An Enjoyable Interview

Brennan Hurley, a pastor in Taylorville, Illinois, invited me to join him in a conversation about dementia and the church. Brennan does interviews each week with a persons representing different experiences and topics and the conversations are shared with his congregation. I appreciate the opportunity to share my journey with Linda and lessons I have learned,

You may access the 45-minute interview below. Your feedback is welcome.

Grief: Two Years Later

October 3 marked two years since I, along with daughters Sheri and Sandra and sons-in-law John and Kyle, stood in muted reverence beside Linda’s bed holding her hands as she serenely slipped into that mysterious realm we call “death.”

Though the moment had been anticipated for months, even years, as the losses had been inexorable over a decade, the finality of this moment was emotionally jarring. It set in motion a life-altering process with new challenges and adjustments.

Grief, though universal and unavoidable, defies all our attempts to fully explain or completely control. We confront our losses out of our own reservoir of experiences, values, traits, and relationships. Therefore, I offer no prescriptions for how others should grieve. I can only describe my own journey and hope others might find their own resources.

C.S. Lewis’s image of grief as a bomber flying overhead continues to speak to me. Two years ago, in the aftermath of Linda’s death, the disorienting bombs were dropping relentlessly, shattering every aspect of my being with waves of deep sadness. I didn’t know if I could endure the bombardment of such painful feelings of loss, disorientation, regret, guilt, anger, and loneliness.

Now, two years later, the bomber hovers further in the distance. The bombs fall with less frequency and intensity. Recovery and reorientation come more quickly. The pervasive and penetrating sadness has abated. Preoccupation with the images of disease, decline, suffering, and death are receding as joyful memories of decades of shared love and happiness move to the forefront. Gratitude is overshadowing regrets. Forgiveness is at least softening the pangs of guilt.

I’m learning anew that grief can only be lived through. Attempts to deny it or escape will only delay and exacerbate the consequences. We can get through it and move toward the future with hope. Indeed, love endures!

Marilynne Robinson in her acclaimed novel Gilead writes:

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave — that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful.

  • This prevenient courage comes to me in. . .
    • the encouragement and support of family and friends
    • tasks to be accomplished
    • memories mingled with gratitude
    • the beauty of an approaching autumn
    • works of art or melodies and words of music
    • prayers of lament and thanksgiving
    • sharing the suffering and grief of others
    • nurturing old friendships and entering new ones
    • the birth of a great grandchild bearing Linda’s middle name

Anne Lamotte writes, “You lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly–that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

I never could dance, as Linda often reminded me. But I do walk a lot! The limp you may sometimes detect is prevenient courage enabling me to move toward the future with hope.

The wise and compassionate Don Saliers summed it up in a thoughtful and much appreciated message to me: “This deep rhythm of loss, consolations of grace, and then gratitude for the joy of shared life, it is a great mystery, isn’t it?”

Yes! Mysterium Tremendum! Tremendous Mystery! I call it GOD!

Pilgrimage to Seminary*

Linda and I departed our native East Tennessee in June 1962 for seminary. Both of us wanted to live and study outside our native South.  Having been offered a scholarship and an appointment as student pastor, Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., seemed the right choice.

The school had moved from Westminster, Maryland, to the campus of American University in 1958. The location was part of the curriculum as the seminary intentionally claimed the Christian gospel’s witness in the public arena.

Where else could a student take a class on “The Prophets” and be assigned attendance at Congressional hearings on poverty or Pentagon briefings on the Vietnam War?

Or, what better place for a naïve young man from the Jim Crow South to be required to walk the streets of a ghetto within site of the US Capitol and interview residents on their impression of the Methodist Church located up the street?

One comment from an interviewee shaped my practice as a pastor, bishop, and seminary teacher. “They don’t do nothin’ up there but have church.” I learned that you don’t really know the local church apart from the neighbors’ experience of it.

The seminary faculty members all had pastoral experience and were deeply committed to the formation of congregations that embody the gospel.

Seminary education can take place in isolation from the surrounding world! Not at Wesley! World events were not only in the news media. They were in the classroom, subjected to rigorous biblical and theological reflection.

The Bay of Pigs! Build up of war in Vietnam! Assassination of President Kennedy! Martin Luther King and the March on Washington! Civil Rights legislation! Selma March! Campus unrest! Black Power!

The notion that such events had nothing to do with theology and the church was totally foreign to life at Wesley Seminary, at least in my experience during those three years.

Education and formation were integral to my seminary experience. Contrary to current practice, psychological evaluations were done as part of the orientation process at Wesley. The purpose was to identify personality, psychological, and emotional qualities that may need attention.

A clinical psychologist and faculty members with appropriate training were available to provide support in addressing identified issues. As we were told, “We are here to help prepare you intellectually, spiritually, and psychologically to be the best pastors you can be.”

One incident captures the impact those three years had on my own education and formation. It happened during my second year in the class called “Sermonic Clinic,” a required class in the practice of preaching.

The professor was Dr. Earl H. Ferguson. He was known as a tough professor whose critique of sermons could be brutal. We called the class “Fergatory!” When it came my turn to preach, I used an Easter sermon I had delivered in one of my local churches.

I preached on the resurrection and promptly experienced the crucifixion when Dr. Ferguson delivered his critique before the whole class. He found nothing positive in the sermon. I failed to define what I meant by resurrection or explain how it provided forgiveness for the past, strength for the present, and hope for the future–the three points. My delivery was wooden, dispassionate, and “boring.”

I was crushed by the evaluation. I left for home immediately after class. I burst into tears when Linda greeted me with “How did it go?” I had failed! I tossed and turned through the night before returning to campus the next morning.

Upon arriving on campus for a first period class, I entered the underground tunnel connecting the classroom building to Oxnam Chapel and several faculty offices, including Dr. Ferguson’s.

Suddenly, I heard that familiar voice, “Kenneth! Wait up!” It was Dr. Ferguson.

“That hurt yesterday, didn’t it?” he commented.

“Yes, it hurt very much,” as I choked back my emotions.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you; but we need to understand one another. I assume you are here because you have been called to preach. I am here because I have been called to make you the best preacher you can be.”

Then he did something I had never experienced from him. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Kenneth, I believe in you!”

Suddenly, this brilliant man put his arm around me and continued, “And I’m going to hold you to it.” While he held me in compassion, he held me accountable to my calling.

I asked if I could preach another sermon. Though it was an improvement and his critique included some positives, I had more work to do (and still do).

Thereafter, I took every class I could from Dr. Ferguson. He was a Tillich scholar and one of his classes was “The Meaning of Love.” The basic texts were Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and Paul Tillich’s  Love, Power, and Justice. I still have the notes from that class and the term paper I wrote, “Masochism and Sadism and Their Theological Formulations.”

Ten years after graduating from Wesley, I wrote to Dr. Ferguson and thanked him for what he taught me about preaching AND the meaning of discipleship. He had retired and moved to Maine. His response includes this paragraph:

Your letter warmed an old man’s heart on a cold winter day in Maine. Teaching and preaching are like shooting arrows into the air. You’re never quite sure they hit any targets. Then, someone takes the time to write a note or letter to say ‘thank you.’ You realize that something you said or did made a difference. Thank you!

Here are a few arrows shot into the air by Wesley Seminary that landed firmly in my understanding of the gospel and practice of ministry:

  • There is only one gospel, with personal, social, and cosmic implications
  • Education and formation are inseparable components of ministry
  • Knowledge and vital piety belong together
  • A congregation that neglects its community isn’t the church
  • God is as concerned about what happens in politics as in religion
  • Justice and evangelism are conjoined twins, not adversaries
  • The world is God’s preoccupation, not the institutional church
  • “God’s kingdom will come. Join it or get out of its way!” (Quote from Professor Lowell Hazzard,1965.)

Whatever effectiveness I may have had over five decades of ordained ministry, I owe much of it to Wesley Seminary during three life-changing years, 1962-65,

*This is the second 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.

 Photo: Copyright, Wesley Theological Seminary, 2020. All rights reserved. Used with permission.