Monday, April 17, 2023


April 17. 

I always think about Jimmy on this day. But this year, there’s a more profound sense of miss.  

I wish he were here to help with Dad.  

I miss his physical presence because right now it is the thing most needed. We’re all determined to tend to Dad‘s daily needs as we seek to honor his request to stay at home with hospice until the end. We’re also decided to relieve Mom of some of the exhausting constancy of care. 

Between my brother-in-law, nephew, and me, there’s someone with him 24hrs/a day. More than the necessary physicality and the utility of handling the daily needs of someone who can no longer do those things unassisted,  I’m finding the 3 of us drawn closer to one another as we do this work. There’s a bonding that occurs for those who stand watch. 

The thought of Jimmy participating in the sacred work of caring for our dad and mom would lighten the load for sure.  It might also have been a thing, maybe the thing that would have drawn us closer.  Here’s to the never-ending regret of relational work delayed for which time ran out.  

So I feel the absence of his presence in a pretty profound way this year.   When Dad talks about what it will be like on the other side, the first thing he always says is that he’s going to find Jimmy and get one of his big bear hugs.  

Yeah, I could use one of those right now too. And God knows I’d do about anything to give him one. 

Love you, brother, and miss you. 

Sunday, December 25, 2022

A Christmas Homily With No Place to Go

If a retired preacher with no congregation writes a Christmas homily and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?   Let’s see:

“Since Christmas is on Sunday this year, are we still having Church?” earnestly asked my beloved lay leader whose absence I feel even to this day. 

“Ahem, Barb?  Really?”

It was seemingly a lifetime ago. I still giggle at that moment as we both did there and then. 

It’s not an entirely unreasonable question. I mean we were just at Church the night before, birthing that baby, sealing it with Eucharist and topping it off with a candlelit “Silent Night.”

We did it already, didn’t we?

What do we do now?  Oh, right, here come the carols of Christmas that we’ve been singing since Black Friday, even though the obstinate preacher said we can’t sing them in church until now. Fortunately, a well negotiated agreement was reached avoiding a full blown walk out allowing us to move from Advent hymns (like what the hell are those and why do they matter?) to some carols starting on the Sunday we light the pink (sorry, I’m told it’s rose) candle.  The preacher spoke Latin, “Gaudete” I think it was, so some “joy-full” carols were allowed. 

You know how it is when the preacher breaks out the little bit of Latin, Greek or Hebrew they know. Whatever it takes to be able to sing “Joy to the World” in mid-December. 

Of all the things Christmas is, it feels awkward to think of it as inconvenient, and yet…

Christmas has always flirted with being inconvenient. 

It’s as if the realization occurred to somebody in the latter decades of the 1st century of the Common Era, as the movement centered on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth took hold and grew, and his imminent return was not so…imminent, that this powerful witness had no backstory. 

Welp, we better get one. 

It surely wasn’t a consideration for the writer of Mark. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” at his baptism was a full throated claim in the face of the Empire.  The earliest gospel has nary a word about “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.”

John, the last of the canonical gospels, has more cosmic considerations of Light overcoming the darkness, and of the pre-existent Christ who was in the beginning before there was one.  Can’t have a birth narrative if you always were. 

Leave it to Matthew and Luke. 

Less birth narrative than the story of Joseph’s decency (which is a compelling story), Matthew opens with an exposition of his lineage, with the story of Jesus’ arrival told in a scant 8 verses focusing on the theological pillar that in Jesus’ birth, God is with us. No small thing. 

Matthew gives us star-following magi, getting there one way and going back by another (because of a brooding antagonist) with their interesting gifts who come to see Jesus much later than our crèches depict it. Their visit reminds us that Christmas is a season, not one day. And for the Western Church, I fully support anything that reclaims the significance of January 6. 

Now Luke gives us a story. And boy howdy, it’s a doozy!  We get prenatal leaping in the womb, governmental reasons compelling late term travel leading predictably to labor with no place to deliver, mangers, hay, donkeys, shepherds with their sheep, singing angels, and lots of treasuring and pondering.  

Linus tells it in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” it’s where we first hear of “swaddling clothes.”and being “sore afraid.”  It’s a story worthy of how the gospel ends.  It closes the loop for a movement becoming a religion. Whether or not it should have become a religion is a different conversation. 

As an historical matter, any time a movement driven by mission and focused fervor becomes an established thing, over time sustaining the established thing becomes the priority, often at the expense of the mission. But I digress. 

However these stories came to be and why they did there’s a resonance in what rises when we read them.  

What is your backstory and how does it define you? 

Like Joseph, what do you do in moments when harshness disguised as justice is warranted and grace is a choice?  

“Peace on earth and goodwill upon those whom God’s favor rests” seems a far flung whim in a polarized world on fire. It’s arrogant presumption to think we’re among those upon whom God’s favor rests, isn’t it?  

Who, exactly, might these people be?  I know! Those pushed to the margins by the very people reading the same story believing that they are the ones God favors. Irony much?

What’s it mean to be told, in the moment of your greatest need, that there’s no room here for you? 

What’s it mean when you no longer believe there’s a place for you?

The Christmas story asks its questions. 

Only you can find the answers if you’re willing to take the journey. It can be humbling and fear making. It can also be redemptive and soul saving. 

Where would you begin?

Let me suggest starting as a shepherd heeding the words of angels: “Don’t be afraid.” Good news and great joy are to be found for the willing.  Nothing of meaning can happen in your journey until you “become willing.”

Don’t be afraid. 

As the poet David Whyte suggests:
“Take the first step. The one you don’t want to take.”

Glory be. 


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 " 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. 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.