Saturday at Riverbend Church here in Austin, TX, a large number of people gathered to say a formal “Goodbye,” and “We love you, Hank!” to our dear remarkable, unpretentious friend, Francis Leo “Hank” McNamara.
It was a strange mix: some 50 or 60 family members; many Austinites who had known Hank since grade school; at least as many who had known him in recovery programs—some only for a few days or months. The atmosphere seemed to be permeated by…love, at least that’s what I kept thinking as I met dozens of them.
The day after he died, his wife, Trish, asked me to speak at his funeral. I nodded my thanks, went home and cried.
Ten months earlier, Hank had broken his neck. It would not heal, which meant that if he tripped or bumped into a wall wrong the second vertebra would shift and he’d be dead—or paralyzed. Since he already had a bad heart and several other serious physical issues, his prognosis did not look good.
One day several months ago I asked Hank if he would like to tell his family who he really was and what he thought of them (he had a very large family). He said he really would. Shortly after that, using a tape recorder, we started on a joint trip through his whole life that for me was a life-changing journey. I swore to him that I would never reveal what he said on tape until he had edited it and given me permission to reveal it.
After only a couple of sessions, I realized that he had raised or co-raised thirteen children who lived in various places around the country. After we had finishing a taping session, I asked him if he would like to say something specifically to them. If he would, we could structure that into our sessions together. Hank said he would. He told me (not on tape) that although he’d been married three times before he wanted each of his children to know that he had loved their mother, that he loved each one of them and his grandchildren especially, and he was glad he’d gotten to be their old man. And he wanted to tell them before it was too late. Unfortunately Hank died before we had any more recording sessions. But because he had told that to me in a personal conversation when the tape machine was off, I could pass that part of our conversations on to them at the funeral. Also I could tell Trish that she was the love of his life—even though I’m sure she already knew that.
Although I never can type and share the information on those tapes now, I learned a lot about Hank McNamara in the last few weeks before his death that I could and did pass on to those who are his friends and family members at the funeral.
Hank was a remarkable man. I can still see him coming up the sidewalk. He had to wear a kind of neck support made up of four rods (two at either side of his face and two at the back corners of his head) going up several inches over his head and connected by wires—like some sort of futuristic scaffolding. He had oxygen tubes in his nostrils, was pulling an oxygen tank, and as I recall, carrying an aluminum cane. And yet he was smiling and gracious to everyone he met. He was going through some of the most scary and painful things a human being can experience, and yet he was filled with gratitude—gratitude for his beloved Trish (he was very much in love), but also I never saw him when he wasn’t grateful “for another day.”
The “magic” Hank brought with him everywhere he went was amazing. The day he died I heard a young woman say that she had come for help to a meeting Hank had started, feeling shame and worthlessness. But the way Hank shook her hand, smiled and greeted her—as if she were a fine worthwhile person—awakened a belief in her that maybe she could become those things someday. I heard many similar stories during the next few days.
As I thought about Hank’s life over the twenty years I’ve known him, I realized that he had changed the focus of his approach to helping people in trouble. For the last several years he had begun to “stand by the door” of the places where people in trouble were frantically searching for God. He had begun to spend more and more of his time helping “newcomers” to get started on a spiritual journey that could lead them to become the people they had lost hope of ever becoming—or becoming again after a life of failure and running from reality and God.
That night before Hank’s funeral, I remembered a poem I had read years before. It had been written by a man who I consider to have been one of the most outstanding men in the 20th century regarding helping people into a life of faith. The man had sent it to me in October of 1961. I decided to read a couple of stanzas of this poem at his funeral because I recognized Hank within in the lines (although I am almost certain that He did not know about the poem).
SO I STAY NEAR THE DOOR—An Apologia for My Life.
I stay near the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world—
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside, and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it…
So I stay near the door.
The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door—the door to God.
The most important thing any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch–the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.
Men die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter–
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live, on the other side of it–because they have found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him – – –
So I stay near the door.
There is another reason why I stay there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia.
And want to get out. Let me out! they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much;
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving—preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would run away. So for them, too,
I stay near the door.
The startling thing about this poem is that it was written by the man who was “standing near the door” when Bill Wilson’s friend Eby brought Bill to Calvary Church in New York. That man, The Rev. Sam Shoemaker, put Bill Wilson’s hand on the latch of the door. Sam showed him how to commit his whole life to God. And then, at Bill’s request, Sam helped Bill to frame Alcoholics Anonymous and to put the spirituality into the “Big Book”, and The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Tradition’s. And this anonymous movement became the fastest growing spiritual movement in the 20th century during a time when many organized religious organizations were shrinking or floundering.
It was this incredible realization about Hank that made me realize the deep significance of his life: Our friend Hank McNamara (who did not consider himself to be “religious”) had realized—as Sam Shoemaker had half a century before him—that the future of the movement that saved Hank’s life and the lives of so many of us, might be continued only by loving persons willing to stand near the door—wherever they live—to guide the hands of a few lost people onto the latch of the door through which they may find Life—and God.
I am very grateful that I got a chance to know Hank McNamara, a real man of God.
“If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.”
-Revelations 3:20, The Message
My question is about “compulsive busyness.” I wake up with eyes wide open and a tight chest as all the things I have to do during this day or this week start jumping out onto the stage of my attention and waving at me, chanting “Look at me! You promised to write a job recommendation for me!” or “you said you would answer my long email by yesterday!” or “You promised to mow the yard this week!” I know this is probably not a “spiritual” question, but I’m getting overwhelmed by things I have to do—and it’s confusing because they are almost all things I want to do involving people I really care about. I pray, but use up so much energy worrying about having so much to do that I’m getting very discouraged. Any ideas?
This is not only a very good question—one that many people have voiced—but I can add another part of the real time over commitment drama. Besides the busyness and other commitments you mentioned (which I also have experienced), I have another set of “crisis” voices coming from a group of familiar faces much dearer and more important to me than business connections. And I hear my own inner master-sergeant voice saying, “Don’t forget that your daughter’s birthday (or your son-in-law’s or grandchild’s or best friend’s) is this week!” I’m suddenly exhausted and frantic—and yet everything on my list is something I want to do—in fact something I feel I have to do to be the person I want to be.
I took on a very large writing project six year ago, with my wife, Andrea, and what I estimated would take two to three years (maximum) to complete stretched into four and then five years. It looks like we are finally going to finish the project this year. I had a full life even without this project, and during this time I’ve had several surgeries and other physical challenges to go through. Further, the economic downturn combined with the fact that I’ve had to keep working on this, created some financial pressure. All this started making my days start in the same wide-eyed, overcommitted, “will I ever get caught up” pattern similar to what you described. I was filled with anxiety over my life of constantly putting out fires.
Finally I came to a place of being really stressed out. And it was then that I finally realized I couldn’t solve the problem alone. And I surrendered my over-committed work life to God, being willing to do whatever it took to get it in order.
And this is what happened….
Recently I went to an overnight meeting with nine other men in which we share our lives, “the good, the bad and the ugly” with each other, asking God and each other for guidance and suggestions in honest but non-abusive and deeply respectful ways. We have been meeting three or four times a year, usually at sites in central Texas, for over thirty years.
During the recent meeting following the events I have just described, one of the members of the group told us about something he had heard a minister say recently. This minister had described a sense of being over-crowded with things she wanted to do and felt like she had to do—including caring for and taking time with family members and others whose situations took a lot of her energy and added to an already crowded job schedule. My friend reported that the minister had described a moment in her morning prayer time, as I recall, in which she saw—in her imagination—the faces of these people she loved so much. She remembered what she had just said, “—and I just have to do these things.” Then, inexplicably, she realized how much she loved the people she was dealing with and how fortunate she was to have them in her life. And she heard herself say out loud, “Lord, thank you that I get to love and share in these peoples’ birthdays, anniversaries and illnesses and other important parts of their lives.”
I don’t remember what my friend said next because I was thinking about my own family and friends and the people I’m trying to love and help in my work. And I felt a great wave of relief and peace come over me.
The next morning after I got home from the overnight meeting with my friends I woke up in our bed at home and opened my eyes. While I’d been gone we had received an invitation to attend the high school graduation of our youngest granddaughter in May which we were excited about attending but I was almost afraid to look at my calendar for fear I might have a confirmed business or speaking commitment. Then I saw, enclosed with the invitation, her senior picture. She is so beautiful that I wept. And my first thought was: “Thank you, God, that I get to be this lovely, intelligent, and young woman’s grandfather, and that we get to attend her high school graduation!” Then I thought about my wife, Andrea, still sleeping beside me and said to God, “Thank you that I get to share my life with this remarkable and lovely woman.”
Later, images of my family and other people involved in all the commitments I have on my plate floated into my consciousness and instead of that frantic feeling of breathless over-commitment, I felt peaceful, and I said “Lord, thank you that I get to be the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather of these dear people and thank you that I get to write this book with Andrea, and that even if I die before I finish it or no one ever reads it, thank you that I get to learn what you’re teaching me as we are finishing it.”
Then as each other thing I’ve committed to do came up in my mind, I said (and meant), “Thank you, Lord that I get to work with and walk with every person and project on my calendar. And in half an hour my life changed somehow. I felt full of gratitude.
I don’t know if this simple change will mean anything to you or anyone reading this, but just telling you about this has made me realize how grateful I am that I get to be the person who gets to consider, pray about, and respond to you who write questions and/or read what is written here. Suddenly it’s not such a pressured feeling to have agreed to write these blogs, not knowing if they are helping anyone. What I’ve realized as I’m finishing them is how fortunate I am to get to write them! Hope you have a great day.
Lord, thank you that I don’t have to change anyone to be happy—if I’ll let you change my mind. Amen.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
– Matthew 5:8
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.”
– Maya Angelou (1928 – )
Author and Poet
“Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”
William James (1842 – 1910)
US pragmatist philosopher & psychologist
Keith, why would anyone who is a Christian hesitate to be totally honest? Isn’t it just a question of having the courage to risk rejection? Can you think of reasons or situations where total honesty would not be the best policy?
One reason that total honesty is not as simple as it seems is the virtually universal experience of “denial”—that is, we cannot even see many of our own true motivations. Many Pharisees were considered to be leaders in having integrity, and yet Jesus told them you can pick out the tiniest speck of evil in your brother’s eye but you cannot see the log in your own. So one reason to hesitate in saying your truth about another person is we can’t see our real motives in blasting someone with our truth.
The second reason is more complex and difficult to understand. Here’s how I discovered that: It was still very dark, but I was awake, having been disturbed by a bad dream. I was weeping because the dream had recalled an experience in my adolescence which was so painful that I thought I would never be free from its haunting presence. Several times over the years I had been bothered by this dream. And it always made me cringe; wanting to undo something I had done as a teenager.
This experience and its painful reliving over the years had changed my whole life, especially my views concerning integrity, love, and honesty in close relationships. And although I hated the memory and had prayed many times that God would erase it from my mind, there was no doubt that it had helped me as a husband, father and friend.
It had happened at a boys’ summer camp where I was a counselor after my freshman year in college. I was in charge of a cabin full of junior boys, about eight and nine years old. They were at the hero-worship age, and I really loved them. One boy, Mortey, a camper from somewhere in eastern Oklahoma, was a particular favorite of mine. We became very close friends. He was in my canoe on the float trip and played the starring comedy role in the play I wrote and organized as tribe coordinator. He was a cagey little performer and stole the show with his quick grasp of humor. Although they teased Mortey about his weight and the fact that he wore glasses, he was outgoing and had lots of old-fashioned guts and intelligence.
The little guy used to reach up and take my hand when we were walking alone, as if I were his dad. And I would look down on him and smile. He tended to be a little cocky about everything, including his relationship with me—though he never acted that way when he thought I was around.
At the end of eight weeks the time came for the camp awards. The counselors met to vote on the honor camper trophies—the most important symbols of acceptance and success a boy could win. When the preliminary weeding out had been done, two boys remained in the race for junior honor camper: Mortey and Bobby. Wanting to have integrity, I decided I was so biased I could not vote, but when the ballots had been counted, both boys had the same number. I had to vote to break the tie.
At that time in my life I was an obsessive compulsive on the inside, a joking character on the outside. But I had been taught that absolute integrity was the highest value. When decisions which seemed to concern my integrity were to be made, I really strained to do the right thing.
As I looked at these two boys and their camp records, I tried to be objective. Bobby was a much better athlete and had broken some records, but Mortey definitely had the edge in the human understanding department. They had both helped their tribes by winning contests and by being friendly kids. It was easy to see why the vote had been tied. I was miserable. Little Mortey had done a great job… but he was a little cocky, and he did have a few faults I knew about. This definitely gave Bobby a slight edge. Everyone knew how close we had been; I was afraid that if I voted for Mortey the other counselors would think I was voting for him because of our friendship. It was strange that such a trivial thing could have been so momentous, but my whole integrity seemed to be on the line, and I felt sort of sick at my stomach. I did not want the responsibility of deciding.
My hesitation over the simple decision was delaying the meeting, and the other counselors became irritated. Under the pressure I decided—against Mortey. And we went on.
Only inside I didn’t go on. I knew that although I had been honest, I had somehow been wrong. While sitting there, I got the idea that I ought to level with Mortey about what had happened. I tried to dismiss the thought, but it kept coming back. And I felt I had to tell him the truth “in order to have integrity” in the situation. This was my problem.
On the last morning at camp, as all the boys were getting on the bus, Mortey came up to me. Everyone was yelling for him to hurry. His face was streaked with tears, and it was obvious that he had been crying and did not want me to know. As we walked away from the others, I told him how much our friendship meant to me. I went on to tell him how close he had come to being elected honor camper—that in fact the vote had been a tie. His eyes got very wide, and I continued in my nineteen-year-old total honesty, “I hadn’t voted up till that time, Mortey, because everyone knows that you and I are such close friends. But they made me vote then…and I voted for Bobby.” As I started to explain why I had done it, the look on his face caught me completely off guard. I will never forget it. It haunts me still, because I saw the look of a soul betrayed by his dearest friend. In an instant I saw how wrong I had been and why. This little boy really loved me. And I realized that he had done a much finer job than Bobby at camp. But because Mortey had loved me, he had revealed his faults as well as his good points to me, and I had used this knowledge to judge and condemn him (from his perspective).
He just stood there and stared at me in disbelief. After his dad had let him down by leaving his mother, he had trusted me. I had the chance to give him all he had ever wanted, but I had tossed it to another boy in a different tribe, a boy I hardly knew. He covered his face with his hands and ran towards the bus. I tried to grab him, to explain my feelings, but he broke loose and, wriggling between the last few campers, disappeared onto the bus. The door closed and the bus pulled out. I ran along beside it, hunting for Mortey in the windows. But all the other kids were pressed against them, and I didn’t see him at all. In the midst of the shouting and singing of the camp loyalty song, Mortey rode out of my life in a cloud of dust.
It was years later, after I became a Christian and began to understand myself and my problems more clearly, that I began to see the trap “honesty” can be. It had become my highest value—“honesty at any cost.” This meant that I worshiped honesty. In my struggle to decide who should be honor camper, I had been so intent on maintaining my own integrity that the broader values in the judging situation had escaped me. And in any case, I was blind to the consequences of trying to clear my own skirts with Mortey by telling him all—not realizing that a nine-year-old boy could not understand me. But now I realize that maybe he did understand me: A Christian Pharisee who cared more about “being pure” than loving him. Maybe that was what broke his heart.
For this little boy saw the world through a different set of eyes that I did. It was to be almost ten years before I began to surrender and put myself into the hands of the One who sees life in the same way that Mortey did. For in his world there was a higher value than raw honesty with which to judge people… and that value is love.
If he actually did it (was honest) for the sake of having good conscience, he would become a Pharisee and cease to be a truly moral person. I think that even saints did not care for anything other than simply to serve God, and I doubt that they ever had it in mind to become saints. If that were the case, they would have become only perfectionists rather than saints.
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Lord, help me to realize the limited nature of my ability to judge the total circumstances in any human encounter. Forgive me for being blinded by needs for integrity and putting my adolescent desire for rightness ahead of Mortey’s need for love. But, God, thank You for teaching me through that little boy the importance of the kind of loving loyalty You have for us, which—for me—transcends all Your other gifts, including faith, and that your love even transcends Your judgment of our sins.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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.
1 Corinthians 13:1, 2