Pentecost Happened Again

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.

Two Landlords and Two Images of God

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.

In Praise of My Meek and Mighty Mom

Mother’s Day is filled with sentimentality; yet mothers well deserve recognition and gratitude for their indispensable contributions to our lives.

Booker T. Washington captures my sentiment: “If I have done anything in life worth attention, I feel sure that I inherited the disposition from my mother.”

When I think of my mother, Edith Walker Carder, I am confronted with the paradoxes of her remarkable influence on me and those who knew her.

  • She had a sixth-grade formal education but excelled in wisdom,
  • She was small of stature but big of heart,
  • She never held an office in church but faithfully served God.
  • She never taught a Sunday school class but knew the Bible thoroughly,
  • I never heard her pray aloud, but she prayed without ceasing,
  • She had strong moral values but never condemned others,
  • She lived with constant physical pain but never complained,
  • She knew poverty firsthand but was generous toward others,
  • She grew up in a racially segregated world but welcomed ALL people,
  • She never occupied a leadership position but influenced for good all who knew her,
  • She never accumulated wealth but was rich in the “fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peach, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Mom died in 2013 at the age of 95 but lives on in God’s eternal presence and in the lives of those who were fortunate enough to know her.

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)

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Pilgrimage to Where Seeds Were Sown

Last week I began a pilgrimage to the churches and communities where Linda and I lived during our almost 59 years of marriage. It has now been ten months since her death and I continue to adjust to life without her.

In the months ahead, I will visit several communities and churches that sowed fertile seeds of grace that grew for six decades in Linda and me.

Memories and feelings will be rekindled. Some will be painful. Most will be joyful. I will give thanks for the good memories, lament the painful ones, confess my failures, and celebrate the Grace which permeated them all.

I am convinced that pastors are formed by the congregations they serve as surely as pastors help to shape congregations. I realize how much the life Linda and I shared was shaped by the churches and communities in which we lived.

Sixty years ago, June 1960,  I was appointed as student pastor of Watauga Methodist Church, located on a hillside above the Watauga River, on the outskirts of Johnson City, Tennessee.

I was only nineteen and a student at East Tennessee State University.  I had received my “Local Pastor’s License” a year earlier.

The Watauga community had a population of fewer than 400 in 1960 and remains about the same today.  The businesses in the community included farms, a rock quarry, grain mill, and grocery store. Some people worked in either Johnson City or Elizabethton.

Watauga ChurchThe church had an average attendance of 22 which grew to 26 over the two years I was there, maybe the largest percentage increase in my subsequent years of pastoral ministry. Admittedly, much if not all of the increase was the number from my family who would occasionally attend to hear their “boy preacher.” Membership included only one young family with children.

My salary was $600 per year, with a raise to $800 my second year. The Conference added another $400 after we married in 1961, bringing the total to $1200.

Linda and I had been dating for about a year when I was appointed. She was a student at Emory and Henry College, majoring in religion. She decided to write a history of the church for one of her classes, a paper I still have. She attended services when she was home from college, which happened with increased frequency.

We decided to marry after her graduation, even though I would have another year of college. She got a job working at ETSU as a secretary in the department of health education.

House at Watauga1

There was no parsonage. However, the St. Johns, who owned a large farm and the grain mill, made available a small house across the driveway from the stately antebellum house than dominated the landscape.  The small structure  had once served as “servants quarters.” We paid $40 per month rent.

Though it needs painting today, the house looks as it did 59 years ago. The congregation helped us gather used furniture sufficient for our use. They were proud that their young preacher and wife would be living in the community, a first for them. Though the house was markedly smaller and less attractive than Linda’s middle-class home, she accepted our new residence with graciousness and gratitude.

Upon returning from our honeymoon, the congregation treated us with an “ole fashion pounding.” They brought ‘pounds’ of flour and sugar, plus canned goods, vegetables, and even household utensils for the newlyweds. It was quite a celebration!

The two dozen active members of Watauga were socio-economically diverse, from two large-farm families, a retired business man, and station owner to families on public assistance. One man even skinned skunks and sold the pelts for income. Two were college graduates and at least one could not read or write. Yet, they were like an extended family to one another.

The church considered it their special God-given ministry to give young pastors a start. They made that clear on my first Sunday in June 1960. They celebrated my presence with them and no criticism ever reached my ears in those two years. Yes, they offered kind, sensitive suggestions for improvement; but they never put me down or humiliated me. They were quick to compliment and affirm every sign of progress and dutifully attended special studies that I suggested.  They were determined to support their young pastor.

It was a time of “firsts”: first pastoral visit, first funeral, first weekly worship leadership and sermon preparation, first Sunday night Bible study, first district pastors’ meeting, first time to be introduced as “my pastor,” first (and last) time Linda ate souse meat (look it up). I still remember the look on her face when I told her what it was! Still, she thanked our hosts, Sarah and Landon, for their warm and generous hospitality.

The pattern for our fifty-nine years of marriage and shared ministry was set during those two exciting years. That little congregation shaped us far more than we shaped it.

When we left in the summer of 1962 for Washington D. C. to attend seminary, the congregation rejoiced that we were taking this next step in preparation for ministry. They sent us off with celebration and thanksgiving.

During the Holston Annual Conference session in 1992, I was endorsed as a candidate for the episcopacy. At that same session, the dean of the Cabinet read the names of the churches to be declared discontinued and closed. On that list was “Watauga United Methodist Church, Johnson City District.” The perfunctory vote was taken, and the church where Linda and I began ministry and life together no longer existed.

I wanted to pause to give public testimony to the contribution that small, faithful church made to my formation and that of other pastors who were nurtured by its support and commitment.

It was at that conference session that I vowed to myself and to Linda that if I was elected a bishop, no church would pass out of existence without our pausing at Annual Conference to celebrate and give thanks for each of the “abandoned” and “closed” churches.

Watauga Church is no longer United Methodist, but it is an active church. The photo above was taken last week! Its appearance hasn’t changed nearly as much as that of the nineteen year old who showed up as the pastor sixty years ago.

I am convinced that faithfulness to the gospel consists primarily of sowing seeds of grace, which is God’s presence and power to create, shape, and transform human hearts, communities and the entire creation. In other words, seeds of the reign (kingdom) of God.

While I continue to grieve the loss of Linda’s presence, I am profoundly grateful for the seeds of grace which Watauga Methodist Church sowed in us and which give me comfort, joy, and hope.