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.”

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Have We No Shame?

Mark Twain wrote, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

I wonder if we have lost this distinction from other animals. It’s not that we no longer have need to blush. Nothing seems to embarrass us any more.

Behaviors that once made us blush have gone mainstream and we merely shrug our shoulders:

  • dishonesty
  • crudeness
  • insults
  • cruelty

Have we lost completely our sensitivity to the values and behaviors that should mortify  us?

“Create a clean heart for [us], O God; put a new, faithful spirit deep inside [us]!” (Psalm 51:10 CEV)

 

 

 

We Have a Right to Expect Honesty and Common Decency

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H. L. Mencken was a journalist, scholar, satirist, and provocateur. His cynicism toward institutional religion and many cultural norms was a put-off to many. Yet, he exposed much hypocrisy and often bore witness to truth in biting sarcasm.

Here is an example of Mencken’s biting critique of politicians: “It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.”

Or this one:  “A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

Common sense, common honesty, and common decency! Don’t we have the right to expect these from our leaders?

Or, is our collective character so compromised that we simply get the leaders we deserve? 

I fear that the coarseness of our public discourse, widespread acceptance of dishonesty, normalization of crudeness, endorsement of cruelty, and callousness toward the suffering of others are symptomatic of our blighted collective character.

Let’s hold on to a vision and expectation of personal and collective honesty and common decency! And, let’s demand and practice integrity and compassion from ourselves and those we select as leaders.

 

 

 

 

Demeaning, dehumanizing, disrespectful, hateful speech is dangerous!

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It’s one of the ugliest and most deadly developments in our society: the normalizing of demeaning, dehumanizing, disrespectful, hateful, bullying speech!

I know, such speech has been around since humans developed language. What’s new is its growing normalization and acceptance by society, its being a favored discourse of the president and other public figures, and its pervasive dissemination  on social media.

Dehumanizing and demeaning speech directed toward other human beings is more than a language problem. Words are formed in the heart before they make it to the lips! Jesus made that clear: “. . .what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight” (Matthew 15:18 CEV).

Such speech is more than bad etiquette. It is deadly poison that can lead to catastrophic consequences. Dehumanizing speech robs people of their inherent dignity, reduces them to enemy or worthless, and motivates rejection and potential violence.

I learned in an introduction to logic course in college that the use of personal insults in confronting issues is an old and popular fallacy in logic. It’s called the Ad Hominem Argument (also, “Personal attack,” “Poisoning the well”).

Attack and discredit the person and you don’t have to deal logically with his/her arguments. It’s a form of intellectual laziness as well as ill-formed character.

Multiple important issues confront our society and churches. Rising above specific political, theological, and ecclesial issues is the preservation and nurture of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.

May our language reflect our respect for the God-given dignity of every person and may we demand the same from our political and religious leaders!

This paraphrase of Jesus’s warning states it forcefully: “Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation”(Matthew 12:36-37 The Message).

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.

 

Wedding Anniversary and the Dance of Love

Linda PhotosWedding anniversaries are times of celebration of shared commitments, treasured memories, and common experiences.

But what if disease has erased the shared memories and eliminated once-treasured experiences? How does one celebrate something that is no longer remembered?

Sunday, June 30, will mark the 58th anniversary of our wedding. How do Linda and I celebrate when she has forgotten the multiple threads binding our lives together for six decades?

The celebrating will be done primarily by me. I now hold the commitments and memories. I will rejoice and give thanks on her behalf since she cannot cognitively comprehend the significance of the day.

I will remember, rejoice, and give thanks for both of us. I will celebrate her love expressed in

  • countless tender acts of intimacy, support, kindness, and helpfulness;
  • birthing and nurturing our two loving and devoted daughters;
  • generous and gracious hospitality extended to all;
  • encouraging me when I failed and correcting me when I erred;
  • loving me in sickness and in health, in joyful times and in times of grief.

So, I celebrate and give thanks for all Linda has done as acts of love. Now that she can no longer do, I rejoice and give thanks for simply who she isI celebrate her very being!

Yes, she has changed! So have I! I love her for who she has been, who she is, and who she will become.

Disease has not changed her being, only her doing. Even if she no longer remembers me, I remember her!

Now Linda’s love is in the form of receiving my care, affection, and devotion. Love, after all, is like a dance. Sometimes one leads; at other times, one follows.

Whether leading or following, giving or receiving, we are participating in the Triune God’s eternal dance of love. In so doing, love grows richer, deeper, wider, and purer!

Thank you, Linda, for the privilege of sharing with you in the dance of love for all these years. And, the dance goes within the rhythm of God’s boundless Love.

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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.)

 

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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

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”!