Congratulations John-Francis!

John-Francis - Senior Photo

Photo Courtesy of Patricia O’Driscoll

John-Francis graduates from High School tomorrow.  Even though I’ve been reminded of this reality every day for weeks, it still seems highly unlikely since, only yesterday, I was dropping him off at The Galloway School for his first day of kindergarten.  I remember how he matter-of-factly climbed out of his carseat and introduced himself to the teacher working carpool that early morning.  Another kindergartner overheard that John-Francis was a new student.  She firmly grabbed his hand, and the two of them headed off to begin the adventure of learning – hand-in-hand.  That’s how we do things at Galloway, eyes forward and hand-in-hand.

Of course, I was having trouble watching this beautiful moment of camaraderie.  I was too busy sobbing – something I continued to do for the hour-long drive back to our house.  John-Francis and I had stayed home together for almost six years.  Nearly every minute of every day of his life I had answered his questions, laughed at his jokes, cleaned his cuts, and held him when he needed a hug.  Suddenly someone else, an institution was going to take on that role for part of each day.  I was terrified of the possibility that he might become conventional, that the convenient norms of a children’s academic setting would somehow stifle the uniquely thoughtful and creative spark that I had watched come to life in him.

When he scheduled a protest on the playground – complete with rally signs and a rhyming chant – for the return of peanut butter to the classroom, I realized I had nothing to worry about.  (He informed me that, after a rather contentious circle time, “The man won.”)  John-Francis was at a school that valued four pillars:  fearlessness, community, mastery, individuality.  These were the very things I wanted him to learn to privilege in his life, and, rather than undermining them as I feared any institution might, Galloway nurtured them and allowed them to take deep root in every aspect of his education.

I watched John-Francis’ journey in awe, as he moved down the long hall of the Early Learning building, through the floors of the Middle Learning building, and then to the old, brick classrooms of Upper Learning.  It was like having a front-row seat for an epic performance where the lead character is exceptional in every way.  Looking back on the individual scenes, they form a consistent pattern – a biography of integrity, courage, and genuine wisdom that may be hard for him to see as he lives it out, but that is abundantly clear to those of us who have been watching, dumbstruck, since the curtain rose.

I saw him fight back (verbally and, sometimes, even physically) against bullies of all kinds, including a (no longer at Galloway) middle school principal who battled him tooth and nail on the LGBTQ Day of Silence observance.  When the day came, the involved grades had 85% participation, under the leadership of a ten-year-old John-Francis.

I listened, with genuine admiration, as John-Francis refused to tell even the tiniest lie, even the smallest mis-characterization of the facts, for his own benefit.  If an assignment was late, he took responsibility.  If the rules said no looking at your textbook, he wouldn’t even glance at it.  And if he was being irrational in an argument he would stop, look down for a moment, and then concede, “You’re right.  I’m being irrational about this.”  Even as a teenager, he wouldn’t lie to himself.

Nor would he let me lie to myself, which can be terribly inconvenient as an adult.  Self-deception can make life easier, albeit much less worthwhile, in all sorts of ways.  Nevertheless, John-Francis – even at a young age – has demonstrated the confidence and the insight to hold me accountable to my own principles in everything that I do.  I am certain I am a better person, because of the extraordinary person he is.

The conventional wisdom is that a child can’t be that person, my friend, someone to whom I am accountable, and also be my son.  My experience as his father has been just the opposite.  From the moment he was born, when I warmed him up with a blanket, put his first diaper on him, and told him, “You and I are going to have great fun together,” I have been his Dad with a capital “D.”  I am responsible for him, and growing into that responsibility has had a larger impact on me than all of the other things I have done in my life, combined.  But – as my own Dad has taught me every day for forty years – fathers and sons can be best friends and still understand that Dad is in charge.  Friendship is not about an equal dynamic of authority, it is about an equal dynamic of loyalty, trust, and respect.  I trust and respect John-Francis as much as I do my own Dad, which is to say completely, and my loyalty to him knows no limits.

John-Francis has earned that loyalty.  As he was growing up, we rarely talked about what he had to do, we talked about what his goals were, what kind of person he wanted to be, what kind of impact he wanted to have on the world.  Together, we mapped out ways to work toward those goals, and then he took it upon himself to do the hard, challenging, everyday work to reach them.  When, at the age of 12, he wanted to start taking classes in the high school at Galloway, he went – by himself – to meet with the Principal and request the opportunity.  From that point on, if he needed an advocate with the administration, he took the role upon himself.

Fearlessness:  a young man who stands up to bullies, even when they have all the power, and who advocates for himself rather than relying on others to do so.

Community:  a young man who creates a space for LGBTQ students’ voices to be heard, and who earns the trust of his friends through his loyalty and kindness.

Mastery:  a young man who seeks out every opportunity for learning, and who passionately, relentlessly engages his peers, his teachers, and his parents out of a desire to understand.

Individuality:  a young man whose integrity is such that he speaks the truth as he knows it, regardless of the consequences or the expectations of those around him.

That is the kind of man Elliott Galloway was.  That is the young man I hoped John-Francis would be when he left home to find his path.

In every way, by every measure, John-Francis has exceeded my wildest hopes in every single one of these categories, and in countless more.  Tomorrow he will get a diploma that is meant to represent over a decade of accomplishment, but there is no single piece of paper that could sum up all he has done – and all that Galloway has done for him – in that time.

For me, the words of his achievement are not writ on the parchment, they are carved deep into my memory by the sound of his voice saying, “I love you, Dad” and by the knowledge that this son whose love I have earned is a person who has earned my respect and my admiration a thousand times over.

Pictured with my Grandma Sue, in the kitchen where she taught me a master class in how to love someone.

John-Francis with my Grandma Sue, in the kitchen where she taught me a master class in how to love someone.

 

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First Sunday in Advent

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel - Rembrandt

Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel – Rembrandt

It was the First Sunday in Advent and the last in November. We were in the shadow of the end of a millennium, and – unbeknownst to me – the beginning of a seismic change in the direction of my life.  In the Lectionary readings, Isaiah reminded us that – flawed though we are – we are clay in the hands of a loving Potter.  Jesus, speaking in the Gospel of Mark, cried, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” And the Apostle Paul reminded us that we lack for nothing because our Savior strengthens us and God is faithful.

I let their voices roll around in my head as I made my way to Madison, Georgia. I had time to review my sermon, as it was more than an hour drive from our house in the city to the small, country church where I was the pastor. I often made that drive alone or in the company of our infant son. My wife Brigit worked most Sundays. Our son John-Francis heard his first homilies snuggled comfortably in the arms of any number of kind, older Southern ladies more than happy to sit with him on the back pew while I preached.

This Sunday, however, our whole family was together, and we made our way along the highway in the companionable silence of the early morning. The air had a hint of chill to it, but the sky was a cloudless blue against cleared fields and baled hay that shone a bright gold in the Georgia sun. If we looked closely, there were signs that winter was on its way, but for the moment we were happy to enjoy the last, gilded days of the South’s mildest season.

Advent, which begins the liturgical year for Christians around the world, is a season of hope. Often this hope is tied to the memory of the incarnation of Jesus, because the Christmas season is right around the corner, but the hope of Advent is even larger. In the four weeks before Christmas we remember that everyone and everything we know or value will someday pass away, and at the end of time our hope lies not in our accomplishments, but in the grace of God.

That is a more complex and subtle flavor of hope than the simple message of holiday greeting cards and Christmas carols. I had struggled with how to convey the texts’ messages of challenge and warning to my congregation, while also making certain to offer the hope that was at the center of the season and the gospel itself. I was not overly concerned. They were good sports.  Matriarchs, dairy farmers, mechanics, veterans, professionals – they had helped me grow into my calling while patiently teaching me to do the job for which seminary had given me the tools but not the workshop.

Normally I was the first to arrive, although the wife of one of our deacons would have come a couple hours earlier to turn on the heat. Today, however, I turned down the gravel drive to see that our aged white steeple presided over a parking lot full of cars. The congregation was over two hundred years old, and had once overseen a legendary revival that had prompted the citizens of a nearby town to rename their city “Newborn.” I wondered if a similarly great awakening was about to take place.

Brigit and John-Francis entered with me and found their usual spots for Sunday School while I went to my office to look over my sermon. I did not have much time to ponder the mystery of our increased church attendance, since the hour for Worship arrived swiftly. Our lector that day was the Chair of the Deacons, and his rumbling baritone proclaimed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”

“At least this Sunday,” I thought acerbically, “if you came down you’d find the pews filled.  I wish I knew why.” Still contemplating the sheer number of freshly-soaped faces staring at me intently, I launched into a lackluster but adequate sermon to begin the new Church Year.

I quickly realized something was very wrong. Anyone who has had the privilege to preach in a rural, evangelical congregation knows that we are well-trained. We can tell by the preacher’s inflections and facial expressions when we are supposed to laugh, and so we do – even if the joke is a familiar one or more than a little lame (and further hobbled by the preacher’s delivery). Church is a place where we remember not to take the world too seriously, and our shared laughter creates its own liturgy, honoring the joy that is at the heart of the gospel.

There was no laughter in the congregation that day.  For twenty minutes I tossed the crumbs of my sermon onto a sea of blank stares, and all that came back was a sense that something was coming and everyone knew it but me.  For the first time I felt the fear that is also a part of the season of Advent.  The axe was at the root of the tree, and I suspected the fire was yet to come.

When it did, it was during the announcements and in the whispered words of the same Deacon who had read from Isaiah, “Pastor, the Deacons would like a word with you if you have the time.”

We met in the Sunday School room that also served as the space for business meetings. The Chair stood and read a prepared statement which began, “Pastor, this is nothing personal…”

As with “This is not about you, it’s about me,” an introit like this invariably leads to a blow that is both deeply personal and carelessly brutal. This conversation would prove to be no exception. I was given the opportunity to tender my resignation (pastors are almost never fired), presented with a minimal severance check, and asked to leave and never return.

The church had called a meeting in the wee hours of the morning prior to my arrival that day. I was not invited. There was only one agenda item: my sermon from the previous Sunday.

On that day, the 21st of November – Reign of Christ Sunday – I had deviated from the Lectionary and preached from a selection of texts I had chosen to address an event on the minds of all our members. The previous week our state ecclesiastical body had expelled two congregations for the first time in the nearly 200-year-long history of their existence. The two Atlanta churches – both served by friends of mine – were clear and public in their advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons. The rhetoric against those two communities of faith, especially in rural parishes like mine, had grown passionate and vitriolic.

I had entered the pulpit that previous Sunday terrified. I even brought two sermons with me, one from the lectionary that proclaimed the hope of unity in the reign of Christ, and the other from a collection of epistles and gospel fragments addressing pastorally the issue of homosexuality. My professional and prayerful opinion – then as now – was that any consistent, faithful approach to Scripture does not allow for the condemnation of homosexuality.

I didn’t want to say that to my congregation. I told myself that my reluctance was because they would not be able to hear the why of such a sermon because they would not be able to get past the what of it. Over the course of a sleepless night I realized that my real fear was losing a job I loved, a career path I was quickly ascending, and a paycheck that we desperately needed to pay our mortgage.

The writers in Proverbs remind us that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” and ultimately that persuaded me which sermon to preach on the 21st. To this day, I recall the image that I could not shake – of me, standing before Almighty God, and God asking me why I refused to speak the truth from the pulpit. If even a single word I had ever proclaimed were true, how could I face my Creator and admit that the one time it really mattered I was more concerned with protecting myself than speaking for those on whom the Church had turned its back?

And so I had ended the previous liturgical year with the proclamation that the gospel included our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters just as they were. A week later, I started the season of Advent unemployed and unlikely to find a new congregation. My church, to its credit, had not been unanimous in their response to my sermon. Many had argued to keep me, but had ultimately agreed that the loss of an idealistic, big-city pastor was better for the church than the inevitable congregational split.

My colleagues were quick to offer their support. One – who had prayed during my ordination that God would take me, bless me, break me, and give me away – told me, “You were taken out for offering your very best stuff.  Don’t ever forget that.” I haven’t. Another simply told me, “They were wrong.  You were right.” Less helpfully, a number of them called to tell me “I wish I could have said what you said, but…” The pastors of both congregations that had been removed from our communion called to tell me I was part of their story too. I will always be honored that they counted me among their courageous number.

I also heard from a number of people whom I did not know. They told me how the Church had wounded them. They told me how painful it was to be told that they had to choose between the God to whom they had given their soul and the person who was their soulmate. I came to realize what a small price I had paid for the privilege of speaking on their behalf.

A part of me had known that a moment like that would come at some point in my ministry, but my ego had assumed that the stage would be larger and the consequences more far-reaching. A small, inconsequential church in a distant farming community hardly seemed worth the permanent sacrifice of my professional career.

But the gospel does not work that way. The riddle of Advent is that we are called to hope for a kingdom yet to come, while understanding that it will only arrive if we live as if it were already here. If we spend our lives waiting for that big chance to live out that hope, the opportunity for us to make a “real” difference, we miss the thousands of moments where we could have taken just a tiny bit of hate, anger, bigotry, or ignorance out of the world and replaced it with a little kindness, grace, or wisdom. Sometimes, the price we pay for that little bit of faithfulness or courage seems exorbitant, but – as anyone who has faced despair will tell you – that is nonsense. Hope is priceless.

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25 Random Things

This actually turned out to be a really enjoyable exercise. My thanks to the Facebook friends who encouraged it:

Tiger Drinking

Source: Flickr

1. I rarely drink anything besides water (sparkling or still, I do like variety you know). The usual alternatives are juice or a fruit smoothie.

 

 

Joshua as a soldier.

Airborne!

2. I have worked as: a soldier, police instructor, a counter-terrorism consultant and trainer, a crime prevention expert, a pastor, a writer and editor, a bodyguard, a private detective, an interpreter, a photo-processor, a professor, a and a stay-at-home parent. I’m currently looking for more jobs that start with “p.” (And I was a paratrooper when I was a soldier, so there’s a preponderance of p’s already.)

 

 

Family snowman picture.3. I value time with my wife and son over anything and everything. I don’t care who you are or what the personal or professional gain might be from attending a particular event, I will blow you off to spend time with Brigit and John-Francis.

 

 

Secret Lives of Mobs4. I love Science Fiction and Fantasy novels, and have edited a few of them.

 

 

Rainy Day photo from freephoto.com5. I really like rainy days.

 

 

Joshua & Sean6. I am highly selective about my close friends, and fiercely loyal to them.

 

Tie-dyed Peace Sign

Source: www.phatdyes.com

7. I never outgrew my hippie idealism from college.

 

 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail8. I think that doing something because “most” people or “normal” people do it is a really terrible idea. In fact, I immediately question the logic or quality of an idea or behavior if it’s popular.

 

 

Smooching Brigit9. My wife is my best friend, and our relationship is one of affectionate intimacy. I’m amazed by how many people don’t seem to want this from a spouse, and instead spend much of their lives bitching about how little they have in common with the person they married.

 

Taxonomy

Source: http://www.cte.usf.edu/materials/institute/ct/bltax.gif

10. I like organizing physical objects as well as ideas. This is obvious if you open any drawer I’ve been near (mine or otherwise) and if you read my research. I like taxonomies and putting things in boxes, which drives my dear friend Katy crazy. (I’ve put her in the “doesn’t like to be put in a box” box.)

 

Carter Family11. I love roots music and old shape note gospel hymns.

 

 

Die Hard Poster12. I enjoy banal TV programs and feel good movies (especially with gratuitous nudity and/or explosions), and I usually have the TV on while I’m working.

 

 

Grandpa Vanderhof13. I want to grow up to be Grandpa Martin Vanderhof from Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You.”

 

 

Karl Barth14. I think the profound spiritual insights of our ancestors in the faith should be preserved without fettering them with the cultural assumptions and superstitions of the eras in which those ancestors lived. If that sentence makes sense to you, you’ll understand my theological writings and public stances on social issues. If it doesn’t, no amount of explaining on my part will help.

 

 

It's a Wonderful Life cast15. My greatest hope for John-Francis is that he will grow up to be someone who thinks deeply and loves generously.

 

Bread and Cheese

Source: http://www.lloydexpedition.org/Cheese_bread.jpg

16. Fresh-baked bread and sharp cheese is one of my favorite combinations in the world.

 

Poetry Magnets

Source: http://dlcal.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/words1.jpg

17. I used to write a lot of poetry, now I write a lot of prose. I think that what I lost in artistry I gained in clarity.

 

 

Dad and Me by the Chattahoochee18. I’ve learned more from Dad than I have, cumulatively, from everyone else in my life.

 

 

Hands

Source: http://sfcitizen.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/_o8f1289a1.jpg

19. I wish I were more kind.

 

Car Wreck

Source: http://sfcitizen.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/_o8f1289a1.jpg

20. When I think about the number of stupid things I survived to learn the lessons I have learned, I am tempted to lock John-Francis up until he’s 30.

 

HTML Code

Source: Troy University Tech Tip Tutorials

21. I can design web pages from scratch using a text editor, but I prefer not to.

 

Parts of the Brain

Source: http://www.narconon.ca/images/info_brain3.jpg

22. I have never done any illegal drugs or smoked cigarettes. I hate both vices with a passion, the former because it makes you stupid and the latter because it killed three of my four grandparents.

 

 

Rocky Horror Picture Show Cast23. Although I test as highly extroverted, and think of myself as one, I rarely enjoy parties with large groups of people I don’t know these days. I find I like fewer and fewer people the older I get, and that my tendency to speak frankly offends most people.

 

ENTP - with Lightsabers and Squirrels and Whooshing

http://shaigar.com/DEMOTIVATORS/MBTI/NT/ENTP2.PNG

24. I think scientifically calibrated personality assessments are useful, and that Internet ones can be fun, so I keep results from both on this page.  I am definitely an ENTP.

 

Bernard Fall

Bernard Fall

25. Nearly all of my diverse skills have something to do with words or weaponry, and I think it’s important that every person be willing to use both to defend those who are in positions of vulnerability.

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Thoughts After Reading and Seeing Watchmen

Watchmen Cast - Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Watchmen Cast – Courtesy of Warner Brothers

For years I’ve heard friends talk about Watchmen and I never got around to reading it. I’ve always found the style of storytelling in graphic novels to be distracting. I’m a word guy, and superimposing images with words usually distracts me.I finally sat down to read the graphic novel in its entirety this week, and I think it’s fair to say that Watchmen reaches the full potential of the medium. It tells its story on multiple levels with sophisticated interaction between the evocative images and the (several?) brilliant storylines(s).

The movie trims out a few layers to focus on the central themes and images of the novel; an appropriate recognition of the limitations of the genre. Visually, the movie is stunning – it recreates the world of the Watchmen flawlessly, and it does so in ways that replicate the emotional impact of key moments in the novel. The acting feels a little weak and contrived in places (especially Matthew Goode, who clearly doesn’t understand the subtlety of his character); but overall the characters are well-represented. The subtleties and moral ambiguities of the novel’s plot are also generally well-implemented, and the overall experience of seeing it all take place on the big screen was awe-inspiring.

John-Francis and I were actually struck silent for a few moments after it was over, something that is rare for both of us. Then we found ourselves talking for some time about the various moral and anthropological implications of the story.

Having read the novel, I was initially hesitant to take John-Francis to the movie. Admittedly, the violence didn’t exceed what he’s seen on evening television or in James Bond/Jason Bourne movies. In fact, the worst scene in Watchmen almost perfectly mirrors a scene from Battlestar Gallactica. The sexuality barely went beyond that of a perfume ad. And the language is no worse than he’s heard from his classmates. Still, it’s our job to filter that sort of thing and to help him to process what he does encounter in a manner appropriate to his emotional maturity. (Of course, no one was monitoring our emotional maturity as kids when we found my grandfather’s Playboy collection, but you tend to forget that sort of thing as you get older.)

Ultimately, I decided that he was old enough to understand the themes of the movie and appreciate its artistry. I really wanted him to see it on the big screen, and I wanted to watch it with him and interpret it with him. For me, discussing these sorts of powerful artistic experiences – engaging in deep discussions about the nature of good and evil – is the very best part of being a parent. I wanted to share this with him, and I thought he was ready for it.

I was right, and here are some of the things we discussed on the car ride and after we got home. I’m listing them here, because I’d love to talk about them with you if you’ve read the novel or seen the movie; and I’d like to encourage you to talk about them with your kids if they’ve seen it.

– Which is more important, justice or peace?

– Should we have to choose between the two? Do we?

– Is humanity capable of real heroism?

– What defines a “good” person? A hero?

– Are there some flaws that cannot be balanced by any level of heroism?

– Are there any heroes in the movie? Any villains?

– Is fear the only real motivation for peace?

– How do we determine the right thing to do?

– Why is it important to ask these kinds of questions? How does good art make us think in these ways?

In case you haven’t already realized it, this is not a typical action movie, nor is the graphic novel what you might expect if you aren’t familiar with the deep and morally complex themes dealt with in modern works of that genre. Don’t go and see Watchmen if you’re looking for a Superman movie. Also, I’d highly recommend reading the book first.

Even if you don’t see the movie with your kids, I think these are important themes and I hope you’ll find other ways to talk about them. Our children are exposed to more images of violence, sex, and profanity than we realize; and it’s important that the feel comfortable looking to us to help them make sense of them.

Excerpt from Watchmen, Vol 1

Excerpt from Watchmen, Vol 1

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