#PaulManafort: Why Apologize When You Can Minimize, Deflect, Re-Direct, and Attack? Inside the Playbook and Politics of Psychological Warfare

#PaulManafort : Why Apologize When You Can Minimize, Deflect, Re-Direct, and Attack? Inside the Playbook and Politics of Psychological Warfare

This morning, July 19th, 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort completed a political jiu-jitsu move in “reframing” the overnight attacks on Melania Trump’s alleged plagiarism of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech to make this about Hillary Clinton being threatened by a strong woman. In the event you might be dumbfounded, let us look at how this incident provides us with a fresh example as to how this slight-of-hand works and diagram the tactics of psychological warfare in the political playbooks. The unspoken rule, of course, is never to apologize. Apologies are for sissies, the weak, and for fools. Instead, you must follow the formula and template in these four predictable steps:

1) MINIMIZE: The first step is to minimize the criticism. These are catch phrases anyone could use in a speech. There were 37 million people watching. “To think that she would do something like that knowing how scrutinized her speech was going to be last night is just really absurd."

2) DEFLECT: Melania isn’t running for office. She did a wonderful job, she was very thoughtful, and came across as authentic

3) REDIRECT: There are people who are inside the Clinton camp who are deliberately trying to undermine our work at the RNC and are looking for anything to blow up out of proportion

4) ATTACK: What this is really about is Hillary Clinton being threatened by a strong woman

This approach is not mutually exclusive for either Republicans or Democrats. This is the issue today that grabs the headlines. Tomorrow will bring new issues subject to the same process.  Although the issue will be different tomorrow, the consistent key is the repetition of the formula: minimize, deflect, re-direct, and attack. The directions are the same as the directions on your shampoo bottle. Rinse, Lather, Repeat . . .

The Confederate Flag and Teaching Pigeons to Bowl: What Does it Mean?

Robert Kegan relates a story concerning the work of behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner in his book, The Evolving Self. Skinner boasts that pigeons could be taught to bowl:

“Behavioralists put pigeons in miniature bowling alleys and allow them to behave as they wish. Eventually they happen to stand where the bowler rolls the ball, and at this moment they are rewarded with food. They then go about their business but eventually return to the bowler’s position, where they are again rewarded. Before too long they begin to hang around at the bowler’s spot, and eventually in their random body movements they lower their heads toward a miniature bowling ball; at this moment they get an even bigger reward. Before too long they not only spend most of their time where a bowler stands, they also have their heads down ready to push the ball. Eventually, of course, they actually push the ball, and - well, you get the idea. As Skinner said, “Getting them to bowl strikes takes even longerbut is no more complicated.” [i]

Teaching pigeons to bowl, and even bowl strikes, may be possible. However, the important question is, “would it mean anything to the pigeon?” Only more food. By comparison, pigeons fly and we do not. Pigeons have feathers; we have skin. Pigeons lay eggs; we birth our young. We are homo sapien sapiens. The verb sapere is from the Latin. It means “to taste or to know.”

What do we know? Meaning has to do with facts and how we interpret these facts. “Our baby died,” might be a fact: but what does this mean? It might mean the conflicting emotions of sadness and relief if the child was born with severe congenital defects that are beyond the reach of science and medicine. It could mean insurmountable guilt if the infant died in the heat of an unattended automobile. It could mean blind rage and inconsolable remorse if the infant was kidnapped and murdered.

Which brings us to the Confederate Flag. A flag, after all, is just a flag. So what does the flag mean? It depends upon your history and experience. Your history and experience creates ideas and beliefs that shape the lens in terms of how you see the world.

As for the Confederate Flag, it largely depends on the history and experience of your ancestors and how they came to this country. Did they choose or was the choice made for them? Did they come fleeing religious persecution or potato famines or were they captured, enslaved, and sold upon arrival? Were their rights guaranteed by the constitution or did this same document count them as 3/5ths of a human being?

Our history and experience is radically different depending on where we find ourselves in this meaning-making matrix. Those who came by choice had the power to do so. Those who had no choice were powerless. I am a southerner by birth. My history and experience includes those who fled to this nation because of the Irish potato famine. My ancestors were sharecroppers. Although they were not slaves they probably were indentured servants. Even so, by being members of the majority, the white majority, we are collectively connected as the oppressors by those who were the oppressed. This is the point that is difficult for many of the "good old boys" to understand which entirely misses the point. We will never understand until we see it through the lens of the oppressed. Period.

For German citizens who were demoralized and defeated after WW I and the reparations assessed by the Treaty of Versailles, the Swastikas and the flags of the Third Reich were symbols of nationalistic pride. For Jews those same symbols are forever connected to evil, torture, and mass genocide. It is no accident that Dylann Roof and other white supremacists can interchangeably fly both of these flags.

The pictures of Dylann Roof holding these flags ablazed by the evil and hatred in his eyes are unmistakable. These dots have now and again been forever connected: flag, evil, hatred, slaughter, massacre, innocents. Enough is enough. The Confederate Flags must come down.

Removing the flags will not remove the hatred. We know that. We should know better. After all, we are not pigeons.

[i] Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 174.

A Call to the Nation: Voices Without Violence Building Pathways to Peace

A Call to the Nation: Voices Without Violence

Building Pathways to Peace

June 19, 2016

Matthew 5:3-9, Matthew 7:1-4


I awoke last Sunday morning to the same news you did. Twenty dead in a night club shooting. We drove to Jacksonville to the congregate care retirement center where my in-laws live to take my 90 year old father-in-law out for an early Father's Day lunch. In the span of an hour's drive 20 dead had become 50.

I've known my father-in-law about half of those 90 years. We've had a strange and unusual relationship. He's strange and I'm unusual. For those of you who remember Archie Bunker, when I was first dating his youngest daughter I affectionately called him Archie and he called me Meathead. One of the National News programs was on and the sound turned up loud enough to drown out the roar of engines at the dropping of the green flag at the Coke Zero 400. Bob doesn't hear very well. The station broke to the President's press conference and then it was back to the studio where the moderator interviewed three published Obama haters. Adding intellect to the equation is an effort to validate the hate. Their collective bile made me question whether or not we had heard the same press conference. Bob added to the commentary: "Anyone with an Arabic sounding name under the age of 30 should be deported." What he didn't see or hear was how his words broke his daughter's heart.

Unrelated, but maybe not, we stopped on the way home in Palm Coast at the Home Depot. We were leaving the parking lot when the automobile directly across from me signaled for a left turn. I was going straight. He was driving a huge Ford Expedition and with the way he was driving he turned it into a Bully-mobile. I was driving our humble Hyundai. In the Darwinian jungle the big fish eat the little fish and on the highway the big vehicles eat the little vehicles. We had the right-of-way which did not seem to register in his consciousness. I wish you could have seen the rage on this man's face as he thrust the middle finger of his left hand with such hatred you would have thought I must have desecrated his mother's grave. If he would have had a Bushmaster AR-15, I and everyone else in that parking lot would have been dead. He was a lone wolf terrorist in search of a cause or a reason to kill.

We live in a world with pandemic levels of anger, anxiety, rage, and hatred that are free-floating, viral, and cancerous parasites, in search of a host. At times it attaches to a theory, theology, philosophy, or ideology that will in turn infect a group, clan, tribe, or even a nation. All of these parasites will eventually kill the host and then search for another to infest.

The food that feeds this beast is oppositional energy. We will continue to live in the ongoing battleground of oppositional energy at least until the second Tuesday in November. Oppositional energy is fueled by opposing another. Oppositional energy must create enemies in order for it to work. Once it flares, there is no longer conversation but rather consternation: Right-wrong, good-bad, smart-stupid, winner-loser, and when it de-evolves down into the pit it becomes love-hate. Hate and intolerance are the signature DNA markers of this beast.

We are right now on the global stage of an international crisis in our own back yard. In the last six months, San Bernardino, Paris, Brussels, and now Orlando has been added to the list. Since 9-11, every act of domestic terror has been committed by an American Citizen. Omar Mateen was born in Queens, N.Y. as was Donald Trump. As a footnote to this horror story, a Nebraska family in town for their dream vacation eye witnessed their toddler’s tragic death which quickly turned the Magic Kingdom into the Tragic Kingdom. No amount of manufactured happiness can be bought with a ticket to an Orlando theme park can Mickey, Minnie, or Harry Potter our way through this. We have all been numbed and are covered in a shroud of pain.

We are by nature meaning-making creatures who seek to make sense out of experience. How do we make sense out of all of this? What did the victims experience? What were their last thoughts before they died? Did they suffer? What about the first responders? What was it like when they entered the carnage and in the eerie silence of this massacre and heard cell phones ringing from the bodies of the dead while on the other end were anxious family and friends calling to find out if love ones were ok? No, they weren’t. Now we are in the cycle of coverage for all of the funerals. How will they adjust? How do we recover? Who is Omar? Was he a homophobe and a homosexual who hid behind an ISIS mask? Did his Momma not change his diapers? Did his Daddy tell him he'd never amount to anything? Why didn't the FBI stop him? Mateen had been investigated twice before. An Orlando gun shop owner reported he had tried to buy body armor and 1000 rounds of ammunition. Who dropped the ball? Whose fault is this? There has to be somebody to blame?

Blame is at the bottom line. It is even in the bottom line of the story that attempts to explain all of this mess we are in. The 1st Testament talks about this as the fall. It is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. According to my theory, there must have been a group of rabbi's that sat around on a Thursday night At Stavro's drinking beer and eating pizza and they are asking the questions about human suffering and how to make sense out of it. Why is there so much pain and suffering? Who is to blame? Do you see their fundamental dilemma? It had to be either God's fault or our fault and it couldn't have been God's fault, because after all, it's God we are talking about! They came up with this story. Once upon a time in a land far away we lived in paradise. We had it made. We were on easy street. There was only one rule. "Don't eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and of evil." The unconscious mind doesn’t understand negation. When my son was little I’d tell him, “Don’t stick the green beans up your nose.” What did he do? He stuck the green beans up his nose."OOPS!" The blame then follows a chain of command. "The woman you gave to me told me to eat it." "It's her fault." She says, "The snake told me to do it." It's the snake's fault. So God came in, kicked butt, took names, and it's been hell every since."

I've never really been comfortable with corporate punishment that we all suffer because they screwed up. I learned this in Mrs. Houser's 4th grade in class at Hogan Spring Glen Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida, where I grew up. Diana Faulk reported to Mrs. Houser one day that someone had stolen her lunch money. Mrs. Houser announced, "If whoever took Diana's lunch money doesn't come forward and turn in her lunch money, no one will go to lunch today. Nobody came forward. We didn't go to lunch. The next day Diana announced to the class that no one had stolen her lunch money because her Daddy had forgotten to put it in her purse." Diana almost didn't make it through recess that day.

We don't have to go back to pre-history in search for an answer to this question. During the 20th century we have to own that we belong to the only species that murdered 100 million of our own species. We are all in some way a part of this global dysfunctional family.

I can’t tell you how many times over the course of the last 20 years parents have dropped off their teenagers in my office wanting me to fix them just to stick them back in the same family that made them sick in the first place. The psychobabble term for this is “the identified symptom bearer.” It is ironic if you think about it. We come out of that maze and come here to try to step into amazement. After the benediction you have to go back out into that world that made you sick in the first place. Transformation is safe and easy in here. Where we have to make it stick is out there.

A young man, in his late teens, came to my office and told his story. He came looking for direction, not in terms of, “do you know the way to San Jose?” but rather, “What happens after the party is over? What am I supposed to do with my life?” “Why am I carrying around so much pain?” He told me he was going to quit playing video games. “All I’ve been doing is killing things on the computer for hours: this can’t be right.” The same Darwinian emotions getting stirred up: kill or be killed. He went on to say he doesn’t watch the news anymore because there is so much bad news. He turned off the television during the ongoing coverage of the Pulse massacre so that his grandmother would not sit mindlessly watching the carnage and absorb it. It was an attempt to protect her and him from the pain.

Pain is the theme in this story and what we do with it. It has a way of awakening us to deeper truths about our family, our world, and ourselves if we can learn to stay with our pain. The young man had gotten into some trouble and he was awakening to issues of faith. His story was similar to my own. I could see myself in him when I was at his age and stage of life. The empathy bridge had already been built.

Our stories were similar, yet different. His parents had divorced after a lengthy marriage, primarily, I had gathered, because of their difficulty of ongoing unresolved conflict and the inability to process toxic emotions. You know the ones I’m talking about. They are hate, rage, disgust, and shame/humiliation. The same stuff I heard spewing from the mouths of the three experts on the news channel. The same face I saw in the parking lot of the Home Depot. The pandemic levels of anger, anxiety, and rage are free-floating, viral, and cancerous parasites, looking for a host to attach, dominate, and control. Has it infected you?

Since the beginning of time we’ve tried to figure out what to do with these emotions. These were, incidentally, the four emotions that put Jesus on the cross. We’ve sacrificed people, sacrificed animals, symbolically spit on goats and run them over cliffs. We project these emotions onto other people, other nations, other races, and conveniently deny our own shadows. When these emotions are trapped in a family system often the child becomes the identified carrier of the toxins and looks for ways to escape the pain. Someone ends up as a family kidney, attempting to purify the poison.

“My folks, they love me, they are good people, but sometimes my Dad just goes off on me. He always comes back later and apologizes, I don’t really think he means it, but he keeps doing it over again.” Earlier in the week his Dad had awakened him and raged about a minor item, over-reacting to a trivial incident. He had left a few things in his car: a gym bag, empty soda bottle, etc. “He really has a thing about keeping cars clean. I just stood there and took it. That’s what I have to do.” After he had been the lightning rod for his father’s rage and rectified the situation with the car, he went back to the bathroom and noticed his Dad had left a mess in the sink with shaving materials, combs, brushes, etc. Seems like whoever said, “before you remove the spec from your (son’s) eye, remove the 2” by 4” from your own,” makes a lot of sense.

If we project our pain, like this father did to his son, what we do is project rage, hate, disgust, and shame on to and into others. Without owning our own pain, we simply create more of it. When we scream at each other we temporarily release these intense feelings, and if we haven’t dealt with them, they will begin to build again until there is another crescendo in a week or two. It will happen again. When we use the verbal club and we are screaming at the top of our lungs, we communicate these four words: “I don’t love you!” You can’t be loving me and yelling at me at the same time!

The toxicity is contagious and poisons the minds of groups, tribes, clans, or nations and become embedded in the DNA for generations, as it has in the Middle East. No one is exempt from the collective human dysfunction. Not them. Not us. Think back to the prison pictures from Abu Ghraib and you will have a clear snapshot in your mind of what hate, rage, disgust, and shame looks like. No one is exempt from the collective human dysfunction. We are all infected with the same disease.

We will either transmit our pain or it will transform us. If we are a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, in whatever shape, in whatever expression, in whatever culture, in whatever form, authentic faith is not about the finger, but it is the finger pointing to the moon. Authentic faith forces us to face our shadows and to deal with our pain: not to project it on to others. Authentic faith, in whatever form, is about a heart transplant. Life in the global village means the entire cosmos is sacred space. We alone make sacred space profane. Friday was the one year anniversary of the nine who were massacred at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. If we wouldn’t dream of being violent at church, synagogue, or mosque, why would we think it would be ok to be that way at home, school, work, or the roadways? Every space is sacred and even more so when we discover the sacred space, both without and within. Legendary golfer Bobby Jones once was quoted as saying, “The narrowest fairway we’ll ever hit is the five inches between our ears.” Why? It is sacred space.

How do we stop the madness? By seeing it for what it really is: It is insanity. It is our collective and individual dysfunction. Individually, we choose to decide whether to participate in the collective madness or not. Eckhart Tolle has written, “What would you do if you held a hot coal in your hand? You would drop it!” We must find ways to stop it and drop it!

The teaching of Jesus is so simple. It is easier to see what you don’t like about others than to see what you don’t like about you. Stop focusing on “those people.” Turn the spotlight on you. Stop focusing on the imperfections of others. Focus on your own. Stop trying to fix them. You can’t fix them. You can only fix you!

Today I’d like to issue a challenge to all Dads. We are called to a higher consciousness: not to participate in the pandemic of anger, anxiety, rage, and hatred. Let us pledge to be peacemakers! Habitat for Humanity seeks to eliminate homelessness one house at a time. Let us pledge to eliminate violence one hearth, one hope, and one heart at a time. We can no longer allow another human being to emotionally cannibalize another child or another human being. Let us put an end to verbal violence and all other forms of violence. Bullies become bullies because someone taught them how. Are you bullying your children? If it’s not working, get help. Look within! Take a parenting class. Find healthy ways to de-escalate, detach, and de-stress. Take a yoga class, jog, or find your way to a gym. Make yourself accountable to others and pledge yourself to the pathways of peace. Build bridges of empathy. Cast the vision! Be purposeful! Lead the way! Communicate! Make your home a safe place. Target your home for transformation where love, peace, discipline, and nurture raise up children with confidence. Turn to a more excellent way, to real family values: Faith, hope, and love last forever, but the greatest of these, is love! Hate is not the opposite of love, for true love has no opposite, and creates no opposition. Make it real! Make it stick! Make it happen! Build pathways to peace. Make your voice a voice without violence!

Questions from #Charleston "I was coming to church. Why didn't God protect me?"

Mildred Gilpin and Peggy Trinkle were members of the Hollywood Hills United Methodist Church in Hollywood, Florida. They were in their early 80's, widowed, and both found companionship in each other's company. On a Sunday evening, as they were entering the sanctuary for worship, an assailant snatched their purses and pushed them to the ground. During this brief scuffle, Mildred's left arm was broken.

The next morning I visited Mildred in the hospital. She was battered, bruised, and shaken to the core. Her bones and bruises would heal. Her soul and psyche would not. "I was coming to church. Why didn't God protect me? Aren't you supposed to feel safe at church?"

A sanctuary, by its own definition, means a safe place. When Saul was chasing David and trying to kill his rival, David entered a make-shift sanctuary and placed his hands on the horns of the altar. No harm could come to you when you entered a sanctuary and did what David did. It was like claiming temporary asylum. When we played "tag" as children this was the equivalent of getting to "base." When on "base" you couldn't be tagged. You were safe.

Dylann Roof's acts of heinous hate have once again violated this sacred principle. The domestic terrorism that was perpetrated by the whoremongers of hate within the shadows of steeples during the 1950's and 60's is well documented. Racism, bigotry, and viral hatred are free-floating toxicity, and like parasites, they look for a target to attach and attack. This Sunday or any Sunday I don't want to pass through a metal detector and be wanded by ushers in order to worship. We are reminded, again, there is no place on the planet we can go in order to be safe.

Mildred never really recovered. Her bruises faded and her bones healed but Mildred was so utterly disillusioned she more or less gave up. She died in less than a year.

We can't afford to do what Mildred did; to give up hope and to give in to hate. Violence only begets more violence unless we are able to live into a higher level of consciousness. "For you have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." In these moments we desperately need the church to be a relevant source and force for reconciliation. We must refuse to be defined by another massacre or by the acts and actions of mass murderers who are themselves enslaved to an ideology of evil. We are called to follow the one who has called us into community by his body and with his blood. Because of his crucified brokenness he is able to identify and enter into our own.

Come, Lord Jesus, come! We are battered, bruised, and shaken to the core. The soul and psyche of our nation are wrenching with shock, anger, and grief. Come heal this land. Amen.

RoadRage: Anger Looking for a Target to Attack


Safety is our first and #1 need and when our safety switch is flipped, even mild-mannered individuals behind the wheel of an automobile are capable of becoming stark-raving lunatics. Road rage is serious business. Road rage is an expression of chronic cultural stress acted out in dangerous ways. Unless we are driving a Smart Car or a Prius, an automobile can make us feel powerful. The power of the engine somehow travels up the steering column into the hands grasping the wheel.

In addition, conscious or unconscious meaning exists between an owner and his/her automobile. An automobile for many persons may be a status symbol. It may be an expression of how I see myself. In my son’s late adolescence, he spent a small fortune on his truck, lowering the chassis, chrome rims, big tires, neon lighting, and stereo systems with speakers powerful enough to bring down small airplanes. In and out of his subculture, his truck screamed like a strutting peacock, “NOTICE ME.” An automobile can be seen as an extension and expression of my own identity, depending on the make, model, and the price tag. An automobile also provides us with an entitled place where we believe we are supposed to feel safe. We tend to believe we are supposed to feel safe in “our own space,” which especially includes our automobiles.

The activation of the rage sensor occurs when a fellow motorist rides too closely to our bumper, cuts us off, or gives the one-finger salute. When this happens at interstate speeds of 70 miles per hour or higher, the immediate reaction of anger, or “rage”, is because our need for safety has been disrupted and destabilized by the blatant injustice or incompetence of another driver.

Free-floating anger is chronic anger looking for a target to attack. Persons carrying free-floating anger are like thunderclouds ready to discharge lightning bolts. Road rage is often an incident from a random encounter. Someone you do not knowbecomes the target for all the free-floating anger and anxiety going on in your life. With a constant state of chronic stress, anxiety, and anger floating around, a sudden threat to safety is escalated by the heightened reaction of a driver or passenger with his/her finger on the trigger of an automatic weapon or the vehicle itself becoming a 3000-pound battering ram. Violence, if not diffused, will always escalate.

So what should you do if you find yourself the target of a road rage incident? 

1)    Assess the threat. Is this someone who is three lanes over giving you the finger because they don’t like your FSU sticker on your car or someone in the parking lot who has stalked up behind you carrying a loaded 9mm threatening to shoot you if you don’t give them your keys? If it is not an immediate threat don’t give it any of your energy.

2)    Do not escalate. Don’t return the one finger salute.

3)    Don’t get into a shouting match. Verbal violence always precedes physical violence. Remember, there are any number of people carrying loaded weapons in their cars. Don’t let a shouting match turn into a shooting match.

4)    If possible, head for a place that is well lit and populated. If necessary, get out of the car and head inside the Travel Mart, Gas Station, or Restaurant.

5)    Report aggressive drivers. If you are being tailgated or if other drivers are making threats call 911. Better yet, have someone else in the car make the call. Try not to appear ruffled or intimidated. Be casual. Note the make and color of the car and the tag number if you can get it.

Dealing with the Holiday Blues

Let’s face it. This is not an easy time of the year for many people. If you’ve lost a loved one, gone through a divorce, suffered through an illness or injury, faced a job loss, lost your home to bankruptcy or foreclosure, or struggled with addictions for yourself or a loved one, it may be difficult for you to feel thankful or to feel warm and fuzzy about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Here are a few tips for you or to share with someone you know, love, or care about:

1. There are no bad feelings, only feelings that make us feel bad.We cannot assign a moral value to our feelings. Our feelings are neither good nor bad; they just are. Try not to run away, repress, or numb what you are feeling.

2. It is O.K. to feel sadness and loss. When we are feeling down, blue, or depressed, we tend to project on to other people that they don’t want to be around a “stick in the mud.” The way the psyche works with this is, “If I don’t want to be with me, why would anyone else want to be with me?” The holiday pressure to be “up” makes it that much more difficult and just another expectation that is going to make us feel like we’ve failed. Don’t pressure others to “snap out of it” or “look at the bright side.” If you find yourself wanting to offer encouragement by using a cliché then don’t. Instead, offer your presence instead of presents.

3. Mobilize Your Feelings. I read an article in the U.S.A. Today about a woman whose daughter was murdered ten years ago and she has now decided to track down those who killed her daughter since the police were unable to do so. One couple I know who’s son committed suicide after battling addictions and depression for a decade established a fund to assist young adults to help provide case workers for those who are transitioning from Halfway houses to independent living arrangements. What can I do to help me take my power back and make a difference rather than to “give in" to the hopelessness and helplessness.

4. Find someone to share how you feel. I read a book many years ago by Jess Lair titled, “I Ain't Well, But I Sure Am Better.” He stated that Montana is known as the "Howdy State." People ride around in their pick-up trucks and wave “Howdy” to each other. Lair pointed out that there are more suicides per capita in Montana than any other state. We need more than "howdy" relationships. Be intentional about building real relationships. A fellow pastor walked into my office one day and said, "We're going to go to lunch today, you seem to be the kind of person that I want to get to know, and I want to be your friend." I’ve never had anyone do that before or since but it worked. We may have to choose who will be our "friends." If not, find a support group, a twelve step group, a spiritual director, a pastor, or a trained counselor.

5. Tell Your Story. We all have a story to tell and a story to share. Your story, where you are from, what you have done, your family and friends, the experiences you’ve had, are all variables that have helped shape your life up until this point. Most of our stories have to do with either joy we have experienced or pain we have suffered. Something happens in the telling and hearing of our story. Joy that is shared becomes a celebration. Pain that we release becomes healing. If we are carrying shame that is accepted by another the power of the shame is diminished and we move one step closer toward wholeness.

6. Discover a sense of community. Much of what we pass off as community is really pseudo-community. We have to get beyond the "howdy" stuff (#4) and the assumption that we are all alike, we agree on everything, or we all believe the same things. We don’t. Pretending like we do make us all operate under the assumption “it is better to be nice than it is to be real.” In real communities we struggle to figure out how to do both. If your church, synagogue, or mosque is just another place where you can be anonymous, you haven’t found a true community.

7. Capture a sense of what it means to be spiritual for you. The essence of the spiritual message of this season is that of hope. No matter how dark the world gets God is entering into our world in the same way we all came. No matter how dark your world may be God is entering to meet you in it.

Seventy-Six Trombones and Why We Celebrate All Saints Day

It was hot, as hot as it gets in Florida in the month of August. During the morning I conducted worship services and taught Sunday School. At noon there was a quick lunch with the family. During my time and tenure as a local church pastor, Sunday afternoons were always reserved for naps and crawling into the fetal position and sucking my thumb. I always felt spent on Sunday afternoons. There was rarely anything left, like Old Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, not even a bone left for the dog, and I was the dog.

On this Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m., a graveside service had been scheduled for a church member who had been the financial secretary for 28 years. She didn’t want a big service, just something short and sweet, and now I was driving in the funeral procession and following the hearse. I thought of Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, going to his corner after the 14th round, telling his manager to "cut me" so he could see out of eyes nearly swollen shut. Rocky had to get off the stool when the bell rang and go after Apollo Creed in the final round. I needed to do something to summon the energy necessary to come off of the stool and give this dear soul the send off she deserved.

I was driving the family Dodge Caravan. The only redeeming value this behemoth had was a 10 speaker custom Bose sound system. I fiddled with the dial until I found what my children would have called elevator music. What I stumbled on was not the theme song to "Rocky" but rather the original version of “The Music Man” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.” As the trombones were added into the score I turned the music up and up and up. By the time we pulled into the cemetery it was going full blast. We pulled to a stop. I stayed in the van to hear the last of the song. I looked to see if the mourners were gawking awkwardly at me. I quickly discerned they couldn’t hear the music that was bellowing from the speakers and pulsating through my veins. The song ended. I was renewed, rejuvenated, and my energy had returned. I was ready for the 15th round. When I got out of the van and stepped into the sweltering heat I immediately felt stunned as if I had been hit in the face with a stinging jab. How could I put on my “funeral face,” appear somber, and put on a mask to hide this renewed energy that had awakened my soul?

It was one of those rare moments when I was able to pull off what was going on with me in “real time.” I read the opening scripture sentences, went through a few prayers, and then began to explain what was going on with me. I spoke about being spent, about finding the radio station, and about being revitalized listening to Seventy-Six Trombones. This funeral, and every one I have conducted since that moment, all of the sudden made perfect sense to me. We march into graveyards with trombones blaring, all Seventy-Six, and all graveyards, because we follow the one who marched out of one.

And so on this day for all the Saints, who from their labors rest, who surround us "like a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) we offer you, not twenty-one guns, but rather this Seventy-Six trombone salute. We march triumphantly into cemeteries and graveyards because you first marched out of one

If you'd like to listen . . . follow the link below!


“No DSM IV Diagnosis for Poor White Trash and Southern Cultural Schizophrenia”

This article was first published in Journeys Magazine, a Publication of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, in the Winter-Spring edition 2009.

Rev. P.T. Holloway, my grandfather, was an ordained minister in the South Georgia conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In 1924 he preached a sermon condemning the lynching of an African-American in the community he served. My mother was the youngest of seven children born to P.T. and Lilly Holloway. Mom remembered being terrified as a little girl when her Uncle Rufus died. The terror did not come from his death. It happened after the committal at the graveside. Hooded men wearing white robes came out from behind the bushes to hold their own ceremony. Nobody knew Uncle Rufus had been a member of the Klan.

My parents married in 1941. Dad was 21. My mother was 16. During World War II my father drove in the motor pool while stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia. His experience as a veteran qualified him to drive a bus for the Jacksonville Coach Company in Jacksonville, Florida. Dad proudly boasted he would have kicked Rosa Parks off his bus in a heartbeat. Southern protocol demanded African-Americans to surrender their seats to Whites and take their place in the back of the bus.

I am a son of the cultural schizophrenia of the south. As a six year old boy I never understood why there were separate water fountains and restrooms for “Whites” and “Coloreds”. Dad hated Cassius Clay and Martin Luther King, Jr. Our once a week restaurant experience was usually at Morrison’s Cafeteria. James was our regular waiter who would fill our glasses with iced tea. Dad gave James a $7.tip one year at Christmas, a dollar for each of his seven children. Mom said he was a “good Nigra” which was “southern” for a shuffling Uncle Tom who tried to please his white superiors.

I awoke one morning at 2:30 a.m. and heard unfamiliar voices in our living room. Two uniformed policemen were sitting on the couch. My Dad was being questioned. Mom told me everything would be o.k. and to go back to bed. Police do not make social calls at that hour. Her words did not reassure me. I later learned Dad had run over and killed an African-American man on his last run of the night. The man was drunk, had stepped off a curb, and Dad couldn’t stop in time. Dad was not charged, but he quit driving the bus and he began drinking heavily. It was his way, I suppose, of dealing with his pain.

            My parents did not graduate from High School. I was the first in our family to attend college, initially motivated for a student deferment to stay out of Viet Nam. In a freshman sociology class I had a sudden epiphany. From national income averages I discovered our family was never middle class. I saw us as we were: poor white trash. I majored in Political Science and minored in Black History. Dad read my texts: Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and Langston Hughes. He told me of a lynching he had witnessed when he was just four years old. His cultural lenses began to change.

Education may create empathy and understanding but it isn’t enough. Insight doesn’t always heal. Abuse frequently becomes replicated in family systems and can surface in every generation. Racism is abuse trapped in a cultural family system. Why I wasn’t infected with this virus of hate is unclear to me. I just always knew it was wrong and this is what we taught our children. Racism institutionalizes splitting and becomes culturally embedded. Projecting toxic emotions onto others and disowning your own demons is delusional. You don’t have to make someone inferior to boost your own pseudo sense of superiority. No one is better than anyone else. Believe in yourself. Be humble. Remember from whence you came. We’re just poor white trash.

Happy 95th Birthday Dad . . . A Tribute to You and Your Razor

It was one of his prized possessions. He won it in a poker game while he was in the Army, stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia during World War II. The razor was nearly stolen one night when he was off base sleeping in the back seat of his car. A would-be thief was rummaging through the glove compartment. Dad heard some commotion. The thief was startled when Dad sat up and demanded to know what he was doing. The would-be felon dropped the razor and ran. This razor had a harrowing beginning and I'm certain I would have never been told this story if the thief would have made off with his booty.

From the time I was a little boy Dad told me, "One day I'm going to leave my razor to you." "Where are you going? I asked. He meant that when he died he was going to leave me the razor. "You're going to die?" The thought terrified me.

One day while in elementary school I had a science project that had to be completed. My problem was I needed to cut a cardboard box. Unable to find a knife, box cutter, or other sharp object, I grabbed Dad’s razor, unscrewed the top, and removed the blade. After I performed this clandestine act, I returned the blade to its rightful place. My two sisters would occasionally pilfer his razor to shave their legs. They would likely be accused of this dastardly deed. The next morning Dad came out of the bathroom with tiny little red dots of toilet paper stuck all over his face. In a voice of calm he began the grand jury investigation to get to the bottom of this crime. Both sisters claimed their rightful innocence. However, their testimony was not deemed to be credible because they had been tried and found guilty in prior investigations. The question he raised was, "Who shaved a pig with my razor?" I thought this was uproariously funny, for one reason, we didn't own any pigs. I couldn't get out of my head the image of someone putting shaving cream on a pig and I wondered if this was where the word "razorbacks" came from. Laughter disarmed me and I confessed to the crime. In my mind and at that time I didn't understand that razor blades became dull. I just thought they always remained sharp. In my defense I reasoned that it shouldn't really matter because the razor was going to be mine one day so I should at least be able to use it now.

Dad loved that razor. He would have nothing to do with electric razors. He said they didn't shave close enough. When "Trac Two" blades came out he would have nothing to do with them. Neither would he have anything to do with the three, four, or five bladed razors. How many blades do you really need?

It was one of the few constants in his life. His first wife, my Mom, died from lung cancer a few weeks after she turned 60. He was devastated and conflicted with grief by her death. The devastation didn’t last long. She died in November. He remarried the following July. Dad and Amy were married for 20 years. She stood up from the breakfast table, fainted, hit her chin on the way down, and broke three vertebrae in her neck. After neck surgery, a halo, and attempts at rehab, she was dead in six weeks. Dad was again conflicted with grief. He blamed himself for not being able to catch her before her chin hit the table and her neck snapped.

We moved him in with us primarily so we could get him to much needed medical attention. He had Paget's Disease which meant his bone marrow was hardening and he had fractures in his back. His stomach was distended up into his chest through a Hiatal hernia. His stomach wouldn't empty and it caused nausea and vomiting. When Brenda tried to help him with prep for a colonoscopy he literally became like a rabid raccoon and thought she was trying to kill him. He was on pain patches for his back pain and he was higher than a kite until he would crash. He became mean when the drugs started to wear off. We had to take his car away. He was enraged. He ran away twice and we had to call the police. He wanted to move back to Jacksonville. My sister found an assisted living facility that was just blocks away from where he grew up in Five Points near Riverside.

He adjusted to his new environment but it took months. He slept a lot and stayed in his room. He was depressed. He quit bathing. Other residents complained that he smelled. Dad had to be moved to a different section of the facility so he could receive care with his ADL’s, medical nomenclature for activities of daily living, such as bathing, grooming, etc. With pinpoint accuracy he could tell detailed stories of events that happened eight decades earlier but have no clue what he had for lunch. He told me a story about a cousin of his that had been convicted of murder and had been sent to the electric chair at Raiford. I thought he had made it up but I researched the story and it was true. I always knew Dad possessed many secrets. I’ve always wondered about all of the others that died with him.

His behavior became more bizarre. The administrator called me one day and was dumbfounded when she learned he had defecated in his bathroom sink. During our monthly visits for haircuts, supplies, and an off campus trip for a meal, we’d bring wipes with us because there were always telltale smears of feces on his walker. No matter how many times his clothes were washed he always smelled "old," a peculiar and pungent smell that penetrates the nostrils like a knife stabbing through sinus cavities into the brain. I felt both love and disgust for this man, the emotional equivalent of trying to juggle both fire and ice. The kids nicknamed him Yoda, because he began to look like him. As Yoda would say, “Difficult these emotions to feel, they are. . . .”

Although his body and his mind betrayed him, his sense of humor did not. He was an endless reservoir of corny jokes, puns, and one-liners that caused more groans and eye rolls than the number of hits of those registering for ObamaCare on the Healthcare.gov website. He wanted you to laugh because he wanted you to like him. Laughter communicates acceptance, something he craved. The humor was at time offensive and inappropriate which was also consistent with his character. At other times, it was unintended. Of all of the prose and poetry he had committed to memory the Gettysburg Address was an integral selection in his repertoire. The last time I took him off campus for lunch (he ordered salmon every time, something he had never eaten before) and out of “The Nut House,” the name he ascribed to his place of residency, he launched into a usual and predictable recitation of “Four score and seven years ago.” Upon completion, he looked at me with a deadpan expression on his face and he was as serious as a heart attack, “Did I write that?,” he asked. I said, “Yes, Dad, you and Abraham Lincoln!” His confusion was understandable since he repeatedly plagiarized the poetry of Edgar A. Guest and in his recitations he claimed them as his own.

Apart from his humor, the one constant, the one thing that he cohered around that created normalcy, consistency, and predictability, was the routine of shaving. Long gone was reading the paper, working the crossword puzzle, going bowling, and frequent gambling trips to Las Vegas. He was such a regular at the Four Queens his lodging and meals were usually free. The last ritual and routine he hung on to with desperation was the daily ritual of shaving. Since the onset of the double-barreled blast he suffered from age and stage senility he literally had forgotten about his lifelong dedication to his blade razor. During one visit he gave it to me so I could “enjoy it” prior to his death or otherwise further demise. He now wanted and demanded an electric razor. The problem was he went through them like most of us go through disposables. He sat in his reclining chair in his room and fouled them up as readily as he did his remote control on his television set. His face was always raw. He shaved constantly. He applied lubricants to his face, such as Vaseline, that further gummed up the works of his electric razors. When they stopped working he would dismantle them and then demand a replacement. After fouling more than a few expensive varieties we then resorted to buying the BOGO’s at Walgreens or CVS. During his four years at the Riverside Presbyterian House our best estimates are that he went through twenty five electric razors, about one every two months. The list was small for Dad’s supplies. “Dad, we are coming up Saturday. Do you need anything?” “Bring Cokes, shampoo, soap, toilet paper, and . . . a new electric razor.”

Today would have been Dad’s 95th birthday. I’ve only ever had one electric razor. It was one of the early casualties when I gifted it to him. I don’t like electric razors. Never have. Never will. If I ask you one day, my children, Sean or Rebekah, to bring me an electric razor please bring me instead at least 30 Ambien or a 9mm pistol. If I ask you for an electric razor you will know that I have officially and totally lost my mind just like your Granddaddy did. I don’t want you to everhave to go through the juggling act of holding those God awful emotions of love and disgust. As you know, I am in my sixth decade. I don't think I fear so much about growing old as much as I fear beingold.

Happy Birthday, Dad. In honor of this day I’m going to offer you a toast, of sorts. Today I will raise my mug . . . and lather up my brush. Today Dad, I will shave with your razor. And I will remember the Dad who shaved with this same razor before the effects of aging and time and dementia hit you with a haymaker and knocked you down for the count long before you were carried out of the ring.

The Season . . . Is The Reason Dr. Timothy McNeil, LMHC Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11

The Season Is The Reason

          By our very nature we are creatures who hunger for meaning and to make sense out of experience. Terrorists explode pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and immediately we want to know who did it and why. We now know the who and we await the why. A fertilizer factory explodes and decimates a small Texas town and we want to know how and why.

          Speaking of explosions, last Saturday evening Brenda and I were in Cherokee Sound in the Abacos for a brief weekend fishing trip. In the distance I could hear thunder. I borrowed a bicycle and rode down to the dock and took this picture of an approaching storm. We came back to the house, ate dinner, cleaned up the kitchen, and began to settle in for the evening. Our hosts were watching marathon re-runs of the Golden Girls which I took as a signal that God was calling me to go upstairs to gather a few thoughts about what to say for today. I knew the announcement that was going to be made. I was staring at a blank page on my I-Pad and my mind was as completely blank as the page was in front of me. And then the power went off. And I was wondering if this was what it was going to be like here on Sunday . . . blank minds and to add stunned faces and a feeling like all of the air leaving the building and the power going off.

          I want to apologize to any of you who are first time visitors because this is probably going to feel like you are attending someone else's family reunion and you must have stumbled in here by mistake. Last Sunday it was announced that Bill and his wife Becky, who have provided the pastoral leadership for this church, will be leaving after 5 years in June. No mention of where they are going and no mention of who is coming to replace him. With this comes a vague assurance that everything is going to be ok, it's a done deal, and trust the system. And so if you are visiting hang with me . . . eventually this might work.

          Since we are by nature creatures of meaning making, and we always try to make sense out of experience, we all want to know why. I've been a United Methodist all of my life. My Grandfather, P.T. Holloway, was a Methodist preacher and a member of the South Georgia Conference. When my grandfather served the church pastors didn't find out where they were going until the last day of annual conference. Pastors would have to go home and pack and be in their new assignment the following week. After 70 years the logistics haven't changed all that much, and the emotional dynamics are about the same.      

And so in this way it is frequently like a death or a divorce. The church can ask for it or the pastor can ask for it. If a pastor practices self-awareness he or she will always be asking whether or not they sense and feel they are the right fit in this place and at this time for the people they serve. When I was in my 5th year in Madison I once asked George Foster, a wise pastor who has long retired to the other shore, "George, when is it time to leave?" And he told me, "The year before you have to." Bill didn't have to and it probably wasn't the year before he had to. The church didn't ask for it and technically Bill didn't ask for it. When we left Hollywood Hills after being an apprentice associate for three years I asked for a move sensing it was time for me to lead my own congregation. When we left Madison and moved to Daytona and then when we left Daytona and moved to Palm Harbor both churches asked for us to stay and we asked to stay.

          Technically he didn't ask for it and I didn't ask for it but in a sense we did when we who are United Methodist Clergy accept the vows we take at the time or ordination. Ordained elders agree to itinerate. We agree that the Bishop and the District Superintendents have the authority to send us where they believe our gifts, talents, skills, and abilities may best be utilized.  And so in this sense the pastor is ultimately married to the conference."You've brought stability and helped facilitate healing and we need Bill over there and we think this one is the right fit for over here." There are times when they get it right and there are other times it is a mismatch. It is both matriarchal and patriarchal in the sense that in this day and age it seems strange to have to be a part of a system of arranged marriages. Most of us tend to push back against authorities when someone tells us, "We know what is best for you."

          As the John Mellencamp song goes, "I fight authority and authority always wins." We don't like hearing, "we know what's best for you." I remember being 12 years old and going to the Midway Drive In theatre in Jacksonville. I was in the back seat with my pajamas on and the movie was "Shenandoah," starring James Stewart." He played a widower who was raising 6 sons cast during The Civil War. The Confederate Army was calling for recruits and they came to Jimmy Stewart's farm. The recruiter said of his sons, "The Confederate Army needs your sons. And Jimmy Stewart said, "Where was the Army when we needed a spare (breast) around here?" My twelve year old mind was shocked at what I heard, especially since the word used was slang for breast.

          But some higher authority is always asking us to sacrifice our sons and daughters for a "higher cause," for God, or for the church, or for the good of the nation. I have always struggled with the story recorded in Genesis when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I know from a form critical perspective that the story represents the end of human sacrifices which were quite prevalent until around the 17th century BCE but I still don't like it. 'We were all horrified when an eight year old boy died at the bombing at the Boston Marathon and more so the Shady Hook massacre that claimed the innocent lives of 20 school children. However, the fact of the matter is that 70 other children were murdered by a parent that same week and every week since then by one or both parents and most of them are under 5 years of age. If it happened today either God or Abraham would be reported to DCF. At times it is the military and in other times it is corporations, Jimmy Stewart's protest is the protest of every parent. Why does this higher authority have the right to lay claim to our own flesh and blood?

          And so how do we make sense out of this? We are creatures who are always trying to make sense out of experience. One of the dangers we face is to reduce it all down to a cliché. Pain is the sign of weakness leaving the body. What doesn't kill you will make you stronger. God doesn't give you anything that you can't handle. God has a plan and a purpose. Everything happens for a reason. None of these commonly held beliefs are to be found in the Bible. I wish there was a way we could apply a vacuum to the language of Christian clichés and suck them all out of our vocabulary.

          I'd really like to tackle all of these but I'm only going to stick with one. Everything happens for a reason. I am fairly convinced we default to these clichés when we really don't know what else to say. I have learned that whenever I am in doubt as to what to say it is better to say nothing. It had only been about four or five months after I had this strong sense that I needed to finish my undergraduate career and prepare for the ministry when my Dad, Bob Peters who was to become my father-in-law, and I were mixing concrete and pouring a walkway between the back porch and the utility room. The day happened to be Good Friday when we were doing this chore and while digging and mixing and pouring Bob asked me, "Why do they call it Good Friday?" I'm guessing my Dad read the dumbfounded look on my face when he immediately said, "If you don't know the answer to that question then don't say anything." It was good advice.

          At times the most appropriate response we can make is silence. In other moments we don't really want answers we just want our cries of pain to be heard. When we are heard we feel cared for and comforted. On Wednesday evening we were entrusted to be the babysitters for Maya. This was Mom and Dad's first trip out in leaving their child while they went out to dinner. We had been warned "she's been fussy lately." For about three of the four hours Maya gave us a full demonstration in order to let us know that her lungs were working correctly. After checking for the obvious signs of distress, with a clean diaper and knowing she had been fed, I told her, "You just go right ahead and tell Papa all about it." She is such a smart girl because you know what? That is exactly what she did. We may say we want answers when what we really want is to be held in whatever anguish we happen to be experiencing.  Now I can honestly say I do know the answer to that question. It was named Good Friday centuries later. But when the nails were being pounded into his hands I can't imagine anybody that day thought it was good.

          In Genesis 50 Jacob has died in Egypt and Joseph has his father embalmed and asks Pharaoh if he can take his body back to Canaan to bury him. When Joseph's brothers hear of his arrival they are quaking in their boots, or sandals, or whatever they were quaking in. They hated their brother. He was clearly their father's favorite. His father had given him the Brook's Brothers coat of many colors. It was trimmed in leather and suede. They were first going to kill him, then they threw him in a well, then they pulled him out and sold him into slavery. Potiphar recognizes Joseph's abilities and puts him in charge of his household. Potiphar's wife early on had auditioned for "Desperate Housewives" and she tries to put the move on Joseph. Being the gentleman he was he spurned her advances. As a scorned woman she now claims he tried to rape her. Joseph is imprisoned, nearly executed, and gets labeled as a sexual predator and has to register on Pharaoh's data base. While he is in prison he enrolls in the University of Phoenix, takes on line courses, and studies to become a psychotherapist. Joseph learns how to interpret dreams which come in quite handy when he interpreted Pharaoh's dream of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows. "The seven fat cows means we are going to have a bull market and for the next seven years you need to invest in grain futures on the commodities market. After that there are going to be seven years when the market is going to look worse than the housing bubble burst and a famine is going to hit that will make the great depression look good." He had been thrown down into a well, down into slavery, and down into prison and had to reinvent himself three times. He was now the 2nd most powerful man in Egypt. Joseph's brothers were shaking in their sandals. And then Joseph puts a spin on all of this that requires most of us to take our heads off and shake them and then put it back on. "You meant it for evil but God meant it for good." I don't think Joseph could have come to that conclusion when he was in the bottom of the well or in solitary confinement in prison.

          Paul writes in Romans 7:15 about being conflicted. "The very thing I know I ought not do is what I end up doing. Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from the bonds of this affliction?" It is what I call the psychic crucifixion. The most vivid closest association I have with wretched is vomiting. It is the evoking of disgust. But it is only through this that we get to Romans 8:1 "Now therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." And further in Romans 8:28 "All things work for good for those who love God and who are called according to His purpose." If you find yourself in the belly of the whale just hold me and be with me in it. Life doesn't come with a fast forward button and we can't microwave our way through it.

          Does everything happen for a reason? Nobody can make that for us. Like Jesus, Joseph, Jonah, Paul, and you and me and Bill and Becky, we just have to hold those affirmations until we are ready to make them for ourselves. Let's just say it this way for now. Everything does happen in a season. A time to plant and a time to reap. A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time pitch our tent and a time to pack it up and move on.

          So what does it all mean? How do we make sense out of your time with us and our time with you? Harry Baas is a colleague in ministry who is now retired. I remember a story Harry told many years ago about returning to the Peeler Memorial UMC for a homecoming where he had served as the pastor years earlier. Many of the previous pastors had returned for the occasion and someone had put together a booklet outlining their achievements. Harry was somewhat stunned when he read the synopsis of his pastorate when some well meaning person wrote, "During Rev. Baa's pastorate the Pastor's Office was moved from the East Wing of the administrative building to the west wing."

          And so it's only natural for a pastor to wonder about the legacy and the footprint they leave in the life of a congregation. Did it matter? Was it worth it? It may be early to say this but I'm going to say it anyway. You are a gifted teacher. You have brought stability to this congregation. You have helped to facilitate healing. You have brought hope.

          A couple of years ago when you were trying to embed and work on a purpose statement you came up with two simple words. We Care. And although that may say something about us it says everything about you. When my father was dying in a nursing home in St. Augustine Bill and Becky showed up. If you were in the hospital here or in Jacksonville or Gainesville or Orlando Bill would be there. If there was a death Bill would be there. You have excelled as a teacher and at times a prophet and you could say anything to us you wanted to from that sacred desk because we know you have cared.

          Bill and Becky have loved and cared for us but we have loved and cared for them. Their son Jeremy is a captain of a ship half way around the world in Quadulan. We celebrated in the marriage of their daughter Beth and Keith in January. Their son Wesley is in the Marine Corp and Maggie and Callie are in San Diego. We pray for him every week. Callie is the most beautiful granddaughter I have ever seen . . . until our granddaughter Maya was born. Their family has become our family.

          Everything happens in the season. But the season is changing. Spring will soon be summer. Does everything happen for a reason? Maybe. Let's just not try to rush through it. When you tell me it all happens for a reason it feels like you are just trying to shush me. Hold me when I am hurting. Teach me to be silent when I do not know the answers.

The Boston Marathon Massacre: When We Don't Feel Safe . . . Nothing Else Matters

Safety is our number one need. Simply put, if we do not feel safe, nothing else matters. We react instinctually to threat in this way. Anger and anxiety are reactive emotions we experience to a real or imagined threat to our safety.

The economic tsunami caused from the bursting housing and credit bubbles has sent us on a cycle from boom to bust not seen since the great depression. The automotive industry has been the bell weather economic indicator for the stability of capitalism for decades. Do you remember, “How General Motors goes, so goes the nation?” Revelations of corporate greed have sent shock waves from Wall Street to Main Street. The current digital photo of western capitalism captures an astonishing and staggering image of one huge Ponzi scheme.

As for our individual health, we await the coming of each new pandemic from bird flu to swine flu with dread. As for the health of our planet, our carbon footprint has created the fungus of global warming that promises to make our planet as inhabitable as a soiled and smelly tennis shoe.

Our foundations for safety have been forever destabilized. Prior to 9-11-2001, the United States could depend on its geographical boundaries to insure a modicum of safety. Terrorism always happened “over there.” We now know that our safety is no longer an inalienable guaranteed constitutional right. We now know what the rest of the world knows: safety can no longer be taken for granted. We now know that 9-11 is a dividing line in history, marking time “before” and “after.” The “new normal” continues to raise anxiety to new levels. Our collective consensus is not if there will be another terrorist strike but when and where. Fighting a war on terror without boundaries and borders may well mean that our nation and the world will now be in a state of war in perpetuity. We have notched up both anxiety and anger through isolated and prolonged acts of “holy violence.”[ii]

 We cannot live purposefully, creatively, and with passion if we are stuck in a protective mode. Our psychological safety needs trigger anger and anxiety when there are real or imagined threats to issues of justice or competence.


[i] Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (Novato: New World Library, 1991), 103.

[ii] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Humanity at the Crossroads (New York: Crossroad, 1995).

"Man Up" A Celebration of Marriage for Sean McNeil and Kari Cobham November 24, 2012

Scripture Reading I Corinthians 13

            1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; 10 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. 13 So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

I really don’t know how to add to this. It says it all. Yesterday I was preparing what I would say to my son and my newest daughter as they begin their life together today as husband and wife. I wondered if I should comment about Gary Chapman and the 5 Love Languages or Steven Covey and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Anything I have to say will be inadequate. It’s like trying to add a post script to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech or a few additional comments after the Hallelujah Chorus has been sung.

When words have been spoken that stir the soul or a song has been sung that sends chill bumps down the spine we know we have been moved because we can feel it. What is Paul saying? How do we get to the meat of this mystery? I think what Paul is saying is clear. I think he is saying to “Man up.”

So I bypassed Gary Chapman and Steven Covey and I decided to turn to the Urban Dictionary for help. And it was then I knew I was in trouble. There were all of these crude references to male genitalia which would be more appropriate to a tail gating party than to a wedding party. “I realized I was going to be late to the bachelor party because I had forgotten about my appointment for my manicure.” “Geez, Man up!” "I can't.. believe.. she dumped me.. again! This is awful. I've been crying so much." "Jeeeez. Man up!" And whether it is Jimbo Fisher or Will Muschamp you can bet whoever is behind at halftime the coach is going to be telling his players to man up.

As offensive to women and politically incorrect as this may seem Paul is speaking to an audience of both men and women. “When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child but when I became a man I gave up childish ways.” He is not speaking about gender. He is speaking about maturity. Manning up is not about swagger it is about stepping up and stepping into maturity.  

Paul talks about this maturity by describing what it is and what it isn’t. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at what is wrong but rejoices at what is right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

It is not only about the love that has brought you together. It is the love you need in order to face the world. And when you are grounded in this love you can face the world together.

These words are attributed to Mother Teresa. Make love your aim!

“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.

 If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.”

Today is the launching pad for all of your tomorrows. As you make these sacred vows today you do so with a community of family and friends who stand with you. You cannot do this alone. We need each other. At times it may feel like you are on a high wire act 40 stories high as you precariously make each step. We are the safety net that is here and ready to catch you. As you face uncertainties, vocational challenges, financial insecurities, and bringing a child into the world, please remember this: When you choose to love nobody will ever have power over you because love is stronger than resentment, hate, anger, and fear. When you choose to love no one will be able to set the agenda for how you feel about yourself, or for that matter how you feel about them. When you choose to Love you step into a mystery and an alternative consciousness that is counter-intuitive to human nature. When you choose to love, love will always find a way. 

The challenge is to you, Sean, and to you Kari, but also to myself, the parents, the grandparents, the siblings, and friends, and everyone else who stands with you today. Man up.

The Temple Tantrum - Jesus Was A Whistle Blower

The Temple Tantrum - Jesus Was A Whistle Blower

Matthew 21: 12-13 March 18, 2012

As a prelude to this message please click this link to listen to

Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”


He was no fortunate one. No Senator’s son. No military son. He was never fed with a silver spoon. He came from neither privilege nor power. There were no Palm Beach addresses in the Bethlehem zip codes. When he later relocated to Galilee his zip code was still from the other side of the tracks. Does anything good ever come out of Galilee? In was not a location known for producing Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, or literature. He was no fortunate one. No Senator’s son. No military son. He was never fed with a silver spoon.

Andrew Breitbart (pronounced /braɪtbɑrt/ (February 1, 1969 – March 1, 2012) was an American publisher, commentator for the Washington Times, author, and occasional guest commentator on various news programs, who served as an editor for the Drudge Report web site. He was a researcher for Arianna Huffington, and helped launch her web publication The Huffington Post. He was involved in the release of the videos that effectively brought down the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now as well as releasing the sexting tweets of former NY congressman Anthony Weiner.

Julian Assange is the founder of WikiLeaks was launched in 2006 by the Australian activist. WikiLeaks has published material about extrajudicial killings in Kenya, Church of Scientology manuals, Guantanamo Bay procedures, and Iraq and Afghan War documents some of which was classified material. He has received numerous awards and nominations, including the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award, Readers' Choice for TIME magazine's 2010 Person of the Year, and he was nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2010, a European Arrest Warrant was issued for Assange in response to a Swedish police request for questioning in relation to a sexual assault investigation. He is still in England awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision if he will be extradited and sent back to Sweden. Assange voluntarily attended a police station in England on December 7 2010, and was arrested and taken into custody.

Both Breitbart and Assange are known as whistleblowers. By definition whistleblowers are truth tellers who tend to upset the equilibrium of the status quo. They call into question issues of integrity and expose duplicity. Regardless of your political persuasion from right to left or left to right, whistleblowers ignite oppositional energy. These dynamics are right/wrong, good/bad, smart/stupid, winner/loser, and eventually it de-evolves to love/hate. When this sequence fires it stirs up all of the toxic emotions: hate, rage, disgust, shame, and humiliation.

Jesus was a whistleblower. If you have to break a few eggs in order to make an omelet Jesus could have easily worked the breakfast rush at Peach Valley. Jesus wasn’t very good at mincing words or mitigated speech. He may have taken a lesson or two from his first cousin John the Baptist. “You brood of vipers.” If he was trying to be politically correct he might have said, “Have you considered you share some of the common characteristics and traits of certain reptilian creatures who congregate in mass?” “You are like whitewashed tombstones, all pretty and white on the outside but inside you are rotten to the core.” The politically correct version of this might be: “The metaphor that comes to mind is the similarity shared between the external appearance of stones that mark the location of persons who are deceased and the contents of the caskets contained if they were exhumed and examined in the various stages of decomposition. Matthew 5:27, “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jimmy Carter is just as guilty as Bill Clinton.

Can you tone that down a notch or two? Jesus wasn’t very good at mincing words or mitigated speech. However, truth is for the telling and hearing not the yelling and fearing. The janitor was cleaning the sanctuary after the morning services and he found the pastor’s notes up on the pulpit. He began to scan the manuscript. A yellow marker highlighted a few of the points. Hand written notes were scribbled on either side of the margins. One note was written in all caps and circled: “Point is weak. Yell here!” I was once working with a good old boy and his wife. They were both from southern Mississippi. She was giving him a royal reaming out. He had heard all he could hear and he finally stopped her and said in an even tone: “Woman, don’t harsh me.” I don’t imagine Jesus was much of a yeller or that he harshed many folks but the one time he did it set in motion the chain of events that railroaded him through 5 trials in less than eighteen hours. It was when he threw a Temple Tantrum.

On this occasion Jesus broke more than a few eggs. He was attempting to break the system. Philosopher Eric Hoeffer once said that the three forms of power are economic, political, and spiritual and those who follow the pathway to spiritual power do so because they do not have access to political or economic power. When he had his temple tantrum he stood squarely in the tradition of spiritual power and he was speaking truth to power, economic, political, and spiritual. When he spoke, he spoke “not as the scribes and the Pharisees, but as one who had authority.” This is the authority that rings with the tuning fork of truth. You know it when you hear it because you can also feel it.

He threatened the economic base. "It is written, 'My house shall be a houseof prayer'; but you have made it a den of robbers." He called them on their duplicity. He said he’d destroy the temple and rebuild it again in three days. He called them out on their abuse of power. He shook the foundations. He was charged with blasphemy. The real reason had to do with money. He shamed the system. He treated them with disdain and disgust. What he got back was hate, rage, and humiliation.

It was the perfect storm that connected all of the dots of toxic emotions. It ultimately was the tipping point that cost him his life. In baseball there are those moments when the batter swings and you can feel the bat hitting the ball on the sweet spot. At times the bat strikes the ball and the bat shatters and travels further than the ball. At other times the ball hits the bat and the batter absorbs the shock and the entire body feels the shock of the blow. Your body feels like one huge funny bone. I wonder if this is how Jesus felt after he had swung the bat in the temple. Jesus was swinging the axe in an attempt to fell the tree that was political, economic, and spiritual power. He soon learned the tree was petrified.

Whistleblowers call those who are in power to accountability when power is being abused. The most compelling sermon speaking truth to power was a sermon spoken without words at Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-nXT8lSnPQ History has never been kind to whistleblowers. John the Baptist ended up having his head served on a silver platter. Eventually the tanks will roll again and nothing will get in their way. Dr. Harrell Beck, former Professor of Old Testament at Boston University, once said the prophets were usually stoned twice. The first stoning was, of course, with stones. The second was a memorial stone erected 100 years later that said, “you were right.”

It was a miscarriage of justice that has not been replicated before or since. William Dillon was convicted of beating a Brevard County man to death on the beach in 1981. DNA evidence proved his innocence and he was released from prison in November 2008. The March 4th News-Journal reported that Gov. Scott signed a $1.35 million payout for Dillon. “It doesn’t give me back what was taken from me, but, at the same time, it’s such a joy to be here because my life was gone. I can’t do anything but look forward, I just want to say thank you.” He sounds a bit like he feels he won the lottery. He got his life back and he doesn’t have to worry about his next meal. His story has a happy ending.

Jesus wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last innocent man to be condemned to death. It cuts to the core. It violates an innate sense of justice. We all know that life isn’t fair. Your Momma and your Daddy already told you this. If you have raised teenagers you’ve told them the same thing, probably, with a slight smirk on your face. Just because you know this, it doesn’t make it an easier pill to swallow. How we think and what we feel are often two very distinct issues. The longest journey we will often take is the eighteen inches between the head and the heart. To phrase this with a slightly different twist, if O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony could be found not guilty by a jury of their peers and Jesus was condemned to death there is no such thing as justice.

We worship a God who was thrown off the train and under the bus. We worship a God who was beaten down by “the man.” We worship a God who was betrayed by one of his closest friends. “No longer do I call you my disciples, but you are my friends.” We worship a God who was spat upon, striped naked, beaten, shamed, and ridiculed with a purple robe and a crown of thorns. We worship a God who would never consent to playing the role of a victim. He boldly stood in the face of a superpower and when he was told, “Don’t you know I have the power of life and death over you?,” he replied, “You have no power except that which my Father in heaven has given to you.” He never let anyone take his power from him when you and I would be releasing our bowels and bladders.

So where is the good news in all of this? We follow a Lord who has cried the same agonizing prayers you and I have pleaded in our own Gethsemanies. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If you have marched into hell for a heavenly cause and were hosed down with water cannons or police dogs were released on you, If you have ever stood up to the Kingdoms of this world, the rulers and principalities of this age, if you have spoken the truth and been shown the door, if you have been betrayed by those closest to you, if you have been on the receiving end of hate, rage, disgust, shame, or humiliation, in the workplace, the marketplace, or even in the privacy of your own home, Jesus is saying, “There are no silver spoons in my place setting. I am no fortunate one or Senator’s son. My power doesn’t come from wealth, position, place or military might. My power comes from this: I get it. I’ve been there.”

Please go to this link to experience the conclusion of this message.


A Leap Day Parable: The Ice Cream Truck

The mechanized repetitive song played a calliope of bells and droned on over and over again. It was a familiar children’s song, so familiar that I can’t remember the tune, but I can remember the repetitiveness. I guess the reason I couldn’t remember the tune is because the repetitiveness was annoying. It was sort of like that Salvation Army Bell ringer that plays outside of Wal-Mart at Christmas time. I know the bell is supposed to be musical, but it is only repetitive. I can’t quite hear the music for the annoying repetitiveness of the bell. Do you remember the sound? It goes like this: Guilt-a-ring a guilt-a-ring a guilt-a-ring and on and on and on until you can pass by and put some change in the kettle in order to keep the ringing of the guilt from getting any louder, which generally tends to go away once you get inside the store. And when it is time to leave, the ringing is there to greet you again.

The repetitive ringing I heard was not about guilt. It was about joy. It was a strange sound to hear only because these are the sounds associated with summer. Baseball bats zing in the spring. An oak log crackles in a winter fireplace. The repetitive bells of the ice cream truck are usually reserved for summer. It is February 29, 2004.

When the ice cream man came through the neighborhood, time would standstill. No matter what we were doing, building forts, playing ball, or just sitting on the porch and wagging out tongues, all activity stopped. Children would freeze in place. We would hold up our heads, raising an ear, like a beagle hearing a distant train before anyone else would. Hearing the bells of the ice cream truck meant two things. It was time for ice cream, and it was time to beg.

Children would run home at full gallop and promise anything in order to experience the sheer joy of the frozen treat. “Mom, I’ll be good for the rest of my life if you just let me have a quarter.” This was not a time for hesitation. This was not a time for debate. Hesitation meant the ice cream man was gone, and if he was gone, it felt like he would be gone forever. All of life stood in the balance in this one moment of risk. We would rush in with the full exuberance of ecstatic possibility. It was a wonder we did not become bi-polar. On the one hand was the excitement of getting the frozen treat, and joining the rest of the assembled tribe to devour the goods. On the other hand was the possibility of rejection. There were three answers I feared: “I don’t have any money. It’s too close to dinner. You didn’t make up your bed.”

I don’t have any money was the, “old mother Hubbard’s” answer which meant you can’t get blood out of a turnip. The cupboard was bare and there was no bone to give to the dog and no quarter for the ice cream man. Even though we were poor by today’s standards, I rarely believed this one because there had to be a quarter around somewhere. It’s too close to dinner meant that as children we really didn’t know what was best for us, that we would always choose to eat desert before we ate Brussel sprouts, and so I guess this was an exercise we were supposed to learn about priorities and delayed gratification. I don’t suppose I learned this one very well because I’ll choose ice cream over Brussel sprouts any day. The “you didn’t make up your bed,” meant that there was money, but I didn’t earn the right to the ice cream because I did not do my chores. Like any good attorney going through cross-examination, this was a yes or no question. “Did you, or did you not, make up your bed?” If the answer was yes, I had made up my bed, and there was money and it wasn’t too close to dinner, the quarter would be granted.

Back at the ice cream truck, the tribe was gathered to make their selections in accordance with the amount of money that had been successfully begged. Popsicles were at the low end of the pyramid. If all you could beg was a dime, then a popsicle would have to do. From popsicles there were push-ups and from push-ups there were ice cream sandwiches all the way up to the filet mignon of the ice cream truck: the Nutty-Buddy. Nutty-Buddies were wrapped in paper. The paper would be carefully peeled off to reveal a sugar cone with a crown of nuts and caramel and chocolate. An accomplished and experienced ice cream truck junkie could eat a nutty buddy like someone burning a candle at both ends. It was possible to eat the nuts and the chocolate and the caramel off the top, and at the same time, to bite the bottom off of the cone and suck out the ice cream. This feat was not to be accomplished by the novice, but only by the skilled Nutty-Buddy connoisseur.

These bells, these ringing, repetitive bells that play hypnotic children’s songs over and over again, seemed out of place because they were out of season. The bells of ice cream are reserved for summer. It is Florida, after all, but two days earlier there was 18 inches of snow in South Carolina and it’s been cold here with the wind blowing wind chills at a whopping 40 degrees!

It is the dead of winter, but even more odd, the day is February 29, 2004. Leap year. It’s an odd day, anyway. Every four years we have to make up a day because the way that we figure how the earth travels around the sun is off just a tad and so we have to tweak it in order to make it work.

Life is like that. No matter how much we try to organize it, no matter how much order we try to impose on it, every so often, and more often than not, life has to be tweaked. Life requires adjustments. And if we’re waiting every four years to tweak a thing or two, we may find that we need to be building in more tweak time. My manual on my truck indicates the oil is to be changed every 4000 miles. At Nascar tracks across America, cars come into the pits every 25-60 miles, depending on the track. Tweaking is what gets the cars from the back to the front. I’ve been married for 29 years, and if I waited every four years to “tweak” I think I know what I would be: divorced.

It seems, at times, that the repetitiveness of life often diminishes the joy. Bells are meant to awaken, not to put us to sleep. Ask any child when they hear the bells from an ice cream truck if they are feeling sleepy. Bells ringing at Christmas need to be ringing all year around. Maybe the guilt has to do with our neighbors who are in need 365/366 days out of the year. We are surrounded by phenomenal needs all the time. Is it only at Christmas that the guilt breaks through, because we know we have so much?

I want to hear the bells of the ice cream truck so that life doesn’t become so predictable, I want to hear the bells on leap day, ground hog day, the fourth of July, and Arbor Day. For that matter, I want to hear the bells on Monday, Tuesday, and all of the rest. Life is just too short to miss the ringing of the bells.

Jesse and Karen are biker friends from St. Augustine. I have known them casually until recently. The friendship has become much more intense. Jesse was diagnosed with kidney cancer last December. Cat scans revealed the cancer had spread to the liver and lungs. Last Monday Jesse was an “open and shut” case. Surgeons were to remove a cancerous kidney and when Jesse was opened, he was immediately closed. The cancer had spread everywhere. He was sent home to hospice, a condemned man sentenced to death in his own body. Alternative and holistic treatments are the last bridge spanning a diminishing hope. The countdown begins: two months and counting.

For Jesse, it’s immediate, and an “in-your-face” kind of thing. Jesse’s reality is also your reality and mine. We are all dying, or living for that matter. It’s our choice. The clock is ticking and the sand is drifting through the hourglass. We only get an allotted amount of ticks and grains of sand.

The Russian scientist Pavlov taught dogs to salivate when they could hear a bell and anticipate that food would follow. I think that is a pretty good idea. I want to salivate when I hear the bells. I want to live life with an insatiability that makes me always want to come back for more, licking my chops, making me fully aware and alive in every moment. Everything else is just plain boring. Maybe leap day is a subtle reminder that it is time to take a leap back into life!

I feel a strange stirring within. I think I’m ready to get up, fire up the Harley, head down to the grocery store, and see if I can find some Nutty-Buddies. I wonder if I still remember how to suck the ice cream out of the bottom. After all, it is burning at both ends.

Dr. Timothy L. McNeil is the Executive Director of the Genesis Counseling Center in Ormond Beach, Florida.

“To Pray At The Races – Sacred Moment or Civil Religion?” Published Daytona Beach News-Journal June 26, 2010

NASCAR is the only major provider of sports entertainment that includes a prayer in the pre-race ceremony. In my lifetime, I have witnessed the Supreme Court eliminate prayer in public schools, County Courthouses banned from displaying manger scenes, and the Ten Commandments removed from state houses of government. This privilege granted by NASCAR, and the networks, provides a generous concession to persons of faith who increasingly feel marginalized and their faith minimized in our present culture.

Although NASCAR has intentionally outgrown its Southern roots and developed a nationwide network of tracks and fans, it remains committed to preserving this tradition grounded in the cultural south and evangelical Christianity. Who could have predicted the marriage of Bible thumping preachers and moonshine runners could ever work? What strange bedfellows they make! Although the instructions given to guest chaplains specifically request the pastor use “inclusive” language, the majority of those who participate in the 25 second prayer ignore the instructions and pray “in Jesus’ name” to the delight of many and the dismay of others. For an evangelical pastor to do otherwise would be a compromise of their faith. Other fans who do not share their convictions feel offended.

Having been both an observer and a participant in the race prayer, I confess feeling conflicted about the practice. In 1986, through the generosity of the France family and the goodwill of Rev. Hal Marchman (track chaplain for 46 years at Daytona International Speedway) our family was invited to join other clergy families as guests at the Twin Qualifying races. I immediately became a fan. I wrote an article that was published in the News-Journal special edition on February 25, 2001 after Dale Earnhardt died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. When Hal retired in November 2004, I was honored to fill this position knowing I’d never fill his shoes. Two years later, Daytona International Speedway made a decision to rotate the position of chaplain and give other clergy an opportunity to be involved. The role of Chaplain became much like the Grand Marshall who exhorts the drivers to “start your engines.”

Here are a few observations from an observer and a participant. First, the sequence of the pre-race ceremonies follows the presentation of the flag, the prayer, the National Anthem, and a military flyover. While the position in this sequence honors the importance of prayer, the placement of the prayer may also create confusion about the meaning. The pre-race sequence links patriotism to our nation and devotion to God while the thundering jets serve as an exclamation point to our massive military muscle. The placement of the prayer makes a statement before the chaplain ever utters a word.

Second, race prayers follow a predictable pattern. The chaplain usually prays for the safety of the drivers. I still ask myself, “How does a chaplain pray for the safety of someone driving an 800 horsepower billboard traveling at two hundred miles per hour, aerodynamically hooked together bumper to bumper in a 43-car train?” God does not suspend the laws of gravity or physics, and is not responsible for human error in order to grant us “safety.” Once, I was asked to pray for the safety of the cowboys at the start of a rodeo. How do we pray for the safety of people who intentionally place themselves in harm’s way? In other words, “We’re going to place ourselves in situations of needless risk for your entertainment and we want God to cover the bets in the event it goes bad.” The Allison, Earnhardt, and Petty families know this doesn’t work.

Third, the chaplain is usually compelled to pray for the safety of our troops. I am a son of the south; and, I love our nation. I am proud to be an American. Yet, this practice has always felt strange to me. My son was in the Air Force during my first experience of praying at the speedway. I had a personal interest in “blessing our troops.” I wanted God to do what I could not do: protect my son. So what happens when this divine protection policy does not work? What happens when the military vehicle pulls up in your driveway, the uniformed soldiers knock at your door, and the first words spoken are, “I regret to inform you but your son or daughter…” Does this mean God was a slacker and had left the post? Does this mean our prayers for safekeeping were not earnest enough? Is it our fault our son or daughter was killed? I don’t believe so. I am convinced that God grieves whenever there is the needless death of a son or daughter regardless of the theory, ideology, philosophy, or theology that is playing behind the scene while these soldiers are pulling the triggers.

I believe God has made all things sacred. It is what we do that makes the world profane, as we are painfully witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico. I am grateful NASCAR honors this sacred tradition. I am moved to tears when I see thousands of people who wouldn’t step near the shadow of a steeple remove their caps as a sign of reverence to God.

As we pause to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we are reminded that our struggling 13 colonies could not find a way to unite until they declared war on England. Let us pray for ways for our world to unite without having to have enemies. If the world is a village, then we are all members of the same tribe. Let us pray for a new unity and for the healing of our environment, our nation, and our world. Let us pray for the creatures, the fowl and fish, who are the victims of the massive reminder of our addiction to oil. Let us pray for clean energy, jobs, and for hope for those who have been beaten down by the recession. Let us pray for peace, that we may beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks, that we will study war no more. (Isaiah 2:4) Let us pray to bring our troops home! Shalom and Amen!

Dr. Timothy McNeil First Sunday after Christmas 1st UMC Port Orange "Are You Looking Hard or Hardly Looking" or . . . "Would You Know Him If You Saw Him?" Luke 2:22-40 January 1, 2012

In the parking lot at the new Publix supermarket it all happened so fast that it seemed to be a dream or most probably a nightmare. He came up from behind when she was fumbling with her keys, trying to unlock the door. With his rush of adrenalin and sheer strength he simply pushed her to the pavement, and ripped the pocketbook from her arm. Stunned, it took several moments before she would cry for help, or even cry at all. By this time, he was long gone. Three days later at the police line-up, five young men were brought out on the stage, all nearly the same age and size. They stared at the one-way mirror and saw their own reflections. She looked through the glass and saw each of them and studied their faces, and convinced it was either number three or number five. Would you know him if you saw him?

At the airport, you have been assigned the responsibility of picking up someone you have never seen before which is no small task. There are only 240 people on the plane, and they are all in an eager scramble to get down to the baggage claim area, claim their luggage, to catch a cab or rent a car, and to head wherever their destination happens to be. As you look around now the thought dawns on you that you should have made a sign to hold with his name on it so that he could find you! You have only two clues to successfully solve this mystery. Your passenger will be wearing a dark pin stripe suit and will be carrying a briefcase. It is a description that narrows down the hunt to at least 20 business types. Would you know him if you saw him?

In another day and another time the proud grandparents peered through that funny-looking glass with the chicken wire inside of it, trying to figure out which of the babies belonged to them, or at least to their son. It can’t be that one, he’s too quiet, and it can’t be that one, because he is screaming too loud. That one is too wrinkled looking, and that one, of course, is of a different ethnic background. Which one is the right one? Would you know him if you saw him?

The common denominator in each of these stories is recognition. If you’d never seen your assailant, your businessman, or your grandchild would you know him if you saw him? On this first Sunday after Christmas, the first day of the New Year, I guess we could ask the same question of ourselves. Not in the parking lot, the airport, or the maternity ward but here in the temple. Are we looking hard or hardly looking? Would you know him if you saw him?

Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord as the custom was, and offer a sacrifice, and that was when old Simeon spotted him even without the benefit of facial recognition software. Years before, he had been told that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. That moment finally came; one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be o.k. to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but to be careful not to drop him.

“Lord, now let thou servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” he said, the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, and so he blessed them too for good measure.

Then of course there was Anna. Her days at the fountain of youth were over, and no amount of make-up, makeover, or plastic surgery would cover up the bags and sags and wrinkles, which, by the way, she didn’t even care to cover up in the first place. It would have been impossible to cover up what time, worry, and her family had done to her over the span of eight, going on nine, decades. And some said that the only reason she was down at the temple every time the doors were open was because she wanted the rabbi to have something nice to say about her when she died. There was though something different about Anna, and most believed it was the twinkle in her eye that truly made all of her age seem relative and so unimportant, as if she could dance in the sun and love with the passion of a fair maiden, the memory of which still burns in her soul and brings a smile to her lips.

There was something about these two senior citizens that set them apart. Simeon and Anna, acting separately, both knew who he was, the “he” being Jesus. And although cataracts and glaucoma may have limited their vision, it didn’t keep them from knowing the identity of the Christ child. For one, it was the fulfillment of a life’s dream. It was his life’s hope and desire to see the Christ before he died. Riley Short, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Lakeland prior to his retirement, was visiting on the campus during minister’s week when I was a student at the Candler School of Theology. Riley is not as old as Simeon, but he is getting there. On Tuesdays and Thursday between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. there were no classes so that the students could attend chapel, if they chose to do so. A very popular place during this hour was Cox Hall, where coffee and conversation could easily be enjoyed. Several of Riley’s friends were going to Cox Hall and invited him along to join them, and his response on this particular day was, “No, you go along. I’m going to chapel. I would hate to miss it if there was another Pentecost.” He was looking for something, and he was coming with a sense of expectancy that maybe today would be the day. For Anna, it was serendipity of worship. She had come expecting to continue her daily discipline of prayer and fasting, and of giving thanks to God. And like the man who shucks oysters, who has shucked ten thousand before and will probably shuck ten thousand again, he opens one oyster and there discovers a shining pearl. Her worship was consistent and disciplined, and it finally “paid off,” not that she was looking for a pay off, and perhaps more interestingly so, because she wasn’t even expecting it to happen.

And maybe these are the ways that God comes to us. The Pauline model of conversion, of riding the horse in this direction and getting knocked down, blinded, and sent off packing in the other direction, is the most sensational experience, but it is also the most rare. Most of us are not fire breathing murderers, adulterers, robbers, or thieves. We are, for the most part, good people, even though we are often blinded by our dark sides and to the reality of the human condition. There are times when I think if I hear one more celebrity witness tell about how bad they were then and how good and successful they are now, I believe I will pull out the remaining strands of my hair.

We all want it to be so instant and so fast and so now. When I was in undergraduate school at the University of North Florida I worked part-time as a bill collector for General Electric Credit Corporation. I was assigned the task of collecting accounts that were 30 days past due. About half of the new first time delinquents were newly weds or persons who were married less than three years. And more often than not, these couples grew up with parents that “had everything,” and they too thought that they were supposed to “have everything,” right from the start. It was their norm. With both partners working they had adequate income but very quickly they had spent themselves into danger of losing it all.

If the current economic recession has taught us anything perhaps it is this; “We want it all and we want it now,” is just wrong. It doesn’t take much to make the correlation between impulse buying and impulse faith. With impulse faith we may end up believing God is supposed to work like the latest quad-core Core i7 2600K computer processor. If God doesn’t boot up or download fast enough, if we can’t surf heaven’s Internet and get the answers or the results we demand fast enough, then we might as well just unplug the entire mess and walk away. It’s a Roadrunner downloaded super frozen microwave dinner faith that is supposed to be heated and eaten and then thrown away. But the payoff for Simeon and Anna is that it didn’t come overnight, with guaranteed next day Federal Express delivery. One had sought his coming for a lifetime. The other had simply gone to the Temple, as she had done for a lifetime, and there was the promised one. It didn’t just happen because they wanted it to happen! It was a life-long dream for one and serendipity of discipline for the other.

I don’t believe we need impulse Christianity. Christianity is not something that is intended to be purchased and to try it a time or two and then if it doesn’t work the way we thought it would then just take it back. Isn’t it ironic that one of the  busiest shopping day of the year after Black Friday is the day after Christmas? Can you imagine folks coming to church on Christmas Eve and they take Silent Night, candlelight, and the baby Jesus home with them and then this past Monday, the day after Christmas, they wake up at 3:00 a.m. and say, “What was I thinking?” And then a few hours later at 6:00 a.m. the day after Christmas they are banging on the Church door demanding a refund? Christianity doesn’t come with a trial offer. I signed up for a “Netflix” account which as most of you know is a DVD movie and live movie streaming service. You can order movies on line and they mail them to your home and you send them back and that’s how it goes. The movies we ordered were all older films and I decided I didn’t want to continue to subscribe to this service and so I went on line to stop the subscription and this screen popped up and said, “WAIT!” Would you be interested in extending your free 15-day trial for another 15 days? And I ordered three more movies.

If you find yourself confused or frustrated or that you can’t find the meaning you’re looking for or the answers you need I want to say to you, “Wait!” Can you hang on for another 15 days or better yet, 15 years? We look for microwave answers to circumstances and situations that require crock pot solutions. I started running the month before I turned 30 and have been at it more or less since then. I’ve gotten slower throughout the years and a knee surgery has slowed me down further, but I’m still at it. It started a few weeks before I signed up for a 5k race. I went to a local department store, bought a $12. pair of sneakers, walked around a lake a few times, and then said, “I can do this.” When the day of the race came, I started and finished, just barely ahead of two fellows in wheelchairs and a lady with emphysema. Like the tortoise and the hare, I took off with the jackrabbits and then after the first half mile, I was praying for death.

What came out of that defeat and self-imposed humiliation was the resolve to run a marathon. In matters of faith this isn’t so much about pounding the pavement as it is about staying the course. What Simeon and Anna teach us is that our journey with God is not a sprint but rather a marathon. It is not some kind of fickle love affair that I will like you as long as everything is easy for us in this relationship.

I have a deep appreciation and admiration and love for the Simeons and the Annas, those persons who have struggled with the faith for many decades, who carry with them a sense of expectancy because they long to see the promise of the coming one. These are our forward-looking people. Our energy goes where attention flows. And in the serendipity of discipline God comes, for he always comes to those who earnestly seek him. And one day in the synagogue two octogenarians discover the expected and the unexpected, and their eyes twinkle like star lit nights.

Would you know him if you saw him? Some are looking hard. Others are hardly looking. Becky Kelley has written a powerful new Christmas song that will touch you at the core of your being. Please click here to see the video or paste it and put it in your web browser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OExXItDyWEY

Simeon and Anna weren’t looking for Jesus to show up at the mall. They were waiting for him at the temple. It was with that sense of excitement and anticipation that Simeon and Anna came to the Temple to worship, not to look for what was wrapped in a package, but what was wrapped in swaddling clothes. They were just showing up at worship. It wasn’t artificial and it wasn’t pretend. It was real. It still is. Are you looking hard or hardly looking? Would you know him if you saw him?

What Makes You So Sure? Romans 8:18-39 All Saint's Sunday November 6, 2011

If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven? If so, what makes you so sure? If you’ve been around the block a few times, I’m sure you’ve been confronted with this question a time or two.

We’ve all had influences that have shaped how we look at this issue. Some people are extremely hostile to this approach. Others confess to being saved by it. How you look at this has something to do with how you perceive God on the continuum of justice and grace. I grew up with more of the judgment than the grace.

My mother was a “P.K.” P.K. is an abbreviation for “Preacher’s Kid.” My grandfather baptized me as an infant on his 50th wedding anniversary and he died just prior to my 2nd birthday. I guess you might say I’m still feeling the effects of that baptism. I never knew him. However, when I sensed this divine tractor beam drawing me into the ministry, I wanted to know more about my grandfather since I was following in his footsteps.

When we lived in Madison, my mother’s oldest sister, whom we called Sister, lived in Quitman, Georgia and we would occasionally go and visit. On one such occasion she gifted me with Papa’s Bible and a collection of his books and sermons. As I poured though his papers I found a sermon he preached in 1924 condemning a lynching in the community he served. There are the outlines of 66 of his sermons in this loose-leaf Bible. There wasn’t a lot of gray in his sermons. It was mostly black and white. He was in the ministry for over 20 years before he served his first station. This meant he served circuits that had two, three, or four churches all linked together and the family moved on average every two to four years. My grandmother played the piano and she was well loved. On more than one occasion I am told he was asked to move and they wanted my grandmother to stay.

When my aunt handed me these materials, she told me of a Sunday evening when she was home from college. It was the summer and one hot summer evening she was lying on her bed trying not to move in order stay cool. Papa stuck his head in and asked her if she was going to go to church that evening. Sister said it was too hot and that she thought she’d just lay there under the fan. Papa said, “It’s going to be a whole lot hotter where you are going.” Needless to say, she got up and went to church.

I mention this because it must have been the culture my mother was familiar with. The following stories both come from my early years when I was five or six years old. The first story involved a Bible study that was conducted during a severe summer thunderstorm. How’s that for getting your attention? I had two older sisters, and my oldest sister was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Each boom would be closely followed with a scream. Mother got out the Bible, I think, in an attempt to calm my highly neurotic sister. She had a captive audience. In between the “boom” and the “scream” I heard my mother read, “It is easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle than it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” My first grade mind didn’t understand metaphors. If someone said, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you go look for a new puppy or kitten. “My arm is killing me.” Then you should cut it off! Mother kept a pin cushion on a table next to where she sat. I could see the needles sticking out and I remember consciously saying to myself, “I don’t have a chance.”

The second involved a science project my next oldest sister was not prepared for. She had procrastinated to the last minute and in the 11th hour she needed a cardboard box, which I happened to have one I kept some of my toys in. My sister needed my box to which I resolutely refused probably more than anything because she wanted the box. If I had been older I would have said, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” Exhausted with their efforts to persuade, Mother finally said,” You know Tim, one day when you die you’ll sit in front of the judgment throne of God and you’ll have to explain to God why you didn’t give your sister the box when she needed it. What will you say to him then?” She smacked me right between the eyes with the God stick. I got guilt. My sister got the box.

I mention these stories because I grew up in a culture of fear, at least as it involves the Bible, God, death, and the last judgment. It is one of the Biblical images but it is not the only one. Maybe that casts light on why there are so many heaven jokes. There was a rabbi, a priest, and a Methodist preacher that all died and went to heaven . . . The good news? Jesus is coming back. The bad news? He wants us to meet him in Salt Lake City: My apologies to Mitt Romney. St. Peter was conducting an orientation for a group of new arrivals in heaven. He toured them by the streets of gold, the mansions over the hilltop, still waters, green pastures, and then finally down a long corridor toward a break room where they could receive some refreshments. Off to the right there was one room and as they approached St. Peter turned around and “shushed” everyone to tell the new arrivals to be quiet. They tiptoed by this one room back to the break room. Finally one of the new arrivals said, “Why did we have to be quiet?” St. Peter said, “There are Baptists in that room and they think they are the only ones here.”

We tend to make jokes about the things that make us anxious, judgment and death, well, is no laughing matter. Miscarriages, stillborns, suicides, murders, accidents, and natural disasters – every tragedy you could possibly imagine. You just can’t make these things funny. Not only do we face these situations, we are also faced with the plague of meaning . . . why? I’ve witnessed these situations and attempted to absorb the anguish. I’ve been with families when loved ones have died suddenly, leaving their families in shock, and those who fought for years fighting cancers and Alzheimer’s and everything betwixt and between. One dear woman who was a member of my congregation in Daytona, fought long and hard with congestive heart disease. She had been a nurse and unfortunately she knew too much. I sat with her time and again in the hospital. The day before she died I met her in the Emergency Room at Halifax. She was drowning in her own fluids barely able to breathe. Every word was labored. Last words leave lasting impression, and I’ll never forget the last thing she said to me. She pulled down her oxygen mask and said, “You know Tim, dying isn’t for sissies.” No truer words could be said. I’ve stood at these places in my feeble attempts to offer comfort. I’ve stood at the foot of hundreds of graves as well as having conducted the funerals for my Mother, My Father, My Sister, and a Brother-in-law.

For years my sister would ask me, “Is he ok? Is Don ok? She’s not the only person who has ever asked me that question about a loved one. My attempts to reassure her never did seem to get any traction. I would tell her, “He’s o.k.” When I would say this she would get frustrated with me. In her mind my statement lacked credibility. “What makes you so sure?” It’s like trying to do a lay-up with Dwight Howard guarding the basket. I’d try to lay it up off the glass and she would just swat it away. It’s not unlike telling someone how bright, smart, pretty, handsome, insightful, intelligent, etc. If you don’t believe it about yourself, nothing I’m going to say is going to get into the hoop. I can’t download this on to your hard drive. I can’t give you a bone marrow faith transplant or a type and cross-match it in order to donate platelets for a transfusion.

My sense of being sure doesn’t come from a place of certainty. Certainty has to do with logic. It has to do with reason. Certainty has to do with debate. Certainty is about being right. Certainty creates oppositional energy because if I’m right that means you have to be wrong. Not only do you have to be wrong, I generally have to ridicule you in the process. I have to undermine your sense of confidence and attack your competence. Not only do I have to make my position look superior I have to make the opposition look stupid in the process. Pick any of the Republican presidential candidate debates thus far.

Certainty gets lost in the translation when communicating to someone who has doubts, just like it did with my sister. Certainty communicates arrogance. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Whereas certainty is about the head, assurance is about the heart. Being “sure” is in the center of assurance. The word is translated “persuaded” in the King James Version. Certainty pushes against. Persuasion pulls the other forward. Persuasion draws others in. It doesn’t attempt to fix, or change, or heal them. It allows others to be where they are. Authentic spirituality allows the other person to be where they are, in the midst of doubt, confusion, suffering, struggle, paranoia, fear, anger, or anxiety. When you have heard, valued, validated, and accepted me when I am in these dark places, I am more apt to hear what you have to say. You have earned the right to persuade me by loving me in my pain. You can persuade me because I trust you. Trust has to be earned. And trust is not a matter of the head. It is a matter of the heart.

There is a huge amount of persuading that Paul is attempting in the 8thchapter of Romans, which is a tall order, since he is writing to a congregation he has never met before. He is being trusted by reputation. That might not be so odd if you think about it. How many times have you gone to see a doctor, a dentist, a beautician, or an automobile repair shop based upon the urging of a friend? “You come highly recommended.” Paul came highly recommended.

There is a great deal of “if” and “then” logic to Paul’s persuasion. If we are suffering now: then glory will be revealed. If God gave his son then how much more will he give to us? If God is for us, then who can be against us? If we and creation are in a state of decay then God will redeem both. We sigh too deep for words. All of creation is sighing and in labor to be completed. In other words, Paul is saying because God is being faithful to us in the present we can trust God with the future. Why would the future be any more than a continuation of God’s faithfulness.

Christianity is the only faith that invites its followers to go ahead and die now and get the dying over with. Once we get the dying over with we can get on with the business of living. Some people figure this out long before their physical death.  And the more letting go we are able to do along the way the more assurance we are able to accrue for the last journey we’ll ever make.

I was driving in a procession on a Sunday afternoon on the way to a graveside service for a woman who had been my church treasurer for many years. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was spent. I had taught at Sunday School and preached that morning, had lunch with my family, and they went home. I went to conduct the funeral. Sunday afternoons are reserved for curling up in the fetal position and sucking my thumb. Preaching is the most exhilarating and draining thing I ever do. On Sunday afternoons I suffer from the NASCAR disease I call Narcalapsy. If there are no yellow flags after ten laps the hypnotic effect of driving in circles makes me fall asleep. I was drained and self-loathing because I had agreed to do this funeral on a Sunday afternoon. We had this Soccer Mom van at the time for kid hauling and transport and the only consolation to the behemoth was that it had a Bose 10 speaker stereo system. I tried to find something on the radio that would revive me when I found a PBS station playing what my kids would have called elevator music. What I found was a Boston Pop’s version of 76 Trombones. It started off with just one trombone, then more were added, until finally, I suppose, there were 76 trombones playing in the hit parade. Driving in this somber procession, I cranked it up close to full blast. By the time we pulled into the cemetery I had been mysteriously transformed into Arthur Fiedler. And as we were pulling in to park, the song was not quite over and I’m thinking, “I can’t get out now. It’s not over. And then the thought hit me, “What in the world am I going to do?? I have been conducting the Boston Pop’s Orchestra and now I’ve got to put on my funeral face and go stand at the head of the casket and say the last words to be said over Lillian’s life. I felt enormously conflicted.

As I walked to go stand at the head of that casket, the only thing I could think to do was to own it. I told the family and friends that had gathered about being tired, about the radio station, about the 76 Trombones and about Arthur Fiedler. I told them, “You know, we should play 76 Trombones at every funeral . . . we can march into cemeteries with trombones blaring away because there was another one who first marched out of one and he’s leading the way.” And that’s what makes me so sure.

This is Your Quest . . . What is Your Purpose?

This is your quest. The quest begins when your search for meaning takes precedent over your need for safety. The quest begins with questions. Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Is there something I am missing? When do we set sail? How can I board this ship?

This is our current dilemma. Sailing ships and space ships have now circumnavigated the earth. Our planet can no longer provide us with new lands to pioneer, divide, and conquer. In this place and time we can no longer expand. We can only divide, conquer and re-conquer what already exists. The expansion we so desperately seek is an expansion of consciousness.

The very survival of the planet may depend upon whether we make an inward journey. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” What did Emerson mean? What lies within us? Does he allude to the soft whispering of the soul?

Is what lies within us is more important than past or future? How can we move beyond a false identity based on distorted images of the self? How do we discover a deeper sense of identity that transcends family, tribe, or nation? We must make way for the inward journey to discover our destiny: “Out there” holds false promise. It is not “out there” but it is “in here.” It is not without but within. To live in the mystery is to Discover our Destiny within the Soul, the Self, and the Search. Wherever you are right now, in this very moment, you are standing on the gangplank that can launch your life into a brave new world!


What happens when we fail? Why do some people just give up? One theory on the effects of failure comes from the current cultural myth of self-esteem. As disturbing as this may be for some people, in reality there is no such thing as self-esteem.

Back in the late 1970s, I received a complimentary copy of a new book by television evangelist Robert Schuler, titled Self-Esteem: The Next Reformation. The fact of the matter is Dr. Schuler’s prediction was wrong. A reformation based on self-esteem never occurred. Countless self-help books have been written on this subject. The pop culture diagnosis of poor self-esteem is the potpourri explanation that sounds profound, but means very little. I feel for new sojourners who bring a sincere, serious, and humble admittance of “low” self-esteem to an initial appointment. There is a great deal of shame associated with this self-diagnosis. Using little eye contact, sojourners attempt to explain something they do not understand in the hope that I will.

The dictionary defines self-esteem as “Pride in oneself; self-respect.” Seems simple enough, but self-esteem attempts to define an intangible, unsubstantial and vague reality. How much self-esteem is too much? How much is not enough? Is too much self-esteem narcissism? Is too little depression? If self-esteem is low, can we add a quart? Have you ever tried to encourage someone feeling defeated, deflated or depressed? Did it work? Was it like trying to pour water into a colander?

My years as a counselor have given me the opportunity to work with many different physicians including specialists, family practice doctors, and surgeons. My favorite question to ask physicians is, “Have you ever seen the self-esteem? Where is it located? Is it near the cerebellum, kidneys, spleen, or the appendix?” I usually get a quizzical stare, a shrug of the shoulder, or even a philosophical statement with a finger pointing to either the head or the heart.

Self-esteem is a dysfunctional diagnostic instrument readily used that is vague, unclear, and non-specific. “You have a tumor in your lung.” “You have cirrhosis of the liver.” Tumors and cirrhosis are clear, specific and identifiable on a CT scan. Self-esteem is not. Practitioners in mental health and counseling have used the concept of “low” self-esteem like leeches to suck the blood out of clients and money from their wallets. If you have “low” self-esteem, when does it fill back up? A sojourner with unmet dependency needs would answer NEVER! Self-esteem has been a trendy fad in pop psychology that has outlived its usefulness and needs a fitting eulogy and burial.

Naming the symptoms provides the ability to organize the experience. As an example, a patient presents the physician with a list of symptoms such as nausea, headache and fever. The physician assesses the symptoms, conducts a battery of diagnostic tests and determines the patient has a “mass.” A respected, credentialed, and competent physician gives the symptoms a name and identifies the cause. The diagnosis now organizes what was previously vague and unclear. A team of physicians would then establish a treatment plan. A surgeon might remove the tumor, a radiologist might bombard it with radiation, or an oncologist might poison it with chemotherapy. If we name the demon, the demon can now be cut out, burned, or poisoned. A diagnosis of “low self-esteem” links together a vague collection of symptoms. The focus is on the symptoms but not the cause. Symptoms cannot be cut out, burned, or poisoned. The diagnosis is in of itself a poison. It creates an internalization of meaning that is skewed, reactive, and distorted. “I have low self-esteem” is comparable to saying, “I am an incurable, defective, and pathetic human being.” This demon cannot be cast out.

Naming symptoms provides the means to have power over the unknown. Early in human history, ancient Neanderthal warriors painted images of the animals they intended to hunt on the walls of caves. Cultural anthropologists theorize this ritual “captured the spirit of the animal” prior to the hunt. In this mindset, the hunters slay whathad already been captured! Organizing reality in this way met primitive needs to take control over a situation. This same dynamic is also operative in naming an illness or a disease. It will fend off feelings of powerlessness. There is power in knowing! Knowing provides a sense of coherence, a mastery and dominion over the circumstance or situation. Defining a problem using the concept of self-esteem, especially “low” self-esteem, creates pathology as a way of organizing human experience. Does it make sense to organize around deficiencies, weaknesses, and problems?

Self-esteem is vague and ambiguous, ethereal and mysterious, like the shadowy mist rising from the swamp. The unconscious mind struggles to understand ambiguity and the problem with the concept of self-esteem is that it attempts to define something that is non-specific. Using ambiguous words to describe an event, feeling, situation or need makes it difficult to create “meaning.” As a college instructor, if I told my students to write a ten-page essay on beauty, love, or freedom, they would say, “Huh?” However, if I assigned a ten-page paper on the most beautiful sunset they had ever seen, or what it was like the first time they fell in love, or what the Declaration of Independence, the 4th of July, and a fireworks display means to them since 9-11, the task would be easily “doable”. These instructions are far more specific.

One of the components of our search is our basic need to be competent. Competence and confidence represent an essential need that begins at birth and continues until death. When a sojourner tells me he is suffering with a self-esteem problem, it is a cue that he feels incompetent to handle or manage a particular situation in the immediate present. In response, I usually ask, “Is there something going on in your life right now that you do not feel competent or confident to manage?” The question seems to elicit shock and a certain level of nakedness, as though I were a mystical clairvoyant. “How did I know?”