Transformation: From Walter to Doc

I met Doc during my first week of clinical training at the Training and Counseling Center at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta.  I had been “encouraged” to get my feet wet in a clinical setting rather than basking in the safety of the academy,  As my professor put it rightly, I was theoretically top-heavy.

So, from the rarefied air of the Center for Faith Development at Emory, I found myself in the mornings at a soup kitchen serving the homeless of Atlanta. It was a daily operation of serving sandwiches prepared daily by volunteers, served with gallons of coffee. This all happened in the Parish Hall of venerable St. Luke’s Episcopal, home of some of the wealthiest and most tony citizens of Atlanta. The soup kitchen’s daily operation changed the feel and the smell of the aristocratic church, wearing on facilities, tying up the space, and leaving a tell-tale urine smell for Sunday morning. I was to work with the street people in a pioneering model of delivering family therapy to an indigent population, while assisting with the volunteers in making sense of their experience. A rich mix of possibilities of ground-breaking work and potential disaster.

Into that environment, I blew in, looking for experience. The first person I met was a small, little man, looking more like Gandhi than an Atlanta businessman. He wore a plaid shirt that I am sure came from L.L. Bean or Land’s End, on top of a pair of khakis from the Buckhead Men’s Shop, no doubt. He had a stuttering walk, as his eyes blinked constantly, as if he was clearing his mind, every few seconds. Bald as a monk with tonsure, but tanned from his daily labor in his garden and weekend trips to Hilton Head, he cut a curious figure. Doc seemed a bit out of place, from my initial assessment, but I found that he was the juice that made the place go.

His real name was Walter, Walter Willis. He had been a co-owner of the preeminent jewelry store for Old Atlanta, named for his brother/partner, Charles Willis. He had catered to the wealthy of the city, showing his inimitable Southern hospitality to all his customers. That passion for service now was transferred to his new customers, the street people of Atlanta. Doc’s style of giving respect and showing care to the pilgrims who came through our line was the most important thing I learned there in this down-and- dirty world of people living inbetween.

I’m not sure what made the change come for Doc. Casually, he once told me he had gotten his fill of making money and spending money, and decided to use his time and energy for more important things. I never had the nerve to apply my clinical and psychological lens to his life, to try to  figure out what the hell happened to transform this man into the closest thing to a saint I had seen. I just saw, and marveled at the way he treated people and gave them respect. It was like I was afforded a chance to  see the Christ in flesh, a rare thing for a guy like me. To observe a changed man, transformed by life and spirit, and I got a chance to see the fruit of his labors in the dingy context of a soup kitchen.

At that very soup kitchen, we developed a logistical problem as our numbers rapidly increased with a downturn in the economy and the simultaneous release of patients from psychiatric hospitals due to rule changes on involuntary custody. We simply had to change the way we worked in order to feed the people who needed food. And so, we came up with the idea of two shifts, two times for people to be fed and served. This meant we would have to complete one shift, move those who had been served out to make room for a new group. The volunteers,  who were appropriately went by the appellation, the “church ladies”,  referred to the shift idea as two “seatings”, which I found both ironic and funny.

With the change, Doc and I became a team, out of  necessity. He was the heart, and I, the enforcer. I had worked as a glorified bouncer my last year of college at the hottest night club in town,  so I knew how to move people where I wanted, or needed them to be. Doc would get their attention, reminding them of our joy in serving them, reminding them of God’s love for them, reminding them that we hope they will come back tomorrow. But then, as sweetly as a Southern-cultured person could, Doc would tell them it was time to go. There were other people who needed to be served. Then, it was my turn. Move ’em out. How to do this without it seeming like I was herding humans? Doc would help, with his soft voice, but I had to move them out so we could serve more waiting people. It was a trick we worked on and did pretty well with our version of good cop-bad cop.

I have thought a lot of those days as I reflect on my time in the church. Clearly, St. Luke’s became the model of what I church could and should be. It was my Camelot, as I watched literally change the city with its message of grace and programs of compassion. I’ve carried the spirit of that place with me throughout my career as a priest.

There at the St. Luke’s soup kitchen, I listened, over the sacrament of peanut butter sandwiches and coffee, to the stories of men and women who wound up on the streets of Atlanta. Some came, fresh out of the service, carrying physical and psychological wounds. Some came, trying to get out of the bottle where they have been trapped. A man who was at the top of his game who woke up and decided to break out of his platinum shackles. A middle aged woman who had her fill of putting up with spousal abuse. A woman turned out after years in a psychiatric hospital with no place to go. And the children, who followed their parent, like a puppy who follows his mama, into the streets. I saw all types and conditions, as we say. My images and prejudices were pretty shot to hell by the time I finished up my work in that soup kitchen.

But the encounter that had the most effect was that of Doc. A man who had found a second  act, a new way of being in the world. Doc wound up being  a friend for life, serving on the committee of discernment that decided if I had the particular and peculiar constellation of gifts that would be a good “fit” for me serving as a priest. His imprimatur on my life, my gifts, was one of the most important confirmations I’ve received. I chose Doc as one of the lay people who would “present” me at my formal ordination. I wound up being with him as his priest when he died at Piedmont Hospital, and assisted in his funeral there at St. Luke’s. That Doc, he was a world changer.

I took Doc with me, in my memory and my soul. I wonder about how people make that transformation, how they negotiate the passage from one way of being to another. It’s been one of my perennial questions that I push around during my life. How does transformation happen?

There are a variety of models, all with a piece of the truth.

Jung popularized the notion of mid-life crisis, of a profound shift that occurs in a human when they awaken to the reality that the time they have left to live is less than what they have lived. When Jung was thinking and writing, it happened around the age of forty, the infamous mid-life crisis, where one’s mortality spins you off in a crazy pursuit of what you always wanted to do, but were afraid to tackle or risk.

Bob Buford popularized this concept for the evangelical Christian community in his book, Half Time, baptizing the craziness into a more noble tonality. Bob suggested that for many it’s a move from mastery to meaning. One spends the first half of life mastering one’s vocational skill resulting in success. But then, as normal success wears a bit thread-bare, one moves to other pursuits that are more noble, and brings significance to one’s  legacy. I like that, and I have seen countless good folk follow that pattern.

Recently, David Brooks has written about similar transformation process in his  book, The Second Mountain. Following the old two-phase image, the first mountain for a person to climb is that of the “normal” goals that our culture pushes, that of success, to be well thought of, to experience personal happiness. Brooks makes a powerful point that our current culture drives the preeminence of this first mountain, focusing on an individualistic pursuit of happiness. The problem occurs when the person arrives at the top of the first mountain of achievement and finds it unsatisfying, as if something essential is missing. In that moment, some people decide to change course, relocating their course to another mountain. Brooks calls this the Second Mountain. a journey whose focus is on service to the common good, not the self. He says there’s a shift in motivation, from self-centered to other-centered.

Brooks gives several observations as to how people move from the First to the Second mountain. One is a basic shift in awareness after one has achieved success and recognizes some emptiness there, an experiential living into the lyric,  “I can’t get no satisfaction!” For others, it comes when one falls off the first mountain through failure, when something happens to their success or reputation that disrupts the normal. For others, it comes through an unanticipated intrusion of suffering that brings with it a existential question of the meaning of one’s life.

The truth is some continue on with the individualistic,self-based projects right up until their final breath, content to go with the flow. And some who fall off the mountain by failure or suffering, falling off the First mountain into the valley, remain there broken. Brooks focuses on the folks that are “made” by going “down in the valley” and emerge with a new vision, a new point of view on  life. His claim, which is personified in his own journey that he winsomely recounts, is that this second mountain moves one beyond a shallow happiness to a deeper joy.

Brooks goes on to talk about a journey into the “wilderness”, a process that follows the contours of transformation that I have talked about previously in my blog as following a three-fold pattern that is built into human experience. I encourage you to dig into this book as it is rich in observations and wisdom. I will be revisiting this in future weeks.

This is what happened to Doc. I don’t know the particulars, but I do know that the life of the confirmed bachelor, bon vivant lifestyle proved to be less than satisfying, moving Doc to his ascent of the Second Mountain. It is here, serving and living with the street people of Atlanta, that Doc found joy. He once told me it was his Heaven, those moments in that smelly gathering space of humanity.

Where are you on the journey? Does the two mountain image work for you in naming where you are in your journey? It does for me. I have been captured by this image of moving into a new way to give of myself to a bigger reality than my own empire of self. Part of it is a natural evolution of consciousness or awareness of my self, the life I bought into, the mountain I was climbing. And, some of it comes as a result of failure, of falling, of losing my way which forces you to question how you are doing life, what price you have paid unknowingly, what compromises you made. For whatever reason, I find myself on the Second Mountain, climbing again but in a different way.

I am thankful that I had a Doc to show me the way, a pioneer who led the way.

I have often reflected that my method of life was a native wisdom to get myself next to the best of the breed in order to learn how to do something well. When I wanted to be a scholar, I put myself with the best scholars of my time. When I wanted to be a therapist, I hung out with the best therapists in the community. When I wanted to learn to pray, I connected with the spiritual giants of our time. Learn from the best.

Unknowingly, gracefully, I wound up with a man of the Second Mountain, who showed me a way of being in the second act of life that was full of service  and joy. Thanks Doc.

That’s My Story

Everyone has a story.

In fact, when someone asks you who you are, and they are willing to give you the time, you will move quickly from telling them where you are from, what you do for a living, to telling them your story. We all have a story. Some folks tell their story exceptionally well, while others struggle for a cohesive plot line for their narrative. What’s your story?

Frankly, I love listening to stories. I’ve always loved stories, telling them, writing them, and listening to them.

I grew up listening to my grandfather’s friends on the Atlanta police force tell their stories of the street. My favorite was my grandfather getting off work, going to his Chevy coupe parked around the corner, finding a young man trying to “hot wire” his car. It must have irritated my granddad, because he arrested this man, taking him back to the station, only to find out that he was on the infamous FBI’s most wanted list. My grandfather wound up in the newspaper as a hero, posed with his police Harley, looking like John Wayne, capturing a dangerous criminal. How does it go: when the truth becomes legend, print the legend! My granddad and pals used to laugh about that, as my grandfather practiced the Andy Griffeth style of policing, never firing a shot in his entire career.

My grandmother told me her stories of growing up in Texas, the rich black earth, and the monstrous thunderstorms. She told my that her mother died in childbirth, her father sensing something was wrong while he was plowing, running from the field to find his wife in labor. While my grandmother lived near Waco,  I found the same true in East Texas where I lived for ten years. I wish we could have compared notes on those mammoth storms.

While I was on sojourn in Texas, I  listened to the senior members at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas tell me about their epic stories of World War II, in prison camps and on the beaches of Normandy. I was fortunate to pastor some of The Greatest Generation, walking with them as they carried their compadres to the graveyard, telling stories along the way.

And I especially loved listening to Texas musicians tell stories about being on the road, particular bars, circumstances that would cause you to whistle. It sometimes made me wish I had chosen that life, but I left that for my son.

I cherish the weekend I spent in Eunice, Louisiana listening to the stories of Marc Savoy, the Cajun philosopher, who builds accordions and plays a mean one himself. I enjoyed being with Marc and his amazing wife, Ann, as they gathered their community on a Saturday morning for a music jam. These blue collar workers were magically transformed into musicians when they walked in the door, their stooped shoulders straightening as they were greeted by Marc’s call of their name. They fed their bellies and souls with boudin and Dixie beer, at 9:00 in the morning as they cut loose with the tunes and stories.  Cajun stories are full of bombast, exaggeration, that makes  them right at home in the South.

Did I mention I love stories? It’s the basic stuff of being a human, stringing together events and moments in a meaningful string, forming a narrative.

A story tells where you have been, things that have happened to you along the way. Some things, you highlight, and then some parts of the story, you deliberately choose to leave out. And some parts of the past, you simply forget, sometimes because they are just too painful. You may not recognize it, but you are an editor of your story and how you tell it.

A story also takes into account the present. where all these events have led you to…the NOW, or as mystic Howard Thurman, taught me, the Present Moment. It’s always intriguing to me to attend to how people describe their current state of being. What emotions are in play in the moment, and how doe they inform the way the story is being told.

Always in the background of each life story is an anticipated future, where this whole shooting match is headed. Is it heroic story that is in process, or is it a tragic tale that reveals a fatal flaw that has yet to bring down the house of cards? Is there a propelling sense of hope that pulls the teller on into the next frame, or has something put the action on hold with a  kind of freeze frame that stops the motion?

My joy is listening to people compose and tell me their stories. I listen intently for themes, a thread of meaning that links seemingly disparate events into a flow. I pay close attention to pauses, and hesitations, as one weaves the fabric of their story. I have noticed that many people seem to be led by a master narrative, a story that they repeat as if they are playing a role in which they have been cast. And others seem lost, wandering looking for that lost thread of meaning.

For me, my mother gave me the name David, which set me on the road to look for any Goliaths that need slaying. It’s led me into some life-long dramas that were heroic, as well as pretty crazy. Some Goliaths need  to have their asses kicked while others should just be left along. That lesson came later than sooner, but came, nonetheless. I still get my Davidic  bravado pricked every now and then, but I seem to be able to choose more and more the battles I take on, which some one once told me was the essence of wisdom.

A pastor friend of mine told me about his sermon last week, on Easter Sunday. Bravely transparent, he recounted his own story of being at a significant low in his life, where “you had to look up to see the bottom”, as he phrased it. As a pastor, he suffered a complete breakdown, forced to surrender, to rely on his family and friends to keep him going. He was at the end of his rope. But he leaned into the future, with some assistance from a nun who was his spiritual director, and a therapist. He was able to get through that “dark night of the soul” and get on with his story.

He made a comeback, going to serve his current parish in a powerfully pastoral way that perhaps he couldn’t have before his fall. It struck me that he WAS the resurrection that morning as he preached, up from the grave, he had arisen, with a hope and a message, and  more importantly, a way of being.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many lives he may have saved last Easter morning. How many people sitting in those hard pews were at the end of their rope? How many young people who have yet to hit bottom, but will remember the story of their pastor who did, and yet lived to tell about it? How many folk who had have the very life kicked out of them and found a line of hope to pull them up? My bet is that Easter may have happened in a big way in a little town in “by God” Missouri.

When you leave a parish, it’s funny. You hear from the people you served, and they tell you stories, stories you may not even remember. Things you said, little things you did, actions that made a difference in people’s live that you simply had no idea. Sometimes the story is told in a note, a letter, sometimes in a call, or hug. It’s the psychic pay for a pastor.

Everyone has a story. Why not take the time to jot some notes about yours? Your high mountain top experiences, your down in the valley lows? Your lower than low bottoms, and your miraculous resurrections?

Story hold our lives together in narrative form. What’s your story? Find a way to tell it, either in written form or spoken to an other. What is your story?

Fire in the Cathedral

I am writing the morning after the horrific fire that threatened the very structure of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In the aftermath, I have been listening to the various talking heads making their observations about this stunning moment along with the cultural implications. “It will be rebuilt” seems to be the headline.

My mind has gone to another fire. It was a fire that I witnessed many moons ago, in a place not so far away.

It was Conyers, a sleepy town, a short hour east of Atlanta. The setting was a Trappist monastery, constructed by the monks in a design that was based on a abbey in France.

We were gathered in darkness, in the middle of a grain field, in the chill of the deep night. It was the end of Holy Saturday, the day of “inbetween”, when Jesus was said to have descended into Hell, to break the bonds of death, and to set free those were captive.

The day before, we had followed Jesus to the Cross, to witness his ignoble crucifixion on the hard wood of the cross, after being betrayed and abandoned by friends. He went to the Cross, after having been turned over by religious leaders due to fears around his assault on their traditions and authority. Led to the Cross, he was condemned to death by the Roman government authority, the Empire of that time, because of the fear of another political uprising. “Crucify him” was the chant of the mob on this day. Sounds like some chants I’ve heard recently. And we were there, we participated.

Good Friday is the instant replay of this event, as the Church trots out the old, old story of Jesus’ death, his last words, and even breathing his last frail human breath, “It is finished…”. In certain traditions, the Cross is brought in with the corpus of a beaten, bloodied Jesus which is put before us “to survey” as the hymn goes. Some traditions offer the experiential moment of coming forward and kissing the feet of the corpus of Jesus. Others offer a bare black cross to symbolize the moment of abandonment, desperation, and futility. Good Friday ironically drags us to the foot of the Cross and leaves us there. This is high drama.

And so, we have languished and suffered with the Crucified Lord for a day. The “inbetween” day of Holy Saturday is a time that we don’t really know what to do with it.

But on this night, after sundown, we gather. Gathered in the chill of the night, our souls shivering with the undeniable truth of our own mortality, we come, not knowing what for and what awaits us.

The Church, the ekklesia, the Greek for “a people called out”, meets together, for what else can we do. Like the Parisians gathered, unplanned, unscheduled on the Seine, in the fading glow of the Cathedral, with the smell of old wood burning in the nostrils, we gather.

This is the night that the Church has learned to announce the most improbable Truth in the face of the undeniable reality of Death. On that particular night that I am remembering, the Abbot of the monastery lights the “new fire” of Easter, using flint, a loose bundle of dry straw, and a prayer. The fire is lit and  used to light the Paschal Candle, an enormous candle that will be carried through the field, up the hill to the darkened church building.

Arriving at the front of the church building, the Abbot raps three times on the huge massive oak doors with his crozier, his staff, Slowly, slowly, the doors creak open, revealing a darkness that I can still remember. I remember thinking of the dark mine that Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing about when I was a boy, dark as a dungeon. That singular light made its way into the church, pausing, as the leader chanted the ancient words, The Light of Christ, at which point the people responded, Thanks be to God.

The Paschal Candle was carried in slowly,  its singular flame issuing forth an amazing radiance, breaking into the overwhelming darkness. An experiential procession moves into the heart of darkness, as we, the trembling faithful, followed in faith.

In the middle of the church, the procession paused, as again the affirmation was sounded, The Light of Christ, and again with the response, Thanks be to God. The light and shadows played tag as the flickering candle threatened to go out, in spite of high liturgical planning.

Finally, the procession reached the front of the church, as the leader turned to face the following crowd. And this time, with a more triumphant tone, fueled by the journey and relief at arrival, the leader acclaimed, The Light of Christ, and again the response, Thanks be to God.

As the Paschal Candle was placed carefully into the brass holder, attendants lit candles from the lone flame and began to move among to people, sharing this light with their neighbors. Slowly, the cavernous darkness progressively is illumined by the communal collection of candle power.

All of us filled that space with our flickering candles of faith, as we listened to the ancient chant, the Exultet, recounting the  cosmic drama of God’s love, overcoming death. We heard the biblical story of God’s original Incarnation in Creation, pausing as the
Creator assesses the work:  TOV, it is good, Then follows other Hebrew stories of God’s faithfulness, recounting that presence through the past, even to this moment.

This culminates with the reading of one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s Resurrection. We hear the story once again, passed on from the original witnesses, the women, passed on to the disciples who had their own experience of the Risen Christ. These stories were passed on to others, and finally written down in four different accounts that were continually recounted among the faithful, and read, even in this particular gathering.

As the reading of the Gospel account is concluded, there is silence. A deafening silence, an open space of time, hung suspended between despair and hope.

And then there is Light. Just like that first morning of Creation, a brightness breaks over us. Originally it was the Creator, but on this night, it’s a hidden bespeckled brother monk, throwing the main switch at the aging fuse box, definitely a potential flaw in the human design. But, thanks be to God, and the Southern Company, it worked.

Flooding that very space, the full effect of light breaks into the darkness, blinding us in its brightness. The leader exclaims the words we had been waiting for: Alleluia, Christ is Risen! and we respond, The Lord is Risen Indeed, Alleluia.

Looking into the faces of my companions and those other people gathered, our eyes were dancing with surprise, shining with hope, with a joy, with a deep connection with something much bigger than we were at the beginning of the night.

Now, let me confess. I had been going to church since I left my mother’s womb. I was even on the cradle roll, placed in the nursery at a Baptist church, hanging out with another baby, Tommy, who would become my friend later in a youth group. I went to church on Easter Sunday with my family, listening to the strains of “He Arose” which Baptists sing obligatorily each Easter. Once, I even rolled out of bed to attend the Easter Sunrise Service. Have mercy!

But I never had the experience I had on that night at Easter Vigil in the unlikely place of a Trappist monastery. I experienced a joy that I had only heard  others talk about. And let me be clear, this might not be your cup of tea. You may love the blast of a horn section enabled hymn,  a bombastic Widor voluntary on a pipe organ, or the simple phrasing of a heart-felt praise song. Or your jam might be that of an oratorical pyrotechnic flurry, rhapsodically proclaiming the power of the Almighty. Whatever brings you light and good news is a good thing regardless of how.  But my sense is, we all experience a darkness at times. We suddenly grasp our mortality, or rather, we are grabbed by it. We need to find a source for our hope and our faith that will see us through our particular dark night.

For me, it was the new fire of Easter lit in the darkness of night, set in the smelling ripeness of a freshly mowed cow pasture on the Trappist monastery grounds. That’s how I roll.

Some years later, I was designated to carry that new fire into the Episcopal Cathedral in Atlanta, the first Easter after my ordination. I was honored to join those in the line of folks who have chanted the ancient verse, The Light of Christ, and carry it into the dark, foreboding tomb of the Cathedral of St. Philip, set on a hill in Buckhead.

Fire in the Cathedral has a very specific meaning to me.

Fire in the Cathedral for me conveys a hope that I needed and has a positive vibe.

Fire in the Cathedral is a experience that I look forward to every Spring as the Earth awakens and rebirth begins.

But an uncontrolled fire in the Cathedral in Paris brings despair, a deep sense of loss. Perhaps it ignites our deepest fear of chaos, of randomness that threatens our sense of meaning. And yet, even as the fire was burning, destroying, charring, the faithful gathered, carrying their stories and singing their songs, leaning into the night with hope.

Those pilgrims, gathered in their dark night, have the temerity to proclaim that Christ is Risen, the bold notion that the Christ  reigns over death, that Christ brings hope where despair threatens. Alleluia indeed!

The Light of Christ. Thanks be to God.

What Color is Your Bible?

When you grow up in the South, you are required to have a relationship with the Bible. You may tote it, you  may thump it, you may quote it, you may hate it, or you may run from it. But it’s like fluoride in the water….it’s just there, the Bible in the South.

For me, I got my first Bible that I remember being purchased for me by my grandparents at Sears in West End, which kind of fits. West End was where my pediatrician officed, Dr. Redd. It’s where I went to my first music store, Jacksons, renting my first saxophone. And West End was  where I first tasted the heavenly manna of Krispy Kreme Donuts. Sears was like Mecca for West End, the center of all that is. You would get clothes for school, Cub Scout uniforms, hardware, and stuff I had no business knowing about at that age. But, turns out you could also score a Bible.

My first Bible was, the Children’s Bible. It had a picture on the cover of Jesus sitting, gathering all the children unto him. I guess that was to make the point that he was accessible to all, even dumb kids like me, limited in my pondering ability. It was a King James Version, and it had color illustrations throughout the text.

This Children’s Bible proved to be my first experience of editing the Bible to fit the way I saw life, or wanted to see life. The pictures were of Adam and Eve, getting the hell out of Dodge. There was Moses on Sinai, holding the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. I remember him not looking happy.  Noah and the Ark with the  rainbow, giving a little good news-bad news drama.  And there was David taking on Goliath, which proved to be predictive for me and my identity.

But the picture that caught my eye, that bothered me,  was of Jesus with a whip of ropes, running the sellers out of the Temple. He looked angry and determined, and the sellers had a definite look of fear as they ran, clearing the space. Now, this simply did not fit my Southern way of niceness and politeness, especially in church, so I simply decided to excise this sketchy picture of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ out of  my Bible. I tore it out and put it in the desk drawer, hiding his anger safely away. This was the first of many edits I would make growing up, trying to make Jesus more palatable to my Southern taste and sensibility. It would not be the last. I  learned that Christian trick early on. If it doesn’t fit, take it out. Not as poetic as “if it don’t fit, you must acquit” but it worked just the same.

My second Bible was a black leather one, moving up into the big leagues. It was a Revised Standard Version, Red Letter Edition, meaning the words that Jesus spoke were special, marked for emphasis. I mean, even a kid gets that differentiation, and I guess I still sort of give honor to that instinct.

Of course, we carried our Bible to church and Sunday School because I was in the Southern Baptist Church, where you got points for bringing your Bible, studying your lesson, being on time, going to church, and of course, bringing that offering. There was an actual scorecard on the offering envelope. I was a “100 percenter” and would add “visitations” just to get extra credit. Southern Baptists will know what I’m talking about.

I carried that Bible with me until I arrived in the Youth department where our minds moved to other concerns. The Bible got left behind, and my focus was on trying to trip up these poor mortals that had volunteered to teach us. As a budding scientist, I took it as my duty to bring every question of historicity, evolution, and philosophy to the class session. With my mom as a biology teacher, I peculiarly enjoyed pressing the sexual issues that were in the stories and texts. I remember deciding to ask Mr. Griswold about the practice of circumcision, pretending ignorance. That probe sent him into stuttering apoplexy for the remainder of the class session. You can see how I was a singular joy. My Bible told me that even my Lord was precocious at twelve, so shouldn’t I follow his lead?

My next Bible was called The Living Bible which was said to be more accessible, easier to comprehend than the ponderous King James. It was green and did read more flowingly. That was because it was a paraphrase, meaning someone took the Hebrew and Greek and put it into present-day language, sans thous and ye verilys. For that reason, serious students of the Bible often referred to the Living Bible as the Green Abortion….always said in love and Christian charity, you understand. They were looking for the actual words of Jesus, as if that was even possible. But the Big Green did deliver the feel of the story which was not bad at the time.

When I was hitting late high school, my dear friend Danny cautioned me about the secular world that might lead me astray, particularly at the godless Emory that I planned to attend. So Danny encouraged me to gird my loins, and my mind. He gave me a book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell that came right out of Campus Crusade with the Four Spiritual Laws. This was getting serious, with my soul dangling over the very fires of Hell. This demanded not only a verdict but a Bible text that was true to the original text, and hopefully as close to the lips of Jesus as I could get. The Bible of choice among my fundamentalist friends was the New American Standard which took pains to make a literal translation with no funny stuff going on. It was blue, I remember thinking, true blue.

Now, that was the Bible I used through college until I wound up crazily at  the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky with all the preacher boys training to be pastors. You can look back on a past blog entry to read as to how I made my circuitous route to Southern, trying on a medical career by  working in a psychiatric hospital while taking classes at the Baptist seminary. One of my classes was New Testament as well as taking New Testament Greek, requiring the acquisition of a burgundy, plastic covered Greek text, issued by the American Bible Society. This was the “real deal”, which I was jazzed to translate for my own self. But in addition to that, I needed a scholarly version for Dr. Peter Rhea Jones’ class in New Testament.

The text of choice was an Oxford Edition of the Revised Standard Version. This is a big book with varying color covers offered each year. My year, the book was black. Not any black, but a dark, deep, almost Neon Black, that seemed to scream “I AM NEW!”. The person carrying this Black Bible is probably a heathen, a pagan, an interloper. It was easy to spot me  coming with my shiny black Bible at a hundred yards.

You see, the preacher boys had been at this game for a while. Their Bibles were broken in with hours of Bible study, highlighter lined in three or four colors, The sides of their Bibles looked worn by serious prayer and devotion while mine betrayed me at every turn. It even seemed to creak as I opened it, with sound effects to emphasize that I had not come from a Baptist Bible school. I did not have an imposter “feel”. I was one! And even my very own Bible would not play along and keep my secret.

So on my first night of seminary, before classes started, I took that brand spanking new Oxford Bible out of its glossy dust jacket and begin to rub it  on my desk in my single room in Sampey Hall. Jim Rightmeyer who lived next door must have wondered what I was doing, with the sounds emanating from my room as I was frantically breaking in my Bible. taking off the sheen of its virgin cover. Jim and I later shared late nights after studies, watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, drinking smuggled Strohs beers that were strictly verbotten in this holy space. But on that first night, Jim must have wondered.

I did not last long, only one semester, before transferring back to Emory , not sure where I would enroll. But I was hooked on the Greek New Testament, and Dr. Jones opened up the world of serious New Testament scholarship from an ecclesial perspective. And I met  Professor Glenn Hinson who introduced me to his discipline of early Church history.  It was a good time of learning. But as my high school motto, penned by Robert Frost, urge, I had miles to go before I sleep.

That was just another leg of rhe journey. That black Oxford  Bible, became worn and ragged by legitimate means. It was the one I used throughout my career, even into  the Episcopal Church. The black cover sort of ended up going well with my black priest shirt, although that would fade with wear as well..That old black Bible still touches my memory, centers my present, and helps me to lean into the future.


Thin Spaces

Thin spaces are those places in your life where the separation between the ordinary experiences of life seem thin, almost transparent, to the Presence of God. It’s those places where your mind and spirit are centered and settled enough to be able to see the divine shine through in a glimpse of the Holy. Thin spaces.

I have a few “go to” places that have provided that “thin space” for me in the past. Fortunately,  I have been blessed to have many traditional places in my life designed for such an encounter, such an awareness of  the Holy within a moment. Traditionally, these places are called churches. I have found all but one of the churches where I have served to be natively conducive to such moments of sensing the Holy, the numinous. But as I have aged, I find have found other spaces and times that make that happen for me.

The first “thin space” I remember is the Chapel at Callaway Gardens., located in middle Georgia. This chapel has a Gothic feel of tradition, set in a pastoral setting of trees beside a lake. I discovered it first on a family vacation one summer. You reach this chapel after driving through a labyrinthian road, ending up in a rather non-descript  parking area. After wandering down a path along a babbling creek, one emerges to a clearing in front of a lake where the chapel stands. Within the stone chapel, the pilgrim is bathed in light streaming through stained glass. The details are sketchy but I distinctly recall a sense of the Holy, standing there in my prepubescent innocence. That primary experience has repeated itself in other such human-built structures, designed by architects to promote such thin space encounters. This particular space turned out to be designed by a man who I was lucky enough to befriend later in my life, Ed Moulthrop, noted Georgia Tech professor but more importantly, a world class woodturner of bowls, a sacred object in itself.

At a time when I was wrestling with my choices as to how to spend my time and energy as a human, the Chapel at the Trappist monastery in Conyers gave me the same gift of thin space. The stained glass there is designed to allow the movement of the sun to light the space in changing hues corresponding to the time of day. I spent hours in that cavernous space, sometimes surrounded by hooded monks, sometimes in solitude, with varying experiences of the Holy. I return when I can, remembering the spirits of those monks who supported me in my pilgrimage. The magical mystery spirit of the space remains.

Thanks to my grandfather, nature has always provided “thin” moments. There are so many places that have become momentary oracles of the divine presence that it’s hard to name them all. A smattering in order to catch the variety would have to include the Georgia early spring landscape that my friend, John Miner, and I called “turkey woods”, the coastal dunes of Cumberland, the mountain stream in my backyard in Ellijay,, the trails of the Chattahoochee, the big water of Twin Bridges, Montana, the coast of Stonington, Maine, the march grass of St. Simons Island. These are places that speak to me of the First Incarnation of God’s Presence in Nature, the original blessing that I claim. I am thankful that my soul is tuned to resonate in its vibrations.

You may find it strange but another “thin place” for me has been golf courses, from College Park Municipal to Augusta National. My dad gave me the gift of golf by introducing me early to this inexorable fate called golf. The places the game is played holds a special place in my psyche, linking me to my Scottish roots in the lowlands of the isles. My family of McBrayer and Galloway  link me to the town of Dumfries, a son of the South even in Scotland. Golf courses have an unmistakable feel of the holy, though I have done some rather unholy things there, that will remain under the seal of confession to the golf gods.

I was fortunate to work at a golf course as a kid, connecting me to the actual linkage of the agronomy and eco-culture that participates in the magic that surrounds golf. I have been fortunate to play this game on spectacular landscapes as well as some pasture-like courses in Georgia and Texas. The cathedral of Augusta National in the epiphanic Spring has been a locale where I have watched others play the game as well as been able to play in Camelot myself. I was fortunate to call Settingdown, an intentionally designed Scottish link course home for a while, thanks to my friend, Richard Perry, or as he is known to me, The Blessed Verger Perry.

After college, my brother, Mitch, Eddie Owens, and I joined East Lake Golf Club, the course that was where my hero, Bobby Jones, grew up. There, late afternoons in the winter, walking the back nine in solitude, I swear Bobby would commune with me, urging me to master not only the game of golf, but life. Don’t let this get around, but I regularly visit his grave at Oakland Cemetery every so often  just to square up my stance. It is a favorite thin space in the heart of my city.

Thin spaces happen for me with God’s creatures as well. Dogs have been a special gift to me, communicating a love and playfulness that I wish that I could replicate in my being in the world.. Horses,, in full gallop or merely walking, with me riding or not. Birds, of all types, but particularly a blue bird on a Texas Spring day. Hawks circling the valley over Winchester, viewed from the ridge of the Holy Mountain of Sewanee. A chance sighting of a bear while on the Appalachian Trail. And any owl, that reminds me to pause and look around. These have been my spirit totems, conveying  a sense that there is “more”.

Thin spaces that surprise me, shock me, or touch me in unplanned, non choreographed ways. A scene of stellar acting in a play, movie or drama. A performance of music to goes deeper than perfection, down to the heart of the matter. A turn of phrase in a poem. It can even happen on a Tuesday night with a soul wrenching episode of This Is Us.

So I’ve been talking about my special places where God’s presence seems to break in, or through, to me, and sometimes, for me. Thin spaces. I’ve been told it’s a  Celtic thing, a tradition of the Isles, but I think it’s a human thing, available to all who would take the time to look, and moreover, to see.

What about you? Where are your special places, or circumstances, where you feel a connection that reminds you of a deeper or larger reality? Where do you go to catch a glimpse?

Do yourself a favor. Take it from me. Pause. Take some time to take an inventory of those places and bathe in the moment.

Stuck in the Middle With You

A fraternity brother, who also bears the burden of the name “David”, gave me a powerful image the other day of being stuck. . Stuck…on a ski lift chair from Hell! An image of “stuckness” that seems to apply to our current situation in this country.. Are you feeling “stuck” these days?

David is a land man who lives in Utah, originally coming to Emory from California. As I recall, he was carrying with him a rather conservative read of the Christian faith, and I was just the dude to help him straighten it all out. Actually, we were all caught in the vortex of religious thought, in which Jesus freaks shared the central green space on campus, the Quad, with peaceniks, TM meditators, and folks flying frisbees. It was a jungle of thought, a Serengeti of values, truths, and theories.

David and I became good friends in college but the ensuing years had seemed to move us further apart on the political spectrum, which is not uncommon for me, God knows. But I continued to have great affection for him, remembering good times together at the fraternity house as we forged our identities in the shadow of the Viet Nam war.

That was a time of great music and large ideas coming from both sides  of the political spectrum. On a micro level, it was a time of learning to balance freedom and responsibility, the herculean task of young adulthood. We were learning how to own our own identity while beginning to share our selves in the confusing world of intimacy. In addition to all that was on our psychological plate, there were classes and other tertiary concerns, like getting into medical or law school, or getting a date to the formal. More importantly,  David and I shared the thrill of winning the intramural football championship my senior year. By the way, in case you did not know it, football rules at Emory……not. If memory serves me, and she always does, a generous donor stipulated that collegiate football would never sully the pristine green fields of Emory. It’s in the charter.

The other day, David wrote to tell me of an experience on the ski lift at his home slope in Utah. He wound up seated on a lift, as my friend, Chris Wall, wrote a song about,  “three across”. Tellingly, David was on the right, a guy on vacation from New Jersey was in the middle, and a young guy from Utah on on the left. Fate threw them together for a pregnant time of meeting in the sky.

During the precarious ride up the mountain, David followed the natural introductions with a question to the dude from New Jersey, probing for his take on Gov. Christie. “New Jersey”, as David called him, bemoaned the fact that Christie had ruined his promising political career with his “traffic jam bridge” fiasco.

That prompted the guy on the left to launch into a diatribe about his own governor, the Governor of Utah, being a moron, having opened the forests to logging, and allowing the development of roads in the wilderness areas. As a developer himself, this created immediate tension on that ski lift chair, with David screwing himself into the bottom of the lift chair. They were “stuck” in that tight space.

David, with the sense of humor that I loved in college, commented that he and his fellow Utah native were fortunate to have the guy from New Jersey between them, putting “New Jersey” on notice. Imagine, hanging high in the air, stuck with one another on the ride to the top. David concluded his communication to me with a reminder of the admonition, seek first to understand.


The image was so suggestive to me as to where we are in this country: stuck. Stuck on a long, precarious, ride to the top of the mountain. Some on the left, some on the right, and some stuck in the middle. It prompts me to recall the lyrics to a Steelers Wheel song, with clowns to the left, jokers to the right, but I digress.

It made me think of the word “stuck”.

I have worked with “stuck” people before. And I know something of feeling “stuck”. How about you?

The most pressing image comes to me from talking with Trappist monks who have made solemn vows before one another and the Almighty, a definition of the term covenant, to live with one another. Never mind the vows two people make at an altar to love and cherish. But buying into a whole community of others is a different order of complexity. To live the rest of one’s life with someone who sings off-key in the choir, who in just a bit slow in the recitation of the psalms in choir, or just a wee bit ahead in the rhythm. To live with a brother who is seemingly unthinking in his bathroom behavior, sloppy in the upkeep of his space. It’s the little things that drive you crazy, one monk told me. This is “stuck” in spades.

Having listened to monks talk about one another is fun as a spectator. But living within this community is a different thing. It is the genius of St. Benedict who knew that living, working, and praying in community is the crucible that forms the soul in patience….or drives one out of your mind. Examples of Thomas Merton and others lead one to the conclusion that it is in such intimate, close community that we learn truth best.

Certainly, that is also true in marriage. Living in relationship with another human is a sure-fire way to get one’s ego tried and tested. After the pomp of a lovely ceremony, the shrimp cocktail digested, the glow of the honeymoon over….the bill comes due. The cost of being in relationship  become clear.

Other marriage therapists and I would joke about it taking three to seven years for the reality of a decision to marry, to couple to break into consciousness. The illusion, or myth of the “other” that got you to the altar in the first place, is maintained for a time, but finally the reality breaks in. He or she does not see life the way I do! He or she does not know what I really really need. He or she squeezes the tooth paste tube from the middle, not the bottom. Just what did his/her Mama teach him/her? He or she no longer buys into my persona but sees through me to who I really am. One awakes to the reality of being stuck, and by one’s own choice.

What follows is a process of making way through this “stuckness” to a recognition of differences, and a creative way of living within that reality. In the worst case scenario, it becomes the stuff of a hostage stand-off, in which neither person gives way. Sometimes this is done in order to maintain a social face of being, or at least appearing “okay”. I have seen this kind of marriage a good bit, resulting in what I once disturbingly called out as a “zombie” marriage, with diminished motion and no verve  of life.

I say “worst case” as these merely settle, and live out life in proverbial quiet desperation. Others choose to cut and run, jumping off the chair lift when they can.

However, the good news is that many couples find themselves in “stuckness” and decide to work hard at forging a healthy relationship, recognizing and respecting differences, in fact, celebrating and learning from that “other”. The persons I have witnessed negotiating their way through this shaky ground have used a therapist, or a coach, to help them move carefully through this treacherous landscape. The “third” person, in the middle, is able to assist in this demanding process of listening, engaging, and celebrating. This tends to not be a linear advancement of progress but rather a circuitous journey of discovery, acceptance, and repeated learning. The couples I have worked with in this dance say that, while it is not what they imagined marriage to be when they took their vows, it is worth the price. The result is a relationship where differences are respected and there emerges a dynamic of growth and a deep joy.

Monks in a monastery, couples in a marriage, folks on a ski lift….all stuck. Stuck with one another, stuck with themselves, stuck in the middle.

That image of “stuckness” can easily be applied to our country these days. Two sides, stuck in opposition. Two opposing forces that push against a disappearing middle. Two adversaries that wish to overcome the “other” in what feels like a fight to the death match.

How are you doing in this epic struggle? Some people say that we’ve never been in such a conflicted moment. But I grew up in Atlanta, burned to the ground in a little conflict of stuckness called the Civil War.

And I saw the flames and smelled the smoke of the civil rights movement that tore at the familiar social fabric as our country was stuck in the non-payment of human rights to ALL the people.  Is this just another moment, historic or trendy? Or is this the beginning of the end of our democratic experiment?

I grow weary of how members of different sides seem to not respect the other. I sometimes find myself reacting in non-helpful ways to taunts and statements from people who are expressing their opinions or values. This alienation is the subject of books and studies that document and analyze this “stuckness”. One experiences it in cyber dialogue on social media, and then in the real world of family gatherings around the table. Even on a ski lift, these alienating forces threaten to disrupt whatever peace that might exist and accentuate the differences that might suggest that the “other” is from some other species or is an alien life form.

I think my friend, David, has it right: seek first to understand. It harkens back to biblical admonitions, expanded in a Franciscan prayer, and even popularized as recently as Covey’s best-selling seven habits. Seek to understand the other. In the beginning, try to understand the perspective of the other person. It’s about perspective-taking. Can you articulate the unique position of the other that might explain their particular and peculiar perspective?

Working with monks, I asked them to imagine their way into the soul of the other monk, the specific pilgrimage the other monk has made to land here in this moment in time. In marriage, working with couples, I attempted to get both members of the couple to articulate the values and the mind set of their “other”. In all situations, it was this perspective-taking capacity that made the difference that opened the door to understanding.

How might that happen on a larger scale? Is it even possible on a national level?  What political figure will leave a position of advocacy and take the risk of embracing the “other” rather than demonizing? What pundit from from MSNBC or Fox will venture into the psychic no-mans-land to allow for a fair hearing of the other’s perspective? In this time of investigations and retributions, who has the presence to simply pause, not react, and listen.

What happened in the “stuckness” of the moment on the ski lift symbolizes where we are. Suspended, mid-air, between yesterday and tomorrow, we are stuck. With no hero on horseback or inbreaking divine miracle, what is left for us to do?

For me, an exposure to Gandhi and his hard-won wisdom gives a clue. It was first given to me by an Atlanta icon on understanding, Martin King, who urged his civil rights disciples to be the change you want to see in the world. Later, walking on the streets of my city, a word from Anglican bishop Tutu, forged in the fire of South African apartheid, reminded quietly to do your little bit of good wherever you are. Those little bits of good come together to change the world. That rang true for me as a young priest and still echoes through my touch of gray today.

I have made a vow, following the lead of my Utah land man, to seek first to understand. To strive not to be as quick to be reactive, to seek to understand the other and what is driving him/her. It’s not an easy order to fill, but I simply see no other option.

How about you?

Throwing Out A Rose

My wife gave  me a small rose plant on Valentine’s Day. It was a miniature rose bush, with a single red bud. It was her way of paying homage to my deep love of roses, a passion that I had pursued to ridiculous lengths in the past, becoming a certified rosarian. Certified, indeed, she would say.

I was thoroughly taken by the counter-intuitive notion of roses-in-the-snow, so I was moved by her thoughtfulness on this day of romantic excess. The rose bush took center stage on our bay kitchen window, as I would dutifully water it each morning as my coffee brewed. The rosebush faced West, thus receiving the majority of exposure in the afternoon sun. Not ideal conditions, but the bush was doing okay, in fact, it had produced two additional buds as the original blossom was in decline. This small rose bush held open for me the hope of Spring, the coming of trumpeting daffodils, the blossoming of Masters azaleas, even the start of my own garden, comprised of herbs and my prized home-grown tomatoes. That’s a lot of burden to bear for one small plant.

On the morning we left for St. Simons Island, I faithfully watered the plant, giving it a bit more than its usual allotment. When we got back to Atlanta a week later, the rosebush looked distressed. Hell, it was dead. I tried giving it water. I even spoke to it, whispering at first, coyly coaxing the little bush to recover. After a day of hoped recuperation. my wife called it, like a no-nonsense emergency room doc : dead.

I tried to deny it, even giving it one more day to rally…..after all, I’m from Atlanta. My sports teams have taught me to hope in the face of defeat. But no, it was not to be. And so I pulled the plant from it terra cotta home, dropping it unceremoniously into the trash bin.

This simple experience re-minded me of a couple of lessons I had discovered, but seem to forget readily.

One is the old “law of the farm” that my grandfather taught me: to get life and fruit, you must tend your garden. My grandfather, Glen Pollard, was a gentleman farmer who had left his West Georgia farm to become a police officer in sprawling Atlanta. This John Wayne character worked his beat downtown while maintaining his farm  in Waco, growing watermelon, beans, okra, peas, and peanuts. Even though his day job kept him busy keeping the peace, he would invest the time amending the soil, planting, weeding, feeding, tending his crops. He would be rewarded for his labors with the literal fruit from his effort. It would provide for my initial introduction into the embedded rhythm of life that repeats its cycle over and over. He made a point to make it plain: you must care for your plants if you hope to see fruit.

That was many moons ago but I have applied that principle to my genetically driven love of gardening. I took his point to ridiculous lengths as I began my rose growing with seventy bare-root roses, the careful amendment of Georgia clay into a suitable soil, the installation of a drip irrigation system, the brewing of alfalfa tea to nourish my plants, and the careful examination of said plants daily. And guess what? He was right. I had the most beautiful roses in the neighborhood and brought roses to my staff at the Cathedral.

In time, at Texas songwriter Guy Clark’s prompting, I extended this principle into the mystical, magic of home-grown tomatoes. Guy got it right: there are only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes. My luscious tomatoes got rave reviews from my neighbors, my wife, and most importantly, me.

Through time, I learned that this principle is not limited to farming but applies to other areas: relationships, business, and learning. The Beatles even canonized it: The Love you take is equal to the Love you make. Even Ringo gets it, this spiritual lesson. And this poor rosebush was here to remind me again of this principle, this rhythm of which I sometimes lose in my suffering of spiritual amnesia.

The second lesson is one I got from a lay person who spoke at one point in a Diocese of Texas meeting. When assessing the need for change in the Church, he offered a thought that I have never forgotten: If your horse dies, dismount!

That made sense to me then and even more now, but  it’s been hard to live. By nature, I find it hard to give up on anything. I did mention I was from Atlanta, right? It’s hard for me to give up on relationships, on projects, on organizations I care for. It is difficult for me to give up ways of being that at one point brought life, but now, are lifeless, in fact, are vdrawing off the very energy on which life depends. It was harder than it should have been to remove that bush, to toss it away…..but it was time.

Lent is about the time of letting go of things that fail to produce life, vitality. It may be giving up some things that have proved problematic through time. It may be adding some dimensions to your life structure that might offer more life in the future. In any case, negative or positive, it means change.

My mother, a biologist who knew about the rules of nature and evolution, once opined, when she was volunteering in the church nursery, that no one likes change, except babies that are wet and soiled. And she added, with her inimitable sense of humor, “and even they aren’t  real keen on the process!”

Change is a part of life. It’s in the water, the soil of being, letting go and getting on. Ironically, change is the only constant.

Those of us who are on the pilgrimage of faith glimpse that Truth, a principle that is difficult to embrace. And yet, it is at the very heart of being. To become a spiritual being, rather than one who is merely collecting material things, we must learn and re-learn this tough spiritual lesson. I have called it “the Paschal Paradigm”, which is at the heart of  living the Christ life. “Paschal” refers to the “pesach”, the passing from slavery to freedom in the case of the Hebrews in the epic Exodus. It is the continuous cycle of passing from death to new life.

Death and new birth are dynamic partners. In order to grow, we must allow things to die, to let go of our attachments, to relinquish control. On Easter Sunday, we catch the glimmer of new life with the image of the Resurrection of our Crucified Lord. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. That would be premature. First, we must do the ground work, the farming of our soul. We must allow ourselves, at least part of ourselves, to die, with the promise of new life coming.

Like the roses I wold prune in Winter, they would return with glory in Spring. Hard to imagine, seeing them cut back and bare, this action would produce a glorious blossom of life. This is the deep truth that the Lord of Life, the Wisdom Bearer, teaches to those who would seek to follow: One must die in order to live.  It is a hard lesson to learn, to embrace. It’s no Hallmark card platitude nor praise song chorus. But it is the truth, the Paradox and Paradigm of life itself.

Are you ready to dismount?