Tribute to Ted Jennings

Jennings-TedA virtual memorial service was held Saturday, June 27, for one of Methodism’s most provocative, challenging, and committed theologians, Theodore (Ted) Jennings. I was asked by his devoted spouse, Ronna Case, to speak briefly of Ted’s contribution to the church.

I first met Ted at a Symposium on Theology and Evangelism held, February 1992, in Atlanta. Later that year, I was part of a working group with him at the Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies. The theme of the Institute emerged from Ted’s recently published book, Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics.

When the Council of Bishops adopted the Initiative on Children and Poverty, Ted became one of the theological consultants. As a member of the task force for the Initiative, I worked closely with Ted. We became good friends, and the friendship continued until his death in March of this year.

Ted’s contributions to the church are those of a prophet in the mode of an Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, or Amos, ever prodding and challenging the church to be a beloved community of liberation for ALL people. I briefly name four specific contributions.

One, Ted challenged the institutional church’s captivity to the consumerist, capitalist culture and institutional triumphalism. Ted’s vision and loyalty transcended preoccupation with institutional prominence, membership statistics, organizational structures, and marketing strategies. His was a vision of a reconciled and transformed world where justice prevails, and all have access to God’s table of abundance. And, as one of his former students said, “Ted made sure that we knew Jesus was with the crucified, not the crucifers; the oppressed, not the oppressors.”

Two, he called the church to presence among the marginalized, the outcasts, the poor, the vulnerable. In his work with the Episcopal Initiative on Children and Poverty, he regularly pushed the bishops toward the overarching goal of the Initiative: the transformation of the church in response to the God who is among “the least of these.” He persistently reminded us of God’s preferential option for the poor and most vulnerable, not as objects of charity but as friends and means of grace.

Three, Ted helped to reshape Methodism’s interpretation of Wesley, from a mere revivalist who focused on personal salvation to Wesley as a catalyst of a movement for holistic salvation that includes personal and social transformation. He challenged much conventional Wesleyan scholarship and spurred a new generation of scholars and pastors toward a more holistic vision of the Wesleyan heritage. He saw the tradition as something to be constructively built upon rather merely defended.

Four, Ted prodded the Church to confront its hypocrisy by courageously challenging us to embody radical love for God and neighbor, and to include ALL within the circle of God’s liberating love.  He had little tolerance for pious pretense and personal or professional posturing, whether by academics, bishops, or pastors. Indeed, he modeled leadership as derivative of authentic Christian discipleship. As a colleague scholar remarked, “Above all, Ted loved Jesus!”

Ted’s contributions will multiply in years to come, for he helped to form two generations of pastors and church leaders in the United States, Mexico, Korea, and beyond. Those leaders now form congregations as outposts of God’s present and coming reign of justice, generosity, and joy!

I give thanks to God for Ted Jennings’s devoted life, his faithful witness to Resurrection faith that liberates and transforms, and his enduring friendship.

 

Uncounted Victims of COVID-19

COVID-19 casualties, counted and uncounted, are mushrooming and getting closer to home!

Our family had a scare last week. Sandra, my daughter, is a social worker in a skilled nursing facility. She was exposed to the virus and developed familiar symptoms. We all anxiously waited three days for the test results. Fortunately, she tested NEGATIVE.

Among the many uncounted casualties are those who live and work in nursing homes like the one where Sandra serves and the one across the street from me.

Sandra eagerly returned to work Monday. She loves her work, her colleagues, the residents and their families.

Lowman across street

I live on the campus of a beautiful continuous care retirement community. Across the street is the nursing facility, where approximately 140 residents are cared for by a dedicated team of caring staff members.

I see family members come to the windows of their loved ones and press their hands against the pane. I watch as staff members arrive for their long shifts and leave exhausted. I hear the sirens of emergency vehicles arriving and realize someone is in crisis.

But this is only a microcosm of the realities in the approximately 15,000 nursing homes in the United States where  1.4 million people are cared for by approximately 1,663,000 employees.

Only a small percentage of the residents in nursing homes have the COVID-19 virus. However, many residents are showing increasing signs of depression and failure to thrive as the result of isolation from loved ones.

Family members are growing increasingly stressed and frustrated by the imposed guidelines and policies.

I wonder if the confusion and agitation of those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is intensifying.

Family members of those nearing death plead to be permitted to keep vigil beside the bed of their spouse and/or parent. Thousands are dying with only the staff present to comfort them. I can only imagine the added pain of family members as they now grieve without having had the opportunity to hold their loved one’s hand and whisper “I love you” as a final goodbye.

The medical staff, social workers, and administrators are caught between regulatory guidelines and policies and the relational needs of residents and families. They are taking on added responsibilities way outside their job descriptions: administrators substituting as beauticians and CNAs; social workers becoming conflict mediators and surrogate family members; chaplains sweeping floors and delivering meals; housekeepers assisting with bathing and feeding.

I would like to help. My ability to respond is limited. After all, I’m in the vulnerable age group myself. But I’ve decided that I can do something:

  • I can wear my mask and observe the CDC guidelines so that I don’t add to the workload of healthcare workers, or spread the disease to others.
  • I can pray each day for the staff and residents and the family members, and I now consider each siren a call to prayer.
  • I can walk past the windows with my dog, Millie, and wave at the persons inside.
  • I can speak and write words of appreciation to the staff and not complain if I am inconvenienced by their preoccupation with their added workload.
  • I can communicate with legislators for more attention and resources for the frail elderly, including nursing homes.
  • I can call and/or write to family members I know who are caring for frail persons.
  • I can plant and cultivate flowers in my own lawn that are visible to the residents and staff, providing some glimmer of beauty.
  • I can make an added contribution to agencies that advocate and serve the frail elderly.
  • I can work for systemic changes in attitudes toward and treatment of the elderly, especially the most frail.

And, we all can “love our neighbor as ourselves,” including our neighbors who live and work in nursing homes and their families. They, too, are victims of COVID-19.

 

 

 

 

 

Living Among Those Most At Risk of COV-19

The devastation of COVID-19 moved close to home this week. I am across the street from one of the “hot spots” in South Carolina.

I live in a continuing care community. It was announced that 32 residents and two staff members in the healthcare facility have tested positive for the virus. They are housed only a few hundred yards from where I am “sheltered in place.”

I watch as staff members occasionally come outside for a break. A few times, I’ve spotted a family member appearing outside the window, attempting to provide support and comfort.

And, my daughter is the director of social services in a nearby long-term care facility. Although her facility has no cases, at least yet, the building is in lock-down; and she worries about either unknowingly bringing the virus in or taking it home to her family.

Those across the street are my close neighbors. Many of the staff members are friends. I have worshiped with them, joked with them, shared ministry with them.  Now they are putting their lives on the line.

I feel powerless to respond! I can’t visit. Even notes and cards from the outside are forbidden. The campus chaplain is there for spiritual support. She is marvelous! Sensitive! Compassionate!

I can and do pray for them. But, are there ways I can provide concrete answers to those prayers?

It is a small thing, but I’m going to get more flowers for my backyard since the residents can look down from their rooms. We all need beauty, especially when surrounded by grief and potential death.

I’ll be intentional in providing words of support for the staff, and I’ll be patient if I have needs that aren’t met quickly or efficiently.

I will also abide by the CDC guidelines and protect myself against the virus and avoid carrying the virus to others.  I’ve added those practices as “spiritual disciplines” and acts of love. I’ll wear a mask in public out of respect for the health of others.

I will also advocate for the most vulnerable and those on the frontlines of care. That means insisting that policies in response to the pandemic be based on science and facts, not on political expediency and selfish advantage.

There is a lot of dangerous religious nonsense circulating with the pandemic. Claiming that the virus is God’s punishment only adds to the suffering and totally mischaracterizes the nature and action of God.

The notion that God is inflicting the virus on my neighbors across the street is blatant blasphemy; and any who suggests such are insulting God and my neighbors.

God is present amid the pandemic, suffering with those most at risk and sustaining those who care for them. God is also present in those researchers and practitioners who are diligently seeking therapies and vaccines.

As I sit in my sunroom and look across the street where several neighbors live with COVID-19, I sense that life will never be the same for them or us.

I pray that we will so live among those most at risk that we will emerge from the pandemic a more compassionate people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God Redeems the Silent and Dark Places

As a pastor, I largely overlooked Holy Saturday as an essential part of the divine drama of Holy Week. It was a welcomed day of rest after the intensity of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.

Not this year! This year the silence and darkness between Friday’s crucifixion and Sunday’s resurrection speaks poignantly to where I am.

Within the last six months I’ve lost my wife of 58 years and an older brother, plus a beloved bishop friend, and two colleague/mentors. Treasured voices have been silenced and the places they occupied have become a dark void.

Added to the void is the isolation of a global pandemic. The wait for release from imposed aloneness is more than three days! We don’t know when it will end. When it does end, life will be different; but the shape of that difference remains unknown.

So, I identify more closely with the disciples on that first Holy Saturday. They were locked behind closed doors. Grieving! Afraid! Lonely! Confused! Apprehensive! Waiting!

Death creates silent and dark places for all of us. All losses are accompanied by silence and darkness.

Life itself is filled with unanswered questions, unfulfilled dreams, unwelcomed loneliness.

It is into all those silent and dark places that Christ enters on Holy Saturday. The ancient creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead” and “the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead” (1 Peter 4:6).

In the death of Jesus, God has claimed even the silent and dark places as realms of divine love and promise.

On that first Holy Saturday, the disciples were together in their silence and darkness.

We, too, are together emotionally even though physically separated. It is in our togetherness that God comes in our silent and dark places.

The author of 1 Peter offered this word of encouragement as we wait in silence and darkness: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another.”

Love speaks in the silence and shines light in the darkness!

 

 

 

 

 

Good Friday Prayer

Gary Phillips, the pastor of Salem United Methodist Church where our family participates, has invited members of the congregation to offer daily prayers during April as part of the church website. I was asked to offer the prayer on this Good Friday. You may access the video of the prayer here: http://www.salemumcsc.com/

I offer the printed prayer as follows:

Loving and Eternal God, in the Crucified Jesus, you entered the depth and breadth of the world’s suffering and brokenness and into humanity’s sin and frailty. On the cross, you took on the principalities and powers of sin and death with courage, humility, and boundless love.

You responded to hatred, violence, and bigotry with compassion and forgiveness. You met the abuse of power by religious and political leaders with the power of love. Amid the anguish and pain, you reached out to a dying malefactor with the promise of paradise; you cared for your grieving mother; and you endured abuse and cruelty with magnanimity.

O Crucified Christ, remind us

  • that no suffering is so traumatic that it cannot be redeemed
  • that our deepest loneliness is known by you
  • that no sin is so horrible but that you can forgive
  • that our death has been swallowed up in your victory
  • that you are with us through the dark valley of grief and loss

We praise you, O God, that in Christ Jesus you have defeated the powers of sin and death and opened to us a new future

  • where love reigns supreme,
  • justice and truth prevail,
  • hope vanishes despair and,
  • life outlasts death.

Through the presence and power of your Holy Spirit, create in us the mind that was in Christ Jesus and enable us to follow him with devotion and faithfulness.

In his name we offer our prayer. Amen

 

Sermon on Mount: My Lenten Discipline

This is the fourth year that daily engagement with the Sermon on the Mount has been part of my Lenten discipline.

Each morning I read and reflect on about half of one of the three chapters, which means that it takes six mornings for me to complete the Sermon. Once I complete the chapters, I repeat the sequence. Only this time I read the passages in a different translation or paraphrase.

I ask myself these two questions each morning: Where do I see this being lived by me and/or others? In what situations have I failed to live this way? Throughout the day, I look for examples of faithfulness to and betrayals of Jesus’s vision.

Intentionally holding up my life against Jesus’s life and teaching sensitizes, inspires, and challenges me toward what John Wesley called “holiness of heart and life” and “the entire love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”

I am reminded of the quote from General Omar Bradley from the mid twentieth century:

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

The contrast today is even more stark! Values, behaviors, and practices opposite those clearly expressed in Jesus’s Sermon and his life have become normalized. The contrast is nowhere more publicly obvious that in today’s political discourse and behaviors by prominent people.

If the Sermon on the Mount contains the vision of life as Jesus lived and invites us to live, it is essential that Jesus’s disciples make the Sermon the basis of our decisions and actions.

The Sermon on the Mount, however, is more than a statement of ethical expectations. It is a revelation of the very nature and action of God. It reveals how God acts in the world.

Therefore, the Sermon is an invitation to live as God lives in the world. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas states it clearly:

The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works but rather the way God is. Cheek-turning is not advocated as what works (it usually does not), but advocated because this is the way God is – God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. This is not a stratagem for getting what we want but the only manner of life available, now that, in Jesus, we have seen what God wants. We seek reconciliation with the neighbor, not because we feel so much better afterward, but because reconciliation is what God is doing in the world through Christ.

Perhaps the Sermon on the Mount won’t “work” in a world like this. That’s the point! If we live the Sermon on the Mount, the world won’t be like this!

 

Prayer in the Aftermath of the Nashville Tornado

Having experienced a tornado while living in Nashville and knowing something of the shock waves of grief, loss, uncertainty, and hard work resulting from such devastation, I offer the following prayer. I know that individuals and congregations in that great city will pull together and courageously reach out to one another with compassion and helpfulness.

O God, our help and hope in every time of distress, we bring before you our concern and grief over the devastating losses experienced by the people of Nashville from the powerful tornado. We know not even how to pray, for our groans are deeper than words can express.

Assure us that you know our thoughts, that you accept our inaudible petitions, our prayers of anguish and lament, and bewilderment in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. Remind us and the suffering people of Nashville that you do not desert us; but in times of desperate need, you are ever present to comfort and restore.

Console those who mourn, give shelter to those who are displaced, reunite those separated from loved ones, and give hope to those who seem to have lost hope. With your healing power, touch those who are injured, and grant confidence to those now uncertain about the future.  To all rescue workers and recovery volunteers, give wisdom, endurance, patience, and perseverance.

We pray  for pastors and congregations who embody your presence in ministries of compassion and mercy among the displaced people left homeless and defenseless by the ravaging winds. May they know the peace that passes understanding and be strengthened by supportive embraces and expressions of love from colleagues and friends.

O Crucified and Risen Lord, remind us that love triumphs through suffering and no turbulent wind can destroy the bond of love.  Because of your decisive victory over the powers of sin and death, life will prevail over death, hope over despair, love and justice will win over indifference and exploitation.

For you, O God, are “our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”

We pray through Jesus the Christ, who’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and joy, we celebrate and anticipate with hope. Amen

 

“From Dust to Dust”

Ash Wednesday

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”

I’ve said those words countless times as I placed ashes and the sign of the cross on the forehead of worshipers. And, I’ve had them spoken to me at the beginning of Lent for decades.

But this year the words have a particular poignancy. Linda, with whom my life has been deeply intertwined in a profound bond of love for six decades, has too quickly returned “to dust” from which she came.

Within the last five years, death has claimed my wife, my mother, sister, brother, brother-in-law,  uncle, aunt, several friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

On this Ash Wednesday, “To dust you shall return”  sounds and feels more like a personal medical prognosis than a routine religious ritual.

The circle is drawing closer. Life is narrowing. Energy is lessening. Capacities are diminishing. Frailty lies on the horizon. Time is running out.

I know this seems grim and foreboding. But, Ash Wednesday and Lent are about confronting the reality that we all live with the dust from which we came and the dust to which we return.

Life is always Frail! Fragile! Fleeting!

Yet, there is a strange freedom in acknowledging our own frailty and mortality. The idols of control, self aggrandizement, and invincibility are stripped away.

What’s left amid the ashes of crumbling idols is Grace! Gift! God!

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” are words spoken in community as we are marked with the sign of Cross.

The One who breathes into the dust from which we came redeems the dust to which we return.

So, we are not alone on our journey from dust. . . to dust!

And, we journey toward a new heaven and new earth where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more . . .” (Revelation 21:4).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope for the Past

As dawn breaks on this first day of 2020 and a new decade, we rightly seek glimmers of hope for the future. I wonder, however, if it is past for which we need hope.

A friend sent me a poem this week by David Ray. It is a tribute to the famed poet Robert Frost:

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.

Yes,  I need hope for the past!

  •  mistakes of the past are redeemed.
  •  guilt from the past is forgiven
  • grief of the past is comforted
  •  memories of the past are claimed without pain
  • broken relationships from the past are reconciled
  • prejudices of the past are purged
  • hatreds of the past are eradicated
  • lessons from the past are learned

Since the One who creates, redeems, and sustains is LOVE, there is hope for the past and future. Living that hope is the challenge of today!

 

Grieving at Christmas

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Grief dominates Christmas for me this year! Sparkling decorations, joyous music, holiday parties, and upbeat festivities just don’t fit where I am.

I was a teenager the last Christmas I celebrated without Linda. That was six decades ago!   Even though she was not cognitively aware of the last five Christmases, she was still present.

I could see her! Hear her voice! Hold her hand! Kiss her forehead! Comb her hair! Feed her! Brush her teeth! Sit silently beside her and listen to her breathe.

Now she’s gone! Memories remain, but they are accompanied by sadness for what is no more.

Part of me is missing, too.  Adjusting to who I am without her means reorienting my identity, redefining my vocation,  re-ordering everyday living.

But there is a mysterious goodness in grieving at Christmastime. It’s hard to explain.

The pensiveness I feel seems to be stripping away the superficiality of the season and confronting me anew with the profundity of the Christmas story:

The infinite God, the source of all life, who brings this magnificent and ever-expanding universe into being, entered human flesh with all its frailty, vulnerability, death, and grieving. Thereby,  God has claimed all matter, including human life and death, as bearers of divine presence and love.

The ultimate meaning of our existence is to be extensions of the incarnation, birthing and nurturing God’s presence and love amid our living, grieving, and dying.

Grief is love weeping, evidence of love shared. The longing for presence, yearning for recovered memories and lived expressions are signs that love still lives and grows. Gratitude that love remains amid death and loss gives perspective to the grieving.

But Linda is no longer present for me to tangibly share love. That still hurts deeply!

Christmas speaks to that hurt, too! It doesn’t take it away, but it offers a means of redeeming the absence and hurt: I can enter the loss, grief, and longing of others!

There is comfort in solidarity with those who suffer. Some are in our families. Others are neighbors. They need a gentle embrace, a whisper of comfort, perhaps a gesture of forgiveness, a word of encouragement.

There is also comfort in extending hospitality and advocating on behalf of the vulnerable and wounded who also bear God’s image, presence, and love.

Christmas is about God coming in a helpless baby, born of a young peasant, unmarried and pregnant teenager, made homeless by a cruel governmental decree.

The Christmas stories in the New Testament proclaim God’s radical hospitality and prophetic advocacy on behalf of the powerless, despised, and vulnerable people of the world.

Grief has energy, passion! I pray that the energy and passion of my grieving will be channeled into friendship with and acts of mercy and justice on behalf of those with whom Jesus so closely identified that we meet him in them.

That’s what God wants! And, I think that is how Linda would want me to grieve her absence!

Christmas, after all, is about God entering our grief, redeeming our sorrows, and inviting us to join Emmanuel in “the least of these.”