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.

 

The Criminal INJUSTICE System



In the late 1970s, Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton promised to pardon the son of a political ally who had been convicted of the murder of his ex-wife and her male companion. A firestorm of protest erupted, embroiling the Democratic governor in controversy that transcended political affiliation.

In an attempt to calm the political storm, Governor Blanton appointed a “Blue Ribbon Committee” to make a recommendation regarding his decision to pardon the convicted man.

I was asked to serve on the committee, which included a forensic psychiatrist, a Vanderbilt law professor, a couple of state senators, persons experienced with the pardon and parole system, a newspaper publisher, state representatives, and a couple of business people.

After thorough review of the case and hearing from relevant witnesses, the committee recommended against the pardon. We unanimously agreed that he did not meet the standard guidelines and that the proposed pardon was clearly a political payoff.

We felt that granting a unilateral pardon for obvious political payback subverted the criminal justice system and undermined confidence in its fairness.

Contrary to his promise to the committee, the governor pardoned the man along with more than fifty others during his last week in office.

Governor-Elect Lamar Alexander was sworn in three days prior to the official inauguration in order to prevent more such pardons.

Republican Alexander’s early swearing in was made possible by the U.S. attorney representing the Department of Justice, the lieutenant governor and state Speaker of the House, both Democrats.

After leaving office, Governor Blanton was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and extortion for selling liquor licenses, and he served twenty-two months in a federal penitentiary.

Memory of this episode from forty years ago resurfaced with the news of President Trump granting pardons and/or clemency to duly tried-and-convicted, high-profile, white-collar criminals.

As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

The recent actions by President Trump clearly rhymes with the Blanton experience. Both reflect the gross inequities within the criminal justice system and the abuse of power for purely political purposes.

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The scales of justice are demonstrably weighted in favor of the economically and politically privileged. It’s more about how much money you have, the color of your skin, and who you know than what you do that determines your fate in the current system.

A glaring difference between the Blanton case and the current president’s actions is public response.

Forty years ago, Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee together demanded action from their political leaders on behalf of fundamental justice. Now, protest is largely muted and clearly partisan.

Has advocacy for simple fairness and equity become merely a politically partisan issue?

I wonder if Senator Lamar Alexander remembers that he was inaugurated governor three days early because leaders of the opposing political party put justice above party?

Are corruption and cronyism now acceptable, if it is done by OUR party?

Have we now normalized a criminal injustice system?

Is political party affiliation now the final arbiter of what is right?

Have we become a nation “where nobody is above the law,” EXCEPT the economically secure, politically connected, and racially privileged?

Is the Pledge of Allegiance a meaningless ritual for opening sports and civic events? What about “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL”?

The prophet Micah lived in a time when justice was weighted against the poor, and religious leaders were complicit with the prevailing injustice. Micah cautioned that such injustice has disastrous consequences and warned of impending national collapse.

But the prophet’s warning included God’s alternative:

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (6:8)

And this word from the Psalmist merits our attention:

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right.” (106:3 NIV)

May our actions rhyme with the words of the Prophet and the Psalmist, more than with our partisan politics.

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.”

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“A Penetrating Word for United Methodists”

Tom Lee grew up in a congregation I was privileged to serve for ten years. My daughters were in youth choir and UMYF with him. His mother was one of my wife Linda’s friends. His father, mother, and sister contributed immeasurably to the life and mission of that congregation.

Tom puts the current talk of schism within The United Methodist Church in historic, political, and cultural context.  Everyone concerned about the future of the denomination will benefit from reading his prophetic, insightful analysis.

https://bittersoutherner.com/from-the-southern-perspective/two-signposts-opposite-directions-tom-lee

 

 

Hope’s “Beautiful Daughters”

I’m angry! Apparently, I’m not alone. Everywhere I turn I see and hear the anger.

There’s a lot that should make us angry:

  • Rampant corruption in the highest offices in our government
  • Immigrant children separated from their families and housed in cages
  • Paralyzing, self-serving political partisanship
  • Insulting disparities between rich and poor in ready access to life’s necessities
  • Sexual discrimination, exploitation, harassment, and violence
  • Gun violence and communities awash in instruments of death
  • Racial, religious, and ethnic hatred and bigotry
  • Environmental destruction and climate intensification
  • Weakened and divided faith communities
  • And . . . .

I’m scared by the level and pervasiveness of the anger. But there is another perspective. Maybe the anger is a source of hope.

St. Augustine (354 – 430 AD) wrote: “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage; Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”

Daughter Anger is everywhere. She’s not very beautiful when merely wringing her hands, clinching her fist, punching in the face, calling people demeaning names, or perpetuating violence.

Daughter Anger’s beauty shines when controlled by compassion, speaks the truth, works for justice, and extends hands of reconciliation.

But it takes daughter Courage for daughter Anger to be compassionate, just, and hospitable in these times.

When sisters  Anger and Courage join hands to build communities of compassion, justice, and peace, Mother Hope shows up. . .

  • in a sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist challenging the United Nations
  • in a small congregation protecting an immigrant family from deportation
  • in a whistle-blower who risks job and scorn to expose a dangerous threat
  • in a politician who puts country above party and works for the common good
  • in a church that risks decline but declares that ALL means ALL, including LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers
  • in a young United Methodist pastor not yet ordained instituting a gun buy-back program in a small South Carolina town
  • in a black first-grader holding the hand of a white special ed student being taunted by classmates
  • and supremely in a carpenter-turned-preacher challenging the principalities and powers of evil with death-defying acts of compassion, integrity, justice, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Hands Huddling-Perry Grone on Unsplash

God grant that our anger will give us courage to join hands and  participate fully in Christ’s present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality, and peace!

 

 

 

 

Lingering Advice from My Dad

My dad only completed the sixth grade in school. He became the primary breadwinner in his family of five sisters at age fifteen when his father died. His was a hard life of 84 years.

He was a farmer, textile mill worker, and handyman. His life was defined by hard work, unquestioned honesty, no pretense, and stubborn perseverance. Though not demonstrably affectionate or complimentary of his kids, we never doubted his love for us or our mother.

He adored our mother and treated all women with respect. He never considered himself better than anyone else; and he was totally unimpressed by titles, wealth, or positions of authority.

Though he was a man of few words, some of his messages formed me. Here is one of them.

“If a bully picks on your brothers or sister, he’s picking on you. So, help your sister or brother.” As tenant farmers, we moved around. Schoolyard bullies often tested the new kids. The first days in a new school were frightening. One of us usually got pushed around by a “tough guy.”

There were four of us Carders, three boys and a girl. Dad’s admonition worked! It didn’t take but one encounter for the bullies to learn — jump one Carder and you’re up against four. My sister, by the way, was the one most feared!

The world is full of bullies in high and low places. They are bullying and exploiting the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless, the immigrants, LGBTQ+ colleagues, the powerless, the vulnerable. They are bullying our brothers and sisters.

Resisting bullies and exploiters is a joint effort! The writer of Hebrews states it strongly:

“Keep loving each other like family. Don’t neglect to open your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it. Remember prisoners as if you were in prison with them, and people who are mistreated as if you were in their place”(13:1-3 CEV).

Dad was right: “If a bully picks on your brother or sister, he’s picking on you. So, help your sister or brother.”

 

 

 

 

 

Prayer for July 4th

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God of power and love, whose sovereignty is over all nations and whose love enfolds all people, we pause to celebrate the birth of our nation.  We are grateful for the vision of “one nation under God, indivisible, and with liberty and  justice for all,” a vision worthy of our allegiance and aspiration.

We confess our failure to live the vision by

  • promoting a nationalism that elevates nation over God
  • limiting “all” to members of our political party, our race, our religion, our group
  • worshiping the idols of military might and wealthy display
  • exploiting the vulnerable while protecting the privileges of the privileged
  • treating as less than human “the orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants)”
  • extolling violence while eschewing humility, gentleness, kindness, and compassion

Forgive us, God of all nations, and free us to live courageously toward your vision of the world as you intend:

  • where all people know and live their identity as your beloved children, made in your image
  • where all barriers are removed and the human family lives as one, with dignity and respect
  • where all of creation is healed, from the scarred mountains and poisoned air to the microscopic diseased cell
  • where justice permeates all relationships and all have access to your table of abundance
  • where hatred and violence are no more and all creation lives in harmony and peace.

“This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms: Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will done. Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him, and hearts united learn to live as one. O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations; myself I give thee; let thy will be done.” Amen.

 

A Special Time with Two Friends

One of my favorite memories as a bishop was a retreat with the extended cabinet in Mississippi. I invited two special friends and natives of Mississippi who have courageously championed justice and inclusion for at least six decades.

We spent two days engaged in conversation with Will Campbell (here) and Tex Sample (here)! They shared their experiences growing up in Mississippi and their own struggle to counter prejudice, racism, and exclusion. What a memorable experience!

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With disarming wit, intriguing stories, and prophetic insight, Tex and Will invited us to confront our own racism and exclusion and to expand our circle of justice and hospitality.

I first met Tex in the 1980s when we served on the General Board of Church and Society. We have been friends for more than thirty years; and I treasure his continuing support, guidance, and inspiration.

Tex is equally at home swapping stories with “hard living” folks in a local hangout, delivering lectures at top universities, and organizing local communities to challenge city hall. He has spent his life on the frontlines and in the trenches in the struggle against injustice and exclusion in both church and society.

Will Campbell and I met in prison! I had read his Brother to a Dragon Fly. Now, here he was sitting across from a condemned man awaiting execution! He lived what he preached. His circle of compassion and concern was wide enough to include Klansmen and leaders of the civil rights movement, a convicted murderer and a United Methodist pastor.

During my years as bishop in Nashville and Mississippi, Will would show up unexpectedly at an event or call on the phone. Every encounter left me laughing and inspired. I always felt that I had been visited by one of God’s choice prophets and angels! Though he died June 3, 2013, he continues to inspire and challenge me to broaden my circle of hospitality and deepen my commitment to justice.

I give thanks for holy friendships that challenge my prejudices, widen my circle of compassion, and call forth courage to seek justice for ALL people. Special thanks today for Tex Sample and the late Will Campbell!

(I am indebted to John Moore for this photo taken at the retreat.)

 

Is Only Unborn Life Sacred?

This week Alabama enacted a law against all abortions. Other state legislatures have enacted strict restrictions with the goal of criminalizing all abortions. My home state of  Tennessee is among them.

Thursday evening Alabama and Tennessee intentionally, with premeditation, strapped two men to a gurney, injected poison into their restrained bodies and watched them die.

Michael Samra’s last words were a prayer to Jesus and Don Johnson sang a hymn as he drew his final breath.

Both men had been convicted of murder. They had cruelly taken the lives of others and inflected terrible grief on their loved ones.

Advocates for the criminalization of abortions defend “the sacredness of the unborn” and the “sanctity of life.”

State-sanctioned killings (‘capital punishment’ is a convenient euphemism) are done in the name of “justice” and compassion for victims.

Protecting and affirming the sacredness and sanctity of life and practicing justice and compassion are core values in civil society and the Christian faith.

But much of the rhetoric and action around abortion and the death penalty exposes a deep, deadly hypocrisy and inconsistency.

Some argue that anti-abortion is protecting “innocent lives” while state executions is justice delivered to the guilty and that comparing the two is a false equivalency.

But are only unborn lives “sacred”? Does birth end human sacredness? Does guilt, even of murder, nullify the sanctity of human life!

According to my understanding of God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer and the universality of God’s prevenient  grace, ALL life is sacred!

Although the image of God is distorted in ALL  of us, God continues to claim us as beloved sons and daughters, with inherent worth and dignity, unborn and born!

Furthermore, justice from a biblical perspective is assuring that ALL have access to God’s abundance and to the resources necessary to flourish as God’s beloved children.

Therefore, I hope the state and national political leaders will be diligent in assuring that those who have been born will have access to medical care, adequate housing, quality education, and loving community.

And, I pray that we will not create more victims of violence by killing those who have killed and calling it “justice” and “compassion.”

Having been present with families of sons who were executed by the state, I know that grief is only compounded and injustice multiplied.

Let’s cease the hypocrisy by practicing justice and compassion for ALL, the unborn and already born!

And let us demand that our politicians stop reducing “sanctity of life” and “justice for victims” to campaign slogans while enacting policies that wound and kill the most vulnerable among us — those the Scriptures call “the orphans, widows, and strangers (immigrants)” and “the least of these”!