Sunday, August 16, 2020

Remembering Steve

I’ve been thinking a good bit about Steve Montgomery in recent days. I’ve thought about his ministry, and how his life intersected mine.  I’ve wondered about Idlewild and what it means for a flock to lose a spiritual leader, even one who had retired.  I’m familiar with a loss like that, and while the context for my understanding is markedly different, the emptiness of loss never asks how it happened in order for it to be felt. Like a weighted blanket draped on the soul, it labors the capacity to breathe in the Spirit. 

Long ago and oh so far away, I was introduced to Steve by Scott Morris.  As is often the case, Scott had an idea, and this one was to bring together an ecumenical, interfaith cohort of progressively hearted clergy from the city for mutual support, the joining of voices as issues arose in the city, and for fellowship. For me, it was a profound gift to be in the room with these folks, and I’ll always thank Scott for the opportunity to be part of that. 

Steve was one of the guys I met straight away, and I was taken instantly by his curiosity, his laugh, the prescience of his theological insight, and his genuine sense of presence when he engaged in conversation. 

He also had a lengthy friendship and history with Scott, which for me held hope that I might I gain some insight into the enigma that was my then Associate Minister.  The enlightenment I gained was simply this - each held deep affection for the other. 

Our group met monthly for several years. We ate in each other’s homes. We went to Israel together.  We made a statement and facilitated a city-wide service in the wake of the Lester Street killings.  We voiced support for public education in the city as surrounding municipalities were standing up their own school districts. 

After I returned to St. John’s in 2014, I didn’t see Steve very often, a few times here and there.  The group had long since faded and reconstituted in other ways with other characters.  I knew of Steve’s retirement and was so glad he had achieved that moment of clarity to do so when he did. 

A couple of weeks before we shut down from COVID, I was surprised to see Steve come in the front door of St. John’s. He looked great. I was so glad to see him.  As announcements were being shared from the chancel, we stood in the narthex catching up. He said that in retirement, he enjoyed attending churches all over the city. “You’re my Methodist stop, Johnny.”

I shared with him the news that I was retiring from pastoral ministry and would welcome the chance to learn from him how it's done.  We hugged (back when we did such things) as he was making his way to a pew. At that moment, it hit me, “Oh shit, I better be good today!” 

I don’t know if I was any good, but I saw him taking notes.  Steve Montgomery was taking notes on my sermon.  Wow!  After the service I saw him in the “enjoyed it, preacher” line. He smiled, pointed at his bulletin on which I saw his handwritten notes, and said, “Thank you, Johnny. A challenging word.  Let’s talk before long about retirement.”

“I’d love to.”  I said. 

That was the last time I saw him or talked with him. 

Whether or not I was at my best that day, Steve surely made me feel as if my work mattered, that it was a valuable contribution.  That’s what Steve did. That’s who he was. Always learning, always curious. He made us want to be more than we’ve been, more fully what our faith can bring out of us. 

Memphis lost a powerful voice at a time when it’s most needed.  So we step in. We stand up. We carry that prophetic imagination on. 

And I’m the better for having known him—a better witness to the faith, a better listener, a better person. 

Peace, my friend. 

Friday, July 03, 2020

Living Into the Retired Relationship

So it's Day 3 of my retired relationship as a member of The Memphis Conference.  Some things I've discovered along the way  - as it happens, vocational changes during a global pandemic presents as an insurmountable challenge.  Over time, however, I've come to see it as an opportunity to remain engaged in the world to offer care as I can.  How that all gets worked out is still unfolding.  

I've spent some time looking back over the last year and the journey leading to this step.  I know some of my colleagues don't understand.  Some have conveyed disappointment in me, that somehow I've abandoned post.  Others just want me to be ok, and I feel that.  While not the reason I made this change, I do take some comfort in being in the final retirement class of The Memphis Annual Conference.  The Memphis Conference is the place from which I am hewn.  I come from this ground.  I am shaped and formed by the soul that lives between the waters of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee Rivers and of the Kentucky Lake. While I have some life in the Tennessee Conference as a child and as a student pastor, I'm not indigenous to the culture that resides there.  

I affirm the move toward making the Nashville Episcopal Area one annual conference.  I'd like to think my work at the conference level between 2012-2018 helped pave the way.  Although the new conference name?  I don't know.  Not that I have a better one, but for some of us of a particular fandom, TWK will never mean the Tennessee Western Kentucky Conference.  It'll always mean, "The Wrath of Khaaaaaaannnnnn!"

I have some time and energy now to reengage this medium and to expand upon it.  I'll be doing that both through the written word and through the creation of a podcast that will carry the moniker of this blog.  Just because I no longer have a pulpit doesn't mean I haven't things to say.

For now, I'm revisiting what led me to retire from active parish ministry.  And I'm sharing it as an example of one who's work toward recovery and wholeness pushed me to consider me.  As one who identifies as codependent, historically such a notion is as difficult as, say, maybe finding a job during a pandemic!

Sharing my process will not be linear.  But one must start somewhere.  The following is part of the congregational letter I shared to announce my intentions to retire.  This seems a fitting beginning.


January 14, 2020

To the “People Called Methodists” at St. John’s,

Grace to you and peace.  I’m so thankful for who you are as people of faith.  I’m grateful for your unrelenting witness for the inclusion of all God’s children in the Church, for your lived-out hospitality in welcoming all who come to you, and for your thirst for God’s justice in the world expressed in servant ministry.  I’m stirred and shaped by the care shown those seeking to live in recovery.  We all have a “God-sized hole” in our hearts.  I’m ever more aware of mine.

I’m honored and amazed to know that our lives have been intertwined since 2001.

I write to you today in gratitude and with a surprising peace as I share news about me and my future.  In short, I am in my final months with you as your lead pastor.  Upon the submission of a letter to the Bishop, I am requesting the retired relationship with the Memphis Annual Conference.

I’ve worked in the Church since 1983. I’ve served under appointment since 1987.  On July 1, 2020, I will have accrued 31 years of service for pension purposes.

The decision to retire has its beginnings last summer in the New Mexico desert when I was asked if I’d ever thought about doing anything else in my vocational life.  The truthful answer was no. It was not that I didn’t want to, I’d just never permitted myself to consider a life beyond the system and structure to which I’ve am bound.  So, I gave myself permission, and it has been at the heart of my discernment since.  I’ve consulted with trusted mentors, and I’ve listened to their counsel.  The root wisdom I’ve received was to do that, which gave my heart joy.

Since my reappointment to you in 2019, I’ve known this would be my final year at St. John’s. That, together with the question of what I would do next, led me to a decision that’s at the heart of how my vocation is practiced.  That is, I no longer desire to be bound by the itineracy. My entire life has been subject to the itineracy and the submission of my future each year to the discernment of my bishop and cabinet.  I grew up in a parsonage.  I took on that mantle myself.

The itineracy is a fundamental principle for United Methodist elders.  I affirm that.  And I’ve lived it or have been impacted by it for 55 years.  I seek to be free of it for the last chapters of my active work life.  There are other ways to engage the world, to try to make a difference.  If it’s true that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” then for this season of my life, I’ve come to clarity that this is the most needful thing for me.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Stop. Look. Listen. Learn. Understand


Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
    lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
    she refuses to be comforted for her children,
    because they are no more. Jeremiah 31.15


Since George Floyd was murdered, days of protest have accrued into weeks.   There is a cumulative anguishing cry of a people demanding that something be different.  As Sam Cooke sang "A Change Is Gonna Come."  It has to.  It must.

There are efforts by some to categorize and demonize those protesting in the streets.  That is done only for one purpose, to further marginalize their voices so as to perpetuate the status quo.  There's a different energy in the air these days.   Unprecedented events in unprecedented times call for unprecedented outcomes.

The number of people who look like me now able to proclaim that Black Lives Matter indicates the beginnings of a change of some import.  It's a change whose time has come, but a change that wouldn't have were it not for video cameras on mobile devices.  

There's something about observing someone with his knee on someone's neck that does a thing.  That's especially so when the one doing it has his hands in his pockets as life is pinched off.  

So yeah, there's the beginning of a change.  To be sure, it's not the whole of a paradigm shift, but it is the beginning.

Of this be clear, the principalities and powers that have built a system of racism and bias will not go quietly into that good night.  Persistence is key.   Simon Sinek's quote has resonance:
"Fight against something and we focus on the thing we hate. Fight for something and we focus on the thing we love."
For folks like me, white folks, what is our place?  What's our role?  What do we do?  How do we engage in something we may not fully understand.  What are we willing to fight for?

Quite simply, before engaging in the fight for change, we white folks need some training.  We need a whole lot of understanding.   We are in no position to determine what needs to happen. 

Those whose lives are at risk are our teachers.  Are you willing to learn?  To understand?  Are you willing to be confronted with things that will make you uncomfortable?  Can you resist the temptation to be defensive?

This learning is not merely an intellectual exercise.  It was in the academy that I first learned from James Cone's writings that white folks are in no position to drive the train.  So let's not try.

Let's Stop. Look.  Listen.  Learn.  Understand.

You may have seen this video.  I commend it as a point of beginning for white folks.  It's Emmanuel Acho's "Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man."  It's real.  It's honest.  It addresses questions that you may have asked.  You may not like the answers to the questions, but we can no longer fain ignorance.  It's powerful.  


Follow this guy.  Ask your questions.  

For all the names we are asked to remember, to remember not to forget,  let's learn and come to understand that what we're fighting for is something/someone we love.  Let us refuse to be comforted with what's happening in the world as well as what's happening inside each of us as we allow ourselves to be confronted.




Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Say Their Names


It’s one of the signs carried in protest.
It’s one of the chants rising from the righteously indignant voices screaming to be heard.

“Say His Name.”

George.

The exposure of power imbalances right there in our faces is jarring. Systemic racism, pernicious and insidious, is a daily reality.  It’s only when something is recorded that we can’t not see it.   For every discomforting video of an unarmed person of color being killed, can you imagine the number of lives whose last moments are memorialized only in the fleeting breath of the dying?

“Say Their Names.”

Breonna. Eric. Michael. Alteria. Antwon.

What do we do with this?  What is the Church’s response?  That question is one we always seem to raise in the face of what’s happening in the world.  But I’m beginning to wonder if the more pressing question is this – What do you want to do?

“Say Their Names.”

Walter.  Alonzo.  Keith.  Philando.

What do you want to do?  Do you want to ignore it?  Act like it’s no big deal?  Does what you know of the Kingdom of Heaven as described by Jesus align with what we’re seeing happen now?  Do Black Lives Matter?

“Say Their Names.”

Tyree.  Miguel.  Willie.

St. John’s has talked about all this before.  We’ve had guest speakers and powerful sessions.  We’ve talked about how badly we want things to change.   And here we are again watching the world burn and wondering what does the Church do?  What does my church do?  What do I do?

Let me suggest the first, most pressing opportunity is to be clear about being an ally for those crying in the streets.  Stand with. March alongside.  But mostly, listen.  And learn.  Here are resources just for folks, and mostly white folks, who want to learn what it is to be an ally.  To learn why the injustice is real as is white privilege.  Go there.  Read.  Be willing to be led by those seeking change so that we no longer need to be reminded to say their names.

La’Vantee.  Keith.  Janet. Ahmaud.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Friday, April 17, 2020

16

Remembering today in light of what the world’s enduring isn’t hard, but there is a sense of preoccupation with the unknowns residing in the unprecedented.

And yet, the calendar always finds us in moments of reflection for those we remember.  

So today I remember Jimmy, not so much for who he was (which is the stuff of legend and tall tales, some of which are kinda true), but for the man I could have discovered as integral in my life during the last few years, which have been replete with transitions, failures, self-discovery, trauma, and loss.  

Most of my adult life with Jimmy, the question I lived with was what kind of brother I was or wasn’t to him.  

I’ve lived in the regret of the failure to hold that in the sanctity it deserves. 

And yet at some level, I always felt we understood each other, and that one day we’d come to embrace the gift that brotherhood is.  

Part of my work of rediscovery and recovery is to come to peace about what wasn’t and what can never be. Let me tell you, it’s hard f’n work.  And it’s work worth doing.  

He’d be 50 this year.  Since I’m more than halfway to 60, my zeal to rub that in is tempered. 

I find myself wondering not what kind of brother I would be to him right now. Instead, I wonder what kind of brother he’d be for me as I walk into the chasm of the unknown.  

And I think I know.  I know I do.  

We shared this trait, sometimes to our detriment...to stand with, to stand in front of if need be (nothing’s going to get you today, not on my watch). 
That’s what he’d do. Without thinking, almost instinctively, he’d stand a post to overwatch me. It was his way, it’s mine, too. 

“I got you.”

To have my little brother be my big brother these days would have been fine by me. 

For a while, at least.  


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

15

How is it possible it’s been 15 years?

This year there’s a particular sense of the unresolved, the resurfacing of stuff buried, and it’s haunting me. 

Something about suddenly losing a brother I chose has done something to me as I recall my own brother and the suddenness of losing him. 

When a current trauma triggers feelings of an older one, the shock to the system is compounded. 

So I’m pensive. I feel sadness, anger, and confusion like I did 15 years ago. 

How the hell did this happen?
What happened?
Why?

What could I have done differently?  
What should I have said?

I couldn’t speak at Jimmy’s service.
Didn’t want to. I was too angry to pray. 

I didn’t have that luxury for John’s. I was front and center for the whole thing. 

Put your head down and grind it out. 

 “You’re so strong, Johnny. I’m amazed at how much you just take on yourself and keep going.”

Yeah, let me tell you. At one time I thought of that as a virtue, maybe even one of my superpowers. But there’s a backside to every blessing. It doesn’t matter how much any of us can take, there comes a time when one more thing is one thing too many, and what you could once carry crushes you. 

I’m crushed. Probably crazy. Definitely not awesome. 

As I live in present grief, that which is residual and unresolved reminds me that it never left. 

It weighs heavily on my shoulders. 

I can’t take off the old cloak so that I can wear the new one. 

I wear them both these days. 


Thursday, March 21, 2019

Eulogy for The Brother I Chose

Several people have asked for my words at John’s memorial service. I didn’t have a manuscript but some thoughts scribbled down. I’m thankful for the gift of a transcript. I’ve deleted the impromptu comments I made and augmented some thoughts with what I meant to say but left on the page. 

Rest easy, brother. 


Hi.  My name is Johnny and I love John.

Colleague, friend, brother I chose. 

I’ve lived in that reality in the last days and it occurs to me that a lot of you chose John, too. So, the family is gathered this morning to talk about a homegoing. 

And yet in the eternal promises that we know and hold so dear there is that sense of what happened?  How are we even here today?  

Part of a reading from John O’Donohue “For Grief” hit me this week, and I keep living with these words: 

When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you becomes fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.

We all have John stories.  
We all know what a John hug feels like. 
We all know what it’s like to hear those words of greeting, that for me were either in person, sometimes on the phone, but more often a text after I’ve tried to reach him on the phone.

Hey buddy.  
Hey pal.  
Hey bro.  

Those were the names we shared with one another.  I’m not sure I can remember when we ever called each other by our given names.  But there was always that feeling that there was a whole lot more that I was trying to share with him than he was willing to share in return. That his interest in my life while genuine was a way to keep him from fully sharing his with me. 

And at times that’s frustrating, that’s maddening.  And given where we are this morning, I’m mad as hell about that.  

This one, this brother I chose, who stood tall.  For the life of me I could never understand why a man who stood that tall would choose to wear a tall hat.  I mean, the Stetson company must be really sad about the market share they’re losing from John alone. 
 
But here’s where I am this morning:   I say this because I’m trying to convince myself that it’s true for me: “We are not a glum lot.  No, we are not.”

John’s life, John’s ministry, life in ministry, while it belonged to the whole of the city, it emerged from this room. There’s no other place we could do this service today right except here. 

This is the place where he welcomed people. This is the place where he asked if it was your first time and people would raise their hands and he’d say, “you’re already part of the family.” 

This is the place where he would say, “if you didn’t get fed, it’s your own fault because Mama Way had plenty of food.” This is the place that became sanctuary for those who in the vulnerable places of recovery aren’t sure what’s safe anymore, but this was safe.  And this is going to continue to be safe space.  

So, Friday night, 6:00.  Right here.  We’re going to welcome people, we’re going to feed their bodies, and we’re going to give a message that feeds their souls. And we’re going to talk about the steps we’re taking to lead us into a sober life, and we’re going to sing, and play music and we’re going to hear the words that matter more than ever before: that “We’re gonna love ya and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.”

A week ago yesterday, I accompanied John on a plane to Minneapolis, hoping and believing that the light hasn’t been extinguished, it was just dimmed a bit. 

I told him over and over “There was no shame in relapse.  It’s okay, we’re back to step one, we’re all powerless man, it’s okay.”  He was consumed with overwhelming shame.  He asked me “Are you gonna fire me as your recovery minister?”

“Are you kidding?  No!”
  
Here’s what I’m learning.  You never know the pain someone seated next to you is carrying.  But you best assume that it’s something.  And if we suspect that the ones next to us are hurting, even as we’re trying to figure out how to live with our own pain, maybe we ought to start treating each other a little kinder.  Maybe we ought to start demonstrating love a little more freely.  

Among the last things I said to John was to remind him of what he said countless times to those just starting to find their way in recovery. It’s theological tenet we built The Way on, and it applied to him, too, he just wasn’t able to receive it. 

Sometimes those of us who lead...it’s not that we don’t believe what we’ve preached anymore, but it’s that when we’ve forgotten to keep doing the work of recovery, our spirits can be blinded to the truth.  And the truth I so desperately wanted John to know was that even in relapse, especially in relapse that you were going to love John and there is nothing he can do about it.  

So this morning, in the face of deep pain, but with conviction and assurance and of all I am and all I believe, within the heavenly hosts this day, there is a distinctly Memphis groove going on. And the One to whom he vowed his life, for whom he lived in ministry, is going to figure out how to hug him.  And he’s going to say “John, I love you and there is nothing, nothing, nothing,  there is NOTHING you can do about it.  

The apostle Paul said- 

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything [ANYTHING] else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

My name is Johnny, I love John.  

I’m a brother to him, a brother I chose.  And I’m looking at all my siblings in the room and we’ve got to carry on.  Together.  

Thanks be to God.