Reflections on Turning 80!

Since reaching my 80th birthday in November, I have been keenly aware that I am running out of time. According to the Social Security actuaries, my life expectancy is now in single digits, roughly eight more years. That’s a sobering realization.

For most of my life, my orientation has been toward the future, anticipating and preparing for new beginnings. Beginning school, entering marriage, starting a family, graduating from school, launching a vocation, moving to a new congregation and community, retiring from one position and beginning another one, having grandchildren and even a great grandchild. The future has seemed limitless.

Now, I am living with more endings than beginnings. I have more memories than dreams, more recollections than anticipations. I’m losing more long-time friends and family members faster than gaining new ones.

Diminishment is my reality. Diminished energy, diminished engagements, diminished responsibilities, diminished influence, diminished number of living siblings, diminished circle of friends, diminished mobility.

Although my health is currently strong and my cognitive capacities are intact, frailty is likely just around the corner. I dread that phase for me and my family. I prefer to skip feebleness, but physical and mental frailty is the norm in our later years.

This sounds so depressing! Admittedly, I am grieving a multitude of losses and learning to live with accumulating endings and fewer beginnings.

Laments have become integral to my prayer life. Psalm 71 surfaces regularly: “Do not cast me off in the time of my old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.”

Laments, however, clear the way for possible new beginnings. They are means of letting go, probing deeper, and re-ordering priorities. Lament makes possible a re-orientation toward the present and future.

During a seminar on pastoral care and dementia, a friend asked, “Ken, you cared for Linda during the years of her frailty and death. What did you learn in that process that is helpful as you face your own frail years?”

My immediate response was that I know I will be supported in my infirmity by people who love me. As Linda was surrounded by love and support as her capacities diminished, I will be upheld by that same love. I may not be able to reciprocate, but I know from experience that love expands as we live in solidarity with the vulnerable and powerless. After all, love endures because love is participation in the very life of God.

As I have continued to ponder my friend’s question, other lessons have emerged.

Loving Linda in her frailty has taught me to value the present moment and fill it with as much joy and love as possible. In reality, the present moment is all any of us have for certain. As with most things, time increases in value as it decreases in quantity. In a sense, each moment is a new opportunity, even a new beginning!

Linda also helped me to learn that it’s the simple, even unnoticed actions that have the most meaning. A gesture of recognition, fleeting smile, twinkle in the eyes, gentle squeeze of the hand, simple act of kindness toward those nearby have immeasurable effects. Though the circle of relationships may grow smaller, the depth of the love can grow deeper. As Mother Teresa affirmed: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Finally, I am learning that being really is more important than doing! That is a hard reality to accept in a society that values productivity above almost all else. Human worth often is measured by capacities to produce, to DO! I’m living proof that the ability to DO inevitably diminishes with the advancement of age. But BEING a beloved child of God has no expiration date.

Although death has taken Linda’s presence from me, she remains part of my BEING, reminding me that when death comes to me, I will still be part of those with whom I have shared love.

To Whom Shall We Listen?

It may be the most important question in this age of media overload, “alternative facts,” “fake news,” partisan political propaganda, and competing religious voices. To whom do we listen in determining our own perspectives and our responses to current realities?

Make no mistake about it; we are shaped by the voices we listen to. Words matter! They shape how we feel and act. Hateful words provoke hatred. Divisive words divide people. Angry words spark angry action. Arrogant words generate haughty actions. Violent words incite violence. Lies distort reality. Falsehoods inflame prejudices.

On the other hand, loving words sow seeds of compassion. Reconciling words open doors for reconciliation. Gentle words soften hard hearts. Humble words invite dialogue. Peaceful words promote peace. Truthful words foster understanding.

For followers of Jesus, the Transfiguration story provides the answer to the question, “To whom shall we listen?” Jesus and his disciples were at a crossroads, on their way to Jerusalem, the center of religious, political, and economic power.

Ahead loomed confrontation and conflict as the values of the reign of God clashed with the values and practices of established religion and the Roman Empire.

The disciples are in for a test of their loyalty and the source of their authority. To whom will they listen to shape their actions and loyalties? Their lives and destiny depend on their choice. Will they listen to the one who had called them to “come follow me;” or will their actions be determined by the voices of expediency, safety, hatred, bigotry, and violence?

Mysteriously, Peter, James, and John experienced Jesus as the fulfillment of the authority of Moses and Elijah, the liberator and prophet. The authoritative voice from the heavens declared, “This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him!”(Mark 9:7)

It’s time for us to decide to whom we will listen in these uncertain, polarizing, hate-filled, violent times. What voices are shaping our actions and relationships? FOX News? MSNBC? Talk radio? Politicians and their spokespersons? Religious celebrities and power seekers?

What would it mean to listen to the One who is the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ?

For the last three years, I have begun each day of Lent reading from the Sermon on the Mount. They are the first words I read in the morning.  Before email, Facebook, and news articles. The words of Jesus thereby become the filter through which I read and hear everything else.

The contrast of the voice of Jesus and voices of much of social media, talk radio, television, and the internet is stark. Here are a few of the radical words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted . . .

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Turn the other cheek, go the second mile.

Practice forgiveness if you expect to be forgiven.

Don’t make a show of your piety.

Judge not that you be not judged.

Don’t be anxious about tomorrow.

You cannot serve God and wealth.

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

As the disciples faced an uncertain and tumultuous future while on the Mount of Transfiguration, we live in a world of competing voices. We would do well to heed the voice the disciples heard from the heavens:

            “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)

My Most Memorable Christmas Eve

It was a Sunday afternoon before Christmas in the early 1970s. I was resting comfortably in the parsonage in Abingdon, Virginia, when the telephone rang. It was the owner of the local funeral home, a member of the church I was serving.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Kenneth, but I need some help. A man is here whose wife died and they have no church affiliation. He is from this area but has been away for several years. Would you be willing to come down and help him plan a funeral service?”

I readily agreed and made my way to the funeral home. I wasn’t prepared for what followed. There awaited a young father and two children, Patricia, age 5, and two-year-old Eddie. They were the same ages as our daughters, Sheri and Sandra.

The father was grief-stricken. His wife, whom he had married in Korea during the war, had died from cancer. He needed help in telling the children that their mother had died. How do you help young children understand that their mother is gone? Here it is a few days before Christmas and Patricia and Eddie have lost the one who gave them birth and cared for them. I don’t remember what I said. I just remember hugging them!

We had the funeral a couple of days later. Only a dozen or so people were present. After the service, I asked the father what they were would be doing Christmas Eve. He had no plans but to be with his relative. I asked if he would like Patricia and Eddie to spend Christmas Eve with us. Eddie decided he wanted to stay with his Dad, but Patricia was eager to be with Sheri and Sandra.

Linda rushed out and bought more presents to place under the tree as we anticipated having a special guest for Christmas, a little five-year-old who had just lost her mother.

The Christmas Eve celebration began with a service at the church. It was a simple portrayal of the Nativity as described in Luke and Matthew. I narrated the story from the pulpit while the shepherds, magi, Mary and Joseph, and angels made their way to the altar.

Linda sat on the front row with Sheri, Sandra, and Patricia. I heard Sheri whispering to Patricia throughout the drama. I suddenly realized what was happening. She and Sandra were interpreting the drama to Patricia. It dawned on me that she was experiencing the Christmas story for the first time, and she was hearing it from two little girls.

Following the service, we gathered at the parsonage for dinner. About the time dessert was served, Patricia got up from the table and ran to a bedroom crying. After a short time, I followed her into the dark room.

I cradled her in my arms as she sobbed. “You miss your Momma, don’t you? I’m so sorry. It’s okay to cry.”

Suddenly, the door opened and into the darkness came Sheri and Sandra. Sheri was carrying one of her favorite possessions, a jeweled box given to her by her grandmother. She reached it toward Patricia and said, “This is for you.”

Patricia’s tears stopped as she reached for her gift. She slowly returned to her dessert, holding onto her special present.

That Christmas, more than forty-five years ago, remains my most memorable and transformative Christmas. Amid the darkness of grief and loss, three little girls BECAME the Christmas story.

May we, too, become the Christmas Story amid the darkness of our grieving and suffering world.

Hope Beyond the Election

Anxiety reigns as the election draws near! Both sides of the political divide imagine the results in apocalyptic terms. Indeed, much is at stake! Nothing less than the future of our democracy and stability of society’s institutions hang in the balance. The Right and the Left and the Middle have contrasting interpretations of “democracy” and “stability”; and visions of the nation’s desired future are colliding in the choices citizens are making in the election.

Admittedly, I am more anxious about the future of my homeland than I have been in my almost eighty years. I fear the consequences of continued polarization, ideological warfare, political dysfunction, corruption, dishonesty by governmental and institutional leaders, the harshness and crudeness of our discourse, and the blatant racism and tribalism expressed at the highest levels of our government.

Then, there is the Covid-19 pandemic that is killing more and more of our citizens while many deny its deadliness. I yearn for empathetic, compassionate leadership that pays attention to God-given science and puts the welfare of ALL above personal aggrandizement and political expediency.

Now is the time to get in touch with the foundation that will remain beyond the election results. This isn’t the first time people of faith have endured the crumbling of national, institutional, and cultural foundations. Neither will it be the last time catastrophic threats will appear.

Out of the agonizing laments of a collapsing nation and widespread despair came this resounding declaration following the collapse of Judah and the destruction of the economic and social life among the citizenry at the hands of Babylon:

The steadfast love of the LORD
     never ceases, 
his mercies never come to an
     end; 
they are new every morning;   
  great is your faithfulness. 
The LORD is my portion, says
     my soul,
  therefore I will hope in him.                    
                   Lamentations 3:22-24

That is the bedrock foundation that will not be shaken by the election. Hesed, the Hebrew word translated as “steadfast love,” declares God’s unrelenting, loyal, unshakable compassion, mercy, and justice. It is at the heart of God’s character, the essence of the Divine Being.

Love, Compassion, Mercy, and Justice will remain deeply embedded in the nature of reality, whatever happens in the election. They are divine components of creation itself. And, nations and institutions rise and fall in accordance with how they embody “the steadfast love of the Lord” and the mercy that never ceases.

Whatever happens in the election, God will be faithful in “defending the orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants); announcing good news to the poor and release to the captives; entering solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, the dying; breaking down the dividing walls of hostility and welcoming ALL into a beloved community; and bringing to completion the reign of justice, compassion, hospitality, and joy.

I remain anxious about the outcome of the election. But I will not give up! Indeed, there will continue to be opportunities to expand the circle of love, practice compassion in places of suffering, extend mercy to those in need, and work for justice so all may have access to God’s table of abundance.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.” Therein lies my hope and my calling beyond the election.

Who Will Care for the Orphans?

In 1995, my wife Linda and I spent two weeks traveling Zimbabwe with leaders of The United Methodist Church. We were there to support and learn from the people and to witness the marvelous work being done by the church in providing education, healthcare, and other forms of aid among the people of beautiful country.

The most memorable and haunting experience was a visit at an orphanage at Old Mutare Mission, located within view of African University. There we listened to the dedicated staff who care for children orphaned by the HIV/Aids epidemic. The children surrounded us with smiles and longing looks in their bright eyes. As we were leaving, kids clung to our legs as though grasping for love and hope.

Though the children have long forgotten the two strangers from the U.S., I have not forgotten them. Their images continue to prod and inspire me to respond to the plight of the estimated 150 million orphans around the world. They are, after all, at the center of God’s presence and mission.

At the heart of our faith is this declaration: God “defends the orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants),” and we meet God “in the least of these.” To know and serve this God is to be in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us; and no one is more vulnerable than the orphans. The orphans, therefore, are far more than objects of mission; they are means of divine presence and transformation.

My friend, Wayne Lavender, knows the plight of orphans and he knows the God who defends them. Furthermore, he knows the difference relationships with “the least of these” can make in the lives of individuals, congregations, and communities. As a trained theologian, pastor, political scientist, and peace activist, Dr. Lavender founded Foundation for Orphans (F4O) as a means of connecting individuals and congregations in the U.S. with the orphans in Africa, currently in Mozambique. You can learn more about F4O at their website https://f4o.org/.

I serve on the Board of Directors of F4O and support the efforts to provide love and hope for as many children as possible. Recently, I contribute financially because I believe in its mission, ministry, integrity and transparency. I know my recent gift will be used to help construct a new home for 48 orphaned children in Lichinga, Mozambique.

This Saturday, October 10 (10.10.2020), World Orphan Day, the Foundation 4 Orphans -F4O.org will be holding its first CyberThon, an online fundraiser. I will be one of the keynote speakers, appearing from 7:05 – 7:15 PM. You can watch my interview on the Foundation 4 Orphans – F4O.org FaceBook live during that time (more info here), or on their YouTube F4O Cyberthon channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH_2WHOr_yqJFPBll39XhkA)

I hope you will join with me in prayer for the success of this fundraiser, and possibly by your gifts (https://f4o.org/give-2/). Working together, we can provide love and hope to these children and thereby change the world, one life at a time.

Millie and Me – Goodbye to a Special Companion

In the fall of 2009, our daughters, Sheri and Sandra, suggested we adopt a dog. Linda had just been diagnosed with Frontotemporal dementia and they assumed that a four-legged companion would be therapy for both of us, especially for Linda. So, they set out to identify the right companion.

At a local animal shelter, my son-in-law, Kyle, met a shy little Millie! She had been found wandering the street in the rain by a young boy and his mother. They were not permitted to keep a dog in their apartment, so they brought her to the shelter with the stipulation that she not be euthanized. She was estimated to be about eight or nine months old. They had already named her “Millie.”

In response to my question “What kind of dog is she?” the veterinarian replied as he surveyed her characteristics, “I see Chihuahua, Yorkie, terrier, and….Let’s just say she has a rich heritage!”

Though never weighing more than ten pounds, she was the alpha dog in every encounter with other canines and the “princess” when with family. She was reserved in the presence of strangers but feisty and fierce in defense of her space and family.

Millie quickly became a member of the family and Linda’s constant companion. Linda trained her, cared for her, loved her. Millie faithfully and persistently returned the love. They became almost inseparable. The bond of mutual love grew stronger as Linda’s disease progressed.

Early in the disease process, Linda and Millie took walks together and interacted in multiple ways. Millie seemed to sense the changes in Linda and always adjusted with empathy and added affection. She sensed when she was upset and frustrated and maintained her “non-anxious” presence in the most tumultuous times.

In the last stages of Linda’s disease, she lost the ability to respond to Millie. Yet, Millie remained faithful. She often positioned herself under Linda’s bed, especially when visitors came. She assumed the protector’s role, keeping her eyes fixed on the movements of the visitors.

Millie seemed to sense when Linda’s death was approaching. I don’t know how. Maybe she picked up on our feelings, or perhaps animals have a special sense at such times. After Linda’s death, she didn’t eat for three days. She frequently went to the door to her room and walked away with sadness in her eyes and her little tail tucked low. She was grieving!

We leaned on one another for comfort, support, and companionship. She had been part of Linda’s story for a decade. Now, her presence helped me feel Linda’s nearness. Maybe I did the same for her.

Millie gradually lost her hearing. Her vision diminished. Her dependency on me intensified. She followed my every move. When I returned to the house from errands or walks, she was waiting at the door.

In recent weeks, Millie’s declining health accelerated dramatically. In the early morning hours of September 16, she slowly drew her last breath. I quietly thanked God for her companionship with both Linda and me and for her bearing God’s own unconditional love and faithfulness.

Richard Rohr in his book, The Universal Christ, shares that he saw in his dog, Venus, the presence of Christ, the incarnation of the universal power of life and love. Some may want to quarrel with Rohr’s theology; but I’ll leave the quarrel to others. I just know that Linda and I experienced the power of unconditional love and gentle presence in Millie.

All creation originates in and is sustained by God’s love, and the divine presence permeates all life. The Psalmist declares in a prayer to God, “You save humans and animals alike” (36:6) and Jesus reminds us that God notes with compassion a sparrow’s fall (Matthew 10:29).

I know from my experience, especially in times of suffering and grief, nothing heals and comforts like gentle, loving, loyal presence. Sam Wells suggests that with is the most significant word in the Christian faith. It speaks of incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, Immanuel, “God with us.”

To the very end, Millie was simply with us in gentleness, loyalty, and empathy. I am ever thankful for the gift of Millie. Yes, she was an intimation of divine presence and love from which nothing in life or death can separate us.

.

Open Letter to Senator Lindsey Graham

Below is a letter I have sent to Senator Lindsey Graham who is my senator from South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Dear Senator Graham:

The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the process of replacing her has placed you at the center of the intensifying crises facing our country. Far more is at stake than the choosing of a member of the Supreme Court. Trust in the democratic processes and those who lead them has been eroding for years and has now reached a tipping point. Such trust depends upon the integrity, truthfulness, and commitment to the common good of people such as you who wield political power.

You, President Trump, and Senator McConnell are now the decisive leaders who will determine the timing and process for filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court and the integrity with which the process unfolds. Your personal character and the integrity of the Senate hangs in the balance. You unequivocally declared in 2016 that if a vacancy occurred during the presidential primary season the naming of a replacement would be made by the person elected in November.

 Senator McConnell, with the full support of the Republican caucus in the Senate, blocked the duly nominated Judge Garland with the rationale that no Supreme Court nominee should be approved in an election year. The decision to move forward in replacing Justice Ginsburg with less than two months remaining before the election is rank hypocrisy and Machiavellian duplicity.

By creating the precedent of blocking President Obama’s nominee, you and Senate Republicans sowed poisonous seeds of cynicism and exacerbated the dysfunction of the Senate. Whatever rationalization you use to justify reversing that principle when the president is of your own party, you will further undermine your own personal integrity and our trust in the Senate and those of you who occupy the position.

I appeal to your personal sense of integrity and fairness, and your commitment to the ideals of our democracy to delay consideration of a replacement of Justice Ginsburg until after the election. Doing so will send a signal that personal character still matters to you and your Republican colleagues; and it will be one step toward restoring trust in you and our democratic institutions.

 As a person of faith, I am reminded of the words of Jesus, “What will it profit a person if he/she gains the whole world and loses his/her soul.” You and your colleagues may gain this Supreme Court seat; but doing so at the cost of your character and integrity will eventually destroy you and further weaken the credibility of our democratic institutions. Providence and history will not look kindly on such action. Neither will voters in the upcoming election.

Sincerely,

Kenneth L. Carder

Relationships Break Down Racial Barriers*

In June 1962, when Linda and I loaded our few belongings in a U-Haul trailer in Watauga, Tennessee, and headed to Gaithersburg, Maryland, so that I could begin seminary, racial tensions were intensifying. Politicians fanned the flames of hatred, bigotry, and division.

George Wallace, a staunch segregationist, had just been elected governor of Alabama. He angrily stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama in an  attempt to block the admission of two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Racial strife dominated the daily news.

Linda and I grew up in the segregated world of eastern Tennessee. I had no relationships with African-Americans and no experiences across the boundaries of race and ethnicity.

I had been appointed as student pastor of the Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel Methodist Churches while attending Wesley Theological Seminary in the nation’s capital. The two churches were located within 2 miles of one another on Darnestown Road. Hunting Hill was a former Methodist Episcopal Church, and MacDonald Chapel was part of the MEC South. The Methodist Episcopal Church had split into the two denominations over slavery in 1844.

The two denominations reunited in 1939 to form The Methodist Church. As a concession to the MEC South, the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction was formed for Black members.

Located on the same road and between Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel was Pleasant View Methodist Church, whose members were African-Americans.

So within two miles on the same stretch of road, three churches represented the history of the United Methodist Church’s struggle with racism.

As I drove past Pleasant View Church one weekday afternoon, I noticed a car parked beside the Parish Hall. I had not yet met the pastor. Perhaps this was my chance. What followed changed my life and approach to ministry.

I met The Reverend Tom Barrington, the pastor of Emory Grove and Pleasant View Methodist Churches. I was twenty-three years old, a seminary student, and a part-time pastor. He was in his mid fifties with a seminary degree and thirty years’ experience as a full-time pastor.

He greeted me with a warm smile and firm handshake. I learned that he was originally from the South — North Carolina as I recall. I immediately felt at ease in his presence and was impressed with his graciousness. It marked the beginning of my first friendship with an African-American colleague.

Soon, I confronted the institutional racism in The Methodist Church. Even though Reverend Barrington was far more experienced and educated than I and served full time, my annual salary exceeded his by $300!

During one of our subsequent informal conversations, Reverend Barrington mentioned that he wished he had enough boys to start a scout troop. Since we had an active scouting program at Hunting Hill, I suggested that his boys join the troop. His response exposed my naivete.

“Son,” he remarked, “do you want trouble?” “You may get run out of here if you try that. I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

I insisted that I ask the scout master, George Righter, if it would be okay to have the boys from Pleasant View join the troop. Much to the surprise of Reverend Barrington, George and the assistant leaders welcomed the new members of the troop without fanfare and minimum resistance.

Months later the Women’s Society of Christian Service (now United Methodist Women) of Pleasant View invited the women from MacDonald Chapel to a time of conversation and fellowship. Within a matter of weeks, the Methodist Men had a similar gathering. Barriers began coming down as relationships were formed across racial barriers.

Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel entered into a merger agreement during my last year as their pastor in 1965. Included in the agreement was expanded fellowship with Pleasant View and the possibility of them joining in the formation of the new church.

Suggestions for names for the newly formed church were received. I had placed in the suggestion box the name Fairhaven, from Acts 27.

Fair Haven was a temporary safe harbor amid a storm as Paul continued his journey to Rome.  The name seemed an appropriate image for a church — a place of nurture and renewal for a community on the journey toward God’s reconciled community of justice and love.

In 1968, a transformative step on that journey was taken when the members of Pleasant View became part of the new church. While racial strife and division dominated the media, three strains of Methodism’s division came together in a congregation on Darnestown Road in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

In September 2008, Linda and I shared in a Homecoming and 40th Anniversary of Fairhaven. Following the service, a woman approached me.

“I want to apologize to you and thank you. You likely don’t remember me, but you may remember my father,” she remarked.  After sharing his name, she reminded me that the family left the Hunting Hill Church in disagreement with the merger between Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel and the growing fellowship with Pleasant View.

She added, “I have returned to this church for the very reason my parents left it. My family is part of this church because of its diversity.”

Little did Reverend Barrington or I realize at the time that a small group of Boy Scouts, a women’s meeting, and a gathering of Methodist Men would be seeds from which a flourishing multi-racial congregation would spring forth.  What we did realize, however, is that relationships matter!

Fifty-seven years have passed since that fateful day that I drove into the parking lot of Pleasant View and met Tom Barrington. Tom died in 1966. He never knew the impact he had on a young, naïve seminary student from East Tennessee.

Today, Fairhaven United Methodist Church stands as visible testimony to the reconciling power of the gospel when embodied in relationships of compassion, justice, and hospitality.+

September 27, Fairhaven will celebrate homecoming by Zoom with the theme “Through it All God Remains Faithful.” I will be giving thanks that those three small membership congregations demonstrated to a young pastor from the segregated South that relationships across racial barriers are the soil out of which grows new life.

*This is the third in a series as I engage in the coming months on a pilgrimage of remembering sixty years of ministry and life with my deceased wife, Linda. When possible, I will be visiting the communities where Linda and I lived and served.

Pilgrimage to Seminary*


Linda and I departed our native East Tennessee in June 1962 for seminary. Both of us wanted to live and study outside our native South.  Having been offered a scholarship and an appointment as student pastor, Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., seemed the right choice.

The school had moved from Westminster, Maryland, to the campus of American University in 1958. The location was part of the curriculum as the seminary intentionally claimed the Christian gospel’s witness in the public arena.

Where else could a student take a class on “The Prophets” and be assigned attendance at Congressional hearings on poverty or Pentagon briefings on the Vietnam War?

Or, what better place for a naïve young man from the Jim Crow South to be required to walk the streets of a ghetto within site of the US Capitol and interview residents on their impression of the Methodist Church located up the street?

One comment from an interviewee shaped my practice as a pastor, bishop, and seminary teacher. “They don’t do nothin’ up there but have church.” I learned that you don’t really know the local church apart from the neighbors’ experience of it.

The seminary faculty members all had pastoral experience and were deeply committed to the formation of congregations that embody the gospel.

Seminary education can take place in isolation from the surrounding world! Not at Wesley! World events were not only in the news media. They were in the classroom, subjected to rigorous biblical and theological reflection.

The Bay of Pigs! Build up of war in Vietnam! Assassination of President Kennedy! Martin Luther King and the March on Washington! Civil Rights legislation! Selma March! Campus unrest! Black Power!

The notion that such events had nothing to do with theology and the church was totally foreign to life at Wesley Seminary, at least in my experience during those three years.

Education and formation were integral to my seminary experience. Contrary to current practice, psychological evaluations were done as part of the orientation process at Wesley. The purpose was to identify personality, psychological, and emotional qualities that may need attention.

A clinical psychologist and faculty members with appropriate training were available to provide support in addressing identified issues. As we were told, “We are here to help prepare you intellectually, spiritually, and psychologically to be the best pastors you can be.”

One incident captures the impact those three years had on my own education and formation. It happened during my second year in the class called “Sermonic Clinic,” a required class in the practice of preaching.

The professor was Dr. Earl H. Ferguson. He was known as a tough professor whose critique of sermons could be brutal. We called the class “Fergatory!” When it came my turn to preach, I used an Easter sermon I had delivered in one of my local churches.

I preached on the resurrection and promptly experienced the crucifixion when Dr. Ferguson delivered his critique before the whole class. He found nothing positive in the sermon. I failed to define what I meant by resurrection or explain how it provided forgiveness for the past, strength for the present, and hope for the future–the three points. My delivery was wooden, dispassionate, and “boring.”

I was crushed by the evaluation. I left for home immediately after class. I burst into tears when Linda greeted me with “How did it go?” I had failed! I tossed and turned through the night before returning to campus the next morning.

Upon arriving on campus for a first period class, I entered the underground tunnel connecting the classroom building to Oxnam Chapel and several faculty offices, including Dr. Ferguson’s.

Suddenly, I heard that familiar voice, “Kenneth! Wait up!” It was Dr. Ferguson.

“That hurt yesterday, didn’t it?” he commented.

“Yes, it hurt very much,” as I choked back my emotions.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you; but we need to understand one another. I assume you are here because you have been called to preach. I am here because I have been called to make you the best preacher you can be.”

Then he did something I had never experienced from him. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Kenneth, I believe in you!”

Suddenly, this brilliant man put his arm around me and continued, “And I’m going to hold you to it.” While he held me in compassion, he held me accountable to my calling.

I asked if I could preach another sermon. Though it was an improvement and his critique included some positives, I had more work to do (and still do).

Thereafter, I took every class I could from Dr. Ferguson. He was a Tillich scholar and one of his classes was “The Meaning of Love.” The basic texts were Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and Paul Tillich’s  Love, Power, and Justice. I still have the notes from that class and the term paper I wrote, “Masochism and Sadism and Their Theological Formulations.”

Ten years after graduating from Wesley, I wrote to Dr. Ferguson and thanked him for what he taught me about preaching AND the meaning of discipleship. He had retired and moved to Maine. His response includes this paragraph:

Your letter warmed an old man’s heart on a cold winter day in Maine. Teaching and preaching are like shooting arrows into the air. You’re never quite sure they hit any targets. Then, someone takes the time to write a note or letter to say ‘thank you.’ You realize that something you said or did made a difference. Thank you!

Here are a few arrows shot into the air by Wesley Seminary that landed firmly in my understanding of the gospel and practice of ministry:

  • There is only one gospel, with personal, social, and cosmic implications
  • Education and formation are inseparable components of ministry
  • Knowledge and vital piety belong together
  • A congregation that neglects its community isn’t the church
  • God is as concerned about what happens in politics as in religion
  • Justice and evangelism are conjoined twins, not adversaries
  • The world is God’s preoccupation, not the institutional church
  • “God’s kingdom will come. Join it or get out of its way!” (Quote from Professor Lowell Hazzard,1965.)

Whatever effectiveness I may have had over five decades of ordained ministry, I owe much of it to Wesley Seminary during three life-changing years, 1962-65,

*This is the second in a series as I engage in the coming months on a pilgrimage of remembering sixty years of ministry and life with my deceased wife, Linda. When possible, I will be visiting the communities where Linda and I lived and served.

 Photo: Copyright, Wesley Theological Seminary, 2020. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Prayer of Blessing for Beginning of School Year

My granddaughter, Emily Nash, began her teaching career this week. She has been working hard all summer to prepare her classroom and curriculum. I wrote this prayer as a blessing for her; but I have edited it here to include all teachers, students, and staff as they face a particularly challenging and uncertain year.

colorful prayer hands



Blessed are You, God of love, truth, goodness, and beauty. As our teachers prepare for a year of teaching, bless them, their classrooms, and all the kids who will soon gather.

You have already blessed our teachers with gifts and training. Now bless them with

  • Enthusiasm for the tasks ahead
  • Patience amid resistance
  • Gentleness amid conflict
  • Empathy for the troubled
  • Steadfastness when discouraged
  • Perseverance amid failure and mistakes
  • And joy when progress is evident

Bless the classrooms with beauty that

  • Sparks imagination
  • Enhances learning
  • Invites inquiry
  • Stimulates questions
  • Fosters belonging
  • Facilitates cooperation
  • Feels like home.

Bless the students with

  • Eagerness to learn and grow
  • Trust in their inherent worth and dignity
  • Willingness to learn from mistakes
  • Confidence in their ability and potential
  • Openness to guidance and correction
  • A sense of belonging in a community of learning.

Bless the administrators and staff with

  • Respect for one another
  • Love and compassion for ALL students
  • Mutual accountability for nurturing a learning community
  • Enduring commitment to excellence in education and formation.

Bless and fill each school with Love, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty so that each may be a beacon of hope for a world of peace, justice, and liberty for ALL people. Amen.