Category Archives: Pilgrimage
In December, Mossy Creek Press released my new book, Poems, Prayers and Unfinished Promises. I have been so gratified by the readers’ enthusiastic responses. From time to time, I want to share a few excerpts with readers. Since we are in the Lenten Season, I share this prayer, found on page 48:
A Prayer for the Beginning of Lent
As a Baptist kid in the South, I had never heard of Lent, but I understood “call and response” instinctively. Someone sings and you sing back to them. In southern gospel, it was often something the basses and altos did, little descants under the melody, like a man and woman when they really speak and hear each other’s hearts. That’s the Lenten journey to me—get quiet, listen and when you finally pick up the song, sing back. You really have to train your ear to hear it.
“By day the LORD commands his steadfast love and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” Why are you cast down, O my soul and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Psalm 42:8-11 NRSV
Encountering God in the Prayers of Others is
our latest collective effort. It springs from experience
in our spiritual lives of prayers
composed by others that have “spoken” to us.
The Trinity group is a self-named group of friends, all Ph.D. grads
in theology or closely related fields who have chosen to journey together theologically for 25 years. The group was initiated by our teacher-friend Fisher Humphreys. It includes missionaries, pastors, college and seminary professors and a chaplaincy supervisor.
Through the years, we have created a space, meeting once or twice a year for multiple days, to have intellectual, spiritual and theological freedom to read, study, comment, question and debate any subject together that interested or troubled us. The glory of such freedom has enhanced all of our lives.
One of our founders, Philip, died six years ago this March. He was the first close friend some of us had lost, and he was in so many ways a force and center of our group. His loss was enormous, but we carried on. That experience, of walking with a friend to his grave, literally in my own case, was profound. And it mirrors what happens in the theological journey—it is always, inevitably, personal at the same time that we seek the loftiest and most universal of vantage points from which to do theology. Read the rest of this entry
It is the day after Memorial Day. I get way too many emails, but I’m 57. I’m trying to withdraw from the world without getting fired or retired (sometimes you retire. Other times you GET retired. See “getting fired.”
Anyway, I find myself, more and more, saying to a television screen, “That’s the wrong question” and “neither of the above.” Since we’ve quit reading anything longer than a few sentences, ah, I won’t go there today.
Few weeks ago I went on a retreat to Cullman, Alabama. I stayed with a dozen pastor buddies at the St. Bernard Retreat Center. It was a lovely setting. The last time I “retreated” at St. Bernard’s I stayed actually in the monastery with the brothers, who treated me well, but it was not air-conditioned, and it was August in Alabama. I had a small window, a box fan to blow hot air, and the last vestiges of a stomach virus. Didn’t make it through the night and drove off in the Great Silence searching for a Waffle House or a Cracker Barrel.
Over the past few weeks, I have watched Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” all the way through. Something I always wanted to do, but never had before. So I did it. Glorious, insightful, even after all these years. And “retreat” came to be more meaningful. You retreat when your forces are being obliterated. A “strategic retreat” is one you do to preserve yourself for another fight (“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.”) But sometimes you just run for your life. Cannons to the left of you, cannons to the right of you, manure under your feet and bayonets coming at you. No strategic about it, just run, dummy.
Spiritual retreats, honestly, are a little like that. Living in this world is too much like Antietam and Gettysburg, to tell you the truth. There’s foolishness and then there’s what we have now. What can you do? Burns says desertion, draft-dodging by the rich, protests, all of that happened then. Lincoln was trying to get re-elected while the Confederate army kept coming into Maryland to kill him. It’s hard to run a campaign in such times.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain. But this is a crazy time, too. Just yesterday on the news, a man ate another man’s face, and it was reported that a Southern Baptist Leader announced a new coalition in which “Catholics and Southern Baptists have joined forces with Orthodox Jews and Mormons to oppose a ‘secular theocracy driven by a full-blown pagan understanding of human sexuality.’” I don’t even know how you can HAVE a secular theocracy with no Theo. And let’s not talk about the independent preacher in North Carolina and his electrified wall. A school system in New York can’t fire a teacher who couldn’t get hired to pick up road kill for the county if she didn’t have tenure. We don’t have civil war, but we don’t exactly have civil conversation either.
So, all in all, retreating is not so bad. I still know too many people looking for work. I want my grandbaby to have a decent job someday. I want homeless people to sleep out of the rain, and I want everyone to pitch in and help make things better. No one is asking me to sacrifice and telling me how. No one is saying, “Even if I don’t get re-elected, let’s fix this deficit now. Elections can wait.” No one is saying, “that’s not news. It’s stupid. Get that off there and put something better on for us to talk about.”
Sound the retreat!
As I drove into lovely Cullman, Alabama for my “retreat,” I saw the most wonderful signs here and there. They’re having an election, too, and a Judge Lust is running for re-election. Try running a campaign against lust and see how it goes. Another sign said, Unity Baptist Church. Oxymoron?
One church had one of those changeable signs that must come with a book of clever clichés for preachers. You know, PRAYER: WIRELESS ACCESS TO GOT WITH NO ROAMING FEE and THE FAMILY THAT PRAYS TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER and WALMART IS NOT THE ONLY SAVING PLACE. This one was pretty good. It said, COME AS YOU ARE BUT BE PREPARED TO CHANGE EVERYTHING. Yeah, I thought, I like that.
Then the best of all—obviously, I was lost by this time, having driven past my turnoff and into the country. But it was worth it. A glorious sign that said, “NORTH ALABAMA BULL EVALUATION CENTER.” Hallelujah! At last!
Alas, to my disappointment, it was about cattle. I turned around and headed the other way. The next morning, I was sitting in the Abbey Church listening to monks chanting and praying for the world. Not so bad.
RETREAT! RUN AWAY!
Just finished a bio of Elvis Presley I picked up a few years back and had sitting on my shelf by novelist Bobbie Ann Mason. Elvis is one of those figures whose presence is culturally ubiquitous, so the danger is greater that we think we “know” him, only to discover that we do not know this person at all.
I felt the sadness that so many musical biographies have evoked in me in recent years—bios of Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, the Carter family, Eric Clapton, the great blues singers and Hank Williams. One common thread in this tapestry is the lonely road of fame. No one knew this more than the King.
If Hank Williams was the first true country superstar, Elvis rocketed down a road no one had ever seen before. Mason’s telling is masterful, even if the story is familiar. What was new to me was all the dabbling in Christianity and Eastern religion Elvis did, even as he descended into the world of drugs. If he was the true king of Rock and Roll, he was also the archetype of addictive splitting off into separate selves, isolation from loved ones, and disconnection from life.
At the same time I was reading the Elvis bio, I was also working through The Addictive Personality by Craig Nakken. He quotes a plaque on a friend’s wall that says, “Fooling people is serious business, but when you fool yourself, it is fatal.” Elvis’ story is one of a young man whose musical genius could not be suppressed, but whose spiritual and emotional life and growth were assaulted from every angle in the process. He lived in a prison of impossible expectations, wealth and adoration. He made the great mistake of addiction: confusing intensity of experience with emotional intimacy.
I love Elvis. He met the Beatles on my eleventh birthday, August 27, 1965, for the first time, a symbolic joining of the two great musical rivers of my boyhood. It was a disastrous meeting, one that was filled with misunderstanding and misinterpretation. They came to offer him homage and he became threatened by it. Rather than the joyful intersectionElvis between “Colonel” Parker and Ed Sullivanthat might have happened the two roads diverged instead. Elvis spiraled deeper into isolation in the coming years, into paranoia and bizarre behavior, drugs, control by the manipulative Colonel Parker, the succession of vapid and empty movies, and the banality of Vegas. But ultimately it is Elvis himself who sat so uneasy on the throne he was handed so early in life. He once described himself as “hanging on my own cross.”
Another book I have read in recent months, is Elaine Heath’s The Mystic Way of Evangelism. In it, she describes the three classical stages of the life of prayer—Purgation, Illumination, and Union with God. Purgation is a dark and terrible place, but also a holy one. It is a time in which the pilgrim often falls into dryness, spiritual uselessness, and darkness. Yet it is also the very place out of which great newness comes. When Elvis came to his darkest times, they were also the moments that offered the possibility of new and different life, had he somehow been able to turn away from the monstrosity of fame.
I was struck by the interesting intersection of these three books—Elvis, the secular child of the South, disconnected from all real relationship and the people who would love him by the fame and fortune that came with his talent, the addict who destroyed himself in the process of expressing the passion in his soul, and the seeker who sought, if only now and then, to cry out against the commercialization and worship that ultimately pulled him into chaos. He read books on religion, seeking to discover some deeper place in his life, and to draw the spiritual core of his early life into his music and thought.
Finally, the forces who made money from him and rode the train of fortune on his back were too great for Elvis. Even worse, Elvis’ own craving for acceptance and love from the world without was greater than the fragile quest for peace could withstand. Yet in his comebacks the “voice” that was authentically emerged again and again. A cry, “Listen. I have something to say.”
Tragic hero, addict, mystic. What burst through that boy in Sun studios when he sang, that voice and passion that connected so deeply and bridged segregated musical worlds, still reminds us—finding our own voice is a painful, intense, risky business. It is life and death, and best undertaken with spiritual roots and a few dependable guides along with us. I kept wishing that someone close to the King had been able to tell him the truth and that he had listened. We lost him too soon.
One of the most-read blog pieces on here was one I did on the Hardy family of Williams, Alabama called, “Following Jesus from Israel to Rural Alabama.” As a follow up to that, I am happy to report that last Sunday evening, the Hardy family received the keys to their new home in a dedication ceremony led by Pastor Mike Oliver.
Times of crisis can certainly reveal our failings and weaknesses. But it is also true that crisis reveals character and new possibilities. one of God’s most mysterious works is bringing communion and healing from our disasters. Such times can divide, but they can also invite new re-formulations of Christian fellowship. Ordinary divisions become an unaffordable luxury in the moment of need. We come together and leave lesser things to God.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was a man of broad spirit and reconciling heart. He sought Christian cooperation in every way possible. He once preached a sermon on 2 Kings 10:15, which says, “When [Jehu] left there, he met Jehonadab
son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. Jehu took him up with him into the chariot.”
Wesley said “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
In other words, unity of heart, spirit and love can exist even though we must have differences that will take longer to resolve. We begin with this willingness to know a fellow Christian’s heart and build upon the possibility of fellowship. It does not mean give up our convictions. But we must begin with the hardest and highest call Jesus gave to us—to love one another as He loved us. That is not what we do once we have worked out all our disagreements, our differences or
our hurts with one another. Forgiveness itself is born out of obedience to the Savior’s call to love one another.
The Day After Thunder
It was truly a day beyond words in April of this year when record tornadoes tore through Alabama. I put it on my facebook page this way:
“It is the morning after a wall of thunder ripped across our lovely state. Time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help.”
A lot of death and injury greeted us when we emerged–damaged homes, businesses gone—and we found the task of cleaning up absolutely daunting. One family in my church found themselves in a neighborhood of felled trees, including a big one right in the middle of their den. The husband put it this way to me on the phone, “We’re glad to be alive.” A lot of people echoed those thoughts. One family in my church watched the huge Tuscaloosa tornado on television live as it destroyed the store in which their son was working. Then, for 45 minutes, they waited for the phone call—his truck was totaled, but he and his co-workers all alive.
Many were not so fortunate. Well over 200 died all across the state. For months and weeks, the wounded and grieving dug out. Volunteers poured in from everywhere, as did the government and state workers and the nation’s sympathy. Not long after, Joplin was devastated by another killer tornado and Alabama moved off the front pages.
Walking, Praying and Learning Where Jesus Walked
In July of 2010, I was part of a group of 18 ministers from central Alabama. I was asked by a colleague who led the project to recruit the group. We met in an initial retreat, then went together on pilgrimage to Israel for two weeks. We were funded by a grant from the CF Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia in a program that has been functioning for many years to deepen and renew the spiritual lives of ministers in the hope of revitalizing churches in order to impact their communities.
Most of this group had never been to Israel before, and we committed by our participation to be an ongoing Christian fellowship, praying for each other and eventually working on a project for the greater good of our churches and the place where we live.
Most are pastors. A few work in church-related ministries. We were Episcopal, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, and Methodist. We were male, female, racially diverse, geographically from many different seminaries, hometowns and experiences. Most of us knew about one another but didn’t really know each other until we came together for an initial community building retreat in Atlanta for two days.
The trip to Israel was transformative. We did not merely visit tourist sites—we prayed in them, stayed in a Benedictine retreat center in Galilee for a week and another Catholic center in Jerusalem for a second week. Our days began and ended in worship. We went to the West Bank, saw the walls and checkpoints guarded by automatic weapons and suspicion.
We lived together as a community of faith for two weeks and came back as friends. We continued to meet monthly together, every other month in a four hour “pilgrimage” to each other’s place of service. The highlight of these meetings was to lead us to walk together through the buildings, hear our stories, and pray together for that person at a “holy place.”
We struggled with the project, though. What could we do? We spent a follow-up retreat agonizing through to something. It was organized, intentional, and lifeless. It had all the passion of a tooth extraction. We went home and nothing happened.
Throwing Out the Plan
In April of this year, one of our group, Mike Oliver, found his community devastated by the tornado. More than a hundred homes were utterly destroyed. The next week my church, like hundreds of others, loaded up a truck full of donated supplies and took it to them in Williams, AL where Mike’s church had organized..
The church instantly turned into a community kitchen, feeding thousands of meals to homeless people from the community, a daycare center, and a disaster relief operation. They had to bury two of their own members and get back to work.
All through the summer, people worked, cleaned up and prepared for the next phase, which only now is underway in earnest. One of the realities about disasters is that the tornado or the tsunami or the earthquake get all the publicity. Rebuilding is harder to watch over the long haul.
Meanwhile, our ministers group kept meeting, praying, wondering about what we might do. Mike had an idea. He
invited our group to come together on building a home for a family in his community. The church had already organized to do this as their calling. They have already built five homes and more are on the way.
Thought all of our congregations already had multiple projects they were involved in, we all decided that we would do this one together, somehow. We are raising money, sending volunteers, praying together, and will go on October 7, all of us who can, to work together on our house that day.
We were unanimous in wanting to do it. Each of us, our organizations, our churches, will offer what we have to give—money, volunteers, expertise. Somehow, together, we believed that God will provide through us enough to do the job. We have already done some things: our band, Shades Mountain Air, was part of a day of joy and celebration to thank the workers and lift the spirits of the community. The clowns from Childrens Hospital came and were the hit of the day.
When Mike presented the project idea, it rang a bell. I suspect it won’t be the last one we do together. There are still needs here in Birmingham, and other places. But God has a whole church in the world that only has to harness us to one another to make good things happen.
So it was that on Monday, September 19, four of our group, along with two men from my church, went together to see our project. We were met by the leader of our Israel trip from last year, Dr. Loyd Allen, and Tom Tewell, the man who
leads the foundation program that sent us, as well as Mike and number of his church folks.
After a time of lunch and fellowship together, we rode out and toured the area. It was the first time I had seen it extensively, so I found myself deeply affected by to breadth of destruction, and by how many areas still had debris and damage evident. The hardest site was one of sorrow and joy side by side. A concrete slab, clean to the ground, lay as evidence of a place where a home had been. It was the home where two of the church’s members had died, their bodies thrown across the road, deep into the tangle of trees and debris. Next door was one of the homes the church had completed and dedicated, where recently the congregation came to celebrate a new beginning with a family.
After visiting several sites where homes had been built or were underway, we came to the site that we have committed to help together. The husband and wife came out to meet us. They have been married 38 years, have eight children and there were thirteen of the extended family together that day when the tornado roared over their little patch of land and destroyed their trailer homes. I will let you listen to Mr. Hardy’s remarkable description of what happened. It’s about 2 ½ minutes.
We were joined by the chair of deacons and we all joined together and had a groundbreaking and prayer together for the home we hope to build. Tears streamed from men’s eyes as we listened to the Hardys tell us how blessed and overwhelmed by the thought that “complete strangers” would care about them and help them. I told them it was we who felt blessed to get to meet them. I was pretty sure we were talking directly to Jesus through their faces and hearts. I felt Him with us.
When I got home, I was tired, deep tired. I began the feel the emotions of all the damage I had seen, the suffering it represented, and the power of hope in a place where people have cast aside the divisions normally among them and began to help one another. They were and are becoming real “neighbors” to one another.
I woke up this morning thinking about Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem—and Williams, Alabama. I thought about all the terrible divisions in that place of killing and brokenness, where walls are being built at vast expense, to keep people apart. We saw it with our eyes, together.
We came home also with memories of the place where Jesus lived and died, the water he fished in and the village where he grew up. We prayed and prayed together, and we became friends, more than ministers usually do, I am sad to say. We live in our own siloes, running our own little place, and need God’s help to get pulled out of them.
So out of nowhere, on April 27, the walls blew down and we stood there, afraid, vulnerable, dazed. We needed each other. Then gradually it has been dawning on us that these walls started blowing down a long time ago—in ancient Israel through a rabbi who told the Truth, indeed was Truth in human form. And somehow, in a journey a group of pastors who didn’t know each other took, mainly because somebody paid for most of it and gave them a gift. We went thinking, “This will really be nice. It will inspire me and give me some sermons.”
Well, we weren’t prepared for what it actually did. It knocked the walls over. We began to truly care about each other and our churches and our ministries. God connected us all through the land of Israel and that ancient story. So on the “day after thunder,” we discovered that we didn’t go to Israel just to get away from our churches or enjoy a time of respite. It was to lead us to rural Williams, Alabama, and to the Hardys, and to Pratt City and Birmingham, and down deeper into our own congregations and people, to see that this is indeed the best and most holy work of all, realizing the meaning of the words of the Lord Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We went to Israel to find what Jesus always wanted us to find—one another.
Pilgrim’s Progress is one of my favorite spiritual writings to come from the Baptist and Puritan stream. The longer title of the original The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come written by John Bunyan first appeared in 1678. It was written by Bunyan while locked in jail for violating the Conventicle Act, in which the state forbid anyone but officially licensed Anglican priests from holding religious services.
I have been to that jail where Bunyan was, been to his grave in London, and visited the town where he lived as an early Baptist. It is a holy place for me. Pilgrim’s Progress is about an arduous, and highly symbolic, journey of a man called Christian who sets out from the security of his homeplace, the City of Destruction, to find the Celestial city to come. He heads out carrying a huge burden on his back, his sin, and is discouraged by others at every turn, but he perseveres.
It’s incredibly hokey in one sense, an allegory that never lets you forget its allegorical-ness. Along the way, the characters have allegory names: Faithful, Talkative, Mr. By-ends, Hopeful, the Giant Despair, Temporary, Grim and Too-bold. They represent sins, human failings and strengths in people.
And yet, the perceptiveness of the human soul, the psychological insights into inner struggle that Bunyan shows in it are powerful. It is still a resource I turn to now and then. I have felt so many of the struggles he identifies.
But something never felt quite right about calling my blog, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” First, it could be construed as a bit pretentious, as though I did what preachers always do in their sermons, make themselves the main character. I mean, am I really so sure that I am Christian, headed for the heavenly city against all odds? Why wouldn’t I just as well be Mr. Ready-to-Halt, or Heedless, or even Mr. Fearing? It’s like calling yourself, “The Deserving.” Humblebragging, as I wrote in an earlier piece.
So, since I am a musician, consider that to be a central piece of “me” and think of my art as inseparable from me, I chose a qualifier and the moment I settled on it, it felt right. “Flatpicker.” That may not be a term you have heard if you’re not a guitar player. Flatpicking is a style, one of the two major ways players perform melodies on guitars, the other being “fingerstyle” or fingerpicking. Most classical players are the latter.
Flatpickers have to do what finger players do with three or four alternating fingers with a guitar pick alternating back and forth at high speed. When you first start to learn it, it is hard as all get out. And there are different ways of doing it: Alternate picking, Crosspicking, Downpicking, Economy picking, Hybrid picking, Lead guitar, Sweep-picking and Tremolo picking. There are other styles—strumming and fingerstyle, with little worlds of their own.
Flatpicking guitar is a world rooted in the proud chemistry of post-puberty male testosterone. It’s often about speed, being the fastest, not far removed from NASCAR and football.
Flatpickers have their own magazine, their own heroes and a whole web of camps, festivals and venues. But the granddaddy of them all is the one in Kansas. It’s called the Walnut Valley Festival, but it’s known to Flatpickers as “Winfield”, as in, “He won Winfield.” My teacher, Glenn Tolbert, competed and made it pretty far, and he is FAST.
Three different summers I went to a camp in Maryville, Tennessee, devoted to teaching instruments to disciples, but the centerpiece is guitar flatpicking. The Founder of the camp, Steve Kaufman, a native of Maryville, and his renown is being “the only three-time champion of Winfield.” He is a legend among guitar players.
Other instruments compete, of course. A friend at camp told me of jamming with a 16 year old girl years ago who went on to win the fiddle competition. Her name was Krauss, I think, Allison I believe it was. Pretty good fiddler, he told me.
So the acoustic world is a serious little world. Humbling, because the only way you get better is endless repetitions, learning from others who are better than you, and yet still having to find your own pecuiliar style and physical adjustment.
Some people like Tommy Emmanuel, are so good at flatpicking that I imagine pride would be a great struggle. More of us, though, have to aspire to confident playing. You learn how to play with others and not play over them, how to bring out the song, do solos without always needing to attract so much attention to yourself.
Flatpicking sometimes requires that you go backwards for a while before you progress. You learn a lot by imitation, hanging out with experts, and often, being willing to crash in front of people and laugh about it.
One of the oddest phenomena I have experienced in this journey has been learning to disengage from the conscious mind. I know that sounds impossible to non-players, and I imagine it is not exactly that. Maybe it’s only “shifting to the right brain” or submerging to a more primitive kind of memory, but the way I can describe it is practicing and playing for so long that you can do it without looking at your fingers, thinking about the chords, and letting your muscles do what they know to do without much thinking about it.
It is a kind of “self-forgetting” that makes for joy in playing. It lets you look at the other singers and players in a band and smile, read what they are doing, listen to their hints, and play off their cues. It makes the song a mysterious and joyous journey in communion.
So, flatpicking seems like a perfect modifier to me for my blog, my life, and my religious journey, too. A friend of mine sent me a great quote one day: “I am still learning—Michaelangelo.” Me, too. Forget about what everybody thinks. Focus on the craft, learn the tunes, feel the rhythm, soar out on your own in a jam, learn from your mistakes, don’t do what you can’t do, and stay within the song. Follow the rules of jamming. Respect the other players. Hang in there.
So I offer you a little instrumental I created, a little flatpicking piece. It’s just me with a guitar, playing something I came up with just doodling around one day. I call it, “Possibilitating.” Enjoy, and welcome to my retitled blog. Feels more like me.