This is one of the most beautiful and meaningful expressions of the grieving process that I have read. It poignantly describes my own journey as I seek to weave the love Linda and I shared for sixty years into the fabric of a future without her presence. Norma Sessions has a special gift for using images to capture the deepest and most profound insights and experiences.
I was at a meeting for Alzheimer’s caregivers when Dale called. There was fear in his halting voice: “Where…are…you?”
It was a first.
It was also a last. I could no longer leave him alone.
Now I am alone, and Dale’s words are mine: Where are you?
Weren’t you just here? Wasn’t I just preparing your lunch…singing and laughing with you…helping you get ready for bed? Where are you?
Although the words come directly from my grieving heart, they also seem crazy. I was with Dale when he died. I composed his memorial service. I helped bury his ashes.
And yet, the feeling that he should still be here can be strong. It’s easy to “hear” his resonant voice, to “see” him sitting next to me, or to just assume he’s resting in another room. All of our years…working, living, loving together…wove countless threads of a shared life throughout my…
The June 5-8, 2022, gathering of Holston Annual Conference marked my 61st year attending annual conference sessions. This year’s meeting of my home conference was especially poignant and a reminder of how much the Methodist Connection has shaped my life.
It was thirty years ago, June 1992, that Holston Conference endorsed me for the episcopacy, and six weeks later my membership was transferred to the Council of Bishops. I distinctly remember looking back from the stage at Junaluska after being elected as a bishop to the delegation from Holston Conference. I felt a keen sense of loss! I was leaving the community that had birthed, nurtured, and deployed me as a Christian disciple and pastor.
As the 2022 conference session opened June 5th with “And Are We Yet Alive,” tears welled up! I realized that I never really left home. Holston Conference has continued to do what it has done since I was baptized and received into membership at McKinley Methodist Church more than seventy years earlier. It has nurtured me in faith and sent me forth into ever-broadening circles of connection and expanding experiences of divine grace.
Throughout the four days of “Christian conferencing,” feelings of profound indebtedness and gratitude dominated my experience. As I conversed with longtime friends and colleagues, shared in the worship services and study sessions, listened to reports and debates, and observed the superb leadership of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett, I realized in greater depth the immeasurable contributions Holston Conference has made to my life.
It was Holston Conference and the Methodist Connection that
Changed my image of God from that of an abusive landlord who held me over a rain barrel at age five to teach me to “respect” him to a God who is a Good Shepherd who rescues lost lambs.
Launched me on a faith journey grounded in boundless LOVE rather than in fear of eternal punishment and damnation.
Believed in me enough to elect me as president of the small youth group at McKinley Methodist Church, believing in me more than I believed in myself.
Provided my first experience of “connectionism” as part of a sub-district, district, and conference youth activities.
Sent me to a National Youth Convocation at Purdue University in 1958 where I heard my first African American preacher, Dr. James S. Thomas, who later became a colleague bishop, mentor, and friend.
Granted me a “Local Pastor’s License” at age 18.
Appointed me at age 19 as a student pastor of Watauga Methodist Church, which considered “giving young preachers a start,” as part of their mission.
Provided a Conference Youth Assembly where I met a beautiful young woman, Linda Miller, who would become my love and life partner for sixty years.
Educated Linda at Emory and Henry College and through her and others taught me that theology “unites the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.”
Equipped me with a solid theological education at Wesley Theological Seminary.
Appointed me as a student pastor of the Hunting Hill-MacDonald Chapel Charge where I was first confronted with institutional racism within the very structure of the church and inspired me to address my own white privilege.
Ordained me Deacon (1962) and Elder (1965) and welcomed me into conference membership.
Appointed me to congregations that would shape me far more than I influenced them: Elizabeth Chapel, Pleasant View, Concord, First Oak Ridge, and Church Street.
Elected me as a bishop and assigned me to the Nashville and Jackson Areas and provided unimagined opportunities for growth in leadership, fellowship, discipleship, mission.
Selected me as a faculty member at United Methodist related Duke Divinity School and the opportunity to help form future pastors for the church, one of which, Sarah Varnell, preached a marvelous sermon at the 2022 Annual Conference.
Included Linda among those remembered with thanksgiving during the Memorial Service in 2020 Annual Conference.
Taught me in word and deed that the heart of the Gospel is GRACE, the presence and power of God to create, liberate, restore, forgive, and transform human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos in the image and reign of Jesus the Christ.
I lament and grieve that the Methodist connection is threatened with schism and disconnection.
But while I grieve, I also give thanks. With all its imperfections and failures, I am profoundly grateful that Holston Conference and the broader Methodist Connection continues to transform lives, expand horizons, broaden the circle of love, and give hope that Christ’s reign of justice, compassion, generosity, hospitality, and peace will come to completion.
The decisive victory has already been won in the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. God grant that we will live now in the light of that victory!
Amy-Jill Levine’s recent book, Witness at the Cross, includes a chapter entitled “The Other Victims.” It is the account of Jesus’s interaction with the two anonymous men crucified with him. Dr. Levine aptly suggests that the inclusion by the Gospel writers of these two condemned men forces us to consider those awaiting execution in today’s prisons.
Over my years as a pastor and a bishop, I have spent many hours sitting with men condemned to be executed. Unlike the men in the Gospels, the ones I have visited have names. I have known some of their families. I listened to the anguished cries of a mother who watched her son executed by the state. She loved her son no less than the mother of the person he had murdered. In the name of “justice for the victim,” the state created additional victims and added to the culture of violence that plagues our world.
South Carolina is set to resume executions later this month. Since the state has had difficulty obtaining the lethal drugs needed to put Richard Moore to death, he must choose between the electric chair and the firing squad. Below is a letter I have sent to the governor requesting that he stop this barbaric action.
May Jesus’s attentiveness to the two other victims of state-sponsored execution on that fateful day two thousand years ago cause us to remember the approximately 2500 persons awaiting execution in our prisons today. From my understanding of the Incarnation, their execution will be a repeat of Jesus’s crucifixion!
It was for the two “bandits,” those participating in the execution, and usthat Jesus prayed: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 CEB).
The Honorable Henry McMaster State House 1100 Gervais Street Columbia, South Carolina 29201
Dear Governor McMaster:
I wish to strongly urge you to stay the execution of Richard Moore, currently scheduled to take place April 29. While Mr. Moore’s crime is a grave tragedy for which accountability is appropriate, it does not reach the level of premeditation and heinousness for which the death penalty is intended. From the news reports and court records, he entered the convenient store unarmed and his offense was fueled by drug addiction; therefore, the resulting murder was not premediated and took place in a struggle over a weapon.
During this Holy Week for Christians, we relive the state sponsored execution of Jesus the Christ. As a retired United Methodist bishop, pastor, and seminary professor, I strongly support my denomination’s opposition to the death penalty. No evidence exists that executions are a deterrent to crime, and death inflicted by the state only adds to the culture of violence that permeates our society. Having visited persons on death row over more than fifty years of Christian ministry, I can testify that it only adds to the number of victims of violence as the families and friends of those executed are victimized by the state.
I hope that before you make your decision whether to stop this barbaric act that you will exercise courage and visit with Mr. Moore and his family. As Jesus was attentive in his dying hours to the two men executed with him and offered forgiveness and assurance, I hope you will be attentive to Mr. Moore as a fellow human being, made in the divine image and redeemed in Jesus Christ. As one who has publicly declared as being “pro-life,” please be consistently pro-life and respect Mr. Moore’s right to life.
Please be assured of my prayers as you discern the fate of Mr. Moore. May you bear witness to the justice and compassion as made known in Jesus the Christ, whom you and I seek to follow and serve.
What an interesting coincidence that the violent attempt to overturn the presidential election of 2020 occurred on the day Christians celebrate Epiphany! On the first anniversary of that ugly day and as another Epiphany arrives, it seems appropriate to reflect on the relationship between them.
Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “appearance,” “manifestation,” or “revelation” and is commonly linked with the visit of the Magi to the Christ child (Matthew 2:1-12). The Magi, from the region of what we know as Iraq and Iran, were foreigners who studied the stars for signs of divine presence and revelation.
An implication of Matthew’s story is that the God made known in Jesus the Christ reveals God’s self in multiple ways and to ALL people. God’s saving presence is not limited to our religion, our race, our nation, our culture, our political party. God is sovereign over ALL!
Matthew portrays Jesus’ birth as a threat to prevailing political power. He specifically declares that the babe of Bethlehem is “king”! That’s an obvious threat to King Herod, who ruled the known world with brutality, violence, and cruelty.
Maintaining power was Herod’s priority and he would go to any length to hold onto that power, including killing members of his own family and innocent children. He was deceptive by pretending that he was only wanting to pay homage to the newborn king. His methods were calculated, brutal, and catastrophic.
Herod’s actions were motivated by fear of losing power and he considered instilling fear in others a necessary means of control. He was enabled by throngs of supporters who, too, were afraid and who had bought into the lie that Herod ruled by divine authority.
Matthew’s story of the nativity and Herod’s response is as contemporary as today’s news! It is about more than Jesus, the magi, and Herod. It is about the human condition and the exercise of power and control, especially political power.
Power is addictive! Fear fuels the addiction, the fear of losing control. It’s present in all of us to varying degrees. However, when maintaining power and control results in deception, coercion, bullying, and violence, the results are pervasive and lethal for individuals, communities, and nations.
The storming of the nation’s capital on January 6, 2021, was a blatant attempt to hold onto power and control. It was fueled by fear and a “big lie,” and it was enabled by some members of Congress, political advisors, and even some religious folk who believed that the former president was divinely anointed.
Jesus and Herod represent two “kingdoms” and two expressions of power. Herod represented the power of the Roman empire with its political and military clout. Jesus embodied “the kingdom of God,” the reign of love, justice, generosity, and peace/shalom. Herod was committed to the love of power. Jesus was committed to the power of love!
The insurrection in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, was an epiphany, a manifestation or revelation that Herod’s fears, methods, and abusive exercise of power remain with us.
Epiphany Day in the church year, however, reveals another kingdom at work in our world. It represents an alternative to the deception, coercion, bullying, and violence rooted in the fear of lost power and control.
That alternative is the way of compassion, justice, honesty, and service on behalf of the common good. It is the way shown to us by Jesus of Nazareth, about whom the Apostle Paul wrote: “. . . though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—-even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
May our celebration of Epiphany and the remembrance of the Insurrection of January 6, 2021, include renewed commitment to follow the One who transforms the world through the power of self-emptying love.
It’s no idle question reserved for abstract thinking by academic theologians or reflective pastors. Was the vulnerable, helpless baby Jesus the Savior of the world or only the potential, future Savior?
Much of Christendom limits Jesus’s saving acts to the three years of his public ministry, with the decisive actions taking place the last week or even his three hours on the cross.
Only Matthew and Luke make direct reference to Jesus’s birth, though John describes the Incarnation in philosophical language (John 1:1-14). Other New Testament writers place the emphasis on his teachings, death, and resurrection as indicators of his identity as “Savior.”
Does that mean Jesus became Savior at his baptism and not at his birth?
Some in the early church believed that Jesus was “adopted” as the Son of God at his baptism, or crucifixion, or resurrection. His birth and early life were mere prelude or preparation for becoming the Savior.
“Adoptionism,” however, was declared a heresy by the Synod of Antioch and the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD. But the notion of Jesus’s birth and obscure years as being inconsequential to his role as Savior remains prominent in today’s understanding and practice of Incarnation.
At the core of the meaning of Incarnation, however, is that the sovereign, infinite God of all Creation became flesh in a helpless baby, born among the homeless of an unmarried teenage peasant girl in a faraway corner of the earth. He spent the first two years of his life as an immigrant. He grew up in a working-class family in a backwoods town, without any notoriety, doing nothing newsworthy or particularly noticeable.
Jesus was no less the Son of God as he nursed at Mary’s breast than when he was hanging on a cross. He was the Savior while having his diaper changed AND while feeding the multitudes and healing the sick. He was Emmanuel, God with us, while learning the Torah in the Nazareth synagogue as when he was teaching the disciples on the hillside. He was the Word-made-flesh as he worked with his hands in the carpenter’s shop as surely as when his hands were nailed to a tree on Golgotha.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is more than a story of how God came in human flesh two thousand years ago. It is a description of how God comes NOW. God continues to come in vulnerability, powerlessness, poverty, dependency, and obscurity. And it is through vulnerability, weakness, powerlessness, and obscurity that Christ SAVES us.
Another name for the God who became human is LOVE, and love is a relationship of giving and receiving. Another way to describe it is as a dance. Dancing involves both leading and following. Sometimes love requires that we lead, even lift the other; at other times, we follow, and are lifted off by the other.
In the last years of my wife Linda’s life, she was totally dependent on my care and that of others. Her vulnerability, weakness, and powerlessness called forth our acts of love and devotion. Through her vulnerability, the “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) grew in those of us who loved her: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Jesus the Christ still saves us through the vulnerable, weak, powerless, and dependent. Our most transformative celebration of Christmas is to meet him in those he called “the least of these”–the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the imprisoned, the sick, the grieving (Matthew 25:31-46).
Brennan Hurley, a pastor in Taylorville, Illinois, invited me to join him in a conversation about dementia and the church. Brennan does interviews each week with a persons representing different experiences and topics and the conversations are shared with his congregation. I appreciate the opportunity to share my journey with Linda and lessons I have learned,
You may access the 45-minute interview below. Your feedback is welcome.
October 3 marked two years since I, along with daughters Sheri and Sandra and sons-in-law John and Kyle, stood in muted reverence beside Linda’s bed holding her hands as she serenely slipped into that mysterious realm we call “death.”
Though the moment had been anticipated for months, even years, as the losses had been inexorable over a decade, the finality of this moment was emotionally jarring. It set in motion a life-altering process with new challenges and adjustments.
Grief, though universal and unavoidable, defies all our attempts to fully explain or completely control. We confront our losses out of our own reservoir of experiences, values, traits, and relationships. Therefore, I offer no prescriptions for how others should grieve. I can only describe my own journey and hope others might find their own resources.
C.S. Lewis’s image of grief as a bomber flying overhead continues to speak to me. Two years ago, in the aftermath of Linda’s death, the disorienting bombs were dropping relentlessly, shattering every aspect of my being with waves of deep sadness. I didn’t know if I could endure the bombardment of such painful feelings of loss, disorientation, regret, guilt, anger, and loneliness.
Now, two years later, the bomber hovers further in the distance. The bombs fall with less frequency and intensity. Recovery and reorientation come more quickly. The pervasive and penetrating sadness has abated. Preoccupation with the images of disease, decline, suffering, and death are receding as joyful memories of decades of shared love and happiness move to the forefront. Gratitude is overshadowing regrets. Forgiveness is at least softening the pangs of guilt.
I’m learning anew that grief can only be lived through. Attempts to deny it or escape will only delay and exacerbate the consequences. We can get through it and move toward the future with hope. Indeed, love endures!
Marilynne Robinson in her acclaimed novel Gilead writes:
Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave — that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful.
This prevenient courage comes to me in. . .
the encouragement and support of family and friends
tasks to be accomplished
memories mingled with gratitude
the beauty of an approaching autumn
works of art or melodies and words of music
prayers of lament and thanksgiving
sharing the suffering and grief of others
nurturing old friendships and entering new ones
the birth of a great grandchild bearing Linda’s middle name
Anne Lamotte writes, “You lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly–that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
I never could dance, as Linda often reminded me. But I do walk a lot! The limp you may sometimes detect is prevenient courage enabling me to move toward the future with hope.
The wise and compassionate Don Saliers summed it up in a thoughtful and much appreciated message to me: “This deep rhythm of loss, consolations of grace, and then gratitude for the joy of shared life, it is a great mystery, isn’t it?”
Yes! Mysterium Tremendum! Tremendous Mystery! I call it GOD!
It was during a Q & A with Fred Craddock, the master preacher and teacher of preachers, following a lecture he had delivered at Vanderbilt Divinity School in the mid 1990s. A retired bishop and friend of mine asked this question: “Where are the great preachers today? We don’t seem to have any Harry Emerson Fosdicks or Martin Luther Kings today.”
The highly regarded and distinguished professor at Candler School of Theology responded something like this: “Well, these are different times and preachers aren’t listened to by the world around us in the same way as when Fosdick and King were preaching. But great preachers are still around.”
He added that the great preachers today are not the ones you see on TV or hear on the radio or read about in the newspapers. They are the unnamed pastors of local congregations, small and large, who Sunday after Sunday enter the pulpit after a busy and turbulent week and faithfully speak the truth borne from immersion in Scripture and the lives of their congregations.
Then Dr. Craddock added, “I suspect that most of the great preachers today don’t have time to write books or do dramatic things that get them in the news. They are too busy getting ready to preach again next Sunday to a world that doesn’t seem to pay any attention; and that’s not easy.”
One of my previous blogs consisted of reflections on entering my eighties. The dominating theme was that time is running out for me. Capacities and experiences are diminishing rather than expanding. More family members and close friends are dying than are being born. I am more focused on endings than beginnings.
Then on March 20, my granddaughter, Katelyn Nash Aiken, gave birth to Vera Faye! Suddenly, life expanded rather than contracted. Coincidently, she was born on the first day of Spring as the earth was bursting with new life and beauty.
One look into Vera Faye’s beautiful, innocent eyes, and my heart leapt with joy. Here was pure, spontaneous love connecting across generations. It was a holy moment!
Her sparkling eyes and spirited smile brought instant joy. I felt the sanctity of pure love and the hope of new beginnings.
Such is the rhythm of creation. Such is the cycle of life. Birth and old age are part of the same tapestry of life. Being born and dying are built into the structure of everything, human and nonhuman.
There is continuity between beginnings and endings, birth and death. In one sense, nothing ever totally dies. All life is interrelated and in a constant process of changing. Biologically, we are all a collection of recycled atoms!
But we are more than clusters of cells and atoms. We are interconnected stories and part of a God’s Story of creation, liberation, restoration, incarnation, and transformation.
At the heart of life’s story is love, which is the power that creates us, connects us with one another and the creation, and ever seeks to unite us and enable us to flourish as God’s beloved children.
Sixty years ago tomorrow, June 30, Linda and I entered the covenant of marriage. I’m sorry that she did not live to know her great granddaughter. I can only imagine her ecstatic joy given the chance to hold this new member of our family. I will still celebrate our life together which now lives on in Vera Faye.
Vera not only carries Linda’s genes; she bears her middle name, Faye!
With Vera Faye’s instinctive grasp of my finger, I feel connected to one whose hand I can hold no longer but whose love continues to give life and hope.
I experienced Pentecost in the most surprising place. It was four years ago, June 4, 2017.
Approximately twenty-five residents in varying stages of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, plus six or eight volunteers, gathered for worship at Bethany, the memory-care facility at the Heritage at Lowman in Chapin, South Carolina.
Below is a slightly revised blog I shared following that service. I share it once more in hopes that we will all experience Pentecost again!
“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 my wife, 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 worshippers.
“They loved one another,” a resident called out. A conversation followed about how love enables us to understand and accept one another.
Other languages are present at Bethany. One couple speaks Portuguese. One’s native tongue is Spanish and another’s 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 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 worshippers 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 the United Methodist Church 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 worshipper 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 love. Sharing that love in simple acts of kindness, compassion, and justice is our highest calling.