I Won’t be Attending General Conference But . . . .

UM-General-Conference1920x485-1024x259I’m going to miss an important event in Methodist history–the called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, February 23-27.

A lot is at stake as delegates wrestle with ways to deal with the important matters of homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture. The decisions made will chart the denomination’s future for decades.

Missing the conference makes me sad! I feel some guilt for my absence.  Although as a retired bishop I have no official duties,  I do feel responsible to be present in support of colleagues and delegates.

I know from previous General Conferences that significant things happen apart from the formal sessions. Old friendships are renewed and new ones formed. The vast diversity of the denomination is on full display.

Great music! Outstanding preaching! Challenging speeches! Profound worship!

I’ll miss all of that!

I must forego the experience. But, I’ll be pursuing my current primary vocational calling, care-partner for my wife of 57 years.

What I will be doing seems small and insignificant when compared to the history-making decisions. Nothing I will be doing will get publicity or make the history books.

I’ll be doing little things–holding Linda’s hand, combing her hair, feeding her, brushing her teeth, assuring her she isn’t alone, just sitting quietly as she sleeps.

There are important connections between what I’ll be doing and what’s happening in St. Louis.

We both will be doing sacred work!  Both will involve strong emotions, including grief and disappointment. God will be present with us!

Both have to do with what it means to love! Who to love! How to love! What it means to love faithfully, as Christ loves us!

Love isn’t an abstraction for me. She’s lying in the bed nearby, with her hand in mine. Love, in the final analysis, is an embodied practice rather than a pontifical pronouncement.

I hope love isn’t an abstraction in St. Louis. May it be embodied in

  • ears that listen attentively,
  • tongues that speak tenderly and truthfully,
  • hands that clasp and serve joyfully,
  • arms that embrace hospitably,
  • hearts that beat compassionately,
  • minds that exhibit the mind that was in Christ Jesus,
  • actions that manifest the breadth of God’s love and justice.

I won’t be trying to convince Linda that she is wrong, or less than, or inadequate, or sinful, or outside the norm.

Instead, I will be trying to empathetically enter her world, see the world as she is seeing it, assure her that she is valued amid her confusion, and loved unconditionally by God and by me.

I genuinely pray that what happens in St. Louis will be akin to what will be happening in our home, and in the countless homes across our world as people seek to love one another as Christ loves us, regardless of

  • race,
  • ethnicity,
  • political affiliations,
  • theological perspectives,
  • sexual orientation, or
  • physical and intellectual capacities.

I won’t be physically present in St. Louis, but I’ll be watching and praying. . . . and continuing to love!

 

 

 

Mastering the Energies of Love

Humanity has made great advances  in harnessing the energy of the wind, the sun, the atom, and the currents. Those energies are used for good and ill!

There is one energy we have not yet mastered. Until we do, all our so-called advances will be but improved means to unimproved ends.

Paleontologist, geologist, philosopher, and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, stated it profoundly:

What paralyzes life is lack of faith and lack of courage. The difficulty lies not in solving problems but in expressing them correctly; and we can now see that it is biologically undeniable that unless we harness passion to the service of spirit there can be no progress. Sooner or later, then, and in spite of all our incredulity, the world will take this step— because the greater truth always prevails and the greater good emerges in the end. The day will come when, after mastering the ether, the winds, the tides, gravity, we shall master the energies of love, for God. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have made fire his servant.
― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, On Love & Happiness

The real challenge is to be mastered by Love! That’s what Christians call “discipleship”!

“What do you fear most about growing old?”

“What do you fear most about growing old?” This was a question for breakout groups after a presentation on “Living with Purpose and Joy at Any Age.”

Among the most frequent answers to such a question are “losing my mind,” “not being able to do for myself,” “being a burden,” “running out of money,” “becoming frail and incompetent,” and “having to go to a nursing home.”

This response especially caught my attention: “I fear being taken care of by people who don’t love me.”

Being one of the elderly myself and having spent a lot of time in recent years among frail, infirm, and dependent people, I have an inkling from whence that fear arises. And, regrettably, the fear has legitimacy.

Care of the elderly has become a major commercial enterprise where efficiency, financial profitability, and getting past the next regulatory inspection are the operational priorities.

Most care facilities in the United States operate on a medical model in which people are treated for their physical and mental frailties. Residents (patients) are categorized by their symptoms and levels of incapacitation.

The frail elderly are treated as dependent recipients of medical care dispensed largely by over-worked, minimally trained, under paid, and seldom affirmed employees.

What if the paradigm for care of the elderly were shifted from dispensing medicine to sharing love and extending hospitality, countering the fear of “being cared for by people don’t love me”?

Such a shift would require honoring the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each person as a beloved child of God, regardless of his/her capacities.

Being cared for by people who love me means:

  • being present with and attentive to me
  • knowing my likes and dislikes, my longings and regretsClasping hands 2
  • listening to my stories, even if I tell them over and over
  • talking to me tenderly and sensitively
  • treating me as a beloved member of the family
  • letting me share my gifts as well as accept yours
  • being excited to see me when we’ve be apart
  • smiling as though you enjoy who I am
  • advocating for me when I can’t speak for myself
  • being patient with me when I can’t understand clearly or do quickly
  • getting inside and understanding my world
  • remembering that I was once younger like you and you one day will  be old like me
  • knowing that the best medicine you can give me is your love

While being cared for by people who love us may be especially urgent for the frail elderly, everyone of whatever age or station wants such treatment–children in schools, inmates in prisons, patients in hospitals, employees in businesses, students in universities,  members in congregations, families in homes.

I suspect that our fear of growing old and frail would be greatly diminished if we knew that we would be cared for by people who love us. After all, “There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear” (1John 4:18).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will We Bear Witness to the Gospel or to Our Brokenness?

The nation is perilously divided along political, racial, economic, gender,  and cultural lines. Hatred, disrespect, and cruelty toward “the other” have become acceptable public behavior and a normalized political strategy.

Tribalism and ideological warfare threaten any sense of commonality and mock the ideal of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Where is the church, particularly the denomination which has shaped my life–The United Methodist Church?

At the general church level, we are mirroring the divisions within the nation! Groups are quarreling over human sexuality and the interpretation of Scripture.

Local congregations and individual members are being pushed into ideological corners with secularly devised labels of “traditionalists” and “progressives.”

This isn’t the first time Methodists have mirrored national divisions. We divided over slavery and, thereby, the church became complicit in the violence of the Civil War.

Current arguments and rationalizations echo those advanced by preachers in 19th century. Once again the Bible is being used as a weapon of ideological warfare rather than as the authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation, supremely in Jesus Christ.

Just at the time the nation and world need a model of unity amid differences, United Methodist leaders seek ways to separate; thereby,  countering our “oneness in Jesus Christ” and weakening our witness to the Christian gospel.

Whatever rationalizations we may use to convince ourselves that we are defending truth and upholding morality,  to the world a division will bear witness to our brokenness and hypocrisy.

Let us, instead, bear witness to the core gospel truth that God has already acted decisively in Jesus Christ to reconcile all things (Colossians 1:20). God has called the church to be instruments of reconciliation.

 “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19 NRSV).

Unity in Christ

This isn’t about unity for unity’s sake!  It’s unity as embodiment of witness to the gospel! God in Christ has already made us one! He has already broken down the dividing walls of hostility! That’s the gospel truth!

Failure to embody that good news in our life together as a denomination will mock the central message of the Christian Gospel: In Jesus Christ, God has broken down all dividing walls of hostility and claimed ALL as beloved sons and daughters!

The issue of homosexuality will not be resolved by legislation or denominational restructuring as proposed by any of the plans to be presented at the forthcoming called session of General Conference.

Resolution lies in living the oneness already existing in Jesus Christ by humbly struggling together to fully grasp God’s vision for the world and the church. “Traditionalists” and “progressives” need one another! A first step may be to do away with such simplistic labels and commit ourselves to God’s reign of compassion, justice, and hospitality.

It seems to me that the One Church Plan being proposed to the General Conference has the best chance of enabling United Methodists to pursue and live God’s vision for humanity expressed in Jesus’s prayer that “they might be one.”

Make no mistake about it: the world is watching! May our leaders bear witness to a unity that transcends uniformity, a unity God has already wrought in Jesus Christ.

Riding Dementia’s Roller Coaster

Anyone who lives with dementia must learn to ride emotional roller coasters. The rises and dips, twists and turns,  happen abruptly and without warning. Behaviors and moods of people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can dramatically change in a split second.

Caregivers know the experience well! A smile instantly turns to a scowl. Cooperation suddenly pivots to conflict. Calm explodes into rage. Affection gives way to rejection. Coherence suddenly gets shattered by confusion.

Sometimes the ride is exhilarating as an unexpected smile or moment of recognition appears. Other times the ride takes a plunge into the abyss of grief or turns sharply toward more confusion. Then, there are periods when the journey plateaus and moves ahead with relative calm and predictability.

But riding roller coasters is exhausting, even dangerous! I’m still learning and sometimes all I can do is hold on for dear life and brace myself for the final plunge downward. Yet, I’ve learned a few lessons.

One, don’t ride the rollercoaster by yourself! I need other people with me. . .to hold onto. . .to scream with me. . .to comfort me! We need others to steady us enduring the ups and downs, the twists and turns. And, it’s comforting to know that others are on the ride with you.

Two, scream when you feel like it! Screams are laments. Laments are not only therapeutic; they are the forerunners of hope. They are the weeping of the night in preparation for the joy that comes in the morning.

Three, relish each moment rather than fear the next twist or turn or dip. Learning to live in the present moment isn’t easy but it’s the only real time for those with dementia. Each moment contains potential life, love, and connection. Grab it before it’s gone!

Four, reach out and touch! A gentle touch or embrace of the one trapped in dementia’s turbulence brings solace to both. Touch communicates when words fail and thoughts flee.

Five, look up! The roller coaster isn’t the total reality. The sun and stars remain in their course. There is a world beyond the tumult of the present.

Six, sing! Music harmonizes, calms, inspires, touches deep places in the heart when the brain falters.

Seven, laugh! As the poet Robert Frost said, “If we couldn’t laugh, we would go insane!”

Eight, trust the permanence of love! “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22). God’s love never ends. Neither does ours!

Love does more than survive roller coaster rides; love grows stronger through the ups and downs, the twists and turns. So, hold on tight to love!

 

 

 

“Not What Do You Believe, But What Do You DO?”

It was an unlikely place for a theological discussion! I was undergoing a medical test that required a lot of waiting and interaction with a technician.

Noting a book I was reading by Walter Brueggemann and having seen on my chart that I had taught at Duke, he asked, “Are you a liberal or conservative?”

“I don’t  really like labels. I’m liberal on some things and conservative on others,” I responded.

“Well, what do you believe?” he retorted.

“Believe about what?” I asked.

“About God, Jesus,  and the Bible,” he said.

“Wow, that’s a lot to cover. I have lots of beliefs about those topics, but I’m not sure that what I believe about them is the most important thing.”

“Oh? Then, what is most important about being religious?” he inquired with interest.

I replied, “I think a more important question is, What do you do? What do you practice? How do you behave, treat people?”

There followed several minutes of conversation about treating people with respect, dignity, compassion, justice, and hospitality.

“But beliefs are important, aren’t they?” he pushed.

I responded, “Definitely! They should motivate, form, and guide what we do. The validity of our beliefs is what kind of persons they produce. The test is what’s in our hearts more than what’s in our heads.”

Continuing, I added, “You asked me what I believe about God, Jesus, and the Bible. Here it is in a nutshell. I believe God is love and that love became flesh in Jesus who shows us what it means to love and empowers us to love one another as God loves us. The Bible is the story of the unfolding of that love.”

With calmness, he reflected, “So, you’re more concerned about what I do than what I believe? Right?”

I remarked: “I’m interested in both, but our actions reveal our true beliefs. Your kindness, respect, and compassion indicate to me that you know God as love, kindness, and justice. You may not even call that “God” but to practice love, generosity, hospitality, and justice is to “believe” in God as I understand the term.”

As the tests and wait continued, the conversation turned to our shared concern for loved ones living with dementia. He was no longer curious about whether I was “liberal” or “conservative,” and I still don’t know what his religious formulations are.

I do know that in that brief exchange two people treated one another with mutual respect, compassion, and dignity. In so doing, we pointed to what the Lord requires: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)

 

Linda’s Birthday

Birthdays are occasions to declare that people are stories rather than symptoms; and sharing love is the abiding theme of our stories. In the sharing of love, our stories intersect with God’s Story.
Thank you, Linda, for your remarkable story of love! Being part of that story is the greatest joy of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

as Linda moves deeper into her dementia

Christmas Realities

I write this in the predawn hours sitting beside Linda’s bed as she drifts further into the darkness of dementia. Personal grief hovers like a foreboding storm cloud.

The news is dominated by a dysfunctional government caught in the tug of war over a border wall. Political instability is spawning authoritarianism here and around the world and tribalism is shattering  the common good.

Reports of a plummeting stock market compounds uncertainty and anxiety. Will there be enough in pensions and savings to meet the escalating costs of basic needs?

Accounts of more violence in our local community  have become part of the daily news, and this morning is no exception.

While I read these news reports and ponder present and impending loss, Christmas carols play in the background: “Silent Night,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “What Child Is This,” “Away in a Manger.”

The dissonance is palpable! All is not calm and bright! Peace and goodwill seem an idle dream.

The surrounding darkness,  widespread discord, and lurking danger seem to render images of a babe lying peacefully in a manger and a heavenly choir harmoniously singing to lowly shepherds a fanciful escape from the real world.

But, no! The Christmas story as told in the Gospels IS THE REAL WORLD! The infinite and eternal God enters the finite and temporal. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us.

In the midst of political oppression and economic injustice of the Roman despots Herod and Quirinius, a baby is born to a peasant teenager.

Made homeless by governmental decree, Mary gives birth in a stable in the dark of the night in the remote village of Bethlehem.

Fleeing brutality and violence, the vulnerable family migrate to Egypt as an insecure emperor cruelly slaughters innocent children. The wailing of grieving mothers pierces the silent night.

Grief, poverty, homelessness, migration, violence, dysfunctional governments, power hungry politicians! We know these realities all too well!

Christmas, however, speaks of another reality which beckons us toward a new world where

  • the least and most vulnerable birth God’s presence and purposes
  • the power of love supersedes the love of power
  • the poor and powerless have access to  God’s abundance
  • bridges of hospitality replace walls of exclusion
  • the grieving are not left alone with their tears
  •  forgiveness erases vengeance
  • kindness blots out cruelty
  • peace and goodwill supplant war and hostility

Here is the Good News of Christmas: God’s reality wins! “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it!” That’s the gospel truth!

 

 

 

Dayspring Christmas Prayer

The retirement community in which we live had its annual Advent/Christmas Dinner Friday. Below is the Invocation/Blessing which I offered.

Generous and loving God, we gather amid the beauty, safety, and abundance of our Dayspring community to celebrate your coming into a world amid darkness, poverty, violence, and oppression.

  • May our festive celebration be a reminder of the world-transforming message of Jesus’ birth.
  • May the beauty of our surroundings open our eyes to your veiled beauty present even in the bleakness and darkness.
  • In the lavishness of the food may we taste the extravagance of your grace revealed in the miracle at Bethlehem.
  • May the warmth of our fellowship widen the circle of our love to include all your children, especially the lowly and vulnerable who were the first to humbly worshipped the newborn child.
  • And may the joy we share in celebrating your birth overflow and sustain us in times of grief, frailty, and loneliness, as it inspired the shepherds to sing “Glory to God in the highest!”
  • And may our gratitude for this meal result in our living generously, compassionately, and justly as did Jesus whose birth we celebrate; and in whose name we pray. Amen

An Unexpected Communion

It happened shortly after a visit last week from Karen, the hospice chaplain and friend who visits Linda regularly. We sat in the sunroom and listened to Linda as she mumbled  incoherently but keeping time with the music playing in the background.

As she always does, Karen ended her visit with a short prayer, calling Linda by name and asking Jesus to continue to be with her.

Shortly thereafter we returned Linda to her bed for her evening meal. As the caregiver, Arlene, slowly and gently placed the pureed food in Linda’s mouth, Linda slowly and clearly spoke these surprising words, “Have. . .  Communion. . . today.”

Arlene called to me to come from the kitchen where I was preparing Linda a dish of her favorite dessert, ice cream. She told me what Linda had just said. I asked if she wanted to have Communion. But, by this time, her thinking had moved on and her speech returned to scrambled words.

I ran to get grape juice and wafer which I keep on hand. By the time I returned, Linda was sound asleep.

Early the following morning before the caregiver arrived, I gave Linda her morning medication. She seemed especially alert, looking intently at me as I smiled and said, “I love you!”

I asked, “Linda, would you like Communion?” No visible response, only calm silence. I retrieved the chalice with grape juice and wafers.

Standing beside her bed, I sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” Then I recited Psalm 23 and parts of Romans 8. She remained in uncharacteristic silence, even reverence. I prayed the Words of Institution from memory.

“We are remembering Jesus. He loves us and is with us now,” I said as I dipped the wafer in the cup and placed it on her tongue.

A slight smile and a glimmer of peace appeared on her face. “Thank you, Jesus, for loving us and being with us,” I prayed as I peered through my tear-stained eyes. She quickly drifted into a serene sleep.

It was a holy, transcendent moment of keep connection with God, one another, and “the great cloud of witnesses.”

The experience confirms the mystery of the Sacrament as well as the puzzle of the human mind. I don’t know for sure what triggered Linda’s comment, “have Communion today,” but I suspect it was Karen’s presence and prayer.

I really don’t know if she understood any of my words as I recited Scripture and sang familiar hymns. I can’t comprehend what was happening in her world as I placed on her tongue the signs of Jesus’ self-emptying love.

This I do know: There was more going on than can be intellectually understood by either Linda or me.

Furthermore, the most important ministry is PRESENCE! The chaplain’s attentive presence likely kindled an embedded memory and a connection that cannot be broken by brain disease!