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!

62412718_445253576301907_8174253118628823040_n

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.)

 

He Hasn’t Stopped Ministering!

It was one of those times. Linda was experiencing inexplicable distress. I couldn’t reach inside her world and calm her restlessness.

Our neighbors and friends, Dale and Norma Sessions, stopped by as they do almost daily. Dale is in middle stage Alzheimer’s disease.

He has lost most of his once extensive vocabulary. He lives entirely in the present moment and his retention fades almost instantly.

IMG_20190520_121050797 (3)

Suddenly Dale went to Linda’s bedside. He touched her on the shoulder and softly said, “You’re good! Yes, you’re good.”

She clasped his outstretched finger and held on tightly!

Though Linda’s distress continued, Norma and I sensed the preciousness of the moment.

Here a person with significant cognitive degeneration had empathy for another with severe impairment. Dale reached for Linda and spoke a word of affirmation, “You’re good!”

I don’t know what either Dale or Linda were thinking. But in that fleeting moment, there was a tender connection, a simple affirmation, an experience of solidarity, a shared compassion.

Dale’s embedded pastoral sensitivities and practices remain. He greets almost everyone with a smile and “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and “You’re good!”

Yes, people with dementia have gifts! They are more than objects of ministry! They minister!

 

 

 

 

The Ugliest Word

Ugly

During an interview in the 1950s, the famed journalist Edward R. Morrow asked Carl Sandburg, “What’s the ugliest word in the English language?”

I know a lot of ugly words! Many are considered profanity and aren’t spoken in polite company. Admittedly, those crude words have become more acceptable in public discourse and popular entertainment. I won’t mention them here. You know them, I’m sure.

But the Pulizer prize winning poet didn’t select a profane word. This master of the use of words chose this as the ugliest word: EXCLUSIVE! 

Well, I’m not so sure about that! Many find the word and its implication quite attractive. After all, we seem to prefer

  • to live in exclusive neighborhoods,
  • drive exclusive cars, eat at exclusive restaurants,
  • vacation at exclusive resorts,
  • attend exclusive universities,
  • occupy exclusive leadership positions,
  • shop at exclusive stores,
  • be inducted into exclusive organizations,
  • be part of an exclusive religion,
  • worship an exclusive God,
  • belong to an exclusive church.

I suspect that the ugliness or beauty of the word depends on whether we are among the included or the excluded. The included have power, privilege, prominence, prestige. They determine who is in and who is out.

But if you’ve ever been among those who are excluded, you know how ugly the word is! Being excluded stings, embarrasses, devalues, demeans, rejects, isolates, marginalizes, coerces, bullies. It hurts to be excluded!

Jesus must have considered exclusive to be an ugly word and an evil practice. At least, he redefined who’s in and who’s out. He turned the tables on the excluded and the included.

The excluded became the included: the nobodies, the poor, the disreputable, the powerless, the sick, the imprisoned, the vulnerable!

Those who considered themselves the exclusive found themselves on the outside– religious legalists, political power brokers, the rich, the morally pure, the piously judgmental.

In God’s upside-down kindom, no one is excluded from the reach of divine compassion and presence. Those we exclude from our circles of compassion, justice, and hospitality are the very ones at the center of God’s circle of hospitality.

If exclusive is the ugliest, I wonder what the poet would consider the most beautiful word in the English language?

I don’t know about you, but a word that comes to my mind is WELCOME! When combined with ALL, the beauty is magnified: ALL WELCOME! WELCOME ALL!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book on Its Way!

PrintThis week I sent the final draft of manuscript, Ministry with the Forgotten: Dementia through a Spiritual Lens, to Abingdon for the their review and editing. The book is the outgrowth of the journey Linda and I have been on for more than ten years.

Dementia is seen in our society almost exclusively through a medical lens where the focus is on symptoms, lost capacities, and grief. Such a narrow lens contributes to the current fear, stigmatizing, and marginalizing of people with dementia.

The book seeks to broaden the lens by locating dementia within God’s Story of creation, liberation, restoration, incarnation, and salvation. We are all more than our limitations, capacities, and losses. We are beloved children of God, created in the divine image, redeemed by God’s grace, and incorporated into a new community.

I am honored that the Foreword is written by Warren Kinghorn,  a psychiatrist and theologian, who teaches in both the Medical School and Divinity School at Duke. His short Foreword is worth more than the book itself!

The book should be available by August. The royalties from its sale will go to support ministries with people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and those who care for them.

Excluded, Included

Of all that I have read in response to the actions of the recent General Conference, this one moves me most deeply. It is written by a young college student who was baptized, confirmed, and formed in a local United Methodist Church. The denomination has a future only if it listens to such voices as this one.

Excessive Ramblings

I should be studying. But I’ve been thinking so much this
week that I can’t think. I just saw a quote from Reverend Eston Williams: “At
the end of the day, I’d rather be excluded for who I include than included for
who I excluded.”

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

For those of you not wrapped up in church news—specifically,
United Methodist Church news—the church’s legislative body, the General
Conference, voted this week to strengthen our Book of Discipline’s language excluding
non-celibate LGBTQ individuals from the clergy and punishing clergy who violate
these rules or perform same-sex marriages. The decision faces judicial review,
but the decision was made nonetheless.

“Open Hearts, Open Doors,” we say. Perhaps not for all.

I am hurt. I am confused. And, in the words of Reverend
Williams, I really would “rather be excluded for who I include than included
for who I excluded.” If we take some…

View original post 671 more words

I Won’t be Attending General Conference But . . . .

UM-General-Conference1920x485-1024x259I’m going to miss an important event in Methodist history–the called session of the General Conference in St. Louis, February 23-27.

A lot is at stake as delegates wrestle with ways to deal with the important matters of homosexuality and the interpretation of Scripture. The decisions made will chart the denomination’s future for decades.

Missing the conference makes me sad! I feel some guilt for my absence.  Although as a retired bishop I have no official duties,  I do feel responsible to be present in support of colleagues and delegates.

I know from previous General Conferences that significant things happen apart from the formal sessions. Old friendships are renewed and new ones formed. The vast diversity of the denomination is on full display.

Great music! Outstanding preaching! Challenging speeches! Profound worship!

I’ll miss all of that!

I must forego the experience. But, I’ll be pursuing my current primary vocational calling, care-partner for my wife of 57 years.

What I will be doing seems small and insignificant when compared to the history-making decisions. Nothing I will be doing will get publicity or make the history books.

I’ll be doing little things–holding Linda’s hand, combing her hair, feeding her, brushing her teeth, assuring her she isn’t alone, just sitting quietly as she sleeps.

There are important connections between what I’ll be doing and what’s happening in St. Louis.

We both will be doing sacred work!  Both will involve strong emotions, including grief and disappointment. God will be present with us!

Both have to do with what it means to love! Who to love! How to love! What it means to love faithfully, as Christ loves us!

Love isn’t an abstraction for me. She’s lying in the bed nearby, with her hand in mine. Love, in the final analysis, is an embodied practice rather than a pontifical pronouncement.

I hope love isn’t an abstraction in St. Louis. May it be embodied in

  • ears that listen attentively,
  • tongues that speak tenderly and truthfully,
  • hands that clasp and serve joyfully,
  • arms that embrace hospitably,
  • hearts that beat compassionately,
  • minds that exhibit the mind that was in Christ Jesus,
  • actions that manifest the breadth of God’s love and justice.

I won’t be trying to convince Linda that she is wrong, or less than, or inadequate, or sinful, or outside the norm.

Instead, I will be trying to empathetically enter her world, see the world as she is seeing it, assure her that she is valued amid her confusion, and loved unconditionally by God and by me.

I genuinely pray that what happens in St. Louis will be akin to what will be happening in our home, and in the countless homes across our world as people seek to love one another as Christ loves us, regardless of

  • race,
  • ethnicity,
  • political affiliations,
  • theological perspectives,
  • sexual orientation, or
  • physical and intellectual capacities.

I won’t be physically present in St. Louis, but I’ll be watching and praying. . . . and continuing to love!

 

 

 

“What do you fear most about growing old?”

“What do you fear most about growing old?” This was a question for breakout groups after a presentation on “Living with Purpose and Joy at Any Age.”

Among the most frequent answers to such a question are “losing my mind,” “not being able to do for myself,” “being a burden,” “running out of money,” “becoming frail and incompetent,” and “having to go to a nursing home.”

This response especially caught my attention: “I fear being taken care of by people who don’t love me.”

Being one of the elderly myself and having spent a lot of time in recent years among frail, infirm, and dependent people, I have an inkling from whence that fear arises. And, regrettably, the fear has legitimacy.

Care of the elderly has become a major commercial enterprise where efficiency, financial profitability, and getting past the next regulatory inspection are the operational priorities.

Most care facilities in the United States operate on a medical model in which people are treated for their physical and mental frailties. Residents (patients) are categorized by their symptoms and levels of incapacitation.

The frail elderly are treated as dependent recipients of medical care dispensed largely by over-worked, minimally trained, under paid, and seldom affirmed employees.

What if the paradigm for care of the elderly were shifted from dispensing medicine to sharing love and extending hospitality, countering the fear of “being cared for by people don’t love me”?

Such a shift would require honoring the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each person as a beloved child of God, regardless of his/her capacities.

Being cared for by people who love me means:

  • being present with and attentive to me
  • knowing my likes and dislikes, my longings and regretsClasping hands 2
  • listening to my stories, even if I tell them over and over
  • talking to me tenderly and sensitively
  • treating me as a beloved member of the family
  • letting me share my gifts as well as accept yours
  • being excited to see me when we’ve be apart
  • smiling as though you enjoy who I am
  • advocating for me when I can’t speak for myself
  • being patient with me when I can’t understand clearly or do quickly
  • getting inside and understanding my world
  • remembering that I was once younger like you and you one day will  be old like me
  • knowing that the best medicine you can give me is your love

While being cared for by people who love us may be especially urgent for the frail elderly, everyone of whatever age or station wants such treatment–children in schools, inmates in prisons, patients in hospitals, employees in businesses, students in universities,  members in congregations, families in homes.

I suspect that our fear of growing old and frail would be greatly diminished if we knew that we would be cared for by people who love us. After all, “There is no fear in love for perfect love casts out fear” (1John 4:18).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will We Bear Witness to the Gospel or to Our Brokenness?

The nation is perilously divided along political, racial, economic, gender,  and cultural lines. Hatred, disrespect, and cruelty toward “the other” have become acceptable public behavior and a normalized political strategy.

Tribalism and ideological warfare threaten any sense of commonality and mock the ideal of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Where is the church, particularly the denomination which has shaped my life–The United Methodist Church?

At the general church level, we are mirroring the divisions within the nation! Groups are quarreling over human sexuality and the interpretation of Scripture.

Local congregations and individual members are being pushed into ideological corners with secularly devised labels of “traditionalists” and “progressives.”

This isn’t the first time Methodists have mirrored national divisions. We divided over slavery and, thereby, the church became complicit in the violence of the Civil War.

Current arguments and rationalizations echo those advanced by preachers in 19th century. Once again the Bible is being used as a weapon of ideological warfare rather than as the authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation, supremely in Jesus Christ.

Just at the time the nation and world need a model of unity amid differences, United Methodist leaders seek ways to separate; thereby,  countering our “oneness in Jesus Christ” and weakening our witness to the Christian gospel.

Whatever rationalizations we may use to convince ourselves that we are defending truth and upholding morality,  to the world a division will bear witness to our brokenness and hypocrisy.

Let us, instead, bear witness to the core gospel truth that God has already acted decisively in Jesus Christ to reconcile all things (Colossians 1:20). God has called the church to be instruments of reconciliation.

 “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19 NRSV).

Unity in Christ

This isn’t about unity for unity’s sake!  It’s unity as embodiment of witness to the gospel! God in Christ has already made us one! He has already broken down the dividing walls of hostility! That’s the gospel truth!

Failure to embody that good news in our life together as a denomination will mock the central message of the Christian Gospel: In Jesus Christ, God has broken down all dividing walls of hostility and claimed ALL as beloved sons and daughters!

The issue of homosexuality will not be resolved by legislation or denominational restructuring as proposed by any of the plans to be presented at the forthcoming called session of General Conference.

Resolution lies in living the oneness already existing in Jesus Christ by humbly struggling together to fully grasp God’s vision for the world and the church. “Traditionalists” and “progressives” need one another! A first step may be to do away with such simplistic labels and commit ourselves to God’s reign of compassion, justice, and hospitality.

It seems to me that the One Church Plan being proposed to the General Conference has the best chance of enabling United Methodists to pursue and live God’s vision for humanity expressed in Jesus’s prayer that “they might be one.”

Make no mistake about it: the world is watching! May our leaders bear witness to a unity that transcends uniformity, a unity God has already wrought in Jesus Christ.

Riding Dementia’s Roller Coaster

Anyone who lives with dementia must learn to ride emotional roller coasters. The rises and dips, twists and turns,  happen abruptly and without warning. Behaviors and moods of people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia can dramatically change in a split second.

Caregivers know the experience well! A smile instantly turns to a scowl. Cooperation suddenly pivots to conflict. Calm explodes into rage. Affection gives way to rejection. Coherence suddenly gets shattered by confusion.

Sometimes the ride is exhilarating as an unexpected smile or moment of recognition appears. Other times the ride takes a plunge into the abyss of grief or turns sharply toward more confusion. Then, there are periods when the journey plateaus and moves ahead with relative calm and predictability.

But riding roller coasters is exhausting, even dangerous! I’m still learning and sometimes all I can do is hold on for dear life and brace myself for the final plunge downward. Yet, I’ve learned a few lessons.

One, don’t ride the rollercoaster by yourself! I need other people with me. . .to hold onto. . .to scream with me. . .to comfort me! We need others to steady us enduring the ups and downs, the twists and turns. And, it’s comforting to know that others are on the ride with you.

Two, scream when you feel like it! Screams are laments. Laments are not only therapeutic; they are the forerunners of hope. They are the weeping of the night in preparation for the joy that comes in the morning.

Three, relish each moment rather than fear the next twist or turn or dip. Learning to live in the present moment isn’t easy but it’s the only real time for those with dementia. Each moment contains potential life, love, and connection. Grab it before it’s gone!

Four, reach out and touch! A gentle touch or embrace of the one trapped in dementia’s turbulence brings solace to both. Touch communicates when words fail and thoughts flee.

Five, look up! The roller coaster isn’t the total reality. The sun and stars remain in their course. There is a world beyond the tumult of the present.

Six, sing! Music harmonizes, calms, inspires, touches deep places in the heart when the brain falters.

Seven, laugh! As the poet Robert Frost said, “If we couldn’t laugh, we would go insane!”

Eight, trust the permanence of love! “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” (Lamentations 3:22). God’s love never ends. Neither does ours!

Love does more than survive roller coaster rides; love grows stronger through the ups and downs, the twists and turns. So, hold on tight to love!

 

 

 

“Not What Do You Believe, But What Do You DO?”

It was an unlikely place for a theological discussion! I was undergoing a medical test that required a lot of waiting and interaction with a technician.

Noting a book I was reading by Walter Brueggemann and having seen on my chart that I had taught at Duke, he asked, “Are you a liberal or conservative?”

“I don’t  really like labels. I’m liberal on some things and conservative on others,” I responded.

“Well, what do you believe?” he retorted.

“Believe about what?” I asked.

“About God, Jesus,  and the Bible,” he said.

“Wow, that’s a lot to cover. I have lots of beliefs about those topics, but I’m not sure that what I believe about them is the most important thing.”

“Oh? Then, what is most important about being religious?” he inquired with interest.

I replied, “I think a more important question is, What do you do? What do you practice? How do you behave, treat people?”

There followed several minutes of conversation about treating people with respect, dignity, compassion, justice, and hospitality.

“But beliefs are important, aren’t they?” he pushed.

I responded, “Definitely! They should motivate, form, and guide what we do. The validity of our beliefs is what kind of persons they produce. The test is what’s in our hearts more than what’s in our heads.”

Continuing, I added, “You asked me what I believe about God, Jesus, and the Bible. Here it is in a nutshell. I believe God is love and that love became flesh in Jesus who shows us what it means to love and empowers us to love one another as God loves us. The Bible is the story of the unfolding of that love.”

With calmness, he reflected, “So, you’re more concerned about what I do than what I believe? Right?”

I remarked: “I’m interested in both, but our actions reveal our true beliefs. Your kindness, respect, and compassion indicate to me that you know God as love, kindness, and justice. You may not even call that “God” but to practice love, generosity, hospitality, and justice is to “believe” in God as I understand the term.”

As the tests and wait continued, the conversation turned to our shared concern for loved ones living with dementia. He was no longer curious about whether I was “liberal” or “conservative,” and I still don’t know what his religious formulations are.

I do know that in that brief exchange two people treated one another with mutual respect, compassion, and dignity. In so doing, we pointed to what the Lord requires: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)