In All Things God Is at Work for Good

A young student in seminary preached a sermon on Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”(NRSV).

He waxed eloquently on how all our circumstances are God’s gifts; and, though we don’t understand, God has a reason for those circumstances and events. He made a compelling case for the sovereignty of God and the importance of simple trust.

The professor wasn’t impressed! “You may not have lived long enough to preach on that text,” Dr. Ferguson commented.

“I’m not sure you have suffered enough to proclaim with authenticity what Paul is saying,” he added.

“The man who wrote that endured shipwreck, beatings, imprisonment, rejection, and eventual execution,” the professor went on to say.

Then, he asked, “Are you saying to him, ‘just suck it up. God had it all planned for your good? Or, is Paul inviting us to join God’s efforts to bring good from bad circumstances?”

On July 5, 2002, Dr. Ferguson’s critique and my interpretation of Romans 8:28 were put to the test

In May 2002 I underwent triple by-pass surgery to avoid a blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD) in the heart (the “widow maker”). The surgeon said that I should be back to full speed in ten to twelve weeks.

After a month of cardiac rehab, the cardiologist released me to travel to Lake Junaluska for further recuperation.

All was going well until the morning of July 5. I suddenly developed chest pains. I was having a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. The cardiologist tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the blockage in the LAD. He then proceeded to put a stint in another area which relieved the pain.

I had survived the collapse of “the widow maker,” but the extent of the damage to the heart awaited further evaluation. It was an uncertain time, with the preferred future now in serious doubt.

After several tests, the results were in. Significant damage had been done to the heart muscle. A six month leave from my duties as the bishop in Mississippi followed. Those months were filled with lament, uncertainty, questioning, grief, searching, and discernment.

Will I be able to continue as an active bishop? Will I be disabled? Will I continue to have heart attacks and die? If I can’t continue in the position to which the church has called me, what will I do? Where is God in all this?

I never assumed that God caused or willed my heart attack, though I admit to some anger toward God for not preventing it! What is God’s will in these circumstances? What good can possibly come from my now damaged heart?

During the subsequent months of prayer, conversation with family, friends, and doctors, it became apparent that continuing beyond the quadrennium as an active bishop was untenable. But what will I do?

Thanks to Greg Jones, a friend and Dean of Duke Divinity School, a new door was opened. I was invited to be considered for a faculty position at Duke. Then came eight of the most fulfilling years of my life and ministry!

In 2009 came another life-changing blow! Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia, a progressive neuro-cognitive disease which would gradually rob her of independence and normal capacities. What were we to do?

Again, lament and discernment moved to the forefront and another vocational change was in order. I relinquished my cherished faculty position. We moved near our daughters and I became caregiver to my beloved wife and partner.

Where was God now? How can I fulfill my calling as an ordained clergy while being a care partner for Linda? One way was to be the best care partner possible. That meant learning as much as possible about her disease. Also, I was invited to teach part time at the Lutheran Seminary. Then, I was asked to be the chaplain in the memory care unit in the retirement community. A couple of friends and I developed a course entitled “Dementia through a Pastoral Theological Lens.”

The last seven years have been an intense period of growing in love, patience, and compassion for those with dementia and their families. Joy has deepened. Love has matured.  The circle of relationships has been expanded to include more of the forgotten people. Trust in God has grown. Deep friendships have been formed.

Furthermore, I have been able to be with children and grandchildren in ways that would have been impossible had Linda’s disease not motivated us to move near them. Grace abounds! Life is good!

I now have a better understanding of Romans 8:28, “In all things, God is at work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”  And, Dr. Ferguson’s comments now make more sense!

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

Catepillar1In response to a photo I posted which captured a moment of connection with Linda, a friend, Betty Cloyd, replied with the title of a book by the eighteenth century priest Jean-Pierre Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment. The phrase captures the profound and transcendent nature of each moment.

Sacrament is often defined in the words of St. Augustine of Hippo as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The English word comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means to make holy, or to consecrate. The term is also derived from the Greek New Testament word “mysterion,” or mystery.

So, how does the present moment rate as a sacrament? Each moment becomes a mysterious gift within which the holy and transcendent is present as grace, the loving power of God to create, renew, reconcile, and transform.

Pastoral theologian John Swinton contends that people with dementia do not lose their “sense” of time; they lose their “tense” of time. The real time is the present moment. Those who care for them must learn to be present in the moment.

Regrettably, I have never been as contemplative in my spiritual quest as I have wanted to be. But people with dementia, including my wife, are teaching me to be truly present in the moment. It’s hard work! I have to slow down, concentrate, pay attention to little movements and subtle expressions.

Celebrating the present moment is an art and craft. It is learned and honed with practice, requires disciplined attentiveness, mindfulness.  It is one of the gifts Linda is giving me now! She is teaching me the sacredness of the present moment.

We often speak of the ministry of presence. I frequently hear pastors, laity, and family members express hesitate about visiting people with dementia. “I don’t know what to say! They don’t know me when I arrive or remember when I leave. So, why visit?”

It is a devilish temptation which robs people with dementia, their pastors and family members of the sacrament of the present moment. From my experience as a caregiver and pastor, I am convinced that the feeling/experience of a momentary connection lasts far beyond the cognitive awareness.

People with dementia are hyper sensitive to emotions. Linda senses moods of which I am unaware. I cannot hide my frustration or stress from her! It may be that as people with visual impairment become more sensitive to sounds, people with cognitive impairment develop added sensitivity to feelings/emotions/attitudes.

With very few exceptions, the one reality to which people with dementia respond is LOVE, even those in the severe stages. And you can’t fake it! They know if you care! They sense if you are afraid of them or uncomfortable with them. They sense if a caregiver really values them as persons or only relishes the paycheck or if a pastor or family member is only visiting out of a sense of duty.

What is the sacred within the present moment? It is LOVE! Love transforms the present moment into a sacrament!

A gentle touch, a clasp of the hand, a warm embrace, a silent presence, a  spontaneous smile, a compassionate act—these become sacraments, outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.

As we fill a moment with compassion we experience the sacrament of the present moment. After all, we experience God, the source of all love!

(Photo by Norma Smith Sessions)

A Convert from Christianity to Judaism Teaches Us about Jesus

“As a former Christian who has converted to Judaism, how do you now see Jesus?” I asked a speaker in our Sunday school class.

The speaker grew up as Southern Baptist.  After studying comparative religions in college, she converted to Judaism. She openly and humbly shared her journey from a faithful and devout Christian to an equally devout Reformed Jew.  It was a long process of discernment through study, conversations, and involvement in both Jewish and Christian practices.

She grew up affirming Jesus as the Son of God, her personal Savior and Lord. She was baptized and received into church membership.  Now, she no longer affirmed the creedal affirmations of her childhood and youth.

“I see Jesus as a reformer,” she replied to my question. She elaborated that much of Judaism of Jesus time had become rigid, focused on rules, and controlled by religious elites.  Jesus, however, sought reform based on the vision of the prophets and God’s covenant with Abraham and Moses.  His focus was on the spirit of the law rather than the letter.

There followed a discussion of the relationship between what Jews celebrate in the Exodus and Christians celebrate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a rich and informative discussion in an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation.

I wonder if we Christians have jumped too quickly to lofty creedal affirmations about Jesus and missed the radical nature of his reformation. Is it possible that the contemporary church in North America resembles the leadership elitism, rigidity, and legalistic focus of the speaker’s assessment of first century Judaism?

Without diminishing the importance of our creedal declarations about Jesus, viewing Jesus as Reformer has merit, especially in this era of institutional preoccupation and reliance on legislation and judicial processes.

Danger exists in the emphasis on Jesus as personal savior and relegating him to a theological or doctrinal category.  The invitation to “accept Jesus as your personal savior” can be an appeal to selfishness! The focus is on what Jesus does for me! He can become my personal possession and the champion of my individual needs or desires that masquerade as needs.  Salvation becomes my personal ticket to heaven when I die.

Or, Jesus Christ can easily become an abstract theological/doctrinal affirmation, locked in a creed and rationally defended against “heresy.” We can praise him with our lips while he is far from our hearts and actions.

The first disciples began their journey with Jesus in response to the simple invitation, “Follow me.” They accepted him first as Lord, master, teacher, and reformer! In following him, believing what he said, going where he went, welcoming those whom he welcomed Jesus became their Savior.

One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that many who believe the right things about Jesus fail to be reformed by him. For example, Frederick Douglas reports that his slave master became even more cruel once he was converted!  Affirming Jesus as personal savior and treating others as less that children of God falls woefully short of Christian discipleship.

Focus on getting to heaven while ignoring the hell in which people currently live misses the mark of what it means to accept Jesus. A more faithful response is that of Moses, so concerned about the people that he prayed, “But now, please forgive their sin–but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exodus 32:32).

What would it mean if the contemporary church in North America looked to Jesus as Reformer, as well as Savior and Lord? I offer a few modest suggestions and invite your own reflection.

  • Focus on the present and coming reign of God’s justice, compassion, generosity, hospitality and joy rather than institutional survival and triumphalism. God’s preoccupation is the healing and transformation of the world, not the statistical growth of the institutional church.
  • Shift the margins so that the poor, imprisoned, the weak, the outcasts, the sick and vulnerable are at the center of the church’s fellowship, ministry, and worship rather than being mere objects of charity at best and despised at worst.
  • Turn away from legislation and judicial processes as primary means of dealing with conflicts and differences and practice reconciliation, forgiveness, and hospitality.
  • Give priority to the formational role of doctrine whereby the test of orthodoxy is orthopraxis; that is, let’s focus on doctrine’s role in shaping persons and communities who reflect God’s reign as brought near in Jesus the Christ rather than using doctrine to determine who is in and who is out.

Yes, I affirm Jesus as my Lord and Savior! But he’s also the radical Reformer of the status quo in church and society!

 

Speaking the Languages of Love

“How do we tell someone who has lost language comprehension that we love her?” I asked the worshippers at Bethany, the memory care facility where Linda was a resident for eighteen months.  Beside me stood a resident whose speech has been reduced to incoherent babbling. She looked into my eyes as though longing to speak.

“Hug her,” came a response from a resident who struggles with hallucinations as well as lost and distorted memories.  I  put my arm around her and she embraced me in return.

Looking into her sad eyes and calling her by name, I said, “I love you!”

Suddenly, the sadness in her eyes turned to a sparkle. With a faint smile, she said plainly for all to hear, “I love you!” Babbling turned to the language of love.

It was Pentecost Sunday!  We had been singing such hymns as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Kum bah Yah”, “Surely the Presence of the Lord Is in this Place,” and “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place.”

We heard the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 where people with different languages and cultures and traditions understood one another. “Tongues of fire” descended on diverse and multi-lingual people and  God’s Spirit created a new community.

Bethany became a new community as the barriers once again crumbled!

Present among the residents were various religious traditions: American Baptist, Assemblies of God, Southern Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Holiness, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, and Jewish. A few claim no religious affiliation. Some present in the service have forgotten God and no longer remember who Jesus is. Perhaps a few have never consciously known God.

All share a common characteristic: Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.  They are at various stages in their disease but all are unable to live alone and care for themselves.

“What made it possible for the people present at that Jewish festival to understand one another even though they spoke different languages?’ I asked the worshipers.

“They loved one another,” a resident called out.  A conversation about how love enables us to understand and accept one another followed.

Other languages are present at Bethany. One couple speaks Portuguese. Another’s native tongue is Spanish and another is Italian. A staff member speaks Swahili. A volunteer present for the service knows French and German.

“Let’s learn to say “I love you” in different languages,” I suggested. So, we tried to speak words of love in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Swahili.  With varying degrees of success, we tried to speak love in multiple languages.

It was during those exchanges that the resident whose language skills have been destroyed by her disease came and stood beside me.  How do we say “I love you” to someone who can’t speak or understand words?

There followed a time of practicing love without words—hugs, handshakes, an open hand, a smile, a pat on the back, a warm smile. Other love languages were mentioned—helping, protecting, encouraging, feeding, bathing, just being with. . .!

They got it! Beneath all our hyper cognitive theological talk and creedal statements is the simple reality that God is LOVE. To love is to know God! Pentecost happens when people express the multiple languages of love!

The worshipers at Bethany are a microcosm of our world! They are black and white and brown. They are Christian, Jewish, and none of the above. Their behaviors are sometimes offensive and difficult. Intellectual abilities vary broadly. For some the filters are gone and they cross boundaries of affection and relationships.  Some have been highly skilled professional people. Others have a background of common labor.

They are just like the rest of us! As I listen to the rancor in our society and churches and the talk about dividing as a denomination, I pray that we learn and practice the languages of love.  One thing that binds us all together: We are God’s beloved children!

Within the embrace and “I love you” from the worshiper at Bethany on Pentecost Sunday was another voice! It was God’s Holy Spirit speaking the language of Greater Love, declaring to us all “I know you by name. I have redeemed you! You are mine!”

We are surrounded by God’s ever-present language of love, and “speaking” that language with one another is our highest calling.

Needed: Humility Shaped by Mystery

“You know, Ken, nothing is simple. Every molecule, every drop of water, every blade of grass, every light ray is filled with mystery. We never unlock the secret of anything, including the atom. We only discover a secret and each unlocked door opens into new doors inviting us to unlock them.”

These comments came in a personal conversation with Dr. William Pollard, a renowned physicist and Episcopal priest who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

One of the great joys of serving as a pastor in Oak Ridge was getting to know Dr. Pollard. He was, undoubtedly, one of the smartest people I have known. Coupled with his intellectual brilliance was an extraordinary humility. While his genius could have been intimidating, his gentleness and modesty put others at ease and invited them into his world of wonder and awe.

What accounts for such humility combined with intelligence? Perhaps the secret lies in the title of two of Dr. Pollard’s books, Faith and Science: Twin Mysteries and “The Mystery of Matter.”

Dr. Pollard had a keen sense of and appreciation for mystery! He saw the complexity in the simple, the mysterious in the minuscule. He said in one of our conversations, “Science doesn’t remove mystery; it only deepens it. Every answer we discover raises new questions.”  He added that dogmatism in science or religion is dangerous and idolatrous for it truncates knowledge and eliminates transcendence.

The highly respected scientist and priest saw everything, from the microscopic neutron to the constellations of galaxies, as inexhaustible mysteries and revelations of Transcendence (God). Indeed, for him, Rudolph Otto’s description of God as Mysterium Tremendum or “Tremendous Mysterious,” is foundational for science and religion.

A great calamity of fundamentalism in science or religion is rigidity which eliminates humility rooted in mystery. When truth is conceived as closure or final, dogmatism is the results. Continued discovery is curtailed. Sustained searching gives way to defending present perceptions. Truth becomes static certainty rather than a dynamic journey toward the infinite mystery.

Certainty and firm conviction have their proper place. We need the courage to affirm, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Faith involves firm commitment to enduring truth, conforming to lasting values, and adherence to noble convictions.

The problem arises when we lose the mystery inherent in truth, values, and convictions. The consequence is arrogance, closed mindedness, and smug judgmentalism. Without humility grounded in mystery, we prioritize defending dogma over being formed by it. We speak without listening, attack without understanding, and coerce instead of invite.

If mystery is at the heart of matter, how much more it is inherent in theological affirmations about God and human beings.  No person or group has a monopoly on the truth on any subject whether it be human sexuality or economic policy, immigration or racial justice, the Trinity or the doctrine of the Atonement.

In a religiously and politically polarized world, we desperately need more humility springing from a sense of mystery. Arrogance rooted in dogmatic certainty splits communities, churches, and governments.  And, it shuts us off from one another, blinds us to yet undiscovered insights and beauty, and reduces God to the limits of our little minds.

With humility grounded in a sense of mystery, we would do

  • more listening than pontificating
  • more searching than defending
  • more inviting than demanding
  • more loving than legislating
  • more uniting than dividing
  • more worshiping than exploiting!

A Most Sacred Vocation

“How do you maintain such a positive attitude while doing this work”? I asked a caregiver as she gently brushed Linda’s hair.

She responded, “I’m doing what I am supposed to do and I love these people!” Her love and sense of calling are evident in the way she treats others with respect, dignity, and compassion. She goes to great lengths to preserve the dignity and modesty of those whom she undresses, bathes, and dresses.

She adds, “These are precious children of God, too!”

In a world that honors the politically, economically, academically, and religiously prominent, the humble caregivers who give their lives in ministry with the vulnerable exemplify an alternative model of greatness and power. They embody true servant ministry and sacred vocation.

These caregivers have become my heroes, my models for ministry! Since God has chosen the most vulnerable, pushed aside, and powerless as incarnations of divine presence and mission, those who care for “the least of these” are participating in the most sacred of vocations. They are literally the “last who become first” and “the greatest” in God’s new community.

One of the most egregious injustices in our society is our failure to properly affirm, honor, and compensate those who serve among the most vulnerable: the children, the frail, the mentally ill, the cognitively impaired, the imprisoned, the immigrants, the poor, and homeless.

Many of these servant ministers—childcare workers, teachers, nurses, social workers, nursing assistants, housekeepers—live in or near poverty themselves.  Many work long hours for minimal pay with limited or no benefits. Many are single mothers who work multiple jobs. They get limited vacations and little time off.

I’ve been privileged to serve in a variety of vocations within the church. My first job in the church was as a teenager when the little congregation hired me as janitor. My vocational journey in chronological order has included janitor, student, pastor, bishop, and seminary professor.

In 2009, I faced a new vocational direction. Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia, a disease of progressive cognitive impairment.

Believing that God calls within life’s contexts and circumstances, I felt that my priority calling would now be the care of Linda.

So, I relinquished my full-time faculty position at Duke and we proceeded to move near our daughters who would share in their mother’s care. She would need lots of emotional support and attentiveness. The years ahead would consist of persistent losses, receding memories, declining capacities, and growing dependency.

Though the journey is filled with grief and multiple challenges, my vocation as caregiver continues to be filled with abundant joy, profound experiences of divine grace, and opportunities for growth in discipleship and mission. I have never felt more engaged in a sacred vocation.

One of the remarkable gifts has been the opportunity to learn anew the meaning of servant ministry. My image of servanthood and sacred vocation has sharpened. The towel and basin are prominent Christian symbols, reminding us of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.    towel_basin

Yet, there is an even more poignant expression of servanthood: that of a caregiver tenderly washing more than the feet, but the whole body of a vulnerable, frail person, even as that person resists mightily.

May we learn from these who embody true servant ministry by participating in God’s presence among the vulnerable and the marginalized. Let us honor them and treat them with gratitude, compassion, and justice!

Do We Believe ALL Are Children of God?

1 All God's Children Photo“Do you really believe ALL are children of God?” That sentence began a letter from an anonymous mother of a gay teenager. She went on to explain that she did not wish to cause any problems but she was concerned about what her pastor was saying from the pulpit.

Her son loved the youth group. He was accepted and included by his peers. The pastor, however, had made statements that clearly indicated that her son was at best an inherently flawed child of God, and at worst not a child of God at all, but an “abomination.”

Since she insisted on remaining anonymous and would not identify the church she attended, I could not directly respond to the troubled mother.

Nevertheless, I carried that letter for months and read it in pastors’ meetings. I reminded pastors that the message being communicated by that pastor was “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Yes, there are some who exclude members of the LBGTQ community as “children of God.” But the circle of exclusion is much wider than sexual orientation. Only those who verbally and publically “accept Jesus as savior” are deemed  to be children of God.

I was confronted with the theological underpinning of the exclusion notion in an uncomfortable encounter.  It was in the narthex of a large urban congregation as I gathered for the processional for the 11:00 worship service.

The sermon text for the 8:30 service was 1 John 3:1-2: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is who we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Suddenly, I was confronted by an irate woman who latched onto the sleeve of my robe, turned me toward her, and stridently asked, “Are you going to preach that sermon in this service?”

“Yes, I am,” I responded.

“Then you are going to contribute to people going to hell,” she harshly warned. “Only those who have accepted Jesus as their savior are God’s children.” She then quoted John 1:12, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

“On what basis do you believe ALL people of God’s children?” the persistent inquirer demanded as the processional hymn began.

“On the basis of God’s creation and redemption of all,” I responded while trying to join the procession now in progress. “Read Genesis 1:26-27 and learn the meaning of ‘prevenient grace,’” were my parting words as I moved toward the altar to again proclaim that we are ALL God’s children NOW!

There are biblical passages that support the notion that not all people are children of God. In fact, the verses immediately following the text for my sermon can be so interpreted: “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil. . . The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”(1John 3:8-10)

The question (Are ALL people children of God?) is no idle theological abstraction? The answer determines everything—how we treat others, especially those who are different from us; how the church does evangelism and mission; even how we engage in public policy and political decisions.

As a Wesleyan, I live with the confidence that God’s prevenient (“preventing”) grace is universally present in ALL and that Christ died for ALL. Therefore, ALL have inherent worth and dignity. That includes Muslims and Methodists, Hindus and Hassidic Jews, Baptists and Buddhists, Atheists and Anabaptists, Conservatives and Liberals, Traditionalists and Progressives, Gay and Straight, Friends and Enemies, Illegals and Citizens, Men and Women, EVERYONE!

Yes, I believe we can turn our backs on our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. I leave it to God, however, to determine the ultimate consequences of such disavowal. My responsibility isn’t to judge. My calling is to bear witness in word and deed that ALL are precious sons and daughters of God, redeemed in Jesus Christ.

All evangelism, therefore, is relational. We meet Christ in the other more than deliver Christ to another. Bearing witness to the gospel begins with treating ALL persons as “thou” rather than as “it”, as a friend rather than evangelistic prospect.

I wish I could have talked personally with the bereaved mother of the gay son. I would have told her that “Yes, I really believe ALL persons are beloved children of God, and your son is a precious child of God.”

And, I would like to have had an opportunity for an extended conversation with the irate worshiper who feared that my message was misleading and complicit with eternal damnation of people who don’t profess Jesus as Lord and Savior. I would like to know why she is upset with the notion that all are children of God. I would treat her with respect and dignity as a beloved child of God while cautioning that to accept Christ is to accept those for whom he died—ALL.