Have a Happy Lent?

Lent is a forty day time of preparation in the Christian faith in which one is to prepare for the celebration of Easter. It begins on Ash Wednesday in which one remembers one’s brokenness and pledges to do better. Generally, folks have a tendency to “give something up” for Lent. Usually, this involves stopping doing something you shouldn’t be doing anyway, like drinking too much, swearing, or watching too much TV. Or for me recently, arguing with fundamentalists!

Prior to D Day, Ash Wednesday, one is given a last chance, a final fling to get in some good sinning. It’s called Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The time of festival is extended in such exotic places but is intensified on the Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday, Fat Tuesday, named thus for obvious reasons. Now, down in New Orleans and places I used to travel to in the Caribbean, the time is called Carnival which can be for weeks. Key thought: live in a place that has Carnival, even if you are South of God and don’t observe Lent.

As a South of God, Southern Baptist convert, I love everything about Lent. I love being honest about my sins, even admitting it in confession to a priest, and then intentionally attempting to better my self. I love the season as it is preparing for the central feast day for Christians, Easter. It brilliantly coincides with the new birth of nature after the long winter’s nap of cold. It’s almost as if someone planned it that way. Literally, at the end of Lent, nature is announcing the birth of new life, which renews hope, and God knows, I need it.

Forty days of discipline, leading up to Easter and the Festival of celebration. I came to know Fiesta when I was visiting in San Antonio one year. It was magical with the flowering of the front lawn of the Alamo, by whites, blacks, and Hispanics, all celebrating our common life. It was beautiful. Note to self: live in a place that celebrates Fiesta.

So if you are taking notes, live in a place with an extended Carnival season, enter into Lent with intentionality, and then follow the forty days with an extended Fiesta season! Not a bad way to live. It’s called rhythm, seasons, and joy.

I recently came across a movie, Chocolat, which is set in a small French village. The story centers on the town people who are entering into a time of Lent, and their harsh leader is seen admonishing people to be better people, which in his view mean being more under control. The young priest in this town under the spell and influence of this controlling community leader who orders him to speak tersely from the pulpit to the people in worship, chiding them for their bad behavior and lack of discipline.

Two things happen as the North wind of change blows through the town. First, a woman, who is a chocolatier, opens a shop that produces amazing candies that give pleasure to the people. You can almost taste the luscious chocolate as she stirs her magical mixture, and pours the sweet concoction into molds. The town leader will not go into the place of temptation and presses the priest to preach against such temptations like chocolate.

The second thing is that a band of floating gypsies arrive on a barge, landing on the banks of the town, playing music, dancing, and having entirely way too much fun. The town leader issues a proclamation to stay away from such unclean people that are unlike the upstanding citizens. Such outsiders will corrupt the good people of the town. By the way, the head gypsy is played superbly by Johnny Depp who also plays flamingo guitar as rhapsodically as Django.

Lent is the setting as town people are trying hard to be, as we say in the South, “to be on their best behavior”. The drama is the struggle between the leader’s admonition to be “good” and their desire to enjoy life. Sort of Dirty Dancing gone Provance.

I encourage you to invest the time to watch the movie, and will not spoil the story for you. But the poignant moment that grabbed me came on Easter Sunday when a liberated priest offers these words in his extemporaneous sermon, freed from the strictures of the town leader:

“I think we can’t go around measuring our goodness by what we don’t do- by what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we’ve got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.”

That is the way I look at this season and why I offer you the admonition to have a Happy Lent!

I have enjoyed promoting Lent to folks who never experienced it. Whether or not you are a long time Catholic, experienced in such things, a hardshell South of God Baptist, or a person who is a searcher, I encourage you to consider this time coming up next week called Lent.

It is a time for self-examination and tuning up, or “turning up” your spiritual life. It is something I look forward to rather than dread or fear. I think of it as an internal spring cleaning, as I look around in the corners of my life to see what needs cleaning, a fresh dusting off of cobwebs, or a cleansing wash.

It won’t surprise you that I approach this with some journaling, that is, some thoughtful wrting down on paper what is going inside my soul. I have outlined my method of keeping a journal in past articles, so I won’t rehearse it here. Simply, set aside some time each day to write about what is going on with you. Your hopes, your fears, the things or people that trouble you, the things or people for whom you are grateful. Anything is fair game as long as it matters to you.

I encourage you to begin with a time of silence. My son, who is a musician, shared with me his method of mindfulness, or meditation. Both his and my method is quite simple: focus on breathing, inhale, exhale, allowing the rhythm to settle, to center your self. This can be for a few seconds, five minutes, or twenty. This sets the mood.

Then, record on paper your thoughts, sometimes those things that arise spontaneously from your unconscious, sometimes focused on a particular topic, at times recording an event or describing an experience. I always put a date, time of day, and place so that I can “place” myself when I look back on it next week, or years from now.

I recently reviewed some journaling I did in the late 80s, when I was at the Cathedral, and then some journal entries from the 90s during my Texas sojourn. I was impressed by the presence of some perennial issues that seem to return, again and again. And, I find myself smiling at those very issues, as if they are old friends, returning for a visit, to be dealt with again, in a new setting. My past insights are helpful as I wrestle afresh with these dilemmas that arise. I guess they call that wisdom, or at least I will risk it.

And some of the journaling from the past give me some confidence, may I say “trust”, in my ability to make it through some dark nights of the soul that I once saw as insurmountable. I now see those mountains and valleys in the rear view mirror of my life and can see how it was just part of the journey. This is why I commend keeping a journal with time notations to allow you to look back and to engage in that distinctive human gift of reflecting.

I tend to conclude my journaling by reading a poem, a Psalm like Psalm 139, and close with a few seconds of silence. No big deal. No symphonic display. Simple. And you can and will find your own style that is distinctive to you. Just give it a shot in the Forty Days of Lent.

Lent formally begins on Ash Wednesday, this year, Wednesday, February 26th. But you can start it later if your miss the exact date.

I encourage you to read the Ash Wednesday service if you can’t get to a congregational service near you. There will probably be some online services if you want. You can read it for yourself, beginning on page 264 in the Book of Common Prayer. By the way, you can google the BCP online if you don’t have the hard copy at hand.

I do, however, urge you to go to the real thing, an Ash Wednesday service near you. The actual gathering of other human being, along with the tactile experience of the Ash Wednesday liturgy is powerful. Most churches offer a couple of offerings at various times. Some will be sparse, featuring silence; others will use music to set a mood. The special thing about a formal liturgy is the imposition of ashes.

“Imposition” is the right word, as the ashes remind us of our mortality. The priest will offer daunting words as he/she places ashes in the form of a cross on your forehead: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

That is sort of a rude slap in the face, rather than a platitudinous affirmation. You are going to die, something we work our ass off most of the time denying. It’s a literal re-minder of who we are. Mortal. Destined to die.

And yet, we share the story of the Christ, who lived in a way that is eternal. And we are re-minded to get about that work in the everyday living that we are about. Lent is a time of attending to that intention, that purpose that gives our days and lives a profound meaning, both in our reflective memory, in our present now moment, and as we lean into the unknown future.

In the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, there is a solemn moment when the priest formally invites you to keep a Holy Lent. If you don’t get to a live, flesh and blood, ash on your forehead service on Wednesday, let me be the one who invites you to keep and observe the spiritual discipline of Lent.

It is a time of self examination. Of changing some of your habits by eliminating that which hurts you, holds you back, but also adding some habits that bring you joy and peace. Lent leads you to a celebration of the depth of life that celebrates the hope of new life that is celebrated on Easter.

And so, I invite you to a happy Lent. What do you say?

To Revisit : A Wild and Precious Life

A friend of mine reminded me of a writing from a year ago, this after I had revisited the pregnant phrase: one wild and precious life. I revisited the article as it dovetails with last week’s blog and thought it would make sense to bring it forward to bolster my point.

Some of you might think that such a move is cheating on my commitment to a weekly format. Where’s the new article, the fresh groceries? You are being lazy by merely repeating an old column. Maybe I am. My greater fear is that I am beating the old horse of self awareness to death, although my take is that most of us need a little nudge.

I remember my high school English teacher that I had a crush on, Ms. Hinkle, a Katherine Ross look-a-like. She would enter a word in red on my writing: Redundant! It cut to the quick of my emerging adolescent identity. Did you have to put in the exclamation mark? Did you have to circle it in red?Wasn’t the comment enough in itself? But she was trying to teach me a craft of conveying effectively what I was thinking. Redundant meant I was being repetitive. Avoid this, her red ink suggested. And, in general, I agree and practice a vigilance in my writing.

However, I have found in my work that redundancy turns out to be a virtue in leadership, even it is not in composition. People seem to have a need to be re-minded of basic truths every so often. While I coach leaders to be mindful in casting a vision, there is an additional requirement of re-casting the vision in a redundant way. I suggest that use prompts and strategically placed post its to remind them to push the message.

For me, I need to be reminded as I seem to suffer from spiritual amnesia, and my hunch is I am not the only one, as Sheryl Crow reminds.. It seems that I have to learn lessons over and over, and still may miss the beat on down track. Redundancy can be a good thing, even a virtue. So, I am repeating this article.

As I was finishing this intro, I found myself laughing about the Seinfeldian feel of this concern of mine on redundancy. As Jerry is the master of holding up a comic mirror to our modern existential reality by asking the rhetorical question, “What is it about…..” and then fill in the blank All these close talkers? Shrinkage? Regifting? Funeral hellos?. Yada, yada, yada…..With this comic slant, we are able to laugh at ourselves, which is a rare gift these days.

With that confession offered, I offer you this article from a year ago. I hope you find it helpful.

Word came to me that Mary Oliver had died while I was proofing last week’s post. I found it auspicious as she has been one of my major inspirations during my writing life, charging me with a simple admonition: pay attention to the world around you! Attention is the starting point of devotion, she counseled. That was, in fact, what I was writing about last week, taking a lesson from my young son, Thomas, and his quest to look and see what God is doing in his backyard.

Paying attention to nature has always come easily to me. Perhaps it’s my native nature mysticism that I inherited from my grandfather’s love of God’s Creation. I was struck by his tendency to find his way to the wilderness whenever he could, making me his lucky co-conspirator. He built it into me, hard-wired, to go into nature whenever I can. I have made my way to the lush mountain wilderness of the Chattahoochee, to the pristine Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, to the rocky coastline of Maine, and to the Rocky Mountains of Montana. But it can be in the urban forest of Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, or in the barren wildness of Texas Hill Country. This is where I find my cathedrals, as grand and inspiring as any built by hand. I’m betting you have your holy spaces as well, where the boundary between the ordinary and the sacred becomes thin. Holy spaces, indeed.

One of my earliest mystical experiences occurred just after a thunderstorm in that “in-between” time just after the storm ends and  the tantalizing moment when everything reverts to the normal. The air itself felt electric, charged with possibility. Not in a wilderness,  a suburban neighborhood street in my hometown of East Point was the setting for mystery to break through on that late summer afternoon.  A deep sense of connectivity, of oneness, overwhelmed me, for a fleeting second. There, palpably, then gone. It  is one of many moments that I have been gifted with through the years, coming and going when and where it will,

And I must admit that it’s happened in designated religious space as well, roped off  and consecrated for just that. But Spirit seems to be not limited by schedules  our programming, or convenience.

Mary Oliver captured that kind of sensitivity to nature and I am sure it was what first attracted me to her writing so many years ago. She died this past week as the age of 83, having moved from her beloved Provincetown, Massachusetts to the unfamiliar but warm mangroves of  the west coast of Florida I find it curious that I find myself working these days on the east coast of Florida, at almost exactly the same latitude. Geographical proximity aside, I hit me hard, her death, the end of her life. It was a reminder of finitude, her finitude, the end of her brilliant career of writing. And it served as a reminder of my own finitude specifically;  that it does all end. No getting out of this alive.

Earlier in my life, she had reminded me of the task of living. She wrote powerfully of her observations of life within a poem entitled The Summer Day.  She meticulously described her view of a grasshopper, watching it perch as it methodically chewed on crystals of sugar with its mandible jaws. This very moment brings forth the question of how this world was made, who was the creator of this particular grasshopper?

And as the grasshopper takes wing to fly from her hand, it prompts an existential question as to the purpose of life itself. She writes, almost casually:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I’ve been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Poetically framed, that is indeed the question? What are you planning to do with this time you have been given?

I spend a lot of my time working with folks who are trying to answer that very question. Some use sophisticated productivity planners to get a handle on where they are spending their minutes, hours, and days, what they are investing their time pursuing. Some are at the front end of their lives, trying to clarify a path into their future, even playing with the weighty word of vocation. Others are busy planning the next chapters in the story their lives are writing, looking for a plot or a twist. More and more, I find myself listening to a host of folks who are looking back reflectively, assessing the way they have spent their time and energy. All want to find that magic thread of trajectory that holds together and gives integrity to the lives they are living.

We share that human vocation of living one’s life in a quest for meaning. Some of us have more agency or freedom than others, but ultimately our choosing plays a role in how it is we are spent. To whom do you feel accountable? To whom are you answerable?

This week in which we remember the legacy of my hometown hero, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself reflective as to the way I have been spent and am spending this life. Martin’s prescient statement, on the night before he was shot down in Memphis, seemed to weigh literally the acts of his life in the balance. Longevity has its place, he said, but there are more important things, more critical things to consider. I believe he had assessed how he had spent his wild and precious life on that dark night, and while not happy with his fate on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, he was at peace.

As a white male, born in the United States, in the middle of the twentieth century, I have lived with possibilities and limitations. The privileges  I have had and the limitations imposed have contributed to how I have spent my days. We have  freedom to decide how it is we live, but only within the confines of limits that we have no say in determining. I have exercised the limited freedom afforded me but, at the same time, I have abdicated that very freedom at moments due to “caughtness” within systems. I have squandered that freedom in sheer laziness or seeking to maintain a seductive comfort. I have worked to invest part of my life energy in developing self-awareness in an attempt to be more free in my choices, to increase my agency, my freedom. And yet,  the “caughtness” can trick me into the sleepy belief that I am self-aware, when I am not. Amnesia afflicts me when I forget who I am.

It’s a tough gig, this being human. Caught in the dilemma of freedom and limits. Life is this dilemma to live through, not a problem to be solved. And yet, as Mary Oliver reminded me years ago, and then again last week, it is a wild and precious thing.

Do you dare to face the question, dear Grasshopper? Tell me what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

ONE Wild and Precious Life

It’s been over a year since the death of my favorite contemporary poet, Mary Oliver. She died January 17, 2019 and her passing quickened my spirit, that is to say, in plain English, kicked me ass. It did what my grandfather Pollard used to say, it got me to thinking. That is a dangerous thing.

Her poem, The Summer Day, was written in 1992. It concluded with a line that has inspired and haunted me since I first read it: Tell me, what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Each word seemed important, critical.

Wild. Unpredictable, uncontrollable. Open to possibility. Open to disaster. Things can fall apart. Things can come together. Like a box of chocolates, Forrest proffers. Indeed. Except there was always that gold foil covered lump in the center of the box, a morsel of chocolate with white creme and a cherry. I never liked that, both the knowing and what was there, an odd texture to my taste.

Precious. Valuable. Of great worth. Priceless is the word my culture utters much too often, capriciously, which is incompatible with “precious”. Inestimable is difficult enough to pronounce to give one pause. Worth pausing, precious.

But the word grabbing at my soul as I reread this wild, precious poem is ONE.

That’s just too much truth for me to handle in my club chair. One, indeed. Singular, limited, finite. Too damn descriptive and demanding for my taste. Let’s soft-sell and pretend that we have all the time in the world. I mean ALL the time in the world. That’s what we want.

I am most fortunate to talk with a group of friends I have gathered over the years, the smartest folks I know. One lives in Austin, one resides in Nashville, and one is in freaking Warsaw….Poland, by God, not Indiana. Through the gift of an online platform, I am able to connect with these three amigos through Zoom, to discuss what is on our minds, be it life in general, politics in particular, or religion in peculiar.

In talking about the death of a person we all knew, music flooded my mind as it often does. This time it was lyricist, Neil Diamond, whose Jewish roots and spiritual proclivities have long captured me. I’m a Believer or my favorite, Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. The specific song that invaded was Done Too Soon. After chanting a litany of names from Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice Wolfgang Mozart, Humphrey Bogart, he pauses the chant to bring home his point. That each one of them had one thing to share: they have sweated beneath the same sun, looked up in wonder at the same moon; and wept when it was done, for being done too soon. For being done too soon.

Damnit, that’s it, I said in a Steve Harvey emphatic pronouncement long before i knew who Steve Harvey was. Before he shaved his Afro, designed his three-piece suits, and gone all Family Feud on us. Speaking the truth, Steve did, like OJ is guilty, or telling the truth about being in church, and the inimitable “building fund”. This was it. The pop music rabbi named it for me. Life is short, finite, never enough.

So, if this is a truth that grabbed me at sweet sixteen when I was discovering what hormones were and the feel of a Pontiac Firebird 400’s power under my right foot, the question became the query of Mary Oliver. Well then, this life, what are you going to do with it?

To be, or not to be? Just the first question, but then what to do with that being? What to do with the time that is given to you to live, due to accident, genetics, choice? What do you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?

It’s a question we may back into, following the tilts of the board we find ourselves riding? Or, it may take the form of an elaborate plan someone has made for you, or perhaps, one you have planned out for yourself. For most of us, it’s a combination of chance happenings, twists of fate and defining moments of decision.

But Mary Oliver calls the question in a playfully serious way, at least it comes to me that way. What do I want to do with this time I have in this world.

I have spilled some ink writing about my vocational wonderings and wanderings, and as I said confessionally to an old friend, there are a passel of “what ifs” in the mix. It goes with the territory of being human. You pays your money and you take your chances, is a folksy way of framing the existential dilemma. If you’re interested, you can revisit some of my writings in this blog to get your fill of such musings.

These days, I spend a lot of my waking time working with leaders figuring out how to make a difference with the limited time and energy they have. I coach healthcare leaders and docs, teachers, artists, architects, activists, and business folk. Like Neil Diamond’s list, they all are living the life we share, within their peculiar context, but all wanting to have a life that has meaning, homo poeta.

I enjoy them all, but I particularly enjoy the young ministers who are trying to figure out how to lead a congregation while being true to the soul they are carrying along with them. It’s not unlike the work of marriage, the hard work of maintaining one’s own identity while sharing life with an other. It’s what my teacher, Tom Malone, called intimacy. How can I be my true self while being in relationship with an other self that’s doing the same thing, striving to be themselves? It’s easy to opt for the culturally automatic mode of living out a conventional script but not really taking the risk of being one’s true self. That happens so easily for ministers and priests who opt into company mode, fitting the role rather than being the person, or as they used to say, parson.

I got a phone call at lunch today from my son who is a musician in Nashville. He is the proverbial singer/songwriter who puts his heart on the line with his words about life and love. I remember him in high school, taking the field on a Spring day with his band, singing The Weight as he played drums like Levon. I could not have been more proud of his courage to take the stage and push the outside of the envelope. Then, he dared to offer up a song that he had written, music and lyrics, his very soul. I could have busted with pride.

He did that for years in Athens in his band, Mama’s Love, as he played every honky tonk, toured the States with this gypsy band of friends who shared the road and dreams. I still remember going to hear him play on stage, watching people sing along with the words he had written. The biggest thrill for me as a dad was to see him turn to his bandmates, in the middle of a song, and exchange a knowing smile. That look is what I have come to call a father’s psychic pay. It makes having a kid worth it when you sense his/her deep joy. Bank it.

One day when we were talking about life, he told me that he had watched me create “spirit” whenever I stood before a congregation gathered for worship. He said he wanted to do the same, only his place might be different. Did I mention psychic pay?

Today, we talked about relationships, timing, intimacy, finding the right person, following your dreams. At the end, I returned to the question Mary Oliver gave to me many years ago but still captures the beat of my poetic heart: what is it you plan to do with your one wild, precious life?

I am interested in how he answers that question with the living of his days. And my daughter by the water, how will she live out her one precious life? And my life partner, how will she answer the question in her next chapter? And of course, there’s me.

But how about you? Your one wild, precious life?

Kobe: A Flash of Reality

The news of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter came in a flash. Not like an insight with the proverbial light bulb going on, but the stark pain of a migraine.

The basketball phenom was killed in a helicopter crash on a hillside of Los Angeles. Shocking enough at first blush but then compounded by the reveal that his young daughter, GiGi, was on board. Then, slowly, the reality of nine lives lost on a west coast Sunday hit our psyche.

News crews flood the scene, with an eerie camera shot of a hillside crash still smoldering, a grayish-blue column of smoke rising, in the background of a press conference from the police department. NTB officials doing their thing in DC, ready to deploy eighteen investigators to the scene to chase down the proverbial question: WHY? Weather? Equipment failure? Pilot error? We know the drill.

Interviews begin. Fellow NBA players. Current players about to hit the court for their Sunday games. Contemporaries who played with him, telling funny stories that break the pain with a restrained laugh. Oddly, the evening moves to the Staples Center, the “house that Kobe built” with the strange coincidence of the Grammys that evening. Alicia Keyes is masterful in dealing with the odd juxtaposition of this tragedy with the celebratory feel of an awards show. She deftly makes the point of how music unites us and sees us through the tough times. That’s been my experience as music is my go-to in the tight spaces of my life, where my finitude can not be denied or ignored. This is such a time.

Oddly, Tuesday came along a day later to remind me of the Challenger disaster. Seven astronauts sent into space on the space shuttle on a bright Florida morning. Televised, and holding our interest as a woman, a teacher, is being launched into outer space, to break the surly bonds of gravity. The rocket ignites on cue, pressing the human cargo into the vast blue morning.

We watch, inspired by our ingenuity and technological skills, our mouths agape with wonder as the Challenger sweeps across the sky toward outer space. And then it happens as Mission Control announces “throttle up”. The thing explodes, like a carefully planned Burt Reynolds crash movie, only this is real. Silence. What is to be said. Well, I said it. I remember the expletive distinctly.

That day, that fateful morning, I was at the Cathedral, in my office. We instinctively moved the daily service of the Holy Eucharist from the normal setting of an intimate Mikell Chapel to the large Cathedral. Even before the normal Noon hour, people came to this holy space, silent, pensive, searching for answers, looking for something just out of reach, peace. It was a moment, what we call in the business, a moment of kairos, a time measured not in seconds but depth.

The same thing happened on September 11th, when our life in this country changed forever. We were attacked. At home. Not some island in the Pacific, but here in our backyard, in the commercial capital, the iconic Twin Towers came tumbling down as did our psyche. People came, speechless to my holy space at the time, seeking…..something.

My office fills up around those times of national public tragedy, with people wanting to make sense of things. “Why” underlies the perplexed stares. How could God let this happen? What the hell is going on?

As a priest, such tragedy presses for explanation. What IS going on? What word do you have for us, holy man, medicine man, rabbi?

And the normal line of religion is to reassure you. God is still in control. How many times have I heard that line?

Early in life, I experienced a large number of my high school graduating class dying from a variety of reasons. One minister glibly explained to us that God needed a new angel in heaven. I vowed on that day to never offer such a shallow answer to such a profound question, and I think that is one vow that I have kept, even in a press.

In college, at my home church, I experienced the killing of a Vietnamese child by his refugee father in distress. And to compound the tragedy, there followed the father’s subsequent suicide in an East Point jail. with some church people offering their reasoning that it must be God’s will.

Or the day in my first professional job as a minister in Decatur, a young boy, Ed, was hit by a car and killed as he was bicycling to school, and I am supposed to say something of meaning, to make sense of the senseless.

A bad human decision and technological failure, an explosion in the January blue sky.

A terrorist attack and a childhood friend dies on the top floor of the South Tower.

And now a helicopter goes down on a hillside. Fog, pilot, equipment. Why?

My sense is that these moments merely peel back the reality of the life we live. While folks want to drape these moments in tragedy, and wonder how such things happen, breaking into the comfort of our “normal”, the truth is that “normal” is, in fact, out of control. We work our tails off trying to deny the reality of how out of control things are in order to soothe our sense of reality. Those moments remind us of how precarious life is, and we have no choice in these reality moments to acknowledge that fact. But we quickly get back to our “normal” of denial, moving through our daily gig, secretly waiting, anticipating the next interruption.

This Kobe thing interrupted me in the middle of my life, in a particularly tender time. The fact that he was with his daughter, who had her own promising life waiting in the wings, added to the sense of tragedy. Kobe, a young forty one, had so much left to live, but to cut down a life still waiting to begin just rubs your nose in the reality of tragedy.

It caught me thinking about my own vulnerability, bringing to mind the relationship I have with my own daughter. Being entrusted with the safety of a child is something every parent takes seriously and lives with that burden. The contours of life change when one is charged with this responsibility.

The news flash of Kobe and his daughter got me thinking about my daughter, MG. I remember a time when I was driving her in my Tahoe across country to meet her Texas friend’s family in Vicksburg, crossing the Big River on I-20, I recall an eighteen wheel truck moving suddenly into my lane, forcing me into the median, avoiding a crash. It was not a helicopter, but the same fate could have easily have happened., My young daughter is now a young woman, preparing for her upcoming wedding, having lived her high school years, negotiating her time in Athens in college, her first jobs. She has so much left ahead of her to live. But Gigi didn’t get even that. Nothing is guaranteed in this ride we are on..

Could it be that the critique of religion is true: religion acts as an opiate to keep the people calm, settled down? In the face of a life that is out of control, are we not in desperate need of a tranquilizer, pharmaceutical or spiritual? Do we require a way of assuaging our fears and anxiety? Is our faith nothing more than a thin way of explaining away the tragedy that impinges here and there capriciously, and in such times as this, forcing its way into our consciousness?

What are we to do with such intrusions? Try to ignore them with happy platitudes or fall into despair with no sense of hope?

As I was finishing up this article, an old priest friend wrote an entry on his Facebook page, noting the recent suicide of another priest. Lee’s response was to make an offer, literally posting his phone number to offer a willing ear to listen if one found themselves in such dire straits. Lee actually had been the minister involved in the suicide mentioned earlier of the Vietnamese father. He provided a listening ear to many who were seeking to make sense of that. He was willing to be there for others, just as he is offering himself today.

And maybe that’s my answer, at least for today, to these moments of tragedy that impinge on our normal. It’s about the connection that the faith community offers to remind us, in the face of tragedy, especially in the face of Death, that life is good, and worth our living well. It does not have to deny the tight space of our finitude or the awareness of not being in control. A healthy faith embraces that moment of the loss of control, of brokenness, of death, and allows us to affirm life, leaning into the future with hope. No denial, no kidding oneself, but embracing all of life, the good the bad, and the ugly, and concluding that it is gift. A long, strange trip, perhaps, but a good ride.

The community of faith can not grant us immunity of prosecution of all that life can dish out, but it can re-mind of our connection to something that is bigger than our individual concerns. Faith is that human capacity to trust that life is good. Faith is the thing that keeps us going forward, even in the face of precarious living. My take after the experience of tragic death, famous or not, is that faith celebrates a deep conviction that life is a good thing, even when bad things happen to good people, innocent people.

How do you make sense of life, particularly when tragedy comes? How have you made it through the dark nights that you have faced? What got you through the night? Let me know, if you will.

I have been reminded in the wake of Kobe’s death of his Mamba life, his deep commitment to give his best in all his endeavors in life, be it basketball, or particularly in being a father. It touched me that he and his daughter had attended his local Catholic parish to receive communion that morning before boarding that fated helicopter. I am hoping he felt and experienced a deep connection with God, with Creation, and especially his daughter in that moment of communion. And I’m betting the Black Mamba left this world, wishing for one more day, but glad he made the ride.

King for a Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero for the Atlanta community. We celebrate his birthday on the third Monday of January, even though his birthday is January 15th. We opt for convenience and consistency over accuracy. Cultural note to self.

It’s a high holy day in my hometown on Atlanta. Back in the day, it was command performance for me at Ebenezer Baptist Church on historic Auburn Avenue in the downtown area. I used to get a special kick out of the long service as ministers and politicians just can’t seem to help themselves. They go way on beyond the five minutes some meeting planner has written on the program agenda. You know, the Holy Spirit and all, just takes a’hold of you and won’t let you go. Or, at least it won’t sit your sweet self down. I’ve been afflicted myself with the disease, but only when I was a visiting preacher at some Holy Spirit filled church that would have been offended if I did not “go on”. In my Episcopal Church, the folks start looking at their watch at twelve minutes. Lunch may call Baptists, but brunch beckons Episcopalians.

In the King Day services, the preachers and politicians go on and on, causing distress in the bladders of the older ministers who are in the seats of honor at the front of the church. They start by wiggling, shifting the weight from one cheek to the other. The betting pool among the young ministers is significant as to which old lion will excuse himself first. i won a few of the betting pools. The key is watching who is getting their fill of coffee prior to the service.

Now, I am of age now that I would be someone to bet upon in a positive or negative way, but due to mobility, I am seated in the back or at home in front of the television. No problem.

Martin Luther King Day means that Federal and State offices are closed. No banks, No mail. I have appreciated that some organizations have tried to turn King Day into a day of giving, an intentional day of service that follows the example that Martin set with his life. It’s a good day for caring for those in need. I always tried to plant a tree, symbolic of caring for the generations to come, after I am long gone. It’s a sacrament of our connection if done with mindfulness.

Odd thing to me is that racists take a King Day holiday, rather than protesting by going to work. Another note to self.

I read an article posted on MLK Day recounting how hated King was back when he was active. I remember from my childhood the intense hate that would flow when Martin’s name was merely mentioned. I have told the story of being in a barber shop on Lee Street in South Atlanta. It is the same street that runs by the former Fort Mac where Tyler Perry has his new studio. The people in the barber shop were on a variety of rants about this black man whom they called a number of bad names. Rabble-rouser was the least offensive name used, as I remember. The N word was interspersed as if an article or conjunction. In my home, that word was capital N Never used, which meant that it was shocking to my young ears. Give me some time in the South and it would still trouble my soul but sound more familiar.

My grandfather, an Atlanta cop, got me up out of my seat in the barber’s chair, and we left that shop, never to return. His simple action of rebellion made an impression on me, a kid. It said to me that you stand up for what you believe. His stance was not fueled by a recent surge in civil rights but an old commitment that he had taught me, the value of all human life. His respect for King and his fight for equality came naturally out of his commitment to God’s Kingdom, and it put him at odds with some of his church friends. But that was a lesson he taught me then, and is still teaching me today, as racism finds odd bedfellows in the Christian ranks. I found it alive and well in East Texas when I pastored there in the belt buckle of the Bible South.

I remembered my first King Day March in downtown Tyler with a smattering of people. The police had been warned of violence and were positioned on the tops of the downtown buildings, rifles with scopes, as we made our way to the Roman cathedral for a King Day celebration where I was speaking.

A few years later, Rabbi Art Flicker sent a video for my fortieth birthday celebration in which he bestowed honor on my name as the man who taught him how to walk in an MLK Day march. He then held up a bulls eye target on his chest, and laughed. It’s funny, only in the rear view mirror.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was and is a deep cultural symbol for the best of what being a Christian means. He embodies the old adage of “walk your talk”. He put flesh and bones on cellophane concepts of love and being nice, polite. We have tried to tame him, to domesticate this tiger of Christian faith, and to some degree, our culture has succeeded. We have relegated him to a park, a busy street name, even a statue. The image is more of a person leading Kum ba yah rather than a pressing yell, scream, demand of equality. But for me, every MLK Day re-minds me of the deeper truth about the man and his dream.

Truth is, when I first started learning New Testament Greek, the typical path of pedagogy was to start, to throw you into the cottonpatch of “easy” Greek, that is, I John, or First John, or in current President speak One John, the winner John.

The Greek indeed is easy to translate. And the message seems clear. “If you say you love God but hate your brother, you are a liar.” Simple enough.

That seals the deal for me. It is what is at the heart of all Martin King taught. Clearly, he expanded it, filled it out, with the moral implications and philosophical sophistication. But this is it. Love is at the heart of it all. It finds form in justice. Paul Tillich explicated it in full and King used it in his doctoral dissertation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the gap between what we said in church on Sunday with how we lived Monday through Friday, and he had the courage to call us out. It remains a damning fact that the 11:00 o’clock hour on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in our country.

He also saw the gap with what we aspired to in our Constitution, All Created Equal, with how certain folks were not given their civil rights or allowed to vote.

The context for his most famous I Have A Dream speech seems to be faded in the background. At the time he called for this gathering, America lived within a social caste system that would shock those fresh to the scene, and is even hard for those of us who lived through it to remember. Tweleve million of nineteen million black lived in the Jim Crow South where segregation laws maintained separate hotels, bathrooms, restaurants and infamously drinking fountains. I remember when the pool at Oakland City park in Atlanta was integrated and white folks stopped coming, except for me and my grandfather.

A decade after the historic Brown v. Board of Education that I read about in my first civics course with Miss Allen, school desegregation was on hold, where fewer than one-half of 1 percent of black children attending public schools with white children. These Southern states openly defied the court ruling. Some counties in the South barred blacks from voting. Violence was a ready means used to suppress voter registration. The lynching tree remains a powerful symbol of our past that haunts, though video of unwarranted violence of police on blacks claim current headlines and consciousness.

While signage announced separation in the South, segregation was a reality in the North as well. Neighborhoods keep the lines drawn by redlining by banks and real estate “agreements”. Business was also segregated, limiting black access to parts of the economy.

The beginning of a movement to right this culture of separation is usually noted to have begun with the Bus Boycotts in Montgomery n 1955, with Rosa Parks exercising her rights to sit anywhere on a municipal bus. At the age of 26, young Martin Luther King was elected the president of a group of ministers in that city to support this boycott. He had been a pastor there for about a year, bringing a notion that religion should function within to society to improve the common life rather than merely blessing the status quo. King brought with him a deep connection to the prophetic tradition that felt a call from God to “speak truth to power”. On that night, he began with these words: “As you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression”. While beginning in Montgomery, this young pastor would follow his vision all the way to Washington, DC. in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

There in the national Capitol, in front of the appropriate Lincoln Memorial, with crowds pressing, lining the Reflecting Pool, King followed a series of speakers, including a young John Lewis who electrified the crowd with pragmatic political demands, under-girded by his oratory. After Gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson sang, it was time for King to speak.

King began with a pointing back in history to the man whose monument now provided shade but had begun liberation, Abraham Lincoln. King then rehearsed the foundational principles contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution., a promissory note of rights for all people. He continued with his prepared text, talking of democratic principles that flowed from the ethical presuppositions, recounting the atrocities, the trials and tribulations of being a black person in America.

It was in a pregnant pause of his speech that Mahalia Jackson, the singer, interjected a profound prompt: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

King left his prepared text and started to preach: I dream of a day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

And he punctuated the vision, the Dream, with a personal point, that one day, one fine day, his “four little children will live in a nation when they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

It is arguable as to what made the change in this country happen, to the extent that it did. Was it the legal mind and courage of Thurgood Marshall who battled using the courts? Or was it an unlikely Texan, Lyndon Johnson, whose political skills maneuvered the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress?

Or was it this man, the preacher man from my home town who touched the hearts of the people with a vision, with a dream? He literally gave up his life on the balcony of a Memphis motel, spilling his blood for a people and country he loved. And we give him a day, some of us, twenty-four hours to remember the man, this King for a day.

This year, I watched a cadre of high school and college age students from Atlanta present a dramatized presentation of Martin’s written words for a Birmingham jail. It was a diverse group by design, to symbolize the mixed culture we live within in this country. I was moved to tears by the youthful earnestness that reminded me of my own self in days and dust past. Martin’s words pressed again. And the most pressing were those that lamented those in the Church who remain silent, quiet in the face of injustice.

I find my tears dry, and that I resolve, again, to work for that dream he articulated so well. And I am thankful for this day, each year, comes round to call to heart and mind this dream for our land, a promise still awaiting fulfillment. These young people, black, white, brown, red, yellow incarnate King’s dream and gives me hope that it is still alive.

Kidnapping the Baby Jesus…

The manger scene. Mary and Joseph. The shepherds adoring with a few lambs on the side. A cow to lo, in tune please. A angel strategically perched. And a star. There must be a star, star light, star bright, announcing the cosmic news.

This is the typical manger scene. I grew up with one made of cardboard, two dimensional, but holy in my family. It was my job to put it together each year, placing an electric bulb behind the star to illumine the scene. My first directorial lesson: lighting is critical. With job promotions at Delta, my family progressed to an olive wood set from the monastery….more about the theatrical magic of olive wood later.

In my time (a phrase reserved for seasoned persons, aka old, aka older than God), I have come across all kinds of depictions of the Nativity. I have admired wooden manger scenes, carved by artisans of the Southern Highlands of my ancestors. I have seen plastic, life-size mangers, with the Disney-like figures glowing from an incandescent bulb within. And I’ve even witnessed a “live” manger at a local Methodist church, when it’s not raining. Wise men with umbrellas are disconcerting. Production budget did not include Gore-Tex.

I have always been tempted to cast the production with actors that would bring some gravitas to a scene that often becomes sweetly sentimental. Joe Pesci as the innkeeper was always my ace in the hole to bring some comedy relief. The angels would be the divine trio of Linda, Emmylou, and Dolly. Don’t judge me. Joseph would be Liam Neeson as he blends a masculine persona with softness, plus he has the connection with my Christmas guilty pleasure, Love Actually. Of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary would be Meryl……because she can do anything. Please. If Meryl can deliver in spades the Anti-Mary mother in Big Little Lies, the Immaculate Mary will be a piece of cake.

But you of sharp mind must be wondering why I have left out the main character: the Baby Jesus. He’s what all the fuss is about, angels on high, attending shepherds, and traversing Wise Men.

A couple of South of Godf articles ago, Put the Camera on the Bishop, made note of the traditional Baby Jesus that was front and center in the Cathedral of St. Philip’s television broadcast of the Christmas Eve service. As noted, the camera loved this Baby Jesus….he never saw a camera or a paint brush he didn’t love. But this Buckhead Baby Jesus had a problem…at least for me.

The plastic figure that was happily laying in the manger at the Cathedral in the toney part of Atlanta known reverently as Buckhead was blond haired, blue-eyed Baby Jesus, not looking like he had ever been in Palestine, much less from there. I swear they would have dressed the boy in Ralph Lauren Polo swaddling clothes if they could have made the deal. I did catch a whiff of the scent of Polo as I moved close to the manger. Him or Joseph…a simple carpenter or Son of God? When we went national with the live broadcast, all bets were off and our people were meeting with their people. I think they call it The Art of the Deal.

And so, the scene of the crime is a Saturday morning when the volunteer women of the Altar Guild of the Cathedral were getting out the Christmas decorations. For those of you not familiar with the Episcopal Church, the Altar Guild is a wonderful group of people who take care of the pragmatic work, readying the worship space for our common prayer. Altar guild members come in all sorts and conditions. Some are as sweet and kind as Mother Theresa, some are as bossy and demanding as Adolph himself. Heil. The Mel Brooks in me has always wanted to write a production number of purple draped Altar Guild members doing the Springtime for Hitler number, while decorating and preparing the high altar. Too much, I know.

I was just wandering through church when I saw him, the Buckhead Baby Jesus, the very star of stage and screen, unceremoniously resting in a cardboard box. I thought of the years of watching the Buckhead Baby Jesus reigning on the WSB telecast, how much I hated what it said about our hermeneutical bias on Jesus as a cute little cooing baby white boy from Piedmont Hospital or the Northside baby factory.

When you see your chance, take it!

I grabbed the Blond Buckhead Baby Jesus and took off down the eastern aisle of the nave, heading to my office, scared to death that someone would see the kidnapping in process. What excuse could I offer if I was caught or seen? What, this plastic Baby Jesus? I’ve never seen him before in my whole life? No excuse seemed to work so I just moved quickly past the Dean’s door to my own office suite.

I couldn’t believe I made it, undetected. It was almost TOO easy, like maybe God wanted…..no, I’ll not press my luck.

I took the Baby Jesus to my bathroom. Unknown to me before this encounter, the Buckhead Baby Jesus was hollow in the back, with a cavity where the plastic was molded. This hole proved convenient as I placed him on the clothes hook on the back of the door. Yeah, I know I’m going to Hell.

Way before Amber Alerts, the Buckhead Baby Jesus was reported missing by said Altar Guild who found him mysteriously gone from the Bekins box. Sunday morning was abuzz with the newflash: The Baby Jesus was missing.

Kidnapped, perhaps? What dark-hearted person could have stooped so low as to abscond…love the word…kidnap the Baby Jesus? The coffee hour was rocking with theories as I tried not to laugh.

The next day, at staff meeting, the Dean reported the news that had already broken: Elvis was Dead…..and the Buckhead Baby Jesus was missing. What were we to do?

I had to wait a few minutes, seventeen to be precise, before I offered up the insight that this might afford us the opportunity to choose a more suitable Baby Jesus that was not blond haired, blue eyed. Using my Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s concept of non-anxious presence, I kept calm and did not press my idea for a Generic Jesus. I did not want my creative insight to give away my sinister plan.

Generic Jesus, you quiz? I had come across an infant Jesus just about the right size that was carved from olive wood. Remember “olive wood”. This Baby Jesus was unpainted, no golden locks, no blue eyes. Just olive wood. He could be white, black, Hispanic, Asian or any ethnicity you needed him to be to relate to him. In my theological gymnastics, this olive wood Baby Jesus was the perfect projective Baby Jesus, allowing you to project whatever your background needed him to be. Truly incarnational….He became like us….or more to point: He became like ME!

Clearly. olive wood Baby Jesus could not be the box office hit of the Buckhead Baby Jesus who looked as if he could grow up to be an adult Ashley Wilkes, a Gone With the Wind, looking fellow, like your neighbor and fellow club member. So the camera would not be so fond of the olive wood non-descript Baby Jesus, but it offered the plus side of not cutting off over half the planet.

And so, after the buzz about the kidnapped Baby Jesus settled down, the olive wood Baby Jesus showed up mysteriously on the Dean’s desk with a typed note. The Dean liked the idea and long story short, the new olive wood figure took its place in the creche that Christmas Eve telecast.

Like I predicted, he did not get the attention of the cameraman and director as his predecessor, but it worked. It just meant more camera time for the sopranos, and who is going to complain?

Inquiring minds want to know what happened to the kidnapped Jesus. He resided in the bathroom of the Canon Pastor’s office for several years until the retirement of my supervisor, Herb Beadle. Somehow, at his retirement party with the Cathedral Canons in attendance, a mysterious package showed up. When Herb opened the package, a plastic blond haired blue eyed plastic Baby Jesus was staring up out of the box. Surely, a wise old priest like Herb, leaving the Cathedral, would find the perfect place for him.

And that’s the last time I saw the Buckhead Baby Jesus.

I am tempted to close with “lesson to be learned”. It’s part of my DNA, built in, like plastic to the Buckhead Baby Jesus. But let me trust you with the story. What do you take away from this story of intrigue, set in the Cathedral? Is it merely amusing to watch the ill-conceived plan of a young, foolish priest to kidnap a plastic figurine to satisfy his need for theological purity? Or is it a heroic tale of a valiant Prince of the Pulpit in a quixotic quest to save Christmas from the commercial Grinch? Or, it is simply Crazy Uncle Dave from the Southside once again proving how crazy he can be? The glory and burden on human interpretation emerges once again.

What is your take on this story? Are you focusing on the teller of the story, his motivations? Are you centering your thoughts on the baby Jesus, how he is presented? Are you identifying with this baby, or is God identifying with you?

At the very center of the first Gospel account of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark, there is an encounter of Jesus with Peter. I would note that the Gospel of Mark has no infancy narrative, no Nativity at all. Jesus just shows up with his pressing message of the Kingdom of God inbreaking. No more cooing, cute Baby Jesus, but a person in full, standing up.

Jesus turns to Peter, looks him square in the eyes, and asks the pregnant question: Who do you say that I am? What do you make of this story? And the question remains.

In Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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