Shifting the Margins

Throughout my more than half century of ordained ministry, I have felt called to ministry and presence among “the marginalized.” The imprisoned, the poor, and the hidden people in our communities have been critical to my life and ministry as a pastor, bishop, and seminary professor.

A significant shift in my scope of ministry took place six years ago. My wife and partner in ministry, Linda, was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia, one of the neuro-cognitive disorders that fall under the umbrella we regrettably label dementia!

Since that dismal rainy day in November 2009 when we first heard the dreaded word dementia, my world and vocation have shifted. Losses have multiplied and the boundaries of engagement have significantly narrowed. I moved from bishop and professor to caregiver! Rather than the “world is my parish,” my family became my world!

The global became very local! Major concerns dominating the denomination and academia receded to the margins of my preoccupation. My daily relationships shifted from the hyper-cognitive and hyper-productive to the cognitively impaired and productively diminished! Life became a series of losses, a receding circle of relationships, and a restricted sphere of engagements and influence.

But being with people who live within the margins of the present moment, whose abstract thinking has disappeared, whose language is garbled, and who may not know their own names shifts the margins of one’s thinking about God, about life, about the church and its mission, about what really matters.

The motivation and name chosen for this blog is inspired by John Swinton, one of today’s premiere pastoral theologians. His book, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God, has reframed the way I view the margins and those affected by dementia. His book has become a theological companion as I accompany my beloved Linda on our mutual journey.  He provides a theological alternative to the dominant medical lens which views people with dementia in terms of their symptoms rather than their stories! And, he also helped me redefine the meaning of “marginalized.”

Swinton’s work reaches far beyond issues related to neuro-cognitive disorders. His theological perspective emerges from his experiences as a psychiatric nurse, hospital chaplain, and renowned academic scholar. He does theology through the lens of those whom society pushes to the margins but whom God claims as prime recipients and means of Divine Grace. Swinton writes:

 It is certainly the case that Jesus sat with the marginalized and it is also true that he offered them friendship, acceptance and a valued place within his coming Kingdom. However, it is not quite the case that Jesus sat with the marginalized. He certainly sat with those whom religious society had excluded and rejected as unclean and unworthy of attention. However, in sitting with such people, Jesus, who was and is God, actually shifted the margins. By shifting the margins with the pushed aside at the center, the religious authorities became the marginalized! They didn’t realize that Jesus had moved the margins to a totally different place.[i]

Where God is preferentially present becomes the center of reality! The Bible clearly declares that God chooses the most vulnerable—“the least of these”—as special recipients and means of grace! Indeed, Jesus so closely identifies with the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned that what is done to them is done to him (Matthew 25:31-46).

Could it be that those of us who separate ourselves from the most vulnerable and despised are the marginalized and  away from the center of God’s present and coming reign of justice, compassion, generosity, and joy? I know that Linda and the residents in the memory care facility where she now lives are pushing me to shift the margins of my thinking and living!

My daughters and a few friends have encouraged me to share some of my reflections as Linda and I continue “our long goodbye.” I do so somewhat reluctantly, for I do not wish to be presumptuous or in any way unfairly exploit our personal journey. I share in the hope that we all will be open to how God in Christ shifts the margins!

Ponder these additional words from John Swinton:

. . . God was with a totally different group of people doing something quite different: offering friendship and acceptance and revealing the Kingdom in and through that friendship. Jesus offered no “technique” or “expertise.” He simply gifted time, presence, space, patience and friendship. He befriended the tax collectors and sinners; he befriended the prostitute, the stranger and the stigmatised. He offered relational space and time to people for whom the world (and religion) had no time. In and through his friendships, he gave people back their names. Indeed, he gave them new names: “I no longer call you servants; now I call you friends.”[ii]


[i] John W. Swinton, “Doing Small Things with Extraordinary Love: Congregational Care of People Experiencing Mental Health Problems”, ABC Religion and Ethics, October 2014.

[ii] Ibid.

24 thoughts on “Shifting the Margins

  1. Bishop Carter
    I did not know Linda and you were making this difficult journey. I stand in prayer with and for you. You touched my life deeply! Thank you for sharing. In no way did this seem exploitive. It feels like grace to hear your words about God being with you challenging you and all of us to shift the margins. Many thanks. May the “peace of Christ” be with you.

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  2. I am so, so, so glad you listened to your daughters and started a blog! I’m among the many who knows I am blessed because you influence and inspire me.

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  3. As always you continue to be a wise and gifted teacher who help us look deeper, push the boundaries of our understanding, and share the greater vision of God’s Kingdom. While I mourn what you and your family daily face in the decline of Linda’s mind and body, how grateful I am for what you are learning and sharing in the process. We are all blessed.

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  4. What a gift it was to reconnect with you at Jurisdictional Conference and hear you speak firsthand about this journey with your beloved and how it has helped inform the call that God has placed upon your life.

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  5. I have long admired you for your gifts of understanding and vision. Please continue to speak about walk and your “new” ways of looking of the stages of life. Blessings to you and your wife, Linda, on your journey!

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  6. Bishop Carder, As one of your flock at Concord UMC many years ago, I am so encouraged by your thoughtful words. I have both friends and family who are struggling with this issue and it is difficult to know how to support those directly affected by this disease or their caregivers. Blessings to you and your family.

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  7. Bishop Carder have always been a voice for those on the margins of life. Your ministry with the Nashville Area touched my life deeply and it changed my understanding of what ministry should really be about. The short time I had with you in the Cabinet was one of the highlights of my ministry. My only regret is our time together wasn’t nearly long enough. Please know that you and your family will be in my prayers! May
    God continue to give you comfort and strength.

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  8. Bishop Carder, my whole family has been touched by your ministry. We remember when you ordained Suzanne and rejoice that you were the one who blessed and ordained her. You and Linda meant so much to us when you were in Nashville. May God bless both of you as continue this last part of your journey together.

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  9. Bishop Carder,
    The peace of Christ be with you.
    The Rev. Randy Cooper told me a few years ago that you had shared with him, your decision to follow this path in answering God’s call on your life.
    The following is the message I wrote to the members of my covenant group as I shared a link to your blog message: I don’t remember a single, unsolicited message that ever “moved me” as much as Shifting the Margins. I’ve re-read it a number of times over the last two day and it continues to “move my center.”
    It has been a gift to me and I wanted to share it with you.
    Bishop Carder, thank you for this gift.
    You, Linda and your family remain in my thoughts and prayers.
    Yours in Christ,
    David R Reed

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  10. What a blessing you bring to others as you help each person who travels a difficult journey of life to see how “sharing our insights” can give HOPE and POSSIBILITY to all! Thank you for your love and commitment to Christ, to Linda, and the journey….Prayers and strength to you, Susan Sharpe

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  11. From our first encounter, I have had profound admiration and gratitude for who you are and what you do. Your care-full leadership in our denomination, and in my own personal and vocational life, has been incredibly influential. In powerfully incisive, provocatively articulate ways, you remind so many of God’s call on all our lives. While deeply sad for the struggles you and Linda–and any who may feel somewhat sideline–face, I do hope you’ll continue to share your voice, speaking, writing, pinging. And know: I join so many others in prayerful concern about challenges ahead for us all! You are beloved, my brother.

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  12. Thank you Bishop for sharing your insight from your journey. All of this is so close to home both personally and professionally. I’ll be sharing your source with a client this week. Peace to you and Linda!

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  13. Ken, how fondly I remember and often repeat your powerful words when you were consecrated as Bishop of the Nashville Area, and asked to be held “in love and accountability.” Your voice was one of hope for me as a then young clergywoman. Having been shaped by your words, I’ve sought to ask the same of others with whom I share this journey in ministry. I am grateful for how your time with us formed me as a person and a pastor. I, too, have walked the path you are now on with your precious Linda. I will always cherish the time that I was able to care for my mother during the last years of her life, returning the “mothering” that she so lovingly, and sacrificially bestowed on me as her only child. Thank you for blessing us with your reflections through Shifting Margins. Your change of perspective makes me think of Paul’s instructions to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Much love to you and LInda!

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  14. Rev. Carder,
    One word–wow! I wept as I read your words. Thank you for sharing this part of your journey in life with us. Having walked “the long goodbye” with my mother, I am inspired by how you are allowing the Holy Spirit to continue to teach you and use you to teach others. Please continue writing. People are hungry and thirsty for truth in the hardest and seemingly hopeless times of life. Grace and peace to you.

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  15. Ken, I love the name of your blog. Alternatives such as “Meditations from the Very Center” might have been apt but would have sounded presumptuous to some, and “Frayed around the Edges” would have perhaps conveyed a sense of unwarranted resignation! 😉 We know that this is a difficult time for you, Linda, and your family — and may abounding blessings come and stay your way. With great respect, David (and Nancy) Banks, Concord UMC, Knoxville.

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