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

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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 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

 

 

Living with Grief’s Paradoxes

Photo by Norma Sessions

I’ve known it intellectually, but now I’m living the reality.

Grieving means living with paradoxes, struggling with conflicting emotions and desires! 

I’m less than a month away from Linda’s death. The grief is raw, the sense of loss intense.  Here are some of my lived paradoxes:

  • relief that she’s at peace and regret that she is gone;
  • desire to engage others and preference for being alone;
  • wanting to remember and trying to forget;
  • confidence that I loved her well and guilt that I fell short;
  • quietness as solace and silence as a void;
  • aloneness as solitude and aloneness as loneliness;
  • clinging to God’s presence while feeling God’s absence.

A friend reminded me, “You can’t go around grief. You have to go through it!” I can’t remove the paradoxes. I just have to live them.

God, grant me the patience necessary for living with and through grief’s paradoxes!

 

“Glimpses”

A week has passed since Linda’s death and I have begun the process of adjusting to the new norm without her physical presence. Though the house is vacant and quiet, the reality of the love we shared for sixty years remains.

One of the most comforting and profound experiences of the last week has been a poem written by our daughter, Sheri, which she shared at both of Linda’s memorial services. I learned that she wrote the poem over the ten years of Linda’s disease and that she would write a new stanza every time her mom entered a new phase of dementia.

Each stanza represents a stage in the long journey and chronicles the progression of the losses experienced, including the present reality of her absence and our anticipation of resting in the loving arms of God in whose presence Linda now lives.

I share the poem with Sheri’s permission.

                     Glimpses

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of a future reality that will come to be.
A lost word, a confused look,
An expression I mistook.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of the mom who still knows and loves me.
Embarrassed by her lapse and my forgotten name,
I brush it aside because I love her all the same.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of the mom she used to be.
A smile, a giggle, a twinkling of the eye
Remind me of a taken-for-granted time now gone by.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of my mom slipping away from me.
I try and try to connect once again
To little avail, though; this is how it’s been.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of where my mom will one day be.
In the arms of the God who loves her so much,
In the arms of the God she did always trust.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of my mom happy, as she is meant to be
Cradled in love and joy and peace
After all these years, she is finally free.

Glimpses, mere glimpses I see
Of a world without my mom physically
Close in my heart she will always be
Until that very day God cradles me.

(Written by Sheri Carder Hood)

Knowing She’s Loved Is More Important Than Her Knowing My Name

Linda awoke from her night’s sleep with me standing over her, gently stroking her hair. She gazed at me with a confused look and asked, “Who are you?”

Being forgotten is a painfully common experience of those whose spouse or parent has dementia.

It hurts to never hear your name called by one with whom your life has been lovingly intertwined for decades.

“I’m Kenneth, your husband,” I responded as I leaned over to kiss Linda on the forehead. “I love you!”

Suddenly, the confused look gave way to a twinkle in the eyes and a gleeful smile. There was a recognition deeper and far more important than my name.  It was the recognition, “I am loved!”

I often hear family members, pastors, and friends say they don’t visit those with dementia because “they don’t know me any longer.” Increased isolation results and persons with dementia get cut off from the very thing they most need–the assurance of love.

Whether Linda knows and speaks my name is far less important to me than she know that she is loved.

In her fleeting smile and momentary sparkle in the eyes, I knew that I, too, am loved. And, we both are enfolded in a Love that transcends words or the sound of our names.Clasping hands 2

 

 

 

 

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.)