Who Will Care for the Orphans?

In 1995, my wife Linda and I spent two weeks traveling Zimbabwe with leaders of The United Methodist Church. We were there to support and learn from the people and to witness the marvelous work being done by the church in providing education, healthcare, and other forms of aid among the people of beautiful country.

The most memorable and haunting experience was a visit at an orphanage at Old Mutare Mission, located within view of African University. There we listened to the dedicated staff who care for children orphaned by the HIV/Aids epidemic. The children surrounded us with smiles and longing looks in their bright eyes. As we were leaving, kids clung to our legs as though grasping for love and hope.

Though the children have long forgotten the two strangers from the U.S., I have not forgotten them. Their images continue to prod and inspire me to respond to the plight of the estimated 150 million orphans around the world. They are, after all, at the center of God’s presence and mission.

At the heart of our faith is this declaration: God “defends the orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants),” and we meet God “in the least of these.” To know and serve this God is to be in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us; and no one is more vulnerable than the orphans. The orphans, therefore, are far more than objects of mission; they are means of divine presence and transformation.

My friend, Wayne Lavender, knows the plight of orphans and he knows the God who defends them. Furthermore, he knows the difference relationships with “the least of these” can make in the lives of individuals, congregations, and communities. As a trained theologian, pastor, political scientist, and peace activist, Dr. Lavender founded Foundation for Orphans (F4O) as a means of connecting individuals and congregations in the U.S. with the orphans in Africa, currently in Mozambique. You can learn more about F4O at their website https://f4o.org/.

I serve on the Board of Directors of F4O and support the efforts to provide love and hope for as many children as possible. Recently, I contribute financially because I believe in its mission, ministry, integrity and transparency. I know my recent gift will be used to help construct a new home for 48 orphaned children in Lichinga, Mozambique.

This Saturday, October 10 (10.10.2020), World Orphan Day, the Foundation 4 Orphans -F4O.org will be holding its first CyberThon, an online fundraiser. I will be one of the keynote speakers, appearing from 7:05 – 7:15 PM. You can watch my interview on the Foundation 4 Orphans – F4O.org FaceBook live during that time (more info here), or on their YouTube F4O Cyberthon channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCH_2WHOr_yqJFPBll39XhkA)

I hope you will join with me in prayer for the success of this fundraiser, and possibly by your gifts (https://f4o.org/give-2/). Working together, we can provide love and hope to these children and thereby change the world, one life at a time.

Relationships Break Down Racial Barriers*

In June 1962, when Linda and I loaded our few belongings in a U-Haul trailer in Watauga, Tennessee, and headed to Gaithersburg, Maryland, so that I could begin seminary, racial tensions were intensifying. Politicians fanned the flames of hatred, bigotry, and division.

George Wallace, a staunch segregationist, had just been elected governor of Alabama. He angrily stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama in an  attempt to block the admission of two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Racial strife dominated the daily news.

Linda and I grew up in the segregated world of eastern Tennessee. I had no relationships with African-Americans and no experiences across the boundaries of race and ethnicity.

I had been appointed as student pastor of the Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel Methodist Churches while attending Wesley Theological Seminary in the nation’s capital. The two churches were located within 2 miles of one another on Darnestown Road. Hunting Hill was a former Methodist Episcopal Church, and MacDonald Chapel was part of the MEC South. The Methodist Episcopal Church had split into the two denominations over slavery in 1844.

The two denominations reunited in 1939 to form The Methodist Church. As a concession to the MEC South, the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction was formed for Black members.

Located on the same road and between Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel was Pleasant View Methodist Church, whose members were African-Americans.

So within two miles on the same stretch of road, three churches represented the history of the United Methodist Church’s struggle with racism.

As I drove past Pleasant View Church one weekday afternoon, I noticed a car parked beside the Parish Hall. I had not yet met the pastor. Perhaps this was my chance. What followed changed my life and approach to ministry.

I met The Reverend Tom Barrington, the pastor of Emory Grove and Pleasant View Methodist Churches. I was twenty-three years old, a seminary student, and a part-time pastor. He was in his mid fifties with a seminary degree and thirty years’ experience as a full-time pastor.

He greeted me with a warm smile and firm handshake. I learned that he was originally from the South — North Carolina as I recall. I immediately felt at ease in his presence and was impressed with his graciousness. It marked the beginning of my first friendship with an African-American colleague.

Soon, I confronted the institutional racism in The Methodist Church. Even though Reverend Barrington was far more experienced and educated than I and served full time, my annual salary exceeded his by $300!

During one of our subsequent informal conversations, Reverend Barrington mentioned that he wished he had enough boys to start a scout troop. Since we had an active scouting program at Hunting Hill, I suggested that his boys join the troop. His response exposed my naivete.

“Son,” he remarked, “do you want trouble?” “You may get run out of here if you try that. I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

I insisted that I ask the scout master, George Righter, if it would be okay to have the boys from Pleasant View join the troop. Much to the surprise of Reverend Barrington, George and the assistant leaders welcomed the new members of the troop without fanfare and minimum resistance.

Months later the Women’s Society of Christian Service (now United Methodist Women) of Pleasant View invited the women from MacDonald Chapel to a time of conversation and fellowship. Within a matter of weeks, the Methodist Men had a similar gathering. Barriers began coming down as relationships were formed across racial barriers.

Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel entered into a merger agreement during my last year as their pastor in 1965. Included in the agreement was expanded fellowship with Pleasant View and the possibility of them joining in the formation of the new church.

Suggestions for names for the newly formed church were received. I had placed in the suggestion box the name Fairhaven, from Acts 27.

Fair Haven was a temporary safe harbor amid a storm as Paul continued his journey to Rome.  The name seemed an appropriate image for a church — a place of nurture and renewal for a community on the journey toward God’s reconciled community of justice and love.

In 1968, a transformative step on that journey was taken when the members of Pleasant View became part of the new church. While racial strife and division dominated the media, three strains of Methodism’s division came together in a congregation on Darnestown Road in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

In September 2008, Linda and I shared in a Homecoming and 40th Anniversary of Fairhaven. Following the service, a woman approached me.

“I want to apologize to you and thank you. You likely don’t remember me, but you may remember my father,” she remarked.  After sharing his name, she reminded me that the family left the Hunting Hill Church in disagreement with the merger between Hunting Hill and MacDonald Chapel and the growing fellowship with Pleasant View.

She added, “I have returned to this church for the very reason my parents left it. My family is part of this church because of its diversity.”

Little did Reverend Barrington or I realize at the time that a small group of Boy Scouts, a women’s meeting, and a gathering of Methodist Men would be seeds from which a flourishing multi-racial congregation would spring forth.  What we did realize, however, is that relationships matter!

Fifty-seven years have passed since that fateful day that I drove into the parking lot of Pleasant View and met Tom Barrington. Tom died in 1966. He never knew the impact he had on a young, naïve seminary student from East Tennessee.

Today, Fairhaven United Methodist Church stands as visible testimony to the reconciling power of the gospel when embodied in relationships of compassion, justice, and hospitality.+

September 27, Fairhaven will celebrate homecoming by Zoom with the theme “Through it All God Remains Faithful.” I will be giving thanks that those three small membership congregations demonstrated to a young pastor from the segregated South that relationships across racial barriers are the soil out of which grows new life.

*This is the third in a series as I engage in the coming months on a pilgrimage of remembering sixty years of ministry and life with my deceased wife, Linda. When possible, I will be visiting the communities where Linda and I lived and served.

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)