The Rock

This week, Mary and I celebrated thirty eight years of marriage. The “old saw” Rodney Dangerfield joke is to pause, and add: we been married for 45 but seven of them were not so hot. Rim shot from the drummer….I’ll be playing here all weekend.

Kidding aside, we have had a pretty good ride for the thirty eight years, with the normal peaks and valleys. Mary surprised me and brought out a crumpled, yellowed scroll where I had written a song for her, a song about the love my granddad, who was my real-life personal hero, had for my grandmother. I sang it for Mary the day I asked her to marry me. Yeah, I know, high-handed, manipulative, even cheesy. But it was from the heart….and it worked!

I played my Martin D-35 rosewood dreadnought guitar that my mother had given to me, which had all kinds of meaning to me, given her life story. It was a much better guitar than I deserved or warranted with my skills, but she knew I wanted to be a songwriter. She had forbidden me from playing a guitar when I was a kid, religating me to a tenor saxophone or the 88s. But I bought a cheap Yamaha the moment I got beyond her locus parentis. This classic Martin guitar was her attempt to atone for the prior prohibition period. And that guitar, she was sweet. I thought it was in my genes. I got sidetracked by the whole God thing, but I am thrilled that my son, Thomas, is carrying on that dream in the Mother Country of Nashville.

I thought it might be good to share the song with you, which gives you a sense of the tradition of love I carry from my McBrayer/Pollard roots. As I anticipate the work of the American master, Ken Burns, on the heritage of country music, this song reminds me of the deep headwaters of Spirit that came from Scots who immigrated to the hills of Appalachia, some even lucky enough to make it to Texas.

I hope you find a smile, in this tough time, tight space of being in this country these days. A smile, and maybe a tear or two, for a vision of love that might connect us across divides of time.

‘The Rock” by David Galloway

Granddad said he loved his gal, as he bit off another chew, Spent his whole life loving her like there was nothing else to do

Ain’t that much to spare when you’re working as a cop, Just enough to live on, sometimes, and not enough to stop..

He said, ‘Gal, we ain’t had that much as we rolled down through the years, Shady Lane, two good girls, and a cop’s wife fill of fears. So Dave, ‘ole man’, I’ve decided to give her this here ring, This rock and gold will have to say the words I can not sing’

So he spent his stash of money that he saved up for a boat, and with that Ring he gave her, a loose-leaf piece of note. It said:

“My love, you have given me the best years of your life. I thank the Lord for my lucky day when you became my wife, Your faith in me, your love for me has shown me a true light, And I’m thankful you’ll be by my side, at least for one more night.”

She took the ring with a smile that told him of her love, She wondered were he got the cash, or was it from Above, She hugged him in her own weird way, and protested, “Oh Glen!”, I thought how nice it’d be to have a lover and a friend.

Before she woke one morning, he left her sleeping good, He whispered that he loved her, and always knew he would. I found him in the afternoon, asleep to wake no more, His tired old heart and robbed us of a friend we’s see no more.

Now, she sits and rocks on the front porch in the Spring, Her knobby hands keep fumbling with the feel of that ring. She tells me of the good times and sometimes calls his name, The love that grew between them that bastard Death can’t claim.

And now and then, she asks me to read again that note, While she looks into the diamond, and recites the words by rote:

“My love, you’ve given me the best years of your life, I thank the Lord for my lucky day that you became my wife. Your faith in me, your love for me has shown me a true light, And I’m thankful you’ll be by my side, at least for one more night.”

And in that crystal rock, she sees him once again, a kaleidoscope of memories now swirling in the wind, A young man’s love, a father’s care, and grandpa’s spoiling ways, That rock contained the treasures of a thousand golden days.

Now and as her life seems to fade into the Night, She called me up to ask me, “Will you carry on the fight? The fight is for a song that we’ve forgotten how to sing, forgot to sing about the love that’s written in this ring.”

She said, “When you find that love that’s worthy of your heart, Give this ring, and your love, until you too must part. And don’t forget that song that your Granddad taught you, Son, Live your life by it’s tune throughout the course you run!”

Then she sang: “My love you’ve given me the best years of your life, I thank the Lord for that lucky day that I became your wife, Your faith in me, your love for me has shown me a true light, I’m thankful that you’re by my side, even on this night.”

This song now rings in my mind and in the life I live, I learned that before you can receive, at first you have to give. I sit here in the morning, just thankful for my life, and how I hope to share with you my lover, friend, and wife.

And so, my Mary, now this ring I give to you, I’m hoping that this song, together, we can sing it too. There’s a treasure here within this stone that jewelers can’t unlock, A song of love that’s buried here deep within the Rock. And on this Rock we’ll build our love and life to be, a song to teach to others, a song we’ll teach for free.

I hope that you will give me the best years of your life, I pray the Lord will bless me and let you be my wife. Your faith in me, your love for me, it points me toward a life. I’m hoping you’ll be by my side in just a few more nights…..

David Galloway 2-23-81

Going In to Move Out

There is a basic paradox in the spiritual life.
One moves in in order to move out.

The motion is odd as the move to one’s inner life has the paradoxical effect of connecting one to the surrounding reality.

By stilling the self, becoming quiet, and centering, one paradoxically comes to sense a deep connectedness to all being. From the clarity of contemplation, meditation, centering, or mindfulness, one senses reality as inherently transcendent of one’s limited perspective as an individual. One emerges no more connected than before. What has changed is one’s awareness of that connection. This is the basic movement of becoming “woke”, that is, awakened to a primal sense, an awareness of connection.

Sensing that connection comes mysteriously. I am not sure if it’s the process of slowing down to look around that finally allows one to connect the dots. The precise mechanism evades me. I can only know it’s been true for me. And it seems to be true for others who have taken the spiritual life seriously.

It happened to Thomas Merton from the confines of his hermitage at his Trappist monastery. After spending significant time in the “monastic therapy” of his Benedictine community, he begged for the freedom of moving out into a modest hermitage in which he could experience solitude in an even deeper modality. And it was in this setting, Merton discovered his connection to other means and systems of reaching God, as in Buddhism, as well as an awakening and discovery of his deep social consciousness. It led him to write his conscience-fueled protest to our war in Viet Nam and to connect with the spiritual and social movement of civil rights. Odd, don’t you think? Solitude in order to discover connection.

It was a gift to my self during the desert of my doctoral work to study Merton’s spiritual development through the lens of Faith Development. While I could not interview him in person, he had left a trail of clues within his journal writing in which one could look in on his soul’s work, the way his viewing of existence altered, and the very way he thought about things changed. It was a transformation of consciousness that followed a pattern of spiritual development that we were in the process of codifying in the faith development theory.

One of the first books of Merton that I read was his spiritual autobiography of his early life , The Seven Storey Mountain. This book popularized Merton as a modern person searching for meaning in life. His questions were intriguing to other moderns who struggled to make sense of the world, and Merton offered an honest account of his personal quest which led him to visit that Trappist monastery in Kentucky. Like most of us, he was searching for Truth and found a glimmer of hope in the structure of Roman Catholic theology. And so, he went for a visitation to the monastery.

The book gives an account of a person who had bought into a system of thinking which divided the right from the wrong, the righteous from the unrighteous. He wondered if the monastic life might offer him a way of life that would center him in God and tame his surging passions. He concludes that it is, and prepares to make the change, to take the vows of a monk.

As his visitation period ends, Merton goes into Louisville to catch a bus back to New York in order to tie up loose ends and prepare for his new life as a monk. There, as he walks on the street with the masses, he is overwhelmed by his sense of the sinfulness of those who are not aware of God’s presence. He feels revulsion and runs into a Catholic church in order to escape the scene. Kneeling at the altar, Merton offers a prayer of thanksgiving to God that he has found his special path, the path of monasticism. This sets him apart, as “special”. Merton thanks God that he is not like other men.

After a few months, he returns, enters the discipline of the novitiate, and embraces the life of a monk in community with other monks. He describes this tough process of living with the idiosyncrasies of these other men who share this time and space with him. It occurs to me that it is not unlike the process of any relationship, such as marriage, of bumping up against the reality of the “other”, someone who reminds you constantly that you are not “unto your self alone”. Merton, like me, found comedy in the interplay of others who you are “stuck with” who talk too much, have annoying habits, sing off key, snore, not mention the maddening sound of one’s eating and drinking from a cup. This therapy, provided free of charge in a marriage or monastery, grinds of the edge of a sharp edged self-centeredness and affords one a fresh sense of ordinariness and participation in community.

Years later, at the same exact place, the corner of 4th and Walnut, in the middle of Louisville, after decades of monastic therapy, Merton finds himself looking at those same masses of people moving down the street, doing business, doing life. Only this time, Merton falls into an attitude of prayer,standing there among the people, thanking God that God had created him just like other men. What a transformation, an alchemical change in the character of the soul. This dramatic change took place over years of prayer, study, challenge, and search. But the truth is stark: he “moved inward” in order to connect with that which would have seemed outside, something that was “other”.

There are other stories of faith that track in a similar way. I value reading about the spiritual path that others have walked. How has it been for you? How do you find time to stop in the middle of your busyness to reflect on your journey? How do you slow down to notice the world that is spinning round you? Your journey may not take you to a monastery but it is the same journey for us all to find our place in God and in the Creation that God loves.

Throwing Up

This past week, I engaged in a two hour phone call with an old friend of mine who is a minister in Minnesota. Like me, he emerged from the Baptist womb of the South, with all the blessings and curses such a spiritual genetic code allows. Bob got a heaping helping portion, given that his father was a Baptist minister. I missed that rodeo, although a Southern Gospel quartet is hidden in my closet.

We have lots of common connections and share a questing spirit to find what is true. Bob landed in the United Methodist Church while my spin took me into the Episcopal church. We both found that sacramental worship was lacking in our heritage, and sought to fix it by study, experiential learning, and finding a liturgical community in which to make our home.

It was great fun reviewing our common experience of the Candler School of Theology vibe we both shared in the late 70s, early 80s when Emory had arguably the finest theological faculty in this country. This stature was thanks to a windfall Robert Woodruff gift and some deft leadership by President Laney and Dean Waits. Rather than serving as a farm team for Yale and Harvard, the monies allowed us to keep the stellar teachers in the stable. I count myself as the fortunate one for that gift, and therefore put an obligatory Coke product on the lectern when I speak. Coke, Tab, Diet Coke, and now blue-tint, green cap Dasani…the evolution of my shameless sponsorship.

As a side note, I spent my first year of doctoral studies living in a Buckhead mansion with Mr. Woodruff’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Jones, as she had a habit of hosting young, very poor Emory grad students. This happy circumstance allowed me share the dinner table with Mr. Woodruff and to thank him personally on several occasions, to which he was most gracious. An Atlanta visionary that I admired, I am sure that he did not fully grasp the depth of impact he had on the wider world’s theological landscape.

In our phone conversation, Bob and I took the time to tell our stories to one another, to update the record from our prior entries. Twists and turns, victories and defeats, we caught up as to where our journeys had taken us, both having experienced long, strange, trips. It was a satisfying time on the phone, reminding me of the inherent power of story that we sometimes lose in the brisk memos of email and the clutter of social media. Our stories bear the weight of our souls as we seek to make sense out of what we have done and what has happened to us.

I made a habit early on of collecting these things called stories. It began informally by listening to people talk around a fire, at a table, or in a room, listening to the narratives that they told. Stories are part of my Southern ethos but more deeply, a work that all people share, of constructing a narrative collection of events that tell were we have been and what we have done. Clearly, there is a particular and peculiar style of the Southern story that formed me in my listening and telling. While in Texas, I learned of an old adage: don’t ever let the truth get in the way of a good story. My wife and kids know I can embellish, or make a story pretty, or even better, dance. But the story is the underlying form I learned from my grandparents, elders and my tribe.

Moving more formally into research, I listened and recorded people trying to make sense of human existence as they told their stories to me as a part of my work at the Center for Faith Development at Emory. Interviewing people for three hour lengths, transcribing, analyzing… it remained at its heart a process of listening to stories.

Later, I followed my teacher, Chuck Gerkin, listening to people in a clinical setting as I attended to the “living human document” they presented in telling their story. It took me to listening to homeless folks on the streets of Atlanta as well as perched penthouse persons in the deflective shimmer of Buckhead. And I continued this in my priesthood and clinical practice over thirty years, paying attention to the contours of meaning they weave in their stories.. Everyone has a story. They drag it behind them, use it to present a front, a reason for the way they are. And some even tell it well.

Recently, I have begun a gathering of clergy who meet to talk about how it is going in their lives, how it’s going at the churches they serve. We meet regularly to share our stories as well as pregnant moments of interruption that threaten the cohesive frame we have come to rely upon for identity.

I conceived of gathering these people using an on-line platform, Zoom, it’s called. However the form of our gathering was wrought many moons past. Years ago, the Bishop of Texas had asked me to meet with young clergy who were in transition from their seminary studies to their first parish assignment. Canon Kevin Martin, from the diocesan staff, joined me in the project of helping the young clergy use that first year in the parish to learn some good habits. And, not to crash and burn.

I loved working with Kevin. He and I come from differing theological positions but share a common desire to make the church a more effective presence the life of our community. He and I would meet with these folks once a month for nine months, a natural gestation time. We would gather at the holy space know as Camp Allen, the diocesan conference center in Navasota, just northwest of Houston. It is a gift to rejoin with him now as we create new groups of gathering.

We would begin with a check in, with two pregnant questions: How is it with you? Or How is it in the place you are? I had gotten the questions from my mentor, Carlyle Marney, who famously led a previous gathering of ministers known as Interpreter’s House, which occurred at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. I had studied Marney’s method, and used it to design a retreat format for clergy while working with Jim Fowler at the Center for Faith Development at Emory.

The format that Marney used was quite simple. The first week, he gathered the group of ministers in a circle as they told their stories, how they came to the ministry, and how it was currently going in their place. This primitive gathering was the initial step. He called this “throwing up”.

The second week involved some fresh input from a leading thinker in the world of Christian faith, usually intended to push these  ministers beyond their pastures of comfort. Allowing them to ponder deeply, ask the questions they brought to the fire, and most importantly, applying to their own lives, this was the crucial time in which the ideas, wonderings, and hunches percolated.

The third week was critical. It was a time when they would make plans for how they might take these fresh insights back into the communities from which they had come, or fled, or as Marney would say, sentenced. Some would make action plans, others would talk of internal changes, and some would make vows. Some would find the courage to leave the formal bounds of ministry and find fresh, honest work.

My colleagues and I took Marney’s genius and spirit, and condensed it, distilled it. Marney would have loved the word “distilled”, I think. We scoped it down to one week. We kept the idea of “throwing up” but put it within the vessel of a small group rather than a large group in order to maximize “air time”. Small groups of four went through the five day experience together.

Our input was a deep remembrance of a central image of passage-making, utilizing both the Exodus motif and the Paschal appropriation of the Exodus story by the Christian church. How does your story fit The Story? What was your “burning bush” encounter of calling? How was your journey? How have you been in exile, enslaved? How were you freed, liberated? What did your wilderness feel like? What were the contours of your desert? Just how dry was it? How long did you wander? What promise did the new give you? What might the Promised Land look like for you?

And, the week-long experience kept the context from which they had come and to which they would return in mind, granting a pause, a silence for thinking and reflecting to occur. We called it Pilgimage Project, testing our design with only clergy, using cohort groups of similarly experienced ministers, three years out of seminary, ten, twenty, and thirty years, with the postulation that there would be similar issues in play developmentally.

It wound up being published and used not only with clergy but in parishes and other gatherings of faithful people. Truth is, all people have stories. I have used it in the back of my mind as I have worked with all types of people who have been trying to make sense out of life, going through particular transitions, and looking for new beginnings. This image of pilgrimage provides the paradigm for the work I do.

How might you tell your story? What would be some of the things you would note as to the beginnings of your journey that set your direction? What significant choices did you make along the way? What surprises came in the process? What gave you joy, what brought grief? How does the trajectory of your story form the way of your future? What are your greatest hopes and fears? What limiting beliefs do you hold onto that no longer serve you well? What do you need to let go of? Where is your growing edge?

To transpose a line from poet, Mary Oliver: what do you have left to do with your one, wild, amazingly crazy life?

I love my work of being with people as they ponder these deep questions and make plans to make the most of their journey on this good earth. It is a wondrous adventure. And I love listening to those stories.

To Infinity and Beyond

We are in the middle of celebrating a memorable moment in the history of humanity: a human being arriving on the Moon.

All kinds of archival footage is being played across the various platforms of media to commemorate this gigantic event in our common history: we made it from the fragile, island home that we call Earth, to an even smaller island that circles us, illumined magically by phases, even spectacularly, as if on cue, in full moon on Tuesday.

We looked; we gazed; we wondered; we dreamed; we visioned; we planned;we invested; we built; we dared; we risked; we went. All were critical parts of a process to move from a wonderment as we looked up from our gravitational holding place to a journey to that sphere that occupies the night sky and our imagination. We chose to go to the Moon, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard… President John F. Kennedy envisioned. Beneath that drive pulses the lure of discovery, of a curiosity about our world, in a word, wonder that abides in our soul.

What strikes me, in our reflection on this event on the Moon, that occurred some fifty years ago, it that it was a “we” moment for humanity, not just another “USA” national pride chant, but a global moment where everyone identified with the human spirit that drove the quest. The three NASA astronauts, upon return to Earth, toured the world to the cheers of everyone, shouting, exclaiming, “We did it!”, a collective “Yes we can!”.

What could possibly unite this world today in a similar way? What might unite our country in the midst of our separation, our adversarial posturing? Seriously and sadly, I don’t have a clue. The last time, we experienced a national “we” moment was when we were attacked, evoking a hot, burning revenge reaction. Like you, I felt it. I lived through it. I don’t want to relive that, as it was a huge cost that keeps on collecting a fee in human lives. Could there be a positive event that could bring us together? I wonder.

I find myself going back to my younger days, when innocence was fresh and smelled like a new car, full of promise and adventure. Is that a mere memory, or could it bring hope?

My memories of the space race came early. In the West End Sears in a tiny book department, I remember choosing a book of a photographic hype of the Mercury 7, the seven chosen few, my new heroes displayed in their space suits and shown training for their flights in odd machines that simulated G forces and weightlessness. That book filled my time and imagination as America prepared to put a human into space.

I carried that passion to my first grade classroom at Tull Waters Elementary in south Atlanta. It was in that classroom that I learned to “duck and cover” in the case of an atom bomb, a pall that was exacerbated by a forced march home to make sure we could make it in event of a bomb. I am sure there are psychological studies filed away somewhere on the effect of such drills, but I have never seen them. Guess I am afraid to look!

Counterbalancing that fear was the pervasive hope of space exploration. It was a hope that was pervasive in that time, a bold lean into a future of progress, unrestricted potential. My teacher, Miss Nail, allowed me to listen to the launch from a gray particle-board institutional radio in the back of the class. That became my role in all my classes as the word had obviously gotten around about the Galloway kid who was obsessed with space. I was the first grade Walter Cronkite delivering my version of “That’s the way it is.”

That was my first experience of a teacher bending to meet me in my passion, sponsoring my native curiosity and nurturing my discovery as a child. That would be the hallmark of the good teachers I encountered along the way, as well as the bar to which I held all who would assume that noble profession in my orbit. Wildly, my niece, Gracie Galloway teaches today in that same school building, now called by another name, Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP. Gracie embodies that same spirit of teaching that I experienced and valued in my own journey in school.

Thanks to my teachers, I followed the astronauts in their missions, from Alan Shepherd in 1961, John Glenn’s three orbits in 1962, to the last, Gordo Cooper in Faith 7 who spent a day and a half in orbit. This initial foray would lead to Gemini’s two-man team, space walking and docking, and then, on to the Apollo mission to the Moon.

All those memories came flooding back as PBS aired a superb video chronicle of the race into space. It was a time of competition as the Soviet Union was hell-bent on beating us in the technological game of tag. And pride was on display as Aldrin and Armstrong placed an artificially flying flag on the Moon’s surface, the red, white, and blue against the gray, barren landscape.

Again, the surprise was the global celebration of this human achievement. As the trio flew from country to country, they were regaled as heroes of the human race, lifted up on our collective shoulders to celebrate both our technological prowess as well as the “right stuff” that showcased the human character of courage.

My own moment of meaning came when Armstrong took control of the lunar module, guiding it by manual control, some half a mile farther than the planned landing site. His split-second decision to “fly the thing” rather than go through the automatic landing sequence, risked the whole mission. Knowing that he was running low on fuel, indicated by the on-board sounding alarm, he nonetheless scanned the lunar surface and coolly improvised a new site. With the words, “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”, Armstrong allowed the folks in the control room to breathe again. That moment of decision was defining for me, Armstrong’s command of the lunar module.

They then proceeded to venture out, dancing in the moment of exploration that was truly out of this world. The paradigm-shift happened with the mystical view of our planet from the surface of the Moon., our tine planet set in the vast blackness of space. The astronauts clearly felt the shift, but we were able to vicariously experience that new perspective as well. Like the discovery of fire, a new sliver of consciousness was birthed.

There still was the hanging question of firing the rockets to propel the craft back into orbit to rendezvous with the circling command module. It was telling to see the recently recovered memo written by speechwriter William Safire for President Nixon to release should the astronauts be marooned. Fortunately, that piece of poetry went into a gray filing cabinet, exchanged for a bottle of celebratory champagne.

So this is our celebration of our signature moment of technological advancement coupled with the human spirit of discovery. How are you celebrating this special mark in our history? Any thoughts on how might we recover the sense of unity that points toward the spiritual truth of our connectedness? Especially in the face of efforts to divide us, how can we move beyond a mere jingoistic focus on things that separate us, and rather, reframe our existence as a human race. It would be a giant leap, indeed, but worth the jump. Our future seems to hang in the balance of that question.

Ledell, A Man in Full

When I was the pastor of a downtown parish in Tyler, Texas, I found that there were two critical jobs at the parish. Neither were my responsibility, except hiring them.

The first is the receptionist. She/he sets the tone for the entire parish, welcoming people into the church building with a spirit of hospitality. OR, acting like a fire-breathing dragon that looms, threatening people who might dare to come inside. Luckily, I have had some superb people in that role that make people feel at home from the moment they walk in the building. A welcoming smile and a word of welcome are gold in this kingdom. You can’t put a price on the value of that first face the person sees. If your sign outside says “WELCOME” and yet the reception is cold, guess what?

The second, equally important person is the janitor. This is the person who is responsible for seeing that the building in clean, that it is in order, that it is set up in a proper way. This person has to be willing to be flexible and responsive when needs change. The skills match that of an ambassador, working with foreign heads of state, or in the church’s case, leaders of women’s and men’s groups. It’s not an easy job.

In the Episcopal church, we call the janitor a “sexton”, which I sort of dig. It has a kind of English spin, a Downton Abbey, feel. To me, it better captures the role: the sexton.

At Christ Church in Tyler, following the exit of a long-time sexton, we went looking to find just the right man, or woman to fill this critical role. We were fortunate to find a man who had been laid off by a large company who had all the skills we needed, and then some.

His name was Ledell and he reminded me immediately of New Orleans soul singer, Aaron Neville whose first hit, Tell It Like It Is, characterized my new sexton’s style of communication. In a word, he was “built”, with a muscular physique which would have been more at home on a linebacker on a pro football field. As it turns out, Ledell was tenacious in his work-out regimen, going to the Y every day. He also was a bit of a physical health evangelist, getting me and other staff members to join him in his gym routine. He was a drill sergeant as he ordered our routine of cardio and lifting weights. I’ve been around the weight room most of my life and have had no one more rigorous in his demands than Ledell. He was an animal. A monster…friendly, smiling, but a monster. And, he would tell it like it is!

Through our years together, I came to view him as a friend, if not a brother from another mother. He and I would talk about life and share meals. Some of my best memories are of going with him to the annual East Texas State Fair. We must have appeared to be the original Odd Couple: me, a white bearded dude in black clericals, and Ledell, a goatee-sporting black man in his work uniform. What a pair. We would go in his truck, hit the midway, observing the menagerie of God’s creatures, animal and human, on display, feasting on outrageously fried fair food. It would cost me the next day with a punishing work-out. Pass me the Lipitor.

Ledell had a gift for working on automobile engines and often rescued me with his handiness, tending to my Chevy K-5 Blazer. I came to admire his wisdom, his resourcefulness, and his faithfulness. He was a single father of two children, and made sure he was in their lives to form them. He was to me, a man in full, as Tom Wolfe once wrote. I admired him greatly.

Near the end of my time in Tyler, Target decided to put a distribution center out on I-20 and was looking for a custodial manager. I got the word that Ledell had been courted for this position as his reputation has gone viral. The coconut telegraph told me that he had gone out to look at the opportunity. I wanted him to take the job if it would bring him some pay increase that would be important to his life. But, I didn’t want him to go. I valued him as a co-worker and as a friend.

One morning, having coffee in our library, Ledell walked in. Typically, I began by kidding him about his being courted by Target, angling around in order to ask him about his intentions. He looked at me in the way he would when my lifting weights was waning in enthusiasm. He asked me to follow him.

He took me down the hall and then into our gorgeous church building. The stained glass in the morning light puts on a light show that would rival Disney. As we stood there in that sacred space, he began to talk to me.

“I was out of a job when I came looking here. You listened to me as a man and took me seriously. You gave me a job that was a good one. It gave me what I needed for my family. It was the kind of work I enjoyed and that I am good at. I like the people here and enjoy messing with you. But the most important thing is that I have a job that lets me take care of God’s house. Look at this. This is my job keeping God’s house looking good. Man, I can’t imagine a better thing to do with my life. I love working for God.”

I had been in the God business for a long time. You would never have been able to hear me wax as poetic as Ledell, describing the work I did for the Almighty. I guess I could have, should have been embarrassed by his godly description of his work, topping my more professional way of framing my career. But instead, I was inspired, called to do better in the way of thinking of my vocation.

Ledell is one fortunate guy. He would quickly retort, claiming more accurately that he was blessed. And he is.

To have the work you do have a heavenly purpose, that is the trick. To know that your work makes a difference is one of the greatest things a human can possess. It’s the old notion of work being a holy endeavor, whatever it is. It is an unstated goal for most of us. To make that connection between what you do with a purpose larger than yourself. Work like that provides an energy and a satisfaction that is prized. It is a state of the soul that I find missing in many folks that I talk to.

Business analysts tell us that most workers have anything but that feeling about their work. It was stunning to me to find that most workers are not engaged, wish they were doing something else. They are mailing it in, giving the minimum effort, with a small investment of energy. The real surprise to me was to find this rampant in healthcare, a most noble endeavor of saving lives. I’ve spent the last ten years listening to healthcare workers, nurses, physicians, and administrators, who have been been overwhelmed with bureaucracy, losing the original spark that sent them in pursuit of this career in medicine.

This is not only true in healthcare, but in just about every industry. Teachers who burn out, lawyers who hate their work, business persons who just get by, priests who are looking at pension time, folks who mail it in. Workers seem to struggle to make the connection to the purpose that Ledell natively lives and breathes.

I often have people coming to me to ask me help in recovering that spark. They are at the end of their rope, sometimes showing clear signs of depression, sometime self-medicating to relieve their pain or boredom. They are considering just chunking their current work and doing something else, go into another field that they fantasize will deliver them.

Sometimes, that decision to make a change is a good one, a necessary one. But I have found that often reframing the work that people do, are engaged in, is all that is needed. In Tyler, I developed a method of helping folks assess where they are currently, think about options of change that would address their needs for a more satisfying career, and then get creative as to how they could make that happen in their lives.

The good news is for many people, the answer was not found by ditching a career, but finding a new way to frame what it is they are doing. Sometimes it means letting go of some limiting beliefs about the way to do their work. One healthcare executive I worked with thought that he had to be “the biggest sumbitch in the valley” to get people to do their work. The effect was that he was disliked, even worse, disrespected. Once he figured out that he didn’t have to be mean, his true nature came to fore and the opinions of his employees changed, evidenced by his 360 assessment by those who worked for him. He came to not only enjoy his work but increased his productivity, not to mention the attitude of his employees.

For others, it means refocusing one’s work, letting go of of certain parts, and redirecting energy in new ways that bring satisfaction. It has particularly exciting to me to work with folks who are seeking to connect their work with service to the community or common good. It’s what David Brooks has called the Second Mountain, an endeavor that brings meaning and significance to one’s life.

This entails a process of coaching, with an initial assessment as to where one currently is, as well as becoming more clear as to where one wants to go. The process moves one to a decision, some planning culminating in an action plan, some encouragement and accountability as to making the change happen. It’s a process that I have enjoyed, helping people move through into a more satisfying life.

Ledell found his Second Mountain, as he would say, he was blessed by God. Most of us are not that fortunate. Sometimes we have to decide to make a move and address the sense of emptiness and lack of meaning in our lives. How is the state of your life? Are you happy with the life you are living, or do you need to make a change, small or large? I’d be happy to help you think through this or point you in some fresh directions. Feel free to contact me.

I am glad I was fortunate to come across a person like Ledell. That encounter changed my life. I was educated by some of the finest minds, trained by some geniuses, had my head shrunk by some world-class therapists, but it was Ledell that spoke into my life in a way that made a real difference.

Ledell…. a man in full. And my friend. Come to think of it, like Ledell, I am blessed.


I hit a significant mark this week, my sixty-fifth birthday. Or as my friend said lovingly, I’m just a little older than God.

I never really thought I would live this long, but here I am. Surprise, surprise, as Gomer might say. The old quip, attributed to Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, concludes that if he knew he was going to live this long, he would have taken better care of himself. True Deadheads wonder about that, both if he said it, and if he would have, Jerry being Jerry.

Growing up, my high school seemed to have a curse, where a good number of kids died tragically. In fact, my class had five people die in the year after our graduation from the weathered Municipal Auditorium of Atlanta. Built in 1909, it was the site of a pre-inaugural event for President William Henry Taft, where barbecued possum was the special fare served. Later that year, it hosted the first Atlanta Music Festival. After that, it was the home of the Atlanta Symphony as well as Live Atlanta Wrestling where the Odd Couple of Robert Shaw and Freddie Blassie held court. What an auspicious place for the Class of 1972 of Briarwood High to begin its sojourn into life.

One close friend didn’t even make it through the summer, the victim of a car crash, a car that I had been a passenger in throughout my senior year. Going to a glut of funerals early on has a profound effect. It’s not on the order of PTSD formed in combat, but it made an impact on me. Certain wags have opined that it screwed me up enough to set my course to seminary. Who knows?

I have written about it, spoken about it, even preached about it. I used it to speak to graduating seniors at the high school whose board I chaired when I was asked to give them a send off. I processed it with my own shrink and then used it as a reference point with persons who have come to me for therapy and coaching.

What sense do you make out of the close up death of others? How do you carry that into your future? How do you bear the weight of such things as you live your life?

The sense I made was that life was precious. That it is fleeting, can be gone in an instant. Rather than making me fearful, it gave me a rather adventurous lean into life as I wanted to grab as much as I could, while I could. In an earlier blog, I mentioned my high school motto on a make-shift crest: “Promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep!”, a rather Sixties view of life, spun out and on by the tragic death of my Presidential hero, John Kennedy, and later my classmates.

All of this personal experience was embedded in a collective time when good men were being cut down, at home and abroad. In ’68, when I began high school, two idealists espousing brotherhood, were slain. Robert Kennedy felt like a far-away heroic figure, smart, committed, cut down on the far coast.

Martin King was from my neck of the woods. I had heard old men and young, spit his name with derision. The pregnant moment of my young psyche was cast when my grandfather, an Atlanta cop, got up out of the barber’s chair on Lee Street, and took me with him, as the crowd in the shop were using the N word and other nasty references. Kids learn a hell of a lot more by watching adults’ behavior than the Sunday School lessons they mouthed, especially when they belie the very words of love by living hatefully. Death felt real and present for me as a young man.

It’s funny that I would interpret the events of life the way I did. Rather than fearful, cautious, and timid, it all seemed like a time to jump in and enjoy the gift. Any time I had was just that, a gift. Why were friends of mine denied that right while I was free as the breeze on a Southern evening? That question pressed me over and over, especially in moments of joyful bliss which caused me to reflect in afterglow. Sunrises, sunsets, long reaches under sail, treks on the trail…..all gave rise to pauses.

It occurred to me when I was serving as a priest that my outlook was hewn, forged, beat into a sense of celebration. When things fell apart, when bad things happened to good people, when tragedy broke through, it was a reminder of how out of control things really are. We live in the illusion that we have some control over our life, when the reality is that we do not. Those moments of crisis merely break through the convention of control and remind us that we are not in charge. Rather than resenting the capriciousness of life, or whatever God you image, I find myself grateful for the time I have, the opportunities set before me. Rather than obsess on the chances of dire straits ahead, I choose to focus on the moment that is present.

An old high school friend of mine, Ron Harwell, and I were discussing it recently. We recalled the many times in high school and college that we tempted fate, sometimes by our recklessness, sometimes courting danger, and at times, like my saint, Dr. John, just the right place at the wrong time. And other times, fate came looking for us. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

It’s an odd thing to become reflective. I’ve always had an inclination and good eye in looking back, remembering things that happened. It puzzles me why I remember certain things and forget others. Peculiar are the minute details that have stuck in my memory, while others recede. When I get to talk with old friends, it’s such a treat to splash around in those stories.

My point in today’s blog is to point out a simple practice that I have adopted and want to encourage you to explore. It comes out of my practice of mindfulness but is even more simple. I find that the busy people I work with are SO busy, so filled up with time commitments, that the suggestion of a time period of twenty to thirty minutes is unthinkable. In the urgent setting of a hospital, a moment of free time is rare and fleeting. When I frame the situation as “overwhelmed”, heads nod. And yet they instinctively know that they need a break. So let’s begin small.

I have been suggesting a simple word, PAUSE. Rather than dive into a meditation protocol or a mindfulness strategy, let’s start small and build our capacity for quiet. for reflection. Just prompt yourself to PAUSE. I have been encouraging people to pause in the morning, to pause before the next appointment, to pause before the next patient, to pause before a phone call. However it works for you: Pause.

What happens when you pause? There are several things you can choose to do in this time. One is to do a bit of what I’ve been doing in the article, namely, reflecting. Pausing can focus your reflection on this particular time in your life, or, to think of times from the past. When I am engaging in reflection, I find it helpful to couple it with the discipline of journaling, recording the thoughts, memories that come to mind. This can be fruitful to come back to, to assess, to look and see if there are particular rhythms to your day, ebb and flow of emotions.

But another use of the pause is to clear one’s mind of all thought. This becomes a true exercise of freedom. I recommend beginning with three deep breaths. Some folks find it helpful to close one’s eyes. Some find a quick body scan to be helpful. Some have developed a word to recite, to remember, to charge their brain or spirit.

I have become incredibly pragmatic about this, losing any doctrinaire approach to the art of centering. Whatever works is the right place to start, to begin to realize the power and gift of stillness and presence. Try to still your “thinker”, your constantly intrusive thoughts. This takes practice, perhaps the quintessential understatement of our times. Once you get your practice going, you can tweak it as you go.

For me, I have set aside a schedule of times to pause, following my beloved Trappists who set aside seven times for prayer during the day to regulate and form their common life. I use three regular times in my schedule. Keep it simple. In addition, I have typically been playful by adding a random feed of owl photos on Facebook, with a one word admonition of “Pause”, hopefully prompting me and other people to take a simple moment to take a brief break. I experience this as playful, even surprising gifts of interruption of my grind.

This is not the time or place to trot out the scientific research that links health with various practices of mindfulness. It’s clear that it is beneficial in our time of busyness and urgency, to find ways to “pause”.

How do you make this happen currently? I asked that question on a Facebook post and got a number of responses. Some noted that they simply nap if they get a break. If that works for you, if that is what your body needs, good for you. Pausing for silence does a number of things beyond simply resting, but if your body prompts a nap, that’s the way to go.

Some noted using a breathing app that regulates breathing, calming one’s thinking. Some find that a time in nature soothes the soul, which is also true for me, but not as accessible in most of my day’s work. Some mentioned driving as relaxing…I am assuming that is not on I-285 in Atlanta traffic. And a few noted the curative power of beer. Whatever floats your boat, or soul.

If you need some simple directions, feel free to contact me for some suggestions. The main thing is to start doing something, anything, some moment of mindfulness in your day. I’d be happy to encourage you in your beginnings.

I’ve been doing this work and living with this discipline for some time. It is a gift you can give to yourself, even if you’re an old man on Medicare. As my old neighborhood friend, Elgin Wells, used to announce to the crowd before his band, Extravaganza, took a set break: It’s time to take a pause for the cause. Indeed.


Take Another Little Bit of My Heart

South of Broad is the last novel my friend, Pat Conroy, wrote. He gave me a copy long before he died, but I am just getting around to reading it. I’ve tried to be honest with myself about why I waited. More accurately, why I put it off.

I knew this would be the last time I  would hear his masterful storytelling, overhear his quick wit, his description of the pathos of my South, unveil the dysfunction of family life. Family is a contact sport, Pat would opine…..and live.

Falling in love with Pat’s early writing, I had followed his career through many twists and turns. Conrack was a movie, turning Pat’s book The River Is Wide, into a cinematic journey to a low country out island and introduced me to his love of things low country. The Great Santini chronicled his troubled relationship with his fighter pilot father. I always seemed to have seen the movies before I read his books.

That was up until I met him. It was while he was writing Lords of Discipline, a book about his days at the Citadel, that I came to know Pat. A friend of mine had been his roommate in school and worried as to how he would be portrayed in the book. Pat and I schemed as to how to drive this button-downed executive to distraction with his anxiety. We brought our plot to a conclusion at a lunch at the old Fish Market at Lenox Square. Epic, just like one of Pat’s story lines.

I was a friend of Pat while he was writing Prince of Tides which meant we were frequenting Atlanta parties with his father as a wing man, the Great Santini. He proved to be one of the most charming people I have ever known, belying the abusive portrayal of the man by Robert Duvall. Truth was, Santini was both, combining light and shadow, as do most of us.

It was a heady time for me, running with some of the literary figures of Atlanta, serving as the Master of Ceremonies of the Townsend Award thanks to Jim’s widow who drafted me for the job.  At the time, I was knee-deep into the novel by Anne Rivers Siddons who was exposing the drama of my home turf in Peachtree Road. I lifted several characters for sermonic illustrations as I remember. That crew of writers was a fun group to play with in the sandbox.

I lost touch with Pat as he moved to Fripp Island and then on to his final home, Beaufort. He seemed to have found some peace there, and was enjoying life with his wife, Cassandra, also a writer. I got word from a friend that he had cancer. It didn’t take long for that beast to take him down. Before he took his final trip across the River, he wrote some powerful reflections on reading and writing in his book My Reading Life. He penned a requiem for his father in Death of Santini, which was a no-holds-barred look at his family’s drama, and his love of them. But, I enjoyed his notes on cooking, a true love of his. His recount of a cooking class with famed Nathalie Dupree is worth the trip through the book. I have the audio version of his book, which he narrates. I love hearing his voice.

Reading South of Broad was like having him in the room with me. He has such a way of capturing the colloquial phrases, the comedic way in which Southerners regale and accost one another. He paints characters with a depth that makes me covet his superpowers, and his deft construction of plot leaves me shaking my head as he moves through the narrative. Always, there’s the whisper of darkness that pervades the Southern soul that O’Conner and Percy intimated to me in my early reading.

While I was barely into the text, I realized why I had avoided the book. I was feeling a deep grief. It was a heart-breaking grief that pains one with the realization that you will never see this person again. Pat was gone. This force of nature that I had come to enjoy his companionship had left this world. The reality of death was all too real as his voice, his presence had been curtailed. This last book was crazily my way of holding on to him. Rationally, I know I can reread all of Pat’s books but it’s not the same. The surprise, the twists, the phrases. So I held back

And now that I had entered the book,  I felt it even more. It seemed as if Pat was with me, cohabiting my study. Once again, Pat was guilty of overwriting, a practice we talked about many times. Never to be accused of sparseness, Pat made football games into epic battles, full of comedy and tragedy, And his plots sometimes begged the question of reality. Finding a down-and-out street person on the trolley of San Francisco, who just happened to be  the hero of a football game from the protagonist’s past, who also turns out to be a key component to the resolution of the plot is the kind of stuff that Pat would do. It’s a tendency in most of his novels, a habit that I can laugh at and forgive. It felt familiar when I found it throughout South of Broad, providing a romantic overtone to the way Pat saw things. But it feels familiar, and makes my departed friend seem closer than he is….which would be much to Pat’s liking.

South of Broad is a good story, well told, over-told perhaps, but worth the time. I am glad I unconsciously timed the moment to pick it up off my downstairs bookshelf. I did  not know the significance of the date, June 16th, when I undertook this long delayed reading. Surprised by the coincidence, I paused and reflected on the magical moment once I awoke to the synchronicity at play. June 16th, Bloomsday, is a day celebrated by fans of James Joyce’s epic Ulysses, which revolves around Leo Bloom and one day in his life in Dublin. This day becomes the starting point for Pat’s story and weaves throughout the novel. It ends on the same day, June 16, 1990, with the hero, Leo, offering a view of human existence, “born to nakedness and tenderness and nightmare in the eggshell fragility of mortality and flesh.” Classic Conroy.

And the hero concludes with an observation that is incarnated throughout the plot:”the immense, unanswerable powers of fate, how one day can shift the course of ten thousand lives. Fate can catapult them into lives they were  never meant to lead until they stumbled into that one immortal day.”

Of course,  this fate is a double-edge sword, thrusting one into a positive trajectory unimagined or it can trip one up into an unrelenting  fall that seems to never end.

I began my blog, South of God, with a series of musings around this very thought. What about the twists of fate that come to form our life stories? But what about the other side of the coin, the decisions we make in that wake of the force of fate that will define or deflect the effects of that twist?

I noted in my own narrative the consequence of a girl talking in the back of my home room, resulting in her being moved to sit beside me. Our conversations over the next year transformed my sense of self. Her blessing gave me wings.

Or the chance selection of a course my freshman year in college that forged the course of my study for eleven years.

How about the crazy decision to drag my tired ass to church on a Sunday morning, only to see a vision across the balcony from me, a person who would share my life?

And I can go on, as you, by now, know. That’s not to even begin to plough the field of fate, like when my mother went out on a blind date with my dad. It’s all there, filled with multiple choice options that twist the contours of our life, leaving us with the question of “What if?” and the affirmation, “Thank God.”.

While Pat’s point is to affirm the role of fate and to pronounce that anything can happen on Bloomsday. it is a much broader, South or not,  interplay of fate and human agency in our everyday world. It was fate that led me to pick up Pat’s book on June 16th this year, a book that I had purposely avoided. But it is my decision to follow that rabbit down the hole into the Southern landscape of  low country and Charleston. I could have tossed it in with the pile collecting by my desk. But, no. I decided to take it to my chair to read.

The grief I was hoping to avoid was waiting for me, not pulling the punch of pain. It was joined by the memories of others I have lost recently, boyhood friends, and the closing act of parents that were of the Greatest Generation. The grief I feel is correlated to the amount of love I had for each person who exits, stage left or right.

As my age advances, now bearing a freshly minted Medicare card this month, the quantity of my moments of grief will naturally increase. But my prayer is that the quality of my grieving may increase as well, as I embrace the reality of the gift of the relationships I have been fortunate to experience, the inevitable loss, as well as the concomitant love that I have been given and give.

Visiting my friend, Pat, on Bloomsday, reminded me of that. Anything can happen. Yes, anything.