Tuesday, August 02, 2022

For Autura - "Fearless Leader"

I've thought a lot about what I may say in reflection on Autura. I've done some work to acknowledge the feelings I have about her death...her murder. 
I’ve got some. And some are intense. 
In my 58 years, and I believe I'm right about this, Autura is the first person I've known, 
worked with, 
been hugged and kissed by, 
hugged and kissed back,
prayed with and for
travelled with, ........ 
who is a victim of homicide. 

Given how many people die by homicide all around me, maybe it's a wonder it hasn't happened sooner. But that reality has contributed to the shock. 
And the anger. 

Well, it's anger now. It was rage. Baby steps. 

I don't need to speak to all that Autura was to the community, to the church. That's been done and will continue to be. I just want to register a couple of things about my relationship with her. 

I first encountered Autura as she was coming through the Board of Ordained Ministry. In those days, I led the theology group. At that time, to me she was a name on a file, one of several whose work I was charged to evaluate with my team for the purposes of examining her on the path to ordination. 

She nailed it. Sound. Complete. 

The star of the class that year. Which is not to say there weren't other very impressive and equally equipped candidates in front of us, but she demonstrated a charisma that was natural to her. 

Charisma. Χάρις. Grace. Yeah, we'll come back to that.  

She was very impressive and demonstrated a readiness to be deployed into the ministry field. I offered her words of affirmation and confirmation. 

“Well coming from you that really means something," she said. 
“Coming from me? What does that mean?” I asked. 
“It means you have a reputation, but that's ok, I see you." 

Now there's a lot to unpack here, and I'll not go into all of it. I've been told I did (do?) have a reputation. I never understood it. But apparently, I was known as a hard ass bordering on perpetually angry if not mean. Unapproachable. There were a couple of souls possessing the gift of being "Johnny whisperers" who could interpret me to the world, and I'm grateful for that. 

I've often said in most recent years that I'm aware of being talked about more than talked to. Looks like that's long been the case. 

With Autura, there was this fearlessness. "I see you." Ask anybody who lives like they haven't been. 

Being seen is a means of grace. 

I suspect that was her gift, and that I was one of many often felt unseen that she just could. 

Not long after being brought into full connection, she was put on the Board of Ordained Ministry, and in 2012, we were elected to be Chair and Vice-Chair. Being the Chair of that body is probably the most significant contribution I was able to make the connection beyond being pastor in a local church. 

We kind of trained each other. Lots of meetings. 

We had to do more than a few hard things. Almost immediately after being in our new roles, I was aware that whenever I called, or she'd call me, or we'd text, she had christened me with a new name-- "Fearless Leader." Not sure where that came from, because some of what we had to do was fear inducing, even though it was absolutely the right thing. I wondered if she was a fan of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon whose main antagonist carried that name. 

Over time, I came to understand a different meaning to what she called me. It's not that she thought I was a fearless leader. She was encouraging me to lead fearlessly. My last couple of years in that work were not my best. Life was falling apart. I was being crushed by much. We never talked about it, but she had to see it.  Her support never wavered, neither did her charge to lead fearlessly. 

Autura became chair after I stood down. She'd call on occasion for clarity and direction. I began to hear that she was discerning a run for the episcopacy. A year after retiring she called and we went for coffee. She wanted to know what I thought, and what I had experienced going through a campaign with Sky. I was moved that she wanted my input. Given the way I left, she could still see me. 

Her death defines tragedy. 

It is a trauma of unimaginable proportions, the impact of which will ripple for a lifetime. 
For her family and friends. 
For the Church. 
For the perpetrators of the crime and their families. 

If only those who killed her understood what it meant to be seen before they shot her. 

My challenge is to try to see them as I know she would have if given the chance. I'm not there yet. I'm not sure if I'll ever be. 

But that's the point, isn't it? 

If Χάρις doesn't apply now, when will it ever? 

In my inner thoughts I hear her laugh….that laugh, uniquely hers, right? And I hear her still challenging me to be what she always was— Fearless Leader. 

Rest easy, sister. 
Well done.

Sunday, April 17, 2022


Sometimes it’s hard to hold that two seemingly contradictory things simultaneously can be true.  

But it’s a thing. If it wasn’t, would there even be a “mind blown” emoji for it?  🤯. So there you go. 

I’m sitting in that space this morning. It’s April 17, you know what that means. Well, maybe you don’t, but I do, my family does. Life is marked by the impacts of trauma on it. Jimmy died 18 years ago.  I don’t need to recall what happened, or what we went through in the seasons following it. My body, my very being knows the score.  Turns out, the trauma of losing him wasn’t the first, and certainly hasn’t been the last that have left lasting craters in me.  

I’m sure it won’t be the last. 

Life is full of surprises.  Some are wonderful. And others are the opposite of wonderful.  Two things…

Each crater has a story.   Learning that story, telling that story, not having that story be the sum of what defines you but rather the work of resilience through it, that’s the thing. 

How’s that happen?  Well the first and most important thing is to be willing to acknowledge that work doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and you can’t do it alone. You need somebody to hold space for you as the inner battle is joined to no longer let the trauma define you to make room for the story of how you endured it. 

Please understand…I’m a continuing work in progress on these things.  The pace of progress can be maddeningly slow. But it’s worth it. I bear witness. 

Two things… right. It’s April 17. And this year it’s Easter.  Resurrection. Oh, and I’m about to leave to drive to Mayfield, where I was a boy, where I was first told I’d be a preacher at the age of 8, and share a word of resurrection to the community of faith that confirmed me, a community of faith working to not let the trauma of a tornado define who they’ll be. And I haven’t preached in 2 years. Haven’t wanted to, and believed the church surely didn’t want to hear from me. 

In so many ways today is 🤯.   But today isn’t about what I think, what I believe or even what I can prove.  If you can prove resurrection then faith isn’t necessary. 


Maybe the things that are seemingly simultaneously contradictory aren’t at all.  On this side of Grace another emoji defines the day:


Friday, July 30, 2021


May 12 was my last text exchange with Kyle.  

K - "Hey bud!  You crossed my mind.  Checkin on ya.  Don't take the new bridge!"
J -  "To take the new bridge would mean I'd have to want to go to Arkansas. 😜! "
That's what we did.  Little doses of snark we'd throw at each other in loving fun.  It's the kind of repartee you have with someone you've work alongside, fought together, fought with, yelled at, hugged, always respected, understood, loved. 

To him, I was "Boss."
To me, he was a force.  
He was also a pain in my ass.
He was and remains the most gifted person I've ever worked with who was able to pull from people more than they ever thought they could give.

He was a brother I chose.  We each had family of origin brothers near the age of the other.  

News of his death has me revisiting once again that feeling of disbelief.  My chest is constricted because to open up and take the deepest of cleansing breaths seems impossible.  In this moment, I don't want to.

I emailed the pastor of First UMC, Little Rock, yesterday to confer and share my sympathies.  Twice I was Kyle's reference for that job.  The first time, in 2009, they went with someone who had a degree he didn't.  Several years later, when the job was open again, I told him they should have listened to me the first time.  That was his dream gig.  He got it.  In my exchange with David, I reflected that he and I had something in common, we were among a very small club of people who understood the bandwidth necessary to work with him.    In David's response to me he laughed and wrote "...you really did work with him!"

In the last day I've reflected on my time with Kyle doing the work we did together.  In my 33 years of appointed ministry, my season with him, together with Lora Jean, with all of us at St. John's, was the most fruitful and dynamic time of any I served.  And God bless LJ for the staff meetings she had to referee when Kyle and I had a "creative differences" discussion.  You can't believe the number of times I "fired" him!

On the occasions when Scott came across the street to grace us with his presence long enough to tell us what we were doing wrong, and before he'd take his leave, I'd see Kyle and LJ huddled together waiting with baited breath to see if punches were about to be thrown.

They never were.  
Probably should have been.  
I know people would have bailed me out of jail.

But even at that I credit Scott for working creatively with me to find a way to keep Kyle with us.  That most fruitful season almost didn't happen at all, and had we not been able to collaborate with CHC, it wouldn't have.

In those days the choir Kyle had built was among the best in the Conference.  Full stop.
There was a dynamic energy "on the corner" of Peabody and Bellevue.  Kyle hated "From the Corner" as the name of our newsletter.  He thought it sounded like we were hookers soliciting a date.


Kyle's list of accomplishments at St. J. are many and all are worthy of celebration and reflection.

For a season, we were in the fullest sense...fabulous.

Using the columns of the sanctuary as Advent candles...
The huge red Pentecost thing that hung down from the ceiling....
Butterflies coming from every light in the ceiling...
Broadway shows in the fellowship hall...
Magnificent seasonal music...
Recording CDs...
Carnegie Hall...

Freakin Fabulous all.

The highlight for me was the year our choir had a concert at annual conference when it was held at Christ UMC.  It was a moment ripe with meaning.  Long sequestered to its Midtown island (and some of that we self imposed), St. J. was once again in the middle of the room, at the beginning of making a renewed witness about who we are and why we are.  And to stand there in that sanctuary as a choir made up of people whom that congregation would not accept and some of whom had been turned away from that very church and its clergy and sing, sing, sing.  It was a justice moment I've never forgotten.

He wasn't perfect.  He could manipulate with the best of 'em.  And there was a cumulative toll exacted on the folks he worked with and the people who sang for him.  He left St. John's later than he should have.  In fact, before I moved in 2009, I was representing him to move to Little Rock where he would ultimately end up.  I always hoped for him that he learned how to treat people better sometimes...that he grew up.

He and I understood the power of music in that sanctuary.  In those days the room was far more alive acoustically.  Before The Way, the room was tuned for spoken and choral music.  As evangelism was part of Kyle's job for us, we struggled to get connected to visitors who often came through the front door and got out before anyone could say anything to them.

The choir had grown to the point that we had this great idea, at the end of the closing hymn, the choir would recess from the loft and surround the nave for the benediction.  The choir most often sang Lutkin's "The Lord Bless You and Keep You” a capella. I'd give the spoken benediction, the choir would sing from the nave, and and oh how it reverberated in that space. At the Amen we'd have people positioned to welcome a wayward visitor and make sure they knew that we knew they were there. It made an impact. 

A cynical person might call that a Liturgical Dragnet.
I'll accept that.

And...it was so effective and exemplified a spirit in the room.  Over time, the whole congregation would share in the singing.  It was the most uplifting, spiritual "going forth" that I've encountered.

Years later when I came back to St. J., I tried to recapture the spirit of that time albeit with new people in leadership roles.  We never did, and in retrospect it was unfair to expect that we could.   

I'm going to miss the occasional "ding" on my phone with a "Hey Boss, checking in, I miss seeing your face."

I loved Kyle  
And I know he loved me.

Among my greatest fears for him and all that he endured during his last months was that he knew how much he was loved.  I pray he did.  I pray he died knowing love.  

And if he didn't, I know he does now.

And as for the choirs of angels?  Look out. It’s about to get fabulous up in there!


Saturday, April 17, 2021


Holding and honoring the passage of time for something over which you had no control or say is about the only way one can claim some level of agency. And yet, a year on into a global pandemic one is quickly reminded that the passage of time is not really a linear exercise at all. It’s more like a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode featuring Q (that’s Q as in John DeLancie’s character, not the secret source of Gospel material, and certainly not the ridiculously dangerous conspiratorial bullshit invading the body politic of the day). 

To that end, I dreamt about Jimmy last night.  Back when we were kids in Mayfield, on Heritage Drive. Where the hell did that come from?  It’s almost as if after 17 years I’m given the keenest reminders that he’s never not around. Somehow, somewhere. 

I miss deeply what we don’t have - time with him now as our lives have moved, shifted, changed. Through those transitions one thing would be constant - the force of his presence and all that entails. 

Jimmy’s been gone half as long as he lived.  That seems impossible and yet there it is. 

So if you knew him, take a minute and remember Jimmy. As you do, look for him in your day. He’s around. 

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.