreau as he lived alone in the woods, seeking to discover himself, to clarify his identity. For me, it meant keeping a composition book, writing down stray thoughts, verses, quotes, and wonderings.  I actually have a few of those early journals and am amazed at my descriptive entries, even though I was a little short on perspective.

Later, I came across Ira Progoff’s method of depth journaling as we hosted him at the Center for Faith Development at Emory University in Atlanta. Progoff developed a method of journaling that would cross-reference each day’s journaling with specific additional journaling on dreams, expansions on themes, hopefully leading one into a depth that is not possible by mere daily posting.

I found this depth method incredibly helpful during times of critical decisions as I was making my way through life. Dreams emerged, which I could correlate with happenings within my life, and in fact, recurrent themes predominated. The Progoff method, called the Intensive Journal method, can become ponderous, particularly if one has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I can’t help but have images of Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, journaling as to his various bodily functions. Unlike him, I tend to keep my journaling simple but see value in the variety of methods that have emerged.

The plan I am offering to you as you enter this season of Advent is a simple one. First, set aside a dedicated journal in which to write your thoughts. It can be a simple notebook you pick up at the local. pharmacy or a moleskin-type journal available at specialty shops. I have noticed a plethora of new offerings of a variety of formats, such as the Daily Focus Planner, the simple Panda Planner, the Monk’s Journal, just to name a few. These are helpful, suggesting areas of reflection, but one does not need a fancy format. Just get a notebook and begin.

Pause. Reflect. And the write. Set it aside in a place that is secure and not liable to be opened by others so you can write your thoughts in the rare air of freedom, with an assurance of confidentiality.

Set aside a time, a regular time where you will commit to intentionally record your thoughts and feelings during this season. It can be early in the morning before the day goes into full-tilt boogie, or it could be at the end of the day as you are becoming settled for a review of your day. It can vary, perhaps out of when it is convenient, but I have found the regularity of a specific time to be helpful. For me, I tend to use the morning, jotting down notes from any dreams of the past night, agenda for the coming day, feelings about the day ahead. You make the call. This is for you. But I encourage you to give it a shot over the next thirty or forty days and see how it goes. It could be a powerful response to the call to Get ready.

For starters, let me give you a few simple prompts:

Begin the journal entry by recording the date, the time, the weather, and the feel of the space you are in. This is useful for future tracking.
Jot down your general feelings, thoughts that are emerging/
Record any dream that may remain in your memory. Don’t fret if there are none.
List three things for which you are grateful on this particular morning.
What are the growing edges of your life? Where do you feel that you are being called to grow?
Be still, quiet, silent for a time. What thoughts, feelings emerge. Write them down.
Are there areas calling you to explore? Are there lights of hope on the horizon of the future breaking in?

It’s that simple. You don’t need to complete the above list every day. If one topic seems to call for more attention, give it. Go with the flow. Don’t over-complicate it at this point. Just commit, and then do it.

Pause. Reflect. Write.

After you’ve done it for a week, you might reread your journaling on Sunday or Monday to see if there are themes. Make a separate journal entry for that if you wish, cross-referencing. But don’t let the organizing inhibit your flow.

With dates attached, you can revisit your thoughts and musings months or years down track. I have looked back at my journaling from significant times in my past and found it helpful, even transformative. But that’s down track. Let’s get started NOW. Get ready!

Pause. Reflect. Write. And enjoy being with your Self.

Get ready.

What Damage Can You Do In One Four-Year Term?

I’m betting that you are thinking that this title refers to a certain orange-colored ex-president. You are accurately thinking that I have a long list of the things done to degrade our country, both internally and internationally. As tempting as such a diatribe is to me, that is NOT the subject of this piece of writing.

Rather, it is to mark the four-year anniversary of South of God. Four years. Trumpets sound, French horns adding gravitas.

My first blog post was published on November 22, 2018. It was Thanksgiving week and I was at my brother’s house on Ocean Drive on St. Simons Island, off my beloved coast of Georgia. I remember that the mechanics of Word Press was intimidating to me, but courageously, I pressed the “Publish” button twice, as required to send out my first article to the cyber universe. It was brilliantly entitled “The Journey Begins”. I could have creatively toyed with my virgin readers by framing the title with a suggestive, alluring “So”. but why obfuscate with such pandering techniques. Straight up. One true sentence…..

And, so, it began. For years, I had written a weekly column for my parish newsletter, usually pedantically pushing upcoming events and playing cheerleader to the troops. I had developed a routine that, in the hurly-burly world of parish urgency and palace intrigue, helped to make me feel normal, even sane. Most were written on Sunday nights, after the rush of the day was settled, and I was in my study, no one else in the church…..except God, I hoped…on a variety of levels.

Once, someone broke in, setting off the alarm, causing me more fear of the onrushing police mistakenly shooting me, although there was that one detective that never liked my style of playing the role of pastor. And one time, the alarm was not on, and a well-known druggie entered the building, pulled a gun on me, which I laughed off, giving him a ride home in my Jeep. But those were the exceptions. Mostly it was quiet, my stereo playing eclectic Texas songs, with me writing, reflecting, but encumbered by the role, the position. the dependent need to deliver to my parishioners.

Not so on November 22, 2018. I was FREE, and damn glad of it. Liberated, loosed, sprung, or as my colleague John has trained me, unleashed. And that appellation feels right.

It calls to mind a Springer Spaniel, a hard-charging dog with a nose for birds, that I would restrain with a “lead”, a fancy dog trainer word for a leash. Sometimes, I would let Rob off the leash, and he would rear his head back and take off in a sheer joyful run, none of the trained, disciplined quartering to cover efficiently the ground in search of birds for his master, but unleashed to go in a free rush of spirit. It brought a smile to my face as I watched vicariously. It still does.

Also invading my mind is an image that runs continuously, sometimes uninvited. It is of a wind-swept, deserted beach on Cumberland Island, an undeveloped strip of land just south of mine. It is the last barrier island before you fall off into Florida. I was introduced to it by my boss, Congressman Jim Mackay, who helped to broker the deal of wealthy aristocrats who had invaded the South’s barrier islands, to give it for a national park. That is when I first met Jimmy Carter, on a dock on that island, as we gathered to close the deal. It was good to know someone who actually did know the art of the deal.

Later, my friend, John Miner, a communicant at the Cathedral, would invite me to his cabin that stood near the famous Greyfield Inn, where John Kennedy, Jr. has his wedding reception, hosted by his uncle, Teddy. My friend, John, would use the Inn and his hunting lease for the Carnegie land to entertain his clients, and fortunately for me, his priest.

I first met one of Cumberland’s wild horses on a misty morning in the maritime forest. I was meditating in a camouflaged hunting chair, listening to Barber’s Adagio and a variety of Ralph Vaughan Williams selection on my Walkman with earphones. I felt eyes on the back of my head. Turning slowly around, I found a pony staring at me, observing this curious life-form invading his living room. After we properly introduced ourselves, he returned to his work. At least, that’s what he told me. And I, I returned to my meditating, my mantra, which suddenly seemed rather pedestrian. But my smile, that same smile, was on my face for quite a spell, as Grandma McBrayer would say.

Later on that same trip, I was walking on the beach in solitude at dawn’s break. I sometimes had observed the rather curious and ominous sight of nuclear submarines being towed out to sea from the King’s Bay base, its menacing towers and tubes of metal at the waterline, breaking the surface, the oddest juxtaposition of the Apocalypse framed by the Garden of Eden. The mercury-vapor orange cast an odd glow on the sky in the middle of the night, superseded only by the emerging light show of the Creator of morning itself.

On this particular morning, there were no subs. The orange glow had been banished. The sky was a blue, so pure and deep, that it would make you cry with joy and promise. It’s the exact same clear blue that I singularly remember on the morning walking to my office on 9/11. A purity that screams at you, demanding you notice its sublime beauty. But on that November morning, my reverie was supplemented by another sight, a herd of wild horses running free on the beach. I don’t know, but I thought I heard one of the horses laughing. Me, I was smiling again, that same goofy smile when everything seems “just right”. Free.

And that is my brief point on this Thanksgiving week, this fourth anniversary of South of God. It represents a celebration of freedom to write that “one true sentence” that I chase. It’s the dream of any true writer, to tell your truth, tell your story, express your feelings, offer your insights into this thing we all share called life, to risk one’s vision of a future. Freed from constraints, sponsors, sensitive members who pay your salary…..Free. I smile as I type.

Two-hundred and twelve articles…I counted them. Reviewing them quickly brought to mind an extravaganza of images and memories. Each title captured a bit of my soul, some deep memories of connection, a piercing pain of loss and separation. It’s been a mixed bag, which like most things, has its positives and negatives, don’t you know.

I look at the titles listed in order of their publication date and thought of how I had used South of God over the past four years.

It has provided a therapeutic outlet when a close friend like Chris Wall died…The Poet Is Not In Today. I still miss my Texas-Montana cowboy, particularly on Friday nights. I remember meeting him one night in Austin at the Broken Spoke as he sang his most infamous song, I Like My Women Just a Little on the Trashy Side. Smile.

I tackled some spiritual issues, much as I did when I played a priest on TV…Advent: Getting Ready. Lent: A Pause and a Nudge. “Don’t Screw Up My Easter!”. Sunday Morning Coming Down. Kidnapping the Baby Jesus. What Color is Your Bible? Go Grow Roses! Put the Camera on the Bishop…the Fat Guy in the Pointed Hat!

I used it to work out and promote my passion and commitment to Creative Interchange as a way through our malaise of dysfunctional polarization. A Powerful, Creative Interchange. Creative Interplay. How to Unleash Spirit. Tenacious is the Word. Spanning Boundaries, Building Bridges.

And it bought me space to share my learnings of Positive Intelligence and the work of mental fitness. Who is Sabotaging You? Want To Get Mentally Fit?

I used it as a journalistic device, reporting on the Ahmaud Arbery trial from my home in Glynn County. A Symbol of Unity in a Divided Town. Justice for Ahmaud! Giving Thanks for a Particular Black Panther.

It served as a vehicle to reflect on the gift of family. My Grandmother Is A Witch. Island Girl. On the Corner of Bourbon and Toulouse. Thinking of Thomas. To Look and See What God is Doing.

I explored subjects that caught the eye of my curiosity. Choose Your Bias. Decide…Killing Off Murderous Options. My Path to Mindfulness. Doctor, Lawyer, Tribal Chief. My Horse Named Music.

It afforded me a place to cogitate on the events of my life. Leaving Atlanta in the Broad Daylight. My Daughter’s Wedding. A Pause for Memorial Day by a Draft Dodger. My Nobel Prize. My Personal Camelot. A Fish Tale: A Freight Train, Bourbon Street, A Drug Runner, A Bouncer, and a Leopard. And on Nov. 5, 2020, What Does It Mean To Cast A Vote?

South of God even gave me a few moments to play with and get honest with my cosmology. Twist of Fate or Defining Moment. Sub-Version. Where You Step, You Stand.

And it focused my attention on my current work of coaching. Coaching… My Way of Giving Back. What is a Coach? Intentional Change. The Breakfast of Champions: Self-Awareness.

Some articles were just good stories. Ralph Does Folly…Ledell, A Man in Full. Magic to Do. Not THAT Part! In the “On Deck” Batting Circle Behind Henry Aaron. Do You Have Koons In Your Church? And a particular favorite story about my Cumberland Island friend/brother: That Old SOB Can Shoot!

This is Article 213. Reviewing the titles of my past South of God brings that same Cumberland Island smile to my face, the smile that is part of the Creative Self, the child-like smile that revels in the moment of existence, remembering the gifts of the past and leaning into the promising future. Joy and wonder begin to scratch the surface of describing this moment.

I have a list of potential titles for coming articles which gets my juices flowing. Next week, I will begin my fifth year. Thinking of the title, the creativity explodes. “The Journey Continues.”?

No. Time to turbo-charge. Like my old Saab, or my MR2.

So, The Journey Continues. And, there’s that smile, again.

Angels Unaware

Have you ever been visited by an angel?

My wife told me a story from a few years back.

She had been sitting in her car outside a CVS store near our apartment in Atlanta. She was on the phone for a long time, and in the process, her car’s battery died. When she tried to start the intrepid 4-cylinder Highlander, it would not start.

I’m not quite clear on the details., as she went inside to the store. The woman at the register heard her plight and volunteered to go outside, get the jumper cables that she had, and provide my wife a jump start. Turns out, this woman/s name was Angel.

That was at least three years ago.

We had moved to the island, living in my bliss for two years. My wife missed the classroom and has returned to the Schenck School. This necessitated a move back to the ATL and us to the same complex, in the shadow of the Braves stadium.

She was back at the same CVS the other day and saw Angel at the register.

She asked Angel if she remembered the prior event with the jumper cable, and she quickly said, “Of course!” adding her own account of the incident, as if another Synoptic account of a miracle. My wife thanked her again for her act of compassion and kindness toward a stranger. Cue the Publix Thanksgiving/Christmas music.

My point in telling this story is two-fold.

One, I would note the kindness of one person to another. It went beyond the conventional. Angel could have let my wife call her roadside assistance, remained in her safe role as an employee of CVS. Instead, she went beyond expectations and responded to my wife as if she were a friend, someone who is valued, someone who counts. In fact, in that small act, Angel recognized a stranger, someone she did not know, as a neighbor, and acted accordingly. It was not heroic. It was neighborly.

Two, I would note the gratitude of my wife, on a busy day, three years later, recognizing a person’s act, and taking the time to say “thank you”. Again, in normal roles, we just play the parts we are assigned, not going beyond expectations. The temptation to move routinely, safely, through the day is strong, and yet, she found the time to say “thank you” from across time. The exchange between these two persons, one a cashier doing her work, and the other, a teacher busy getting home from work, is remarkable.

This moment in time speaks to a basic connection we have with one another. It is often obscured by roles and routines, by press for efficiency, by fearfulness, or anxiety of the stranger. So many things can get in the way of such a simple and profound connection.

I point out this brief story of Angel and a person named Mary to make a simple point. Opportunities for neighborliness occur all the time, every day. I’m sure many of my readers instantly picked up on the name analogy that I was playing with in this story. No incarnational announcement, just a simple set of jumper cables, but the message of connection is profound. Reaching out, reaching across our individuality to connect.

We are heading into Thanksgiving week, some of us traveling, some of us staying put. Some will be with large extended families, some will be alone. Regardless of your circumstances, I invite you to tune your eyes to see opportunities to care for others, particularly strangers, people who may need help, and you just happen to be in the perfect position to reach out, to reach across and connect. You might be able to become an Angel to someone who needs just a little bit of extra care. What a gift that would be. What a gift you could be.

This Angel event reminded me of my grandmother who was quick to quote Holy Scripture to me when I was a child. I wish I had been asked to call her MeeMaw like Sheldon Cooper called his grandmother in Texas. I just got dealt the Georgia ordinary “Grandmother”. She was touted to be the best Bible teacher at Oakland City Baptist Church there near Ft. Mac, now Tyler Perry’s mammoth studio, speaking of Madea. To me, she was a three-syllable name, Grandmother, who showed me a lot of love….love that came with her godly advice.

A quote from Grandmother that I remember was an admonition from the New Testament book of Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.” That’s the King James Version, resting of the promises that Jesus and God spoke Elizabethan English, don’t you know.

A more modern translation goes like this, translating from the Koine Greek, the actual language of the New Testament: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers for by so doing, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” This is clearly more approachable to the modern person, but the poet in me prefers the King James with the luscious “unaware”.

The point is the same. It’s to get you to be nice to strangers with the implicit promise that it might pay off for you later. It’s South of God karma, or as close as it gets. Be kind to strangers because some of those might just be angels sent down here to trick you. By being kind, you turn a trick into a treat. Instant karma.

I once got the courage to ask my grandmother if this was a way that God was trying to bribe us. Her mouth turned down at the corners, signaling me that she was not happy with me. I didn’t ask again.

Regardless to the potential bribe, it is a deeper spiritual truth that reminds us that all human beings are connected in their very being, and are deserving of care and to be treated with dignity. Jesus makes it plain: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. There’s a deft sleight of hand here: since we know you love your own damn self, you should extend that to your neighbor. It’s like the basic marching order of being a human being: love one another.

I’m just using Angel from CVS, who I have gone by to thank just this week, to remind us of the many opportunities that we have in our daily life to care for our neighbor in a gracious way, conveying our valuing of their being by noticing them and caring for them in a simple tangible way. Just for grins, train your eyes to look for those strangers who may come your way this day. Look for an opportunity to care, to extend hospitality.

And if you happen to be at a CVS on New Northside Drive, that person might turn out to be an Angel.

Break Through the Impasse

The polls have closed.

I am writing this at the end of a long Tuesday, Election Day.

I have no idea as to who won. I have some assumptions about what will happen, after years of involvement in politics and many nights sitting with Manuel Maloof at his bar where various politicos hang. They don’t call me the James Carville of the Episcopal Church for nothing. But this election felt different. This is a peculiar time in our country.

Perhaps it is because it comes after the shocking disruption of an insurrection to overturn the results of our last election. Storming the Capitol, invading legislative chambers where the sacred work of the people takes place, and defecating on our very governmental structures. When and where have you seen a scaffold and a hangman’s noose displayed, as chants rang out calling for the hanging of our Vice President? This was no peaceful protest, no regular tour of the facilities as some disingenuous people contended.

And now, the post-coup continues. The number of “election deniers” running for office, particularly those openly saying that they will control our voting process to make sure that the “right” party wins, in spite of the popular vote, is deeply disturbing.

Regardless of the outcome, we will be left with a divided country, polarized into two separate camps. There is very little, if any, bipartisan cooperative work due to this spirit of division and blinding thirst for power. Some talk of an imminent civil war. Violence has broken out sporadically and some leaders encourage this with their self-serving rhetoric.

What in the world can we do? Is there a way to break out of this malaise that is hurting our sense of connection, our sense of community? As I move into the night that somehow feels darker than before, is there a hope that is more than a childish wish?

Let’s be clear. There have always been oppositional forces vying for political power, even when we were an English colony, straining to break free from that rule The Framers of the Constitution were not lock-step or unified at the beginning as some fantasize. They were drawn together by a passion for freedom, but even then, there was fierce debate as to how we should obtain our independence. That debate and adversarial wrangling continued and has resurrected periodically in our political life as we fight over the role of the federal government and the rights of states. And beneath that is the philosophical polarity between individual rights and the common good. This is a classical dilemma that has to be lived with…it’s not going away. It is not a problem to be solved. Rather, the tension has to be recognized, embraced, respected, and lived with. This democracy thing gets messy. It always has. People get anxious, as I am tonight, and begin to wonder if it’s all worth it. And typically, that is when an authoritarian-type leader emerges, with simple answers to complex problems. It’s an old formula, and it always proves to be wrong….tragically so. And that is precisely where it looks like we are in parts of our country. Maybe we have run out of luck, or maybe will. It’s not easy holding tensions in a creative interchange from which good things can emerge.

We have faced this “living within tensions” dilemma throughout our history as a country. There are some “purists” who literally wish to “whitewash” our history in an attempt to clean up “the record”, as if being honest about our developmental journey as a republic somehow sullies our reputation. But, a clear-eyed look at our history must include an honest look at our past, including our poor treatment of Native Americans, our discrimination and violence towards those not white, and our original sin, slavery. Dealing with the facts of history helps us to live into the dreams of our ancestors for this country, even as it evolves. This is not being somehow “woke” as I heard some Floridian wanna-be leader frame it. Rather, it is simply being honest about reality.

One such dilemma occurred in my lifetime, one that I witnessed firsthand on the Southside of Atlanta. It emerged from the familiar fight over state’s rights and federal enforcement of law in the Sixties around the issue of the desegregation of our schools. Underneath this tension was a struggle over civil rights: did these rights to education extend to all people. And even more deeply, a question of white supremacy lingered, asking for an answer. And some seem still to need it answered.

A quick search of that time in my America will bring you multiple pictures of fire hoses turned onto protesters, dogs attacking, and nightsticks beating people. One image has dominated my mind through the years. Angry faces and snarling looks form the background of a young black girl, Ruby Bridges, walking to school as she was a symbol of desegregation, but more deeply, a challenge to the assumption of racial superiority. This was the dilemma that my generation faced, and is still wrestling with, desperately trying to emerge with a blessing, but surely with a limp. No, this is not a new problem but an old dilemma rising from our evolutionary ooze.

In my office, I have a Norman Rockwell painting of Ruby Bridges walking to school. It is titled, The Problem We All Live With. It depicts her courageous sis-year-old walk to her elementary school in New Orleans Because of threats of violence, she is preceded and followed by four U.S. Marshalls, a familiar sight in the South, symbolizing the tension of state and federal law and power. On the wall to her side, are the words “nigger” and “KKK”, along with the stain of a tomato that had been thrown, now unceremoniously dripping.

I have put this iconic painting in my office to re-mind me of the struggle of America seeking to live fully into its aspirational hope of our Founders, some who at the signing of the very declaration of our existence as free, owned slaves. We should suffer from no illusions of purity, but at the same time, claim the high ideals that have served as our Northstar of a vision, a promise of equality. I do not hang the picture to make me feel guilty, but to keep the dream alive, in front of me, as well as the knowledge and recognition that there has been and always will be a struggle. This is a part of the night that I feel surrounding me on this particular night. I would rename the portrait of Ruby “The Dilemma We All Live Within”. It requires courage and heart.

That will have to be enough for tonight as I await the dawning of another day in America. We will be living in the reality of this dilemma, with hopes that the engagement of oppositional forces and perspectives will yield fruit for the future. It has always been our best path, even if it is after we have tried all the others, as Churchill quipped.

Living in the tension known as America, searching the horizon for a better way.

For All the Saints!

It’s All Saints Day, 2022. I am involved in a training to serve as a chaplain at the upcoming polls during the US midterm elections. I was joking with a friend of mine, who lives in Flanders, that I was hoping I would not be called upon to perform Last Rites during the voting. Humor is how I deal with my anxiety. Always have.

My comment prompted me to remember the many saints that have contributed to my life. But also, it got me thinking about my remarkable introduction to the use of Last Rites in my pastoral ministry. Having served as the inimitable “youth minister” and as an “ass” pastor (associate pastor) in the local South of God iteration of church for a number of years, I knew something of pastoral presence. I had walked alongside an adolescent as he negotiated a long death from cancer. I had buried a teenager hit and killed by a car while riding his bike to school. Not just the usual youth minister with a guitar in one hand, a football in the other, with some bodacious “hip” in his back pocket, I thought of my work as a ministry to young people and their families. I learned a lot during this amazing time.

As the Associate Pastor of a key progressive South of God outpost, where Jimmy Carter was once a member, my role was specifically pastoral, working with persons struggling to make sense out of a faith that they had outgrown. And, my pastoral work extended to the therapy of couples who were both seeking to grow and to recover from the ever-present rocks and boulders in the flow of life. My job also entailed visiting in the hospitals, offering a listening ear, and a spontaneous prayer. I often felt entirely inadequate…meaning that I was not suffering from the common pastoral psychosis of thinking I had all the answers. I was acutely aware of my inexperience and what I did not know.

When I “transitioned” into the Episcopal Church, I found that I had some tools that I had not had in my previous life. They are called sacramentals, signs and symbols of the community of faith that were transportable, that is, they “traveled” well from the regular Sunday worship to where people were living their lives. As a priest, I carried them with me as a “connector” between the person shipwrecked in a hospital ward, re-minding them of a deeper reality, transcending their designation as a patient, or a history on a chart, or a prognosis, sunny or dire. They were a person of the community of faith: connected, significant, and of worth.

Those tools were sort of simple, I guess, by design. First, I presented myself, “showed up” with this white round collar, perched on a black clergy shirt. In the past, I wore a blazer, maybe a polo shirt if I were feeling sporty or on the way to the golf course. A clergy collar broadcasts an identity that carries a message: this is important. I mean business! Whether you cherished that clerical presence, were scared by the dire implications, or rejected it as quaint, you HAD to deal with it. I can’t tell you how many times that simple collar moved the dialogue right to the heart of the matter, rather than wasting time in chatty exchange.

And there’s the bread and wine, the Blessed Sacrament, that I bore in a variety of vehicles. One, a box with a silver chalice and small plate, two small cruets with wine and water, if I were to consecrate the elements with prayer at the bedside rolling altar. Or, as I came to know as more efficacious, or in my terms, have more “stroke”, the sacrament from the congregation, already blessed in the congregation’s worship on Sunday morning. Nothing seemed to carry that spiritual truth of connection with more powerful valence than the Blessed Sacrament.

My secret weapon was a sacramental most of my priest colleagues seemed to miss: oil, or the sacramental name, chrism. This was a small vial of oil that had been blessed by the Bishop, given to priests at Holy Week, when we renewed our priestly vows. My bishop, Judson, who I have mentioned often, would go to great lengths to put a special scent into the oil that he was blessing, From his Anglo-Catholic raising, he knew of the power of our olfactory sense, particularly in extremis, when other senses were fading or failed. Anointing the forehead of a person, as I traced the sign of the Cross on their forehead as they reclined in a sick bed literally re-minded them of their identity as a member of Christ’s Body, especially if given an assist by a whiff of the Divine Presence. I would do that regularly when visiting the sick, regardless of the seriousness of the malady. I often found it broke through years of sedimentation of religiosity to a deeper soul space, making way for a spiritual connection.

The Prayer Book was another point of connection. For those who grew up in the Anglican tradition,The Book (Book of Common Prayer) had special symbolic power, one of the reasons that we catch Hell when we try to update it or change it. I am often surprised by the ignorance of long-tenured priests who casually make changes, surprised by the reaction. The changes are often called for but we forget the symbolic function, particularly among people who have every part of their life in seemingly continuous turmoil. Reading a Psalm, an ancient prayer or liturgical form can go deep, and quickly in a pastoral exchange.

You would expect that depth of reverence from one who “grew up” with the Prayer Book, but what of those of us who are newbies, freshly-minted Episcopalians, many who are spiritual refugees from fundamentalist Bible thumpers, whose rectal muscles could turn black coal into diamonds. For those of us who come from such tight spaces, the Book of Common Prayer represents a life-preserver that kept our heads above the water of relativity and the sea of uncertainty. It symbolizes a freedom that unleashes us, liberates us. And, even though our exposure is brief, our loyalty can be fierce, for this is our deliverer.

A priest does well to remember the power of these sacramentals. It is easy to take them too casually, to handle them with a familiarity that does not honor their magical, mystical connective power. They should come with a warning label: Handle With Care!…but often.

My entrance into this world of sacramentals came at a peculiar time. It was when AIDS was bursting onto the scene in this country, and in particular, Atlanta. I remember meeting with the main CDC doctors with the Bishop as they were trying to explain their take on the disease in the early days of the outbreak. They were trying to avoid hysteria, the main agenda of communicable disease officials. We, of course, were interested in the “communicability” of the disease. How was this disease transmitted? Were there reasons for caution in terms of Holy Communion? The scientists/doctors went through extensive explanations of the etiology of the virus, using sophisticated experimental terms that left the Bishop’s mitre spinning. My biology let me hang with them enough to end our conversation with a scary conclusion: So bottom line, you guys don’t know. They nodded, reluctantly. It led us to try on an evolving protocol of how to safely “do” communion, protecting the uninfected, but as we were surprised to learn, more importantly, protecting AIDS patients from our infectious diseases to which they were especially vulnerable.

Our Cathedral parish had a large gay population, resulting in a number of members early on being hospitalized with the mysterious and deadly disease. We had large numbers at a variety of local hospitals, which I would visit daily. The clinical protocol was to gown up, sterile gloves, and face mask to insure that you would not catch the disease, nor spread it. These conditions only accentuated the sense of isolation for the patient, which was profound in this time of anxiety. I made a point to touch the patients and to anoint them with oil, although the clinicians were fearful of allowing these very sick patients to receive communion. It was a scary time for all involved.

Slowly the procedures changed, becoming less stringent, but the sense of the unknown hung over the room. The damnable thing was that most patients were young men with strong hearts, meaning that while their lungs were filling with fluid, their hearts would beat strong, prolonging the end for many. And many would rally, gratefully, but only to go through the hellacious process again.

The other issue that repeated in many situations was that the patient’s parents were discovering that their child had this deadly, mysterious disease at the same time that they found out that their son was homosexual. This made for some very difficult and painful moments for both the patient and their families. I found myself in a mixture of roles, facilitating, counseling, educating, and blessing.

At the time of death, there is a powerful set of prayers provided by the Book of Common Prayer. While it may occur as a one-on-one event with the priest and the person near death, I have found the power in the communal setting, particularly when the family is present. An opening prayer naming the tight space of death sets the stage, followed by the Litany at the Time of Death, a remembrance of one’s baptism and connection with Christ, a pardoning of all sins, the promise of a place with the other saints in light. This is a call-and-response that is beneficial for the person who is in the process of dying as well as those gathered in support.

There follows a common recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which unites the participants in a common act of prayer. When I did this liturgy for a bishop who was dying in a nursing home, the previously unresponsive bishop joined in mouthing the words of the Lord’s Prayer, leaving one to wonder how and when he was present to the action. This concludes with this prayer: Deliver your servant, (the name of the person), O Sovereign Lord Christ, set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with your Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Then comes a powerful moment of commendation, which I ask those gathered to join me in saying: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ, who redeemed you; in the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the paradise of God.

I have been surprised that often the person dies in that very moment. I believe it is because they are experiencing their loved ones giving them permission to let go. That is why I always prep those gathered, both to explain the liturgy but also to make sure that they are ready and willing to give this commendation.

This is followed by a beautiful pastoral prayer offered by the attending clergyperson: Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, (name of the person). Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen. May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

There are other prayers for a vigil that may be used as this dying process continues, though my experience is that the prior liturgy brings significant closure and peace. I learned so much about the power of sacramental symbol, about priestly presence, and my own sense of mortality as I sojourned in the peculiar valley of the shadow of death. I carried those lesson with me into the rest of my work.

As I am writing this on All Saints Day, I was reminded by a friend, Professor Rex Matthews, of the names of the faculty from Emory’s Candler School of Theology who have departed this life, leaving a legacy of faithfulness and excellence. Names that come to my mind are Jim Fowler, my advisor and boss, Ted Jennings, my Lullwater partying colleague, Chuck Gerkin, Jim Hopewell, and Fred Craddock, just to name a few. What a gift they gave to me.

I encourage you to Pause, breathe deeply, remembering the natural exchange of air that takes place in inhaling and exhaling, and recall those saints who have funded you with their energy and love.

And why just think about those who have departed? Why not Pause and reflect on those who are giving you energy in your life this very day? I am thinking particularly of a group of people who I meet with regularly to explore the nature of Creativity and how we can interact among those with differing perspectives and concerns, coming away with a value-added result. In our current bifurcated, polarized culture, it’s an ambitious goal, but one that seems crucial. We call it Creative Interchange, and I have written about it here earlier in the year. People like my Franciscan brother, Charlie Palmgren, Mike Murray of Texas, John Scherer of Poland ( my Big Three) and my new colleagues, Johan from Flanders, and Cedric from Mayberry. These folks feed me with their brilliance, their spirit, and humor. I am grateful for the saints in my life, from the rich past, the pulsing present, and those waiting on the horizon of the future. A gift, indeed.

Again, I encourage you to Pause, thinking of those persons in your life who enrich your existence. You might go all South of God and actually count your blessings, as the old hymn says, and name them one by one.

All Saints Day is a red-letter day, fueled by a sense of connection that yields a deep experience of gratitude. If you missed the actual day, November 1st, you have my permission, encouragement even, to take on this spiritual exercise at this very moment. Pause, and be grateful. Experientially breathe deep this air that connects us all. Blessings.

A Spiritual Flashback

After last week’s long article on Richard Rohr, I thought I might take a break and head out to the wellspring of my soul, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia.

I was in need. Serious need.

Between listening to endless political ads and my crazy ass schedule of work, I was in need of a spiritual fix. So, I ventured out on I-20 East, trying to dodge the infrastructure fixes of our blessed Loop known affectionately (not) as I-285 Speedway. Fortunately the gods of the Georgia DOT smiled on me, and my passage did not send me deeper into the realms of Hell.

It’s so funny that the pastureland of Conyers has developed so much, so quickly. There are horse farms with paddocks, large yards surrounding the ubiquitous brick houses, but the intrusion of business and shopping centers is jarring to my soul. What used to be a mom-and-pop store where I might stop for a cup of coffee is now a huge island gas station. Yeah, I am THAT old man who shakes his head at all the change, at least here at my beloved spiritual oasis.

I got to the Monastery early afternoon on Saturday. There was a minimal crowd of people, mostly older folks… me. There is a huge bookstore, now more of a gift shop, though books do rule the center of the space. I took a clockwise stroll around the structure, which began with Roman Catholic saints in statue form. There were two of St. Francis which were typical of the birdbath depiction of popular thought. One of John Paul II, leaning on an elongated crozier, depicting a piety that remains spiritually seductive, particularly to those that long for the proverbial “good old days”..

Odd that you move from that section to Trappist sweets, jams and jellies made at another monastery, but marketed here. In the corner is a coffee shop, with, of course, coffee, and other Coca Cola (my sponsor) products. I remember the days when the main product sold was the monk’s bread, a wheat bread that carried an air of holiness. No more. Bakery closed except for an incredibly well-done fruit cake. No driving after eating this cake, laced with copious amounts of bourbon and rum. Delicious, rivaling my Collins Street special from Corsicana, Texas. Okay, fruit cake is not cool, but I’m dancing with what’s here.

The rest of the story is sort of funny, Following the wall, there are all kinds of religious trinkets and schlock. I must confess that I am a bit….no, a full-bore snob when it comes to this popular religious art. Someone has figured out the marketing angle of busloads of older Roman Catholics. I made my way around the four walls, smiling, laughing….my resident defense mechanism to such stuff. Here comes that Old Man in me again: I remember when this used to be a spiritual bookstore! Yeah, grandpa….settle your ass down!

Truth is, there are more books in stock now than ever before. In the past, a few tables, with stacks of two or three copies of religious titles that would fill the space. Now, a plethora of bookcases with all sorts and conditions of books. The focus, thankfully, is on the spiritual life, prayer, with a distinct tilt to those from the Benedictine and Cistercian tradition. The fan of modern mystic Thomas Merton will be excited to see a full plate of his titles. There’s a special shelf that features some of the local monks’ work, along with a few well-produced photographic treatments of life in the monastery. All in, the bookstore could be an afternoon’s work, with a lovely reading area provided in the middle of the shop.

Bad news for me was that the bonsai shop is closed. Father Paul, a friend of Merton who had come from the house in Louisville, was the master gardener. For years, I would come to the greenhouse to stand at Paul’s elbow, watching him artistically prune the dwarf trees into works of art. It became known as one of the “go-to” places if you are interested in bonsais.

Confession time: I am a murderer. I have bought and killed several bonsai trees in my lifetime. One, in particular, I bought for the opening of my psychotherapy office at the Brookwood Center on Peachtree Road. I bought a lovely stand for my prized tree to reside. A spotlight lit the scene dramatically. “Perfect” I thought, as the champagne corks popped at our opening. Some of the monks came by to survey my wondrous office. It was quite the moment. As I said, “Perfect.” Except for one small issue……the airflow from the AC was positioned to mess with the ecosystem balance of my tree. This botanical specimen died an ignominious death, a tree that was so expensive that I paid for it on a Monk’s time payment plan. A “write-off”, my accountant offered to assuage my grief. Another tree died at my hands, on my watch. Damn. Dave the Ripper.

In recent years, the bonsai shop no longer had the oversight of Paul, who had departed for that monastery in the sky. Without his expertise and personality, the shop was doomed. They tried to diversify the shop with other gardening accoutrements but it did not bring in the revenue needed. So it is closed. It looked rather ghostly as the display greenhouse and shop are bare. Did I mention “ghostly”?

Connected is a wonderful museum which is joined with the original monastery, which was an old dairy barn where the monks lived as they built the present structure. Farming, cattle ranching were early ways of supporting the life of the monks. Their spartan life is chronicled in this museum, and the “story” of the monks is told in a well-produced video that is able to be viewed in a small theater. The museum itself is worth the trip, and sometimes Father Tom is positioned at the entrance to “greet” you. You may be there for a spell….but it will be a memory worth holding onto, pondering.

There is a retreat house that offers people a place to come and stay, in a guided retreat setting around a spiritual topic. Or, one may set up a private retreat, utilizing the spiritual counsel of one of the trained monks. Occasionally, there are special opportunities to encounter leading spiritual teachers who bring fresh perspective to the life of the spirit. The retreat house offers meals for the retreatants during their stay. And you can choose to take your meals in the dining room where you can talk, sharing your stories and question. Or you can choose the “silent” dining room where you are to refrain from talking. Introverts and extraverts are both welcomed in this spiritual house. You can inquire about a visit at their website by googling .

The grounds of the monastery are gorgeous, well-maintained, and provide a natural setting for reflection and meditation. There is a lake for viewing, along with some feisty geese in need of exorcism. Back in the day, Flannery O’Conner’s peacocks lived in a pen, as she had been a frequent visitor. Their screams in the dead of the night would wake me, wondering who was being killed in this Gothic novel in which I was living.

The monastery church is simple but stunning. It was built by the young monks who came from the monastery, Gethsemane Abbey, in Louisville, Kentucky. That was the very monastery community that was the home to Thomas Merton, one of the more significant writers and spiritual guides in the 20th century. Many of those early monks had been friends and students of Merton. They came here to Conyers in 1944, living on a dairy farm, and inhabiting the barn until their permanent quarters were built.

The church itself is simple in design, a poured concretes structure, plain, bordering on stark. The stained glass, made by the monks, provide for a space for prayer that is bathed in blues and purples thanks to the moving natural light source, adding dappled color with their own majesty. It is one of my holy spaces on this planet.,

The church has been under renovation during the pandemic, with new choir stalls with baffling installed. When I was there on Saturday, there is some work going on in the front, necessitating entrance using the side door. There are five times of prayer in the church, which are open for the public. Vespers is at 5:20 in the afternoon and gives you a chance to hear the chanting of Psalms, a monastic tradition. My favorite liturgy is Compline, at 7:30 PM with special chants that end the monks’ day before entering into the Grand Silence, which they will keep until morning prayers at the dawning of a new day of Creation.

For me, my visit flooded my mind and heart with the faces of the monks. While I love the grounds and the various buildings, the holy men themselves left an indelible mark on my soul.

Abbot Augustine, known as Gus. Straight out of Central Casting, the rotund, bald monk was a favorite partner on my walks around the grounds. He allowed me to live at the monastery for a summer while I “tried on” life as a monk. I was six weeks into burn when I went to his cell to inform him that I did not think I would be able to fade this celibacy thing…..his kind laughter let me off the hook, and gave me permission to find another way “home”.

Father Francis, a mini-monk, who for years greeted school children who came to visit the monastery, was the literal gatekeeper. He taught this South of God boy how to pray the Rosary, and gave me an appreciation for the purity of the basic folk religion which I observed in a small grotto chapel in the crypt area, graced by a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A magical, mystical tour of the soul.

Father Joachim, a monk who had “visions” and visitations. He was one of the main organizers around group that would gather for a visitation from the Blessed Virgin Mary to a lay woman, Nancy Fowler. On the 13th of every month, in the 1990s, an apparition of Mary would appear to a divorced housewife, with messages of love. People from far away would come to the monastery to hear of the recent appearances. I was on my Texas sojourn during that time so I missed what sounds like was quite a show, and Joachim served as Nancy’s priest. One of my treats was to help him set up the Nativity Creche outside the church at the beginning of Advent. He had an innocence which was childlike, refreshing to a cynic like me. He was my apparition!

Father Thomas, who led me into the practice of Centering Prayer, baptizing the Transcendental Meditation technique that the Beatles picked up from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Tom also patiently taught me the intricacies of sacramental theology. In many ways, he has been my Yoda.

Father Francis Michael, a young man from Philly who had a love for volleyball, nature, and particularly birdwatching. He and I have been like brothers throughout our lives.

Father Methodius, the artisan who heads up the amazing work of stained glass, who shares my love of music.

Father Paul, who was the founder of the bonsai greenhouse and the master of that art.

That’s only seven….I could name thirty more. Some irascible like Brother Louis who parlayed his disability with deft; some worldly-wise like New Yorker Brother Ken who had some repenting to do; some writers/artists like Father James who plied the trade of poetry from within the cloister. Each had a story that led them to this solemn vow of being a monk, of finding this particular and peculiar vocation. From a variety of backgrounds and stories, each one had a deep desire for a connection with God, best promoted within a monastic community. And each man offered prayer and prayers for the world, for you and me.

I take a certain comfort, not Southern, that I know that I am on the community’s prayer list every morning at Mass as an Associate of the Order. And I have had and have my name on the prayer list of individual monks that lift me up each morning, each evening. So like Carl the Greenskeeper in Caddy Shack, who looped for the Lama, I have that going for me…which is good.

The workings of prayer, the causal relationship of the mention of a name in an intercessory way, is beyond my spiritual pay grade. I have no clue how that works, the economy of prayer. As Flannery might chide, it’s a mystery. And yet, I pray for people that are on my heart and mind each day during my discipline of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, an Anglican short-form form for the monastic raft of prayer times demanded from a cloistered monk. All I know is that I have been surprised by prayer many times over the years.

And when I say “surprised”, I mean SURPRISED. “Shocked” actually is closer to the feeling. I have never felt comfortable “insisting” when it comes to the Godhead. Rather, my prayer normally is more of a discipline of aligning my errant will with that spirit that Jesus embodied, the image of servant. I know how that econ9omy works, and I have been recipient of several windfall paydays, gratefully.

And having these guys here at the Monastery praying for me gives me a damn good feeling, a peace that is said to pass understanding, at least my own. You could say, as Paul Simon wrote, it’s my Ace in the hole.

Do yourself a solid during this coming holiday season. Get your Self to a Holy Space, a liminal place, where the line between the Now and the Eternal seems thin, so that you might catch a glimpse, get a whiff, or even cop a feel of the Eternal. Blessings.