Wedding Bells or Ding-a-lings

Seems like everyone is getting married.

There’s been a log jam created by the disaster of 2020, now cramming into the normal rush to the altar.

I hear from my high school friend, Julie Stevens, that her amazing wedding venue, Kimball Hall in Roswell, Georgia, is in full-tilt boogie mode, which is how she likes it. It’s a fabulous setting in the north side of Atlanta, and there is no better caring and enthusiastic wedding planner than my Julie. Truth is, I have killed and buried three wedding planners underneath the Cathedral….but let’s keep that quiet.

All these weddings got me thinking about that social event that surrounds the basic thing called the “blessing of a marriage”. I thought I might take a break from my hard work of saving this Republic and have some fun reminiscing about my vagaries of weddings in my wide, wide world of marriage sports.

Let me establish my credentials. As the former Canon Pastor at the Cathedral in Atlanta, I have officiated at more than my fair share of marriages. We did three weddings every weekend at the Cathedral: Noon, 4 PM, or as I referred to it as a “Matinee”, and the Evening soiree at 7:30 or 8 PM. I was shocked that the old priests, like me now, were so “kind” as to pass on the weddings to me. It meant I often had three rehearsals on Friday night, and a string of nuptial events on Saturday. In my six years there, I did more weddings in that period than most priests do in a lifetime. Lucky me.

Sheer numbers of weddings will produce an increasing number of possibilities for the unusual. And I feel like I have had my fair share. Here are just a few that POP:

A mother of the groom is dressed in black garb that resembles an Amish outfit, ringing a large brass bell, outside the church as members gather, proclaiming a doomed marriage.

Aunt Bessie in the Cathedral pulpit, armed with new Sony video camera, meticulously recording and accounting for each person in attendance seated on the pews. I had to remove her to start the ceremony. I threw her out like the umps removed the argumentative Bobby Cox, God bless him…not Bessie.

The maid of honor was murdered in her hotel room at the Doubletree Hotel on Saturday morning. When I informed the bride of the death, I thought she might call the wedding off. Bad call, Canon Galloway. Without missing a beat, the bride said, “Melanie can fill in”. The wedding went on as planned, with the “fake news” that the missing murdered maid (alliteration rules with 3m’s) was merely missing with malady (three more). I had the additional job of informing the wedding party of the real facts at the Piedmont Driving Club, including the girl’s date.

I did many celebrity weddings but none as fancy as a famous ABC persona whose daughter was married at a white-tie affair at the Cathedral. Barbara Walters, Hugh Downs, and my favorite, Howard Cosell, were all in attendance. I tried to put some reality to the moment by using a stand-by line: “I wish I could wave my arms in a magical incantation, blessing you, and sending you off into the setting western sunset in a horse-drawn carriage, where you will live happily ever after.” Damned if there was not a team of white horses and white carriage out front of the Cathedral horseshoe drive to whisk the charmed couple down Peachtree Street to their reception. At the reception, Barbara made note of how smoothly I had woven in the horse and carriage into my remarks. I could not help but ask if she knew of any sit coms for a priest in the works.

I did a gorgeous wedding, returning to the Cathedral for a special bride and groom. Their wedding was covered by Southern Living and so there I am in the folds of this favorite journal of my mother. I only wish she could have seen it.

A physician and therapy nurse were getting married and wanted their therapy dog, a Bernese Mountain dog, to be in their wedding. Ever wanting to please, I allowed the dog to process down the aisle to stand by her master, the Best Dog. To my surprise, the dog paused and knelt as she came to the middle of the crossing in front of the altar. Talk about being upstaged. Letterman’s stupid pet tricks could never top that. But, I paid dearly with the Altar Guild who were incensed that I would allow a canine to enter the Holy Space. I retorted, I let in wedding planners! I will let you do the verbal math.

I’ve done a number of wedding in exotic settings. Recently, I did something I swore I would not do: officiating at my daughter’s wedding. It was on the marshes of Glynn, here on St. Simons Island. It was mid-Covid, so it was just immediate family with a drone from Iraq dive-bombing the event. Reagan, my Black Lab grand dog served as Best Dog, but no bowing, or even a nod. I did catch a lick, if I am not mistaken.

I did several weddings in one of my favorite spots, the old Dekalb County Courthouse. As I had worked for an attorney next door while in college, it has a certain mystique. I once did a wedding of a well-known rap artist who wanted his bride and him to “jump the broom”, an old West African slave tradition, which was most auspicious and fun.

I officiated at a wedding in a back yard in Sandy Springs, where the bride was of an Episcopal/Roman family, and the groom was Jewish. I consulted with my friend, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, who helped me with some of the ritual aspects of the Jewish rite. I got to put the glass down for the groom’s STOMP and had the privilege of offering the wonderful blessing of Mazel Tov. Not bad for a reconstructed South of God guy from the Southside. Mazel, indeed.

Most of the weddings went off without a hitch, with the wedding contract dutifully signed by the bride, groom, me, and then sent to some gray filling cabinet in a county office. The weddings for family, friends, special acolytes of mine who grew up, all are special in my mind and memory. And there was ONE special wedding that I helped to derail when it was obvious to me it would be a disastrous end. It something I am actually quite proud of.

Of course, you want to ask me “what was the worst wedding ever?” And it would be my own. It was packed with Atlanta physicians and Delta employees, and the people and youth of Decatur First Baptist where I had served as an associate minister before beginning my doctoral work. The officiant was my former boss, “roommate”, and friend, Dr. Bill Lancaster. I was surrounded by my friends and fraternity brothers as groomsmen, my dad as my Best Man, no doubt. My high school best friend, Paul McCommon, sang the Ave Maria in the Baptist church with his gorgeous tenor voice. That part, the marriage ceremony went fine, but it was the wedding that was seriously lacking.

The wedding was THE worst. The reception was in the ubiquitous Fellowship Hall found in all Baptist churches. We could not get the Druid Hills Country Club as it was booked. And so there was no champagne, wine, liquor, not even my Southside go-to Boones Farm. No, Baptist punch. And no band. I had contacted James Brown, as I am still digging on him. And my buddy Elgin Wells and Extravaganza was booked, so no band with which to get down. Rather, I wound in a receiving line, the ONE thing I swore I would NOT do. My dad quipped, this is to get you ready for marriage and a family. Jesus, what a comedian.

To top it off, I had the photographer from HELL! He allowed, while taking my family pictures before the wedding, that he was called by God into this ministry. With my mother, dad, and brother in full pose, I asked him how he knew. Did the Lord drop an Nikon on your shoulder? Actually, I used another part of his anatomy. He was not amused.

The photographer was a Nazi, ordering folks around like a prison camp commandant, taking picture after picture, following the ceremony, holding us up from my beloved reception line. As we were trying to get the hell out of Dodge to our honeymoon, he kept “getting one last shot”. My favorite picture is of my forearm-lifting God’s photographer into the ceiling as we made our escape in my betrothed’s classic white Malibu….the Boo, as my decorated Jeep sat patiently to the side.

It is my experience that weddings, like funerals, bring out the best and the worst in families. I once opined at a Marriage and Family conference that a wedding was like a funeral, in that, something was dying, that is. the family of origin. Things will never be like they were before. The family, as it was, is ending. That is why people cry at weddings. Not just out of happiness, but because they recognize at a deep level, there is a death. Hopefully, the birth of something new is happening as well, which also brings tears. The profundity of the moment breaks through the cellophane pink surface of a social event to make known that something significant is happening. Reality breaks through.

I’ll close my Southern hero, Will Campbell, who would do weddings in a prophetic style. He would take the wedding license, in triplicate, from his coat pocket, look long and hard at the document, in a conspicuous way. Then, he would take his pen, sign the license, hold it up in the air, let it go, allowing the paper to flutter unceremoniously to the ground, or floor. Then he would utter in a somber tone, “Render under Caesar what is Caesar, but unto God what it God’s!” As the document lay lifeless, he would break into his Southern mountain twang, “Now that we’ve taken care of that, let’s get on with the marriage!” An old minister/priest can get by with that sort of thing.

So those are the weddings I remember. I hope it has prompted your memory, and perhaps your sentiment. Blessings.

Galloway: A 4th of July Legend

Every 4th of July, I can’t help but think “Galloway”.

Originally, it was Jeff, that I met years ago who began the fledgling Peachtree Road Race. He talked me into running in it in a moment of weakness. Then, it became a habit, until it was NOT.

Jeff is the owner of Phidippides, a running shoe store tradition in Atlanta. He recently suffered a heart attack, but after tending to it, he was back to run in this year’s race. Jeff is indeed a legend.

But my thoughts these days turn to another Galloway, Elliott, Jeff’s father. Elliot Galloway is a legend in education in Atlanta.

Elliott had grown up in Moultrie, Georgia. After military service in the Navy, and education at Wake Forest, he returned to Georgia, to work as a principal at Westminster School. then moving on as Headmaster at the fledgling Holy Innocents Episcopal School. He brought with him a philosophy which was child-centered, focusing on the needs and specific challenges of each student. This brought him into conflict with the board, and resulted in his being fired by Holy Innocents.

Taking this setback in stride, he went on to found the Galloway School, funding the renovation of a former building used for housing the poor. The benefactors were parents from Westminster and Holy Innocents who saw great value in his educational approach. The Galloway School has grown into one of the premier private schools in Atlanta with a special mission to bring out the particular and peculiar gifts of each individual student.

I had met Elliot years ago, and we kidded each other about our “Galloway” Scots connection. I always claimed him as a relative if you owed him money, and he said he did the same. But when I became Rector of Holy Innocents, and thus the Chairman of the Board of the largest parish-based Episcopal school in the United States, we now had a new connection.

As I was intent on improving the quality and spirit of the education at Holy Innocents School, I was natively drawn to engage Elliot not only in his history as a former headmaster, but also his educational philosophy. I came away with a clarity as to the fact that Elliot “imprinted” his DNA of child-centered education on the Holy Innocents School. And I was most thankful for that, as my two kids attended that school. It served us well.

As a part of our attempt to “up the voltage” of the Holy Innocents School, we wanted to insure that we kept that original spirit, that Galloway DNA. Our translation of that came to be expressed as “balanced excellence” which emphasized the three aspects of education: academics, arts, and athletics. Where as some of the other top-tier prep schools focused on one or two, we wanted to “do it all”, in a way of best serving our students and their future. We also included “a caring community”, but since it did not start with an “A”, it was kept as the base for the three in our rebranding.

Truth is, Holy Innocents Episcopal School was the gift of this time in my career as a priest. The outstanding, committed, passionate teachers gave sacrificially in their work with the children. The parents, although sometimes misguided and self-centered, were “all in” for their children, and invested heavily in money and time to provide this special style of education. And the members of my board were a challenge and a pleasure to work with in forming a vision for the future. The kids were so much fun to be with, from the young children, whose imagination and playfulness was still in full-tilt boogie mode, to the teenagers struggling with identity and self-differentiation from their parental units, and young adults weighing their alternatives of careers and college selection. To have my worked framed in the mix of this crucible of development was a dream come true. I loved Holy Innocents School and am proud of what we did in my tenure.

At one point in my career at Holy Innocents, we had made a number of changes to improve the culture at the school, one of which involved redirecting the career of the headmaster. At a going away party for the former Head, a couple of parents, who were not happy with the changes, took the opportunity to confront me, opining that I was “the worst thing that ever happened to their school”. I listened patiently as I received a two-barrel assault on my leadership.

As I recall, my mother’s reputation was actually called into question. I had been trained in “non-anxious presence” by Rabbi Edwin Friedman but my patience was wearing thin after their ten minute diatribe. In my peripheral vision, I caught a glimpse of a figure standing to my right. It was Elliott Galloway.

He waited until the couple, a lovely Christian couple, had finished their barrage. As I stood there, beaten and battered, Elliott came to my side, put his arm around me, and said, “Folks lose their minds when they are thinking about their children.” I smiled. I had learned that long ago, and now as a parent, I understood it even better. But his words, and his touch, communicated much more: I was not alone.

It began a deep collegiality that lasted for a number of years. In fact, I was able to get him a position on the Holy Innocents Board of Trustees, which was a recognition of his significant contribution to our school, which seemed to please him. He stands for me as a reminder of the courage it takes to be a real leader, the cost to live out of a passion that may not be understood, or appreciated.

In 2008, shortly after I left Holy Innocents, Elliott was attempting to run in his 35th Peachtree Road Race, the national event begun by his son. He wasn’t feeling well, so he stopped halfway through, something he had never done before. After resting at home, he was feeling better so he decided to complete the mileage left on his own. He chose a path that put him on an uphill grade, just for good measure. During that last run, he tripped and fell, hitting his head, causing an injury that ended his life. He was 87 years of age, saying he hoped to run until he was 90. And he also said in an interview that he “hoped he would “go” running up a hill.” He got his wish.

It was a sad day for Atlanta, particularly for this Atlantan who considered him as a mentor, a colleague, and a friend.

So on the 4th of July, I have many thoughts and memories that come to mind. I usually take the time to read the Declaration of Independence, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which always moves me, and restores my hope for this experiment in democracy. But especially, I remember my friend Elliott Galloway, who embodied a spirit of compassionate education tempered by a resilient courage. Thanks for the embrace, my friend. You still touch me, my brother, and inspire.

You Can’t Handle the Truth…or Can You?

I came across an article that was tracing the history of the Southern “lost cause” mythology. Having grown up in the shadow of Stone Mountain, the granite monolith which was the stone canvas for a tribute to Southern ancestors, the myth was literally a part of my landscape growing up.

There was a sentence in the article that prompted my memory, recalling Monticello, where I once took a private tour of Jefferson’s home during a break at a Pew Board meeting in Charlottesville. I was accompanied by the legendary civil rights crusader from, of all places, Mississippi, former Governor William Winter.

The sentence was uttered by a tour guide as he noted a present that Thomas Jefferson, a sainted figure in my pantheon of American patriots, gave to his children. The “present” was none other than human beings, who were slaves in his estate. The words shook me to my core. Imagine….giving a gift of another human being. Pause. Ponder.

It begged a deeper question. How could good, God-fearing people who claimed to follow Jesus Christ, in a myriad of expressions in the Southland, including the peculiar take of Jefferson, justify the slavery that they employed in the early days of this country? How does that work? What mental gymnastics must one perform to self-justify such an action?

Looking back from this historical vantage point, I have heard friends of mine express a rationalization that slavery “it wasn’t all that bad”. Others have claimed it was “good for them” as they were uncivilized heathens that were incapable of living on their own. Therefore, according to this person, it was our Christian duty to keep them safe and bounded in the safety of slavery.

I must admit that it was difficult to not break into laughter as I heard this reasoning offered, straight-faced, as if it was SO obvious, as to be silly to ponder anything otherwise. My sadness was the only thing that helped me exercise restraint.

As a native Southerner, I grew up going to the Cyclorama, a gigantic painting and diorama of the Battle of Atlanta, as the Southern soldiers were regarded as heroes as they defended their homeland valiantly against Northern invaders. William Tecumseh Sherman, who burned Atlanta on his march to the sea, perhaps saving Lincoln’s tenuous Presidency reelection, was cursed among many in my circles, or just not mentioned in the more polite company I maintained. I actually knew people who would not carry a five dollar bill in their wallet due to Lincoln’s picture on it. I happily relieved them on their burden in golf matches.

As a young boy, I remember seeing a slogan, “The South Will Rise Again” plastered over all kinds of things. “Hell No, I Won’t Forget” seemed comical to me, but with a twinge of sadness that goes with losing, which we reluctantly admit, a predecessor of the Big Lie.

In college, I took a history course from the noted Civil War historian, Bell Wiley, who wrote the classics, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank, chronicling the actual “down and dirty” life of the soldier. Truthfully, I was not interested in the Civil War, but it was legend that Wiley had the stroke to get one into the University of Virginia Law School, a lofty goal. The proviso was that one had to “ace” his course to get his recommendation. So, I set out to do just that, leading the class in my reading of outside texts in my obsessive quest to get not only an “A” but, as we would joke with gallows humor, the “high A”.

I did well, resulting in the accompanying legendary personal note that Wiley would write to the parents of the golden student, heralding the brilliance of their progeny…a very Southern-style “thank you” note for the privilege of teaching your child. It played well with the home folks. But it also resulted in a phone call inviting me to a meeting of the Atlanta Civil War Roundtable, which, at the time, was a small collection of Civil War aficionados including Atlanta luminaries Franklin Garrett and Bev Dubose, along with Professor Wiley. It was heady company. And I returned to the group years later when I returned from Texas, the Roundtable now able to fill up a ball room at the monthly meetings. They even allowed…dare I say it…Yankees!

Wiley’s course did introduce me to the history of the military actions in the Civil War, but I was natively more interested in the political realities in the South and Lincoln’s presidency, notably his fight for reelection in the fury of a civil rebellion, specifically in his drive for the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery. My interest in the war ebbed and flowed in the years to come, although I always took time to tour battlefields when I travelled to see the actual landscape on which the epic battles were fought. Imagine how my kids enjoyed that. Right.

But underneath all of this was a nagging question: How could a Christian person justify the slavery of another person? It just didn’t make sense to me, and it still doesn’t.

Somewhere along the way, I got clear. Perhaps it was the genius of James Carville’s admonishment, “It’s the economy, stupid!” that finally made sense out of this chapter in American history. Follow the money. Slavery was behind the economics driving the South, and the North. The economy of the South was embedded in agricultural crops, cotton and rice, that were labor intensive. Cheap labor comes no cheaper than slave labor. So that provided the rationale for this evil arrangement.

As America’s better angels began to prompt a lagging conscience, people in the country, both in the North and South, began to question the ethics of the matter, most times basing the critique in biblical principles, but also recalling founding principles of the republic, such as equality. Abolitionists began the call to live up to the principles on which our country was founded, connected to the deeper biblical admonitions and commandments. And yet, as not uncommon, economics trumped ethics.

Slavery is the original sin of our country. We began with a Constitution that was purposefully ambiguous in its treatment of slavery. Politically, the issue was avoided in order to get ratification from the Southern states, a Faustian deal with the devil. It prompted foreign critics to point out the hypocrisy of heralding this “land of freedom” which allowed for slavery to remain, with impetus present for expansion.

We continue to struggle with this reality. Our teaching of history has tended to soft-sell this reality, including the failure of Reconstruction, the practice of Jim Crow laws to maintain segregation, and the bloody struggle of civil rights to assert the right of blacks to vote and other equal rights. At it’s heart, it is the assertion of a white supremacy that must be used to justify unequal treatment of others. And, underneath, there lies a deep fear of losing a privilege that one must maintain.

Changes in demographics, whether it’s the Irish immigrants early in the 20th century, or the growing numbers of people of color today, it’s always been fear bubbling below. And, politicians have used that fear to manipulate folk to turn on others as the enemy, duped into believing their huckster slogans. We are an easy target for these con men who will push us to sell our souls, as they smile toothy grins at our gullibility.

Critical Race Theory pushes a more adequate telling of this story. Some say it is pushing a radical agenda, painting our country in racist hues that they feel is unfair. It has become a “straw man” along with Mr. Potato Head, and Sleeping Beauty, to allow reactionary comments to emerge in order to stir up emotions. Truth is, we need to tell the truth and face the reality of the role of slavery in this country, as well as the white supremacist intentions that have been behind the bias of structures in our country.

Thankfully, we have made tremendous progress in this country as we try to live up to the principles of our Constitution as to the extension in terms of “who counts” in our country. Blacks, women, homosexuals have all had to fight for their right to count. Because of their pushing, we have slowly moved to improve the nature of our union. Though if you look carefully, we don’t like their “pushing”, calling them “troublemakers”. I remember hearing a family member make that remark upon hearing of the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr.. He was just a troublemaker who deserved what he got. You may recoil at such callousness, but pause and look deeply into some of the things you say about folks pushing an equal rights agenda.

The truth and American principles threaten some. They are trying to deny the reality of demographics as they chant “replacement” lines in their white supremacist rallies. I remember the chills of watching and listening to the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, with their tiki torches and preppie uniforms, resurrecting the white supremacy of the Jim Crow era in this country, a sentiment that had gone underground until promoted by hate mongers who gin up anger, and then have the temerity to pronounce that these were “good people”.

We have come a long way, and we can be proud of that. But, we don’t have to deny the history of our past streams of racism and white supremacy. Like any addiction, the road to recovery begins with admitting we have a problem, something that needs addressing.

Demonizing Critical Race Theory is just another way to deny our clear history of racism in this country. We need the Truth…..but some folks seem to be unable to handle the Truth. That’s why it has always required people who push the envelope, “make good trouble” as my hero and Congressman John Lewis courageously said. We can not fail to continue the development of justice for all, ALL, in this country. We must continue to push, and “make good trouble”.

A Fish Tale: A Freight Train, Bourbon Street, A Drug Runner, A Bouncer, and A Leopard

I have lived my life by way of stories.

It comes with the territory of being a preacher. I have carefully written down, chronicled, recorded many of my stories in my blog, South of God, writing down experiences in my life. And, I have attempted to make sense of life through these stories, as I author my own,

I have also collected stories of others, filing them away in my mind, computer, and manila folders. I have a particular affinity for Sufi stories that literally seem to dance. And some of the Hasidic stories I got from Rabbi Abraham Heschel are particularly poignant. But a lot of stories come from simply listening and paying attention to the stories folks tell. I used to love sitting with old men and women, as they shared their stories. Now, I R one.

My friend, John Claypool, who was recognized as one of the great preachers of a generation, once told me of going to a church while on vacation. John was a bit surprised to hear the preacher trot out one of his stories with not so much as a head fake, acknowledging the source. As John left the service at the conclusion, the preacher thanked him for the story, adding, “When I buy someone’s book, I feel like I own the stories they share. They are mine.” Brass.

John shared the story with me over a glass of wine, with a smile on his face. My academic self-righteousness must have been showing, thinking it was the unforgiveable sin of the academy: plagiarism. As my elder brother in the art of preaching, John responded with a wisdom I had not yet attained: “David, we’re all just passing the biscuits.” What a perfect way to put it. God, I miss my elder brother.

My daughter gifted me a year ago with a birthday present that sends you a prompting question for you to reflect on your life and the stories you have both heard and made. This week, the question was asking what was my favorite story. I have many, including a fateful trip to New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl that had the Dooley Dogs tangling with the Irish from Notre Dame, bringing together two mammoth fan bases for the tilt. At a New Year’s party, I convinced my brother to hop a Delta jet, (thanks Dad!) in order to chase down a girl I was dating. I found her on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse….and she became my wife.

There is the story of the two leopards on the beach on Cumberland Island. And there’s the hopping a freight train at the Emory campus, hoping it might be going to Athens. It didn’t……but almost landed my ass in jail. There’s my time as a bouncer at a hot club at the Prado. And of course, the plane flight over the island of Eleuthera, piloted by the leading drug runner in the Caribbean, winding up being questioned by a banana republic police captain. almost ending the careers of a future doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, a business man, and a priest. As Buffett says, ah, the stories we could tell.

My favorite story is paradigmatic to my approach to life. My grandfather took me fishing with “the boys”, the members of the Friendship Class, the old men’s class at Oakland City Baptist Church. It was a rite of passage, a Baptist bar mitzvah, as a sign of becoming a man, though I was probably pushing seven.

We were at Dr. McCartney’s lake, a friend of my granddad who had a farm/ranch in West Georgia. His pond, referred to as a tank in Texas, was not big and provided relief from the hot Georgia sun for his cattle, which could make for some interesting fishing.

My grandfather had provided me a Zebco rod and reel. His one goal for the day was for me to catch my FIRST fish. He wanted to share his love of fishing, of being in nature, and he hoped to witness my initiation in the club. We fished from a boat in the deeper part of the lake where the cows would not go. We fished from a jon boat in the middle of lake. We fished from the bank of the dam, usually highly productive. No luck. The fish were not biting.

As the day wore on, my grandfather looked concerned. Finally we moved on the bank with a slight grade, where the cattle could easily enter their watery relief, their bovine spa . After many casts, and my grandfather exhorting me to hold my mouth “just right”, my red and white bobber suddenly went down, signaling a fish had taken my bait. He cried out, “Reel ‘er in boy!”

I laid back on the Zebco and reeled as fast as I could. My pole bent with the weight and force of the fish, my Zebco reel screaming resistance. The large bass, the delicious kind that Napoleon Dynamite would cook for his girl, broke the surface of the water, shaking his head from side to side, as if to say, “No you don’t, little man.”

But I kept at it, reeling him closer and closer to shore. Finally, I saw his silver skin beneath the water, darting here, then there, reflecting the lowering sun’s rays.. I had him….or at least I thought I did.

As I got the fish to the bank, his belly slid on the red Georgia clay of that pond, which caused just enough friction to cause a pause, releasing the critical tension, allowing the hook to come out of its precarious place on his lip. He was free from the pull of my desire. Free, and yet he did not yet realize it.

This is part of what theologian Paul Tillich meant, when he waxed about the Eternal Now, the invasive present moment of eternity invading into our lives. I have framed that moment in my mind, both my sense of pause, and the fish’s ignorance of his own freedom.

In the moment, out of my peripheral vision, I saw a flash of movement from my right. It was my grandfather choosing to dive into the water, wanting to save my first fish for me. I remember the explosion of the water as he hit, and my surprise accompanied by my native child laugh, the kind of laugh you offer before you are taught better. “Unbridled” is a favorite descriptor of mine, and could be used at this Now moment.

There he was sitting in the water of the lake, droplets pouring off his bald head as his straw hat floated on the water.

Now, when I was preaching, I would tell this story and refuse to tell the end of the story. Did he get it? And I would respond,”That is not the point.” My point, and what I carried away from that moment was that he wanted something so badly, he was willing to dive in, to give his all, put it all out there, 110%…I’ve heard it expressed in a variety of ways. Now that I am his age, I now know just how big a risk that was….life and limb. But he jumped in.

And I took it as my special experiential gift from my beloved grandfather, Glen Pollard, a retired Atlanta policeman. That’s how he was. That moment held the essence of who he was as a person. And, by God, that is how I wanted to be. Just like my hero, my private John Wayne, with a heart of gold. And as Merle Haggard nailed it, I tried.

And by the way, the fish was delicious.

Where You Step, You Stand….

As I have said in the past, I found myself finishing college, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life.

I had purposefully tried on a lot of hats in my life. I had worked for a former Congressman in a law office. I worked in the pro shop at a golf course. I did a summer working for the city manager. And worked in an emergency room of a hospital. I had worked in a local church as the youth minister. And as I mentioned recently, I worked as a glorified bouncer/host at a hot night club. Doctor, lawyer, tribal chief.

Jethro Bodine, the cousin on the Beverly Hillbillies, once confessed a similar confusion to his oil-rich Uncle Jed, “I don’t know if I want to be a brain surgeon or a soda-jerk!” I reluctantly identified with that goof.

I had strategically planned my variety of experiences with the hope of clarification. All that left me thinking about a bunch of options, but no clear path. In fact, my curiosity widened the road I was looking down.

So I finished college early and had some time on my hands. I thought of the “gap year” before it had really been invented. I had been thinking about medicine or ministry, so I begged my way into a chaplaincy program at Georgia Baptist Hospital. All of the students were either in seminary or were already graduated and serving in churches. I here I come, twenty years of age, baby-faced, a college-educated “Jethro”, entering into a three month clinical training program. What could go wrong?

I could write a book about what could go wrong, including me trying to be of spiritual counsel to folks in crisis. I talked to a guy who was twice my age now the night before a surgery that could end his life. I talked to a young man who had an accident that put him in a cranial halo, where he would never walk again. I sat with a young husband you lost his wife and unborn child in a car accident. I met with a family whose mother died suddenly with a heart attack. And that was just the first day…..of course, I am exaggerating….it was my first week. Gallows humor reigns supreme in trauma wards.

Those stories are for another time. I want to tell you a lesson I learned from my clinical supervisor, a lesson I have cherished throughout my life. It’s a lesson I shared with a person that I coach who is looking to change his life’s work in the near future. It was the best I had to offer in the moment. And I hope it might be helpful to you.

My supervisor was from Memphis, and had a kind of country accent I had not heard before, though I knew a bunch of folks from Memphis, and the girl I had been dating was from there. He actually sounded like he had just been dropped off a farm truck in front of the hospital, and seemed to be rather proud of his home-grown sense, almost like he was playing up a Mark Twain persona.

Now, you have to have some sympathy for him, because he had the youngest clinical training student in the history of the planet, not to mention Georgia Baptist. He was trying to help me learn to be of value as I put on this role of chaplain, knowing that I didn’t know nothing about chaplaining! A crash course is not hurting the patients I encountered was in order. So he was teaching me not only clinical material on depression, and grief, and trauma, and anxiety, but also the basic stuff of being a human being.

I actually forget the context of this most important piece of wisdom that he passed on to me. I must have done something stupid, but his point was much more basic. And here it is:

“Galloway, you have to be smart like the cattle farmer who goes walking in the pasture. You have to remember: where you step, you stand.”

Moments of wisdom in a clinical setting do not need to be explained. Like a good joke, if you have to explain it….it ain’t that good.

I had been with my grandfather on his farm in West Georgia where there were cows. I had gone fishing with him at the lake at Dr. McCartney’s where his cows left piles of manure, affectionately known as cow patties, strewn indiscriminately in the field. You had to be careful walking, looking where you were going, otherwise you might step into a pile. I got it.

His lesson went far beyond the pasture. It extended its relevance into my relationships, into my friendships, into all areas of my life, including my choice of vocation. Where you step, you stand!

There are consequences to your decisions.

I recently had a discussion with a person who means a great deal to me. She has been struggling with the reality of a decision that she made, and the tight space she finds herself in.

It reminded me of my basic premise of human existence. We are decision makers. Deciding comes with the territory of being a human being.

Deciding means making a choice. Choice tends to be around how we spend out time, our energy, and our resources. Those decisions have consequences in the now, in the near future, and in the long-term.

Another piece of wisdom came from my colleague, Mike Murray, who drove home the point one day by reminding me that “decide” comes from the root “cide”, which means “kill”. Herbicide, insecticide, suicide, and homicide is about killing off something. Mike made his point sharply by emphasizing when we de-cide, we are killing ideas and future options. When we face the field of life, we have options in front of us, but must decide which ones to act upon, and which ones to set aside….”kill”.

I write this as a reminder of the weight of our human responsibility of choosing. Where you step, you stand.

As an old black preacher once admonished me:: Bear this in mind.

Sure enough. Blessings.

Change….What Are You Going to Do?

The only constant in life is change.

I once found that statement to be an interesting and clever conclusion about the experience of life. The irony is apparent, even for those who find irony daunting.

My mother was fond of saying, “Nobody likes change. Not even a baby with dirty diapers.” That saying captures the sense of humor of my Scots McBrayer heritage. One hears these words, pauses to smile slightly at the clever insight, but then furrows the brow considering the deeper truth. That was my mother, my grandmother, and I presume, my great grandfather, John Columbus McBrayer.

There is often nothing funny about change, so irony seems to be a prudent approach to the beast.

I remember shepherding a major change in my high school, as we were forced to monitor the bathrooms as the smokers were bullying the underclassmen. Mr. McBrayer, the principal, no direct relation, was wise enough to let me carry the water of making the student council’s decision known to the student body. I recall making that announcement at the occasion of the infamous gathering known as a high school assembly, and getting into a shouting match with those who felt it was assaulting their freedom to bully, an adolescent “Don’t Tread On Me”. Luckily, some of the larger football players had my back, and quelled the uprising.

In college, my group of officers in the fraternity decided to do away with monetary fines for missing work parties. We thought it would be better to inspire people to show up voluntarily to keep the house clean rather than rule by punitive order. I was thrilled that my group of leaders were willing to try something new, and not surprised when the more structure-loving members felt like it was the first step on the “slippery slope”(their words) to freedom, resulting in anarchy. But even the more loose folks wondered at the wisdom of the change. I learned a lot about leadership being the leader of a fraternity my junior year, but obviously, not enough. I kept doing it.

The paradigmatic moment in thinking about change took place for me with the major change we underwent at the Cathedral in Atlanta. The Dean, David Collins, had been in leadership for decades. The Cathedral parish had been “traditional” for years, although the influx of the Charismatic movement in the Episcopal Church, in which Collins was a major leader, created literally two different “congregations” under one roof. Collins large personality had been able to successfully sit on top of this pressure cooker for years, satisfying and modifying both factions adequately to maintain the church. But Collins retirement posed a huge dilemma for change in the future.

How could we find a new Dean that could continue this cooperative collaboration or stalemate?

Bishop Child, having formerly had my position of Canon Pastor of the Cathedral parish, approached the dilemma practically. He would appoint the “search committee” with an equal number of traditional and charismatic members. Makes sense, right?

The committee met, chaired by the President of Oglethorpe College, Manning Pattillo, who tried to conduct business as if it were an academic search. It was not.

They brought me on as a congregational consultant to conduct a congregational analysis of the parish, using the work of my teacher, James Hopewell. I conducted interviews, and ran a written survey of the leaders of the parish to discern their belief patterns. Hopewell was known and admired widely for his congregational belief survey that identified four types of beliefs: canonic, empiric, gnostic, and charismatic. If you are interested in digging into his theory and our consultative intervention methods, check out Congregations, by James Hopewell.

My study merely gave objective measurement to what most people intuitively knew. The Cathedral was composed of two congregations, one centered around a canonic center, focusing on following tradition,and one centered on a charismatic orientation, tending to the the present actions of the Spirit. I was so proud of my research, carrying my results to Hopewell himself, who was in the hospital at the time. He laughed at the results, recognizing the mess we had on our hands.

When I presented my findings to the search committee, they listened attentively, nodding their heads politely as Episcopalians tend to do. Dr. Pattillo thanked me for my work, in his halting, careful cadence of speech, with a modicum of enthusiasm, typical for the session.

The committee quickly “deep sixed” my report, burying it so no potential candidate would be hipped to the awaiting dysfunction for a new leader. Who in their right mind would want to come voluntarily into such a situation?

The committee continued in denial as to their deep differences, assuring one another as to their “unity” in Christ, that is, until the first vote on candidates. The predictable split emerged, and the committee members seemed surprised by the conflict. Meeting after meeting continued with no consensus. Finally in frustration, they went with a “lowest common denominator” candidate, a great guy and good priest, but a person who could not bring the two factions together. The result was a Cathedral parish that was split almost in two as a good number of the charismatic group found other communities to call home.

Could this have been avoided? Probably not. The split was built into the congregation’s constituency, by the accident of history and the personality of Dean Collins.

Could this major change have been worked through with more skillful means? There is no doubt in my mind.

As a result of the conflict between these two factions, prompted by the selection of the LCD (lowest common denominator) Dean, I signed on for some post doctoral studies with Daryl Conner, a change guru that had studied organizational development. Conner took the ground-breaking work of Kurt Lewin and offered a theoretical construct of “unfreezing” the status quo and moving intentionally into the dangerous land of change.

One of the most important insights Daryl shared with me was quite simple, but profound: Expect resistance.

When one is announcing change that could be seen as costly to certain constituencies, it is reasonable to anticipate some push back. But the surprise to me is that even when the change is perceived as overwhelmingly positive, one should expect resistance. This is because there is a disruption in what is considered “normal”, and people natively don’t like it. People prefer comfort. At least, most people.

So, Daryl drilled into my brain a reminder to “anticipate resistance”.

Better yet, expect it.

It has been a huge gift, this “great expectation” which prompts one to plan for change. Imagine that!

First, be careful as to how one communicates an upcoming change. So many tragic outcomes of change began with bad communication strategy, or actually, no communication at all. Bad communication betrays an assumption of command-control: you will do it because I SAY SO! Good luck with that.

Sometimes, it is born of an unconscious effort to avoid the anticipated pain of such a change. Just don’t mention it, and maybe they will not notice it. They will. The lesson here is to carefully (note the root “care”) plan your communication strategy when entering the choppy waters of change.

Second, follow the communication through the organization. After planning how the “message” is going to be cascaded down through the organization, check in to monitor if it, in fact, is making it to the people who need to hear it. Redundancy is not a bad thing when communicating in an organization, as opposed to what my English teacher taught me about writing.

Thirdly, anticipate resistance by setting up moments for that resistance to bubble up. This is counter-intuitive for most leaders as one is trained to spin things positively, avoid the negative. This was the most profound, yet difficult, insight for me to operationalize in practice. Encouraging the public expression of negative thoughts about my brilliant ideas seems stupid. But as Conner taught me, better to deal with negativity and resistance in the open than to allow it to go underground where it can poison the culture. A rather earthy image reminded me of this brilliant insight for leadership: Don’t encourage people pissing in your pool! Got it.

The three tips will not insure that your change will progress successfully, but the anticipation of resistance and careful planning make the chances of the accomplishment of the change objectives a better bet. Having led successful change, and doing post-mortems on my failed efforts, these three insights are worth paying attention to. Blessings.

Coaching…My Way of Giving Back

My long-time friends often have questions when they find out that I am spending so much of my time coaching. What exactly is coaching? Is it “life coaching” that I see advertised on social media? What is it that you coach?

Good questions.

Originally I coached clergy in their personal and professional development in their work in ministry. Over the last ten years, I have been working with leaders in healthcare as well, administrative and clinical, as they seek to become more effective in their leadership. Currently, I do both, as well as work with a few folks who are transitioning in their work life, some into new fields, and some into the world of retirement.

What is coaching?

My favorite image of coaching is that of “coming alongside” someone doing a specific piece of work, pausing for a moment of self-reflection on the past, focusing on self-awareness in the “now”, and then intentional planning for the future. The way I do it is somewhat a hybrid between consulting, which involves expertise, and therapy, which is about personal growth. Add “friend” to the equation, and the hybrid is complete.

My initial image of what it means to coach came naturally from high school, coaching from the sideline, reviewing films of past games, noting strengths and weaknesses in performance. It also involves planning the the upcoming game, both in terms of overall strategy and specific tactics. And then, standing on the sideline, bringing a somewhat objective eye on the game, adjusting to the moment, and encouraging full engagement play. The athletic coach analogy breaks down at points but gave me a workable image when I first started coaching clergy many years ago. John Wooden, the UCLA legend, was known for teaching his players to put their socks on properly, to avoid debilitating blisters. Phil Jackson, the Zen master, got into the heads of his players and created a “team” spirit that was truly collaborative. These, and others like Mac Brown were in my mind when I began this coaching thing.

When people ask why I enjoy coaching, I joke that I prefer sending in plays from the sideline, and not having to absorb the body hits that are a part of parish leadership. And that is no joke.

These days, I also spend a good bit of time working with executives and clinical leaders in healthcare, mostly around issues of leadership. While healthcare professionals are well-trained in the clinical moves, I have been surprised at their lack of training in organizational leadership. Most are trained in a command-control format, ordering change by memo. Most have learned that such a method is no longer fruitful, but don’t know what to put in its place.

I often think that I spend most of my time around making change happen on time and with the least amount of blood on the floor. I learned this method after studying change management with one of the change gurus who was leading the way in understanding that process. We were facing a profound change of leadership at the Cathedral in Atlanta and I intuitively sought out someone who had spent a good bit of time studying the process of change. Daryl Conner, who wrote the pioneering book, Leadership At The Speed of Change, still whispers insights to me about the process of unfreezing the status quo and provided a framework for my practice.

I started doing organization development coaching working with churches as they were trying to figure out how to grow. In the Diocese of Texas, we were particularly interested in growing our numbers, that is, the numbers of members. We framed this in terms of The Decade of Evangelism, which I found humorous in the Episcopal context, where we typically were not exactly enthusiastic about inviting others to join us in worship. Submit a financial report, a genealogical record, and academic transcript….and we’ll get back with you. My favorite cartoon at the time was a priest on an examination table, telling the attending physician, “Doc, I am not sure that I have a decade of evangelism in me!” Humor is funniest when close to the bone.

I found myself as a South of God refugee needing to reframe the marching orders of evangelism. I did that by reframing the charge as 3-Dimensional Growth, in three dimensions, or 3D, as I described it. The first dimension is in terms of increasing the number of members. This is how most people think about church growth, but I have expanded the meaning. The second dimension is “scope” in terms of the width of acceptance, that is, who counts and is included within the bounds of community. In my own Episcopal tradition, this has moved along racial and sexual lines, which proved to be a push for some of our members. The third dimension is also strong within the Episcopal tribe, that is, the dimension of “depth” as to their spiritual growth. The intent of church is to grow disciples, making them more transparent to the Christ that is within each person, an identity that goes with the territory of being human. We just need to discover our true nature…and the nature of all who share the planet.

These days, I find myself in the C suite, with administrative and clinical leaders trying to figure out these complex and fast times, especially in the wake of pandemic. I have particularly enjoyed helping leaders form teams of high functioning members. Casting a vision, setting realistic goals, and executing plans is the bread and butter of organizational leadership but the main work is finessing the hard work of transformation and change.

At the same time, I find that I am enjoying my work of coaching clergy more than ever. I have a number of young clergy, fresh out of the gate of seminary, hungry to learn how to be effective. Most times, these people are like me when I finished seminary, well-trained in the intellectual disciplines found in theological education, but little clue about how to lead and how to organize a group of people. My own hard-earned lessons and the organizational skills I have studied prove to be helpful in managing transitions that are the normal part of parish life.

As I mentioned earlier, the image that operates in my mind when coaching in that of “coming alongside” an “other” person. This “other” is not only trying to DO something, sometimes something very particular and peculiar to the time and place, but the person is also intending to BE someone, namely herself/himself. Both must be engaged or it is an incomplete act of coaching, in my book.

The “how to” is the actionable piece of the work, the technology of how to get something done. In my leadership model, The Leadership Wheel, the basic tension is the polarity between creating vision and getting it done. First, and primary, where is it are you intending to go? This is the visioning process, that is, the intentional direction that you are hoping to go, and as a leader, where you hope to lead your people. This process of casting a vision is critical part of leadership, whether you tend to work off building consensus or promoting your own vision of the future. There are many variations between those two extremes that can work, but the central notion if to get clear within your self as to how you are planning to work.

Of course, “context” may be the most important aspect of all in this first dimension. If there is an immediate, pressing climate, consensus building may take up too much time, time that you don’t have in a press. You may have to exercise authority in the moment just to do something, which seems to be a tendency or default for a lot of folks. Generally, there is time for consultation, in order to get other views, checking your own myopic tendencies. But there are occasions when a decision must be made NOW. Again, being self-aware of your tendencies and aware of how you are operating is primary.

Second, executing the plan, that is, making it happen is a critical next step. There are many churches and hospitals I work with who have had a history of long, involved planning processes, long-range and immediate, that produced voluminous research,, dialogue, and planning, only to wind up in a file somewhere in a back office, never seeing the light of day nor action in the field of play. At Galloway, we have used a simple process, formulated by our teacher, Robert Miles, which involves procuring Commitment to Action (CTA) from the various players in the organization, a public way to monitor process by way of metrics, and a means of “cascading” the vision down through the group, checking for completion.

This is the Texas Two-Step of organizational development, with both pieces critical to producing fruit from our labor. Simply put, Vision and Reality. A vision to plan for where we want to go, an action plan that will get us where we want to go.

It sounds simple, but I am amazed at how many people and organizations founder between those two rocks of reality. Just by paying attention to this balance, a coach comes alongside the leader to assist in both the awareness of the present moment as well as beginning to think, to imagine a future. Once a vision is captured, the coach prompts the planning as to how to make it real. And along the way, the coach presses the monitoring of the progress, the resistance that the emerges, and the supporting forces. The essence of the coaching relationship is providing a trusted “other” set of eyes, to drill down on the depth of the context, to focus on the present moment, to plan for the future, and to monitor the progress.

Coaching is all about looking deeply into the situation, and asking the clarifying and probing questions. I feel amazingly alive when I am engaged in this work with the people I am committed to, and I get such a sense of meaning when I am able to deliver this valued presence. Can you sense how much I love coaching? I feel like I am using all the experience I have had, my knowledge of organizational leadership, and my gift of encouragement. No wonder I am energized by my work of coaching! It is work that deserves my best time and energy. Blessings.

Falling in Love…Again

The Bishop of Georgia, The Rt. Rev. Frank Logue, made arrangement for the clergy of his diocese, the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, to be on a Zoom call with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry. I was thrilled to be on the call and listen to Bishop Curry talk about his life of faith that is recorded in print in his book, The Way of Love.

Some of you may remember that it was Bishop Curry who spoke eloquently at the last royal wedding.

In his book, Bishop Curry tells the story of his father’s conversion into the Episcopal Church. He was, in fact, in the seminary studying to become a Baptist preacher, as he had come from a long line of preachers. He went to church with the woman he was dating, who was an Episcopalian,…,the woman who would become Bishop Curry’s mother. His father watched as the Episcopal service proceeded with its culmination with communion.

He watched as his date went down front to receive communion, while he hung back, He was looking to see how it would play out as he and his date were black, and the rest of the congregation was white. He was amazed that his date drank from the chalice, and then, the white folks kneeling at the altar rail drank from that same chalice. This was in a time of segregation and such a moment was pregnant to the Spirit for this young man. Bishop Curry reports that his father was so impressed with the Christian practice that defied the cultural norm, that he thought that this might be the church that might be where he could call “home”. He did, ultimately becoming a priest in the Episcopal church.

Bishop Michael Curry’s book is a tour de force on the essential Christian message of Love. He takes a good bit of time lining out the Copernican revolution of coming to the spiritual understanding that a proper reference is to “we”, than the more natural inner, ego focus of “me”. When one undergoes a profound spiritual awakening, a person wakes up to his/her deeper identity as a person in community rather than the self-serving egotistical inward turn.

Curry smartly turns attention to the words of the apostle Paul who is addressing the pastoral concerns of a divided community of faith in Corinth. The passage he focusses on is the 13th chapter, the noted “Love” chapter. It has been used at about 80% of the weddings I have officiated at, leading me to hate the “love” chapter! It has been particularly painful to hear aunts, uncles, and friends, who are frustrated actors, using this nuptial situation to make a dramatic reading of the chapter, like Cicely Strong’s cheeky SNL parody of bad, overblown church lectors.

But in this current climate, this boy is coming around to appreciate Paul’s deep wisdom.

Love, for Paul, is placed in triad: faith, hope, and love. And all in the context of a bifurcated community of Corinth. Bishop Curry write, “Those Corinthians. Paul tells us, are fighting in the pews at church. They are splitting into factions in terms of who baptized them. People are suing each other. Sleeping with each other’s spouses. The rich and high-status folk are demanding they get communion first. Other people are getting drunk at Communion. This was some serious dysfunction. Amid all this, everybody’s arguing about who is the better Christian, who is going to heaven, and who is not.” Both Michael and I studied with family therapist, Rabbit Edwin Friedman, who taught us all about dysfunctional congregations. Corinth fits the classical clinical diagnostic designations: pretty screwed up.

But the Bishop goes one to make the critical connection. ” The behavior sounds a little familiar. Tilt your head at it, and it sounds a lot like a lot of us today on social media. Arrogant, rude, insisting on our own way, irritable, resentful, rejoicing in wrongdoing? Paul’s got it, all right. It sounds like some of our leaders in Washington, D.C.. It sounds like some of our business leaders. It sounds like some of us in religious communities. It might even sound like some heated conversations around the dinner table at Thanksgiving. The situation that occasioned the ancient epistle sounds remarkably contemporary.”

Paul’s answer, and Bishop Curry’s, is a call to love. This is a call to “turn it around” from a preoccupation with selfish concerns to taking the perspective of “the other”. Love is not a sentimental thought, but rather, love is an action which one does out of concern for and care for the “other”.

Curry helpfully suggests a GPS that will give one a sense of what love looks like in a particular situations: Is this just about “me”, or is this about “we”? Does this just serve my unenlightened self-interest or does it somehow server the greater good? Just starting to address these questions gets you “on the road again” toward love, in this current world of self-centeredness and contempt that characterizes much of our life. Selfishness excludes, while love makes room for the other in the field of attention, and includes the other in consideration.

This notion of a GPS has been intriguing to me. A Trappist monk who did our premarital counseling used something like this as he pointed to Paul’s 1st Corinthians passage to get Mary and me to consider how we might use the verbs to characterize the way we should treat one another: patient, kind, not envious, not arrogant or rude, not irritable or resentful, bears, hopes, endures. In a word, that’s what love is all about, Charlie Brown.

That was forty years ago. Forty. 40. Did I mention forty years ago? That’s a lot of water under the bridge. There weren’t a lot of people at the betting window the day of my wedding. They knew me well, my self-interest had been in full bloom. Some would claim, one in particular, would say my wedding was in fact self-interest in spades. And I would be hard pressed to object.

While I have preached my share of romantic, Hallmark Card sermons at the social convention occasion that we call weddings, I have learned my lesson well. It’s quite a business, rivaling those boys in the planting industry called funeral homes. My initial ride was doing most of the weddings at the Cathedral in the sanctified section of Atlanta, called Buckhead. I saw obscene amounts of money funneled for grand occasions with a glance given toward the spiritual meaning and even less toward the herculean task ahead of forming a healthy relationship. I did a wedding with the whole cavalcade of ABC stars, hanging with Cosell and Barbara Wawa, speaking of SNL skits. I did a wedding that was showcased and centerspread in the hallowed Southern Living magazine. I know about the wedding show business.

My time on the Peachtree wedding circuit skewed me, or screwed me, with me only killing three wedding coordinators, buried somewhere beneath the Cathedral. Dead planners tell not tales….nor take obnoxious pictures. But I emerged with a clear concept of what is really going on at a wedding. It is the beginning of a process of education, progressing from this concept of cellophane, forged through the years into the iron and steel structure of love. This is the Right Stuff, not fairy tales.

I started seeing “The Blessing of a Marriage”, as it is designated in the Book of Common Prayer, as an occasion for counter-cultural testimony. I began to refer to marriage as the crucible, the holding container of the fire of human relationship. And the success is not the number of years one accumulates. Did I mention FORTY? Rather, the fruit a marriage bears in the way it has taught its students the art of love. Marriage is one of the most powerful, experiential venues where we can learn of this thing called love.

Of course, we learn in all times and places about this love, if we choose to. It can happen in families as we learn to share time and resources. We can learn about love in school as we bump up against people from different backgrounds. One can even learn in business, as we must weigh our personal agendas with those of our co-workers and our collective. And, dare I say it, we can learn about love in the context of social media, and even church. Any place we are with others, the subject of love is in play.

This is a pregnant time in terms of our ability to live with one another. We must learn, relearn, and learn continually about this thing called love. I do commend taking the time to read Bishop Curry’s book, The Way of Love. Invest the time and energy to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest his wise words concerning this way of being in the world. I think you just might fall in love again, I did. Blessings.

Setting An Intention

I attended a retreat this past weekend, sponsored by the Institute for Conscious Being, a group that promotes the used of the Enneagram to understand one’s self and to relate to one another. This particular group, led by clinical psychologist, Joseph Howell, has a particular interest in the role of the Enneagram to assist in one’s spiritual growth. My friend, John Adams, recommended Joe’s book, Becoming Conscious, which intrigued me with its powerful spiritual insights.

I had some exposure to the Enneagram earlier in my career as a heuristic tool of self-understanding. My daughter had explored it, with her fiance, now husband, as a way to understand their dynamic, which prompted my dusting off some old texts.

I have to admit my tendency to look skeptically at popular “spiritual” programs but this group has impressed me with the seriousness of their study of the psychology of faith, and their basic reliance of care for human beings. So while I entered the weekend with reservations, I left with good feelings about the program which prompted deepening self-awareness. If you are interested in discovering the Enneagram, and this particular training program, you can go to this link:

There is so much worthy stuff to share in terms of the Enneagram but I wanted to share a simple insight that was a good reminder.

On the second day of the retreat, the session leader invited us to “set intentions for the day”. By this, she referred to a practice that I teach many priests that I have trained through the years. It’s a process of planning that is intended to make one more organized with one’s time, and therefore, more productive.

I normally coach my folks to plan by the year, by the quarter, by the month, by the week, by the day. While I have found planning in a consistent manner beneficial, planning by the week, which I grabbed from Covey many moons ago, is revolutionary.

I plan the year in day dedicated to review, goal-setting, and project planning. Quarterly, I review the plan and adjust for changing contexts. Imagine the change in “context” of second quarter last year….that’s right…,.you know. I have gotten in the habit now of doing the same, but to a lesser extent, monthly. But the key for me has been weekly planning.

In my work, unforeseen interruptions happen all the time. It’s a part of the gig. So, to get long-term-projects done, I have to schedule my coming week in blocks of time. By dedicating a “CHUNK” of time, with an assigned topic of focus, there is a better chance that I will finish on time. As this is done in the broader context of life, there are NO guarantees, but as stated, “chances are better”. I plan the coming week at the end of the current week. Living and dying by blocks of time is my transposed Buffett song.

By using a daily journal/planner, I also employ this method with days. I begin my day journaling, planning, and prepping. I end the day with a journal entry, and reviewing the day. My technique usually consists of noting my “biggies” for the day, things I simply MUST get done today.

So that’s the process I teach, and use myself. There are many methods out there. Key is finding the one that works for you. My pragmatic side loves to “check off” a list, but the philosopher in me longs for meaning and significance to my day, hence my journal. It’s a good balancing act that I have grown to do fairly well for a Southside boy.

As mentioned, this past weekend introduced an “add”. It is a suggestion to add an intention at the start of the day. I liked the feel of it and am trying it on this week. I share it with you here, which asks you three questions with which to begin your day:

  1. At the beginning of the day, set your intention for the coming day. What do you intend to do with this amazing day that is set before you? I use a practice of writing down “My Three Biggies” which serves as a focus mechanism for my rabbit-chasing mind. You could start with the Main One, or the Fab Five, whatever it takes to focus.
  2. What would you like to let go of in this coming day? What have you been allowing to disrupt your concentration and focus, that nagging thought that is getting in the way of your progress? Sometimes, writing it down can give it a concrete moment that allows you to name it, and get rid of it, like a piece of trash. Try it.
  3. Who do you want to be in this next day in your life? What values do you long to live out in your life? Do you have a deep identity that powers your personality in terms of who shows up for a particular task? A friend of mine imagines a super-hero of his own design that gives him energy to face the day ahead. Mine is a little simpler, that is, getting in touch with my prophetic voice, that funds my courage in the moment.

This is a simple moment but it can have profound effects on the process of your day.

When I am adopting a new behavior, I have found it helpful to try it on for a week rigorously, using whatever prompts get you to do the NEW thing, and then review the effect, looking for and naming the positives. Make an initial assessment at the end of the week, deciding to continue for another week, make an adjustment in how you do it, or abort the practice, noting the rationale. This “limited time” framework has seemed to work for me in changing up how I do my work. Give it a try.

The Enneagram offers a fresh road into this thing I call my Self. I am thinking it is a fresh pathway to add to my self-awareness, something I consider critical in the exercise of leadership and life. Blessings.

Faith Development versus Christian Education

One of the greatest gifts I received was coming back to Emory from my sojourn working in a psychiatric hospital in Louisville and having the blessing of finding a mentor.

His name was James Fowler, Jim, who had been stolen away from Harvard by our dean, and then president, Jim Laney. Fowler’s genius had intuited his theory of faith development through listening to stories told around the “campfire” by ministers who were in retreat mode at a gathering hosted by Carlyle Marney. From that experience, Fowler applied the structural developmental theory of Piaget and Kohlberg and extended it into the human phenomena of faith, that is, how we construct a world of meaning out of our lives.

I latched onto Jim and he onto me. We were both too young for a mentoring relationship. He was looking for a son to carry on the family business, and I was looking for a daddy, something I figured out in two years of psychoanalysis. We would disappoint one another profoundly, but reconcile over long neck beers at the Country Tavern in Kilgore, Texas. We transcended teacher/student relationship and forged a friendship as we went into the end of his life.

Recently, I was on a Roman Catholic website and saw the course description of a parish, entitled Faith Development, as opposed to the way most churches denote the activity, Christian Education. It was a moment of insight, nothing new for me, but a re-minder of a truth Jim taught me long ago.

Christian education typically revolves around the task of transferring knowledge to a recipient. The image of opening up the head of a person, pouring in information from a cereal box full of knowledge is what comes to mind. You learn about the Bible, Old and New Testament, Church History, Theology, and the traditions of liturgy, in some churches. There’s nothing wrong with this knowledge transfer as it builds up your familiarity with the tradition of the religion in which you find yourself. But….., there’s a big “but”.

BUT, the more important piece is the training of how to BE. How do you “faith it” in the world? In faith development, we thought of faith as a verb. How do you live your life in alignment with the world view your community of faith is founded upon and exercising? How do you make this thing real in the moments of your life? Where do you learn to live your life in faith? How might one, in reality, develop that faith?

When I took a sabbatical from the Christian religion and explored the spiritual genius of the Tibetan Buddhists, I was surprised to find their teaching and instruction advanced in terms of the pragmatics in how one lives life. They have their well developed theories and concepts about how the world is structured, how we are intended to live and flourish in it, but the main gig is how do you “live it” in the world. As the Dalai Lama is fond to say, compassion is my religion. How do I treat others?

I can’t help but think that in the world we live in today, especially in this country, we are in need of some of those basic lessons on how we treat one another with compassion. Rather than framing our world in adversarial terms, where there are only winners and losers, a world bifurcated into a duality of right and wrong, it might be time to spend some time studying how we treat one another with respect and dignity, in a word, compassion. Rather than voting people off our island, we might discover ways of inclusion and embrace. Radical idea?… didn’t used to be.

And where do we go to develop that faith?

Politics? Come on now. There is no more public square where dialogue is promoted, nor even allowed. Truth telling has been outlawed in certain camps.

Education? It is defined by the task of differentiation in the halls I grew up in.

Media, electronic, social, and print? It may be the most divided and isolated arena we have.

Religion? It has become all about who agrees with my biases and prejudices, not seeking the Truth. And perhaps it’s the last place to learn about how to be compassionate.

Is there any way to change this? On this particular morning, I am not feeling all that optimistic. The democracy that I was taught and trained in is in tattered pieces, flying at half mast. We barely made it through the past election, with an insurrection that was promulgated by disinformation, made virulent with social media. Our country was attacked, violently, and our democratic process threatened. And the best we can do is talk about The Big Lie, when treason is at its heart. Lies have become our way of life, shame has left the building with Elvis.

We may be at the end of our time, after all, democracy is an experiment in our world history, a great one, but an experiment. Authoritarianism has been the option that folks who get tired of the messiness of democracy default to. CONTROL had become the coin of the realm. If you listen carefully, you can hear the drumbeat of “order” brought by a “strong man” pulsing on the horizon, whereas Spirit seems the ghost of a distant time. Loyalty to party seems to trump any commitment to Truth, and yes, I know what I did. And when that happens, where you gonna turn? Who you gonna call….ghostbusters? The cynicism of Bill Murray’s character seems to be emerging in me.

Is it possible for us to use this hellacious time to learn to be compassionate? We literally seem to be living in two separate universes, where truth is up for grabs. I have grown weary with the reminder that everyone can have their own opinion….but you can not have your own facts. In our country, the facts are twisted and turned to “fit” the argument being forwarded. In such a landscape, it is hard to see how we move beyond the split we seem to be wedged between.

My friend and fellow priest, Dr. Charlie Palmgren, has pushed the notion of creative interchange that exists in this Creation. It is our ability, our vocation, to interact with one another in order to produce creative ideas that will better our common life. The creative interchange process is based on the differences we bring to the dance, and in engaging with one another, we come away with a better grasp of the reality we are in.

There’s just one thing, one problem. The creative interchange process is predicated by the trust we have in one another. My observation is that we are fresh out of that, and bananas. To take it a step further, and more plainly, we have a heaping helping full of mistrust, looking for, expecting bad things from what we deem as “the other side”.

Is there anything to be done? A wave of hope crashed onto my brain to remind me of my first principle: never give up. (Thanks, Coach Valvano!)

I was reminded a a Buddhist image of the bodhisattva, a person who has achieved enlightenment, and is committed to being compassionate to others. In that tradition, the gateway to becoming more compassionate toward others is to begin with the practical focus on generosity. By practicing the attitude of gratitude for the giftedness of life, it is believed that it will transform the lens through which one sees the world.

As opposed to the lens of scarcity, in which one grabs what you can, seeing the world as a competitive field in which the endgame is “winner take all”, one takes the radical stance that the field is a shared space, where we all share in the abundance, freedom, and energy. This practice trains one to see the world with a different slant, a perspective that fills one’s soul, not blocks others by contempt.

The person of Jesus is viewed by Christians as an icon to that way of being in the world. Jesus becomes a way to see into this radical notion of the Kingdom of God, where all persons have dignity and worth due to the immutable reality of being a child of God. Worth comes with the territory as part of being a human, not something that is earned by wealth, power, or position. Jesus shows us what living our of such a radical notion looks like in flesh and blood.

While the traditions of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions vary in the words they use and the stories they tell, the common denominator is that of compassion. Learning to practice that compassion begins in the maternal relationship, as the mother natively sees the child as their focus of attention, moving one’s attention from self concern to the “other”, in this case, one’s child. It’s the native, biological connection that drives this ability to transcend separation, to see the self in the other who has literally emerged from one’s own body. But that is not necessarily the end of such connective capacity.

This “mother’s love” is the primary human model of care and love, but can be extended to those beyond one’s natural family, to the “other” who shares space with you, in the neighborhood, at one’s business, or in the community. With practice, one is called to extend this unconditional regard to ALL people. But let’s start where we are.

Who are the people in your inner circle? Write down their names on a sheet of paper. Then, write down some notes as to their current situation in life. What are their current challenges? Can you imagine you way into seeing what their hopes and dreams are? Allow your mind, heart, and soul to reflect on each person, bringing into one’s mind the image of their face. What images, feelings emerge? And now, write down how you might extend compassion to this particular person in the near future. And then, commit to that action.

By practicing compassion with those in your inner circle, you are intentionally exercising that compassion muscle, literally training it for the work ahead.

The Buddhist practice then asks you to extend this focus to neutral beings, those with whom you interact on a daily basis in a social exchange. When I was practicing this method, I focused on the owner of the dry cleaning shop that I would see at least twice a week. I imagined his life, how his day goes, what his concerns might be, Am I 100% accurate in my assessment? Clearly not. But I am a hell of a lot closer to having compassion for him as a fellow human being than I was before my practice of focus. I found myself treating him differently, seeing him as a human, not just a utilitarian part of my day. A lot to ask? I don’t thing so, but that’s your call.

The heavy life is the next request. One is asked to bring to mind one’s enemy. Now, for me, this part is not hard. Several names leap into my consciousness. The trick is to do the perspective-taking of this “other” that is in opposition to you. What are the internal feelings, drives, wants, fears that makes them the way they are? What’s behind their words? Can you imagine what their world is like and why they do what they do? This is hard work, but the necessary work we are going to need to do if we want to move beyond the demonization and the contempt that exists in our current world. Again, the ball is in your court as to your willingness to do this hard work of compassion.

I want to try to exercise my faith by learning to practice the art of compassion with people who differ with my view of the world. I admit that my patience wears thin at times but I am committed to keep trying, so that we might find ways to engage that is respectful and compassionate. It’s a tall order, but the alternative is literally a dead end.

Our current world holds the other in contempt, cuts them out of the herd. What is your answer?