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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

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

1140-candle-lights-holiday-grief-family.imgcache.rev52a41fcdbdce3ee489e7aaaa08bf98cf

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.”

 

 

 

Christmas: A Different Politics

OIP7L7BFVIE“I’m tired of politics and politicians! Maybe Christmas will give us a break!” That’s a comment I overheard in the grocery store this week.

We could all use a reprieve from the rancorous partisan wrangling going on in Washington and on social media.

It seems that hate, cruelty, violence,  greed, dishonesty, deception, and disrespect have been normalized and now dominate political rhetoric and practice.

Can’t we just put politics aside–sit beside a warm fire, wrap gifts, sing “Jingle Bells,” and dream of a white Christmas?

Perhaps such an escape from the world of ideological warfare over taxes, immigration, poverty, homelessness, religious divisions, and abuse of power would help us all.

But there is a problem! Those same realities exist in the first Christmas as recounted by the Gospels. Emperor Augustus issued an executive order requiring that everyone  register to be taxed. Compliance required that everyone return to their birthplace.

A young pregnant unmarried peasant girl, Mary, and her fiancé, Joseph, had to travel to a remote hamlet. Unable to find housing, they lodged in a barn.

There in the darkness of the night, surrounded by farm animals, Mary gave birth to a son, without the aid of medical care. She wrapped him in a common cloth and placed him in a cattle trough.

Rumors circulated that this child of Mary and Joseph, Jesus, was the Messiah, God’s anointed, from the lineage of mighty King David.

Threatened by a potential rival, King Herod ordered the slaughter of all males under age two. To escape the violence in their home country, Mary and Joseph became immigrants in Egypt.

So, as recounted by Luke and Matthew, the first Christmas was a political event! God entered the messy, divisive, violent world of worldly politics.

Politics is about power, its definition and use. Christmas is about God’s politics, God’s definition and exercise of power.

Here are the  images of God’s power:

  • a baby born among the homeless,
  • an immigrant child escaping violence,
  • a carpenter/preacher speaking truth to prevailing religious and political power,
  • a compassionate healer of the sick who welcomes outcasts,
  • the crucified Jesus extending forgiveness to thieves and a violent mob,
  • the Risen Christ, still bearing the scars of crucifixion,
  • the Living Christ present in the longing for wholeness, justice, and peace.

The answer to our current politics of destruction and dysfunction is God’s Christmas politics of compassion and justice. We most properly celebrate  by

acts of mercy and justice toward the poor, vulnerable, and powerless

welcoming the outcasts and strangers

caring for the sick and frail

comforting the grieving and dying

 visiting the imprisoned and lonely

practicing forgiveness in a culture of vengeance

living and demanding honesty and integrity

trusting the power of love over coercion and domination

cultivating confidence in the ultimate triumphant of God’s love!

God’s Christmas politics WILL win!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Thanksgiving While Grieving”

Thanksgiving is different this year.  It’s the first Thanksgiving in sixty years that Linda and I haven’t been together. Her absence is keenly felt. Grief remains raw.

Admittedly, gratitude isn’t the prevailing emotion. Lament prevails over praise. Tears surface more readily than laughter.  Sorrow’s night time still awaits morning’s joy.

Then, I read the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).

My first response is “Paul, you’ve got to be kidding! This sounds like a pious positive-thinking platitude propagated by a prosperity preacher.”

I realize, however, that the admonition comes from one who knew far more hardship, suffering,  grief, and struggle than anything I have experienced. He chronicles some of his challenges:

. . . countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received. . .forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from bandits, danger from my own people, . . ., danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

So I can’t easily dismiss his admonition that I “rejoice always” and  “give thanks in all circumstances.”  He knows some things I need to remember and practice amid my sadness and struggles.

For one thing, the present circumstance is not the whole story. Loss and grief can feel all-consuming, the tragic end of the story.

But the Apostle Paul knew that our stories are emeshed is a much larger narrative. We are all part a Love Story that encompasses all creation. The Eternal Power that brings creation into existence is ever working to renew, reconcile, heal,  and bring to completion all things.

Therefore, we can rejoice and give thanks that within the worst of circumstances, God is present, working to comfort, heal, reconcile, renew, and bring wholeness. In this Love Story, the most painful and debilitating experiences are woven into the fabric of a new future we call Resurrection!

As participants in this eternal Love Story, we are never alone. We are connected to one another and to all of God’s creation. Paul states it boldly, “Nothing in all creation, in life or in death, is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:19).

On this first Thanksgiving Day without the physical presence of Linda, I rejoice and give thanks for

  •  love shared for six decades and which continues to bind us together
  •  family and friends who lend their loving support
  •  joyful memories of tender and carefree times
  •  suffering relieved and wholeness gained
  •  hope that “joy will come in the morning”
  •  love that endures
  •  lament amid loss, comfort amid sorrow
  •  being part of God’s ongoing Love Story!

Thank you, Paul, for helping me rejoice and give thanks on this first Thanksgiving Day without Linda’s physical presence.

Hands crossed in prayer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Surprising Word of Grace

I entered Linda’s room shortly after she had been bathed. She was wide awake! When our eyes met, a faint smile appeared. I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. I remarked as I combed her hair, “You look pretty in that pink gown!”

Then, I spoke the words I say several times every day: “I love you!” Seldom does she respond, or seem to know what I’m saying, or even who I am. But not this time!

She looked intently into my eyes. A broad smile appeared. Then she clearly spoke these simple, surprising words: “You’re wonderful!”

Such poignant moments of connection are inexplicable and rare for someone in the advanced stage of dementia.

The question often haunts me: Does she know that she is loved, that I  love her? So seldom does my presence make an observable difference.

Feelings of powerlessness in the face of her restlessness and agitation are the norm. Sadness and grief are always lurk in the shadows.

But unexpectedly, inexplicably comes a moment of connection, an assurance that love endures, that persistent expressions of devotion matter.

I don’t know what neuroscientists would call it. I call it GRACE!