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.”
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.
During my early childhood, my parents were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. We lived on three different farms in eastern Tennessee before I was nine years old. Two of the land owners made indelible, contrasting impressions on me. They helped to form my images of God and power.
One landowner scared me! I was only five years old when he held me over a rain barrel, threatening to drown me for playing on the roof of one of the farm buildings. “You’re gonna learn to respect me and my property,” he said angrily as he dangled me over the water.
“Respect” to him meant compliance, obedience, and “knowing our place.” We were among his possessions and considered to be subservient and dispensable. The housing provided for our family of six was a two-room shack with no insolation in the walls, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing.
I didn’t respect him. I was scared of him! Yes, I addressed him thereafter as “sir” and lived in constant fear that I would do something to displease him, but I secretly loathed him!
At that time, our family attended city-wide religious rallies, camp meetings, and revivals in which God was portrayed as a stern and sovereign judge who keeps records of all our wrongs. The end of the world was drawing near, and God would punish the wrongdoers and those who had not “accepted Jesus” by sending them to a burning hell for everlasting punishment. It felt as though I was being held over a burning inferno.
Though I didn’t consciously make the connection as a young child, the cruel landlord and God got connected in my mind. They both were all powerful, owned our livelihood, and expected, above all else, our respect, obedience, and acceptance of our place as “miserable sinners.”
That’s one image of God and power — authoritarian; dominating; controlling by intimidation, power-over; the superior enforcer; the judge. It’s often more subtle than what I experienced from that landlord, but it is no less dangerous and destructive.
Thankfully, we moved from that farm shortly after the incident with the rain barrel. The new landlord, Mr. Street, lived in a neighboring state. The house provided had four rooms and was much more comfortable for six people, though still no electricity and indoor plumbing.
The owner always let us know when he would be coming to visit. We eagerly waited for his arrival because he would bring us kids candy and my parents some useful gift. He would spend the day working in the field alongside us. (Yes, we children worked in the fields, too, hoeing rows of corn, cleaning out the barn, etc.) He was always kind, affirming of our work, and respectful of us!
We stayed on that farm for two years. The owner actually encouraged my dad to get his own small farm and offered to help make it possible. Tragically, he was killed in an accident on his farm in North Carolina. We were all saddened by the news. We respected him, trusted him, and enjoyed his presence.
Shortly after the kind landlord’s death, we moved again, this time to a small, hilly farm of 20 acres, which our parents bought on credit. Located within sight was McKinley Methodist Church. At age ten, I visited the church for the first time. Though it was seventy years ago, I remember it well. The teacher, Mrs. Mahoney, met me at the doorway and welcomed me with a warm hug.
The lesson that day was on the Good Shepherd. Mrs. Mahoney made a startling comment that began reshaping my image of God. She said, “God is like a good shepherd who searches for lost sheep and safely returns them home.” She not only told the story; she embodied it!
God was not the severe landlord eager to punish and destroy the world. God was a tender shepherd who cared for the sheep, protected them, even willing to lay down his life for them.
And God is more like the kind landlord who respected us, worked alongside us. He empowers rather than dominates, engenders love rather than fear, and encourages instead of terrorizes.
The contrasting images of God and power operate today in the worlds of business, education, politics, and religion. Maybe there is some of both landlords in all of us. But I know which one is most like the God we know in Jesus.
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)
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
his mercies never come to an
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
The LORD is my portion, says
therefore I will hope in him.
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 tobe 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.
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.
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.