Safe Space

During a decade directing church camps for youth in disequilibrium we sought to provide safe spaces. Jr & Sr High youth were going through seismic shifts emotionally, physically, relationally, and spiritually. At church camp, youth and adults could take a week to try on new ways of being in the world without the pre-conceived notions of who they were at home, school, or church; we became more than any of us had been before.

Three sacred spaces stick with me today. 

The challenge course game field was where we played. The “New Games” rules were: play hard, play fair, nobody hurt, everybody win. Amidst uncharted challenges, inclusive games, and lots of laughter, we built a community out of seventy strangers, rivals, and a few former outcasts.

The quiet tree was on the trail to our campfire where each cabin prepared nightly worship. The quiet tree was where you stopped talking as you became fully present to a grace filled presence. In that space, I’d finally decide how to interpret and share a meaning of an event of the day. The best teaching moments came directly from our experience.

The steps that led down to the cabins provided a third sacred space. Any camper could talk to me on the steps. We were safely in the open and everyone respected the privacy of a step conversation. Steps along the journey of family, friends, faith, sexuality, spirituality, and stances were explored.

Where are your safe spaces along your journey? 

How are you challenged to evolve? 

When do you play and laugh? 

When does silence reveal meaning to experience? 

Whom do you trust to fully listen to you?

Where do you find community for your disequilibrium?

Apart From into A Part Of

During my childhood Tuesdays “our” maid, Pauline, shined our home and brightened my life. Many weeks mom would trade days with Pauline’s Friday employer to prepare for crowded cocktail carousals. I remember Pauline’s laughter, her chess pie, her discipline, her love, and her riding the bus to the west end of Louisville. Like Psalm 103: “as far as the east is from the west.”

I remember Pauline crying only once. The second Tuesday of April I was home from fifth grade to watch a long funeral procession on our colored TV. I recalled being home from first grade on the fourth Monday of November to watch another funeral on our black and white. Pauline watched the funeral with us, soaking her white apron with her tears. I was baptized into her grief as she invited me in by hugging and holding me.

Twenty years later, the thickest book on my shelf was “A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Unlike so many books around it, I actually read this one — moved by his poetic, prophetic preaching. That year, during our annual meeting, the fourth week of April 1988, I was given the Mexico, Missouri “NAACP Drum Major for Justice Award”. 

I was astounded. I had attempted to answer Dr. King’s call, but I hadn’t accomplished much. And why an award from the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP? I asked the leader, “Why me? I’m not a C in the NAACP!” She said, “Honey, we’re ALL colored by God — there’s just a variety in the pigmentation.” I realized this award was not one more benefit of my privileged life. I was not apart from others; I was a part of a community sharing a vision of skin tone bringing no power, stigma, fear, or hierarchy. I accepted the appreciation for being part of a kin-dom where everyone equally strives side by side for the betterment of all.

Eleven years ago tonight I was invited to speak when our town’s community gathered at 2nd Baptist Church to remember, celebrate, and be inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I invite you to discern if those words have something to say today.

What is your experience of moving apart from into being a part of whatever “the other” is in your life?

Anne Frank

My 1975 high school “field trip” covered 7500 miles and 21 countries. Our German teacher led 21 boys, 3 adults, boxes of couscous, and a ton of peanut butter for 8 weeks in 3 sleeper trucks across Europe. I recently found my daily journal. 

We toured Anne Frank’s Amsterdam attic where she wrote her diary of a young girl during their two years of hiding. My Friday August 1 entry was on the 31st anniversary of her last journal entry — 3 days before she was arrested, which led to her death in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 15.

That night over a few beers a fellow eighteen-year-old asked me this question: “Do you think Anne Frank is in hell?” “What?” was the only reply I could muster at the moment. “In hell, Wally, the place of fire and torment where God sends you if you don’t believe in Jesus.” “What the hell are you talking about?” “Anne Frank was Jewish. She didn’t believe in Jesus. Do you think God sent her to hell?” 

The irony wasn’t lost on me that night, but I couldn’t find the words to reply. My friend was asking if God’s “final solution” was more barbaric than Hitler’s “final solution”. As millions of Jews (like Jesus was) prayed to God on their way to a few minutes in the gas chamber, was God sending them to eternal torment because they hadn’t addressed their prayers correctly? 

Up until then I hadn’t thought much about hell. I was raised to believe in a loving, creative God as I sought to follow the way of Jesus who welcomed everyone. Scaring the hell out of me to manipulate me into heaven had no hold on me. Thinking my religious ways of seeing things is the only way that counts and everyone else can just “go to hell” never sat well with me. Thank God I don’t have to look at life and death that way.

Anne Frank was sent to hell, but not by God; her “Gehenna” was Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Hell on earth is a consequence of our individual and societal choices when we choose a burning pile of garbage over God’s vision of love, peace, and justice now.

What were you told about the Bible’s teachings about hell? How have those understandings changed as you’ve grown?  Where have you learned about medieval ideas influencing current prejudices about judgment? What consequences do you see and fear coming from acting in the name of an arbitrary and vindictive power?

He Did Not Know He Could Not Fly

Superman Lego character flying. Location

The season now ending began with two final concerts. The same night Elton John said “Farewell from Dodger Stadium”, Banks and Shane said “Farewell Friends: Our 50th Anniversary Show.” I chose to watch the one on YouTube over the one on Disney Plus.

In 1979, my Emory psychology degree qualified me to be a bartender at the Atlanta Northlake Steak n Ale. I was paid to listen to Banks and Shane each night for a few months as they filled the bar on their 7th anniversary. I sang and danced as I poured my way through each set, because their music was my music. I cherished the “pouring preacher” T-shirt the patrons presented me as my seminary send-off.

43 years later, as he said “farewell”, I said “hello” to a new song Banks sang. If I had heard it before, I wasn’t ready. I was drawn into the song “The Cape” by Guy Clark as I recalled being 6 years old and jumping off our backyard sliding board in the superman cape my mom had sewn. Since then, I too, am “one of those who knows that life is just a leap of faith. Spread your arms and hold your breath, and always trust your cape.”

I now write these words because of the closing words of that song. “All these years the people said ‘He’s actin’ like a kid.’ He did not know he could not fly…. so he did.”

As I finished college the term “Imposter Syndrome” had its official beginning. I am not alone in my paralyzing fear that any achievement in creativity will reveal that I’m an unworthy fraud. Most writers I admire share that fear with me. Maybe that’s why I took a “summer break” 8 months ago —who am I to try to write anything worth reading?

Today I’m starting to write again. Partly because I continue to feel called and compelled to write and now because I have a new motto: I did not know I could not write…. so I did. If you want to spend some time with me, you are invited, and I welcome your reflections and questions in response.

When have you been afraid to try something new? Describe a time when “imposter syndrome” paralyzed you. How have you experienced that you did not know you could not fly… so you did?

5 responses to “He Did Not Know He Could Not Fly”

  1. Nancy Belcher Avatar
    Nancy Belcher

    Thanks, Wally. Wonderful message. Twice I’ve done exactly what you described. The first was falling in love 53 years ago to a man who has given me a wild and crazy life, filled with adventures and flying into unknown places. The second is becoming ordained as a deacon at age 64. God’s life for us is a blessing, a great gift and a stepping off into the world of possibilities. Go fly!

  2. Jane Roads Avatar
    Jane Roads

    Wonderful start for a new year.

  3. miramom Avatar

    Welcome back- you have been missed!

  4. J. R. Greer Avatar
    J. R. Greer

    I love that thought—”I didn’t know I couldn’t do that, so I did.” It reminds me of another thought. I firmly believe the greatest gift I ever received was the support from parents who said, “you can do anything you put your mind to.” Thanks Wally.

  5. mary sue stansberry Avatar
    mary sue stansberry

    wonderful

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Brian’s Song

When I was fourteen I watched an ABC movie of the week called “Brian’s Song”. I was moved by the music as I was drawn to the interracial bonds Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo shared, the vast differences in their personas, and the struggles and griefs that were surmounted. The narration opens with Coach Halas saying, “Earnest Hemingway once said, ‘Every true story ends in death.’ Well…. this is a true story.” His closing narration is: “When they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember, but rather how he lived…. how he did live!!!!”

When I heard the movie was going to be re-broadcast (you couldn’t choose when to watch something then), I grabbed my new Craig “T-stop” cassette tape recorder, held the microphone to the TV mono speaker, and made an audio tape of the music, and some of my favorite speeches that I listened to many times. “To Sir With Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” were the only other movie music and speeches I recorded on audio while they re-played on TV.

I once was too ashamed to share that about myself, but I learned during classes with Suzanne Stabile that a “2” on the Enneagram feels other people’s feelings, while having no sense of their own feelings. She also told me that my embarrassment was because male “2s” have a hard time in our culture — at least it’s not as difficult as what female “8s” face.

Maybe I was being prepared by a loving guiding hand in my life-long vocation — the times I’ve spoken out for and worked for racial justice, visited those recovering in hospitals and rehab centers, led youth groups, and the years I spent as a hospice chaplain and minister to grieving families. I’ve appreciated a variety of personas, orientations, views from points, rather than homogeneity. I’ve worked with media across cassettes, 8-tracks, slide/tape shows, video, CDs, DVDs, digital, powerpoint, and streaming. My spirituality has been transformed alongside changes in technology.

On July 6, the actor who played Brian Piccolo, James Caan, died — every true story ends in death. I will remember knowing him through his many magnificent roles throughout my life for which I am grateful. 

What movies had an impact on your life in your youth? How has technology changes affected your way of living? What do you appreciate about James Caan’s lifetime of work on stage and screen?

Set Free for Freedom

Jesus’ apostle named Paul wrote these words in his letter to the Galatian church.

“For freedom God through his anointed one has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.”

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”

“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

How do these words speak to you today?

Dialogue (Part 1 & 2)… & 3 & 4

Last night our three sisters and brothers-in-law got to see Chicago in concert in Kansas City. The second song was led by the author Robert Lamm — Dialogue (Part 1 & 2). As I “sang” the lyrics I could recall screaming the words with Terry Kath’s voice and guitar on the LP at full volume in our Frat house in college. I still want to shout down war, starvation, and “repression closing round” as I hear others say, “if you had my outlook your feelings would be numb — you’d always think that everything is fine.”

A few years before, the inserts and posters of “Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall” set read: “we can change the system”. Dialogue Part 2 proclaimed “we can change the world now, we can save the children, we can make it better, we can make it happen.”

I wonder what parts of Dialogue 1 & 2 I need to hear today? I wonder what Dialogue Part 3 might be about?

One option could be the dialogue in churches about whether the kingdom of God that Jesus talked most about is someplace you go after you die, or is it a vision for the world now? As Brian McLaren writes in his new book “Do I Stay Christian?”, is the church a refrigeration unit before shipment to a final destination, or does following Jesus mean actively working to change our systems that are leading to the violent or climatic destruction of our whole ecosystem. Is God’s goal to throw away our world like garbage (after pulling “my tribe out”), or is God showing us ways to save creation now?

I believe and I hope Dialogue 4 would repeat 2: “we can change the world now, we can save the children, we can make it better, we can make it happen.” What dialogues do you see going on? When have you heard, “Will you try to change things with the power that you have: the power of a million new ideas”?

Stressed backwards is Desserts?

During my first attempt at being a hospice chaplain, I was intrigued by a speaker coming to Kansas City named Darcie Sims. Her book title “Why Are Casseroles Always Tuna: A Loving Look at the Lighter Side of Grief” drew me in. I heard her speak on October 5, 2001—3 weeks after 9/11 when our whole nation was grieving. That was also two weeks after my brother died; I’m glad I wrote a lot of notes because I was too numb to hear it at the time.

One session was for caregivers and hospice workers called “Creative Coping: First Aid for Burnout and Compassion Fatigue.” She talked about stress. Darcie said, “stress isn’t a thing or a person; it’s our response to a thing or a person.” Guess who’s responsible for how we respond? She said, “Expectations are the major source of our stress. Stress is the distance between what you expect and what you experience.” How realistic are you about your expectations? How many of your expectations come from the voice of another who “shoulds all over you”? How much do you have compassion for yourself as you care for others?

An experiment you might try is this. First thing in the morning write down what you’re worried about. Write all your worries, but put each worry on one index card or slip of paper. Put them all face down; then pick one. That’s what you get to worry about today; carry it with you, and give it the worry it deserves; act on it. The rest you can let go today; some people email the rest to the best worrier they know; some read Matthew chapter 6; some put them aside until the next morning.

What do you find helpful in your life in these stress-full times? How do you seek healing from burn-out or compassion fatigue? To whom do you go for help in seeking your answers for “what is mine to do?”

William Sloane Coffin

During my final year of seminary, as 1983 began, I heard a taped sermon that transformed my life—an all-too-rare occurrence.

The sermon by William Sloane Coffin at the Riverside Church in NYC begins with words I would never forget: “As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander – who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family ‘fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky’ – my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.”

10 days after his son died in a wreck, the father preached this sermon to his church January 23, 1983. You can search the sermon online; you can download the audio through his archives site.

As a pastor and hospice chaplain for 35 years, Coffin’s words still ring true: “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady!’ I said.”

“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths……. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Since 1983, I have imagined being in hot pursuit, swarming all over many funeral consolers. With all the best intentions to protect God or insulate pain, I have overheard each of my top twenty list of deadly things to say to a grieving person. 

When you put your personal grief into words, what do you think, write, or say? Which cultural comments have not been helpful to your grief work and journey? What expressions and actions have brought you transformative comfort? 

Skyhook

Friday’s story was about our three-year-son driving our minivan with minimal damage to objects or persons. How fleeting life can be. The way I saw things at the time, I wondered if God had helped to guide his little hand to shift past catastrophic reverse and into a safe drive of a few inches forward. I don’t see it that way today.

I see God as present in and loving his/her/their entire creation—including me. I don’t see our creator as operating some skyhook that rescues some people from the actions of themselves or others, while leaving others behind. From my tradition, I agree with Jesus: children, your Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

Skyhook rescue theology raises concerns for me. I can never answer the “why” question. Why would I be rescued while another suffers who is not rescued?—or the reverse of course! It’s the temptation to act like I am so special, God will rescue me from hitting the ground if I jump off a building (Matthew 4:5-7 and the other accounts of Jesus’ temptations).

Seeing a skyhook is dangerous. The “rapture” conspiracy theory (that is neither Biblical nor faithful as I see it) says God will skyhook people like my tribe before destroying the world. If God doesn’t care about this world and people who are “other” than me, then why should I? Why would I care about others, the environment, or climate change if God is going to throw it all away like garbage?

A divine skyhook takes away our human responsibility to seek answers to rampant violence, including the threat of nuclear destruction. Because God does not and will not rescue us from the consequences of our actions, we might want to reconsider our behavior.

How has skyhook rescue theology been a part of your journey of faith? When have you been reassured by seeing that way? What stumbling blocks came in your path from that perspective?