A Prayer That Changed My Life

It was the weekend of July 5-7, 2002. Six weeks earlier I had cardiac by-pass surgery and had gone to our home at Lake Junaluska for an expected routine recuperation. On July 5th crushing chest pains developed. Linda rushed me to the nearby Haywood County Hospital. I was then transported to Mission Hospital in Asheville.

All attempts to open the blocked Left Anterior Descending (LAD) artery failed. Doctors had warned that the surgery was necessary since the LAD was “the widow maker.” Now, it was totally blocked. Finally, the cardiologist was able to stent a small vein at the bottom of my heart and the pain ceased.

The weekend was spent in ICU with constant monitoring and tests. The future was uncertain. Would I survive? How much has the heart muscle been damaged? Will I be able to continue as an active bishop? More definitive prognosis had to wait.

With family and some friends keeping vigil, I spent the weekend contemplating an uncertain future, even the prospect of another attack and death. Unexpectedly, all assumptions and plans were called into question. Life hit a brick wall!

Sunday morning I was surrounded by family. We were mostly silent. No words seemed appropriate. Sadness prevailed. The grief of a lost preferred future had already set in. The gravity of the situation weighed heavily.

Suddenly, a knock came to the door. In walked my friend, David Lowes Watson! He was carrying a loaf of bread and a chalice! He had made his way from Nashville and through the corridors of Mission Hospital bearing Communion. What a welcomed sight!

With our permission, he proceeded with the familiar liturgy and the serving of the bread and juice. Then, this Wesley scholar and valued friend and colleague caught me surprise. He invited us to pray. And, in his distinctive British accent he prayed from memory the Wesley Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or trodden under foot for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

I began to feel very uncomfortable and almost wanted to ask David to stop. I wanted only half of the prayer answered:

“Put me to doing,” YES! “put me to suffering!” NO!
“Let me be employed for thee!” YES! “laid aside for thee!” NO!
“Exalted for thee!” YES! “trampled underfoot for thee.” NO!
“Let me be full!” YES!   “let me be empty.” NO!
“Let me have all things” at least life! YES!   “let me have nothing!” NO!

My discomfort exposed the limitations of my own commitment. I wanted a covenant on my terms. I wasn’t ready to pray:

“I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.”

But I wanted to be able to do so! With David’s encouragement, I decided to make the prayer part of my daily devotions. Maybe I would come to embrace the whole prayer.

The news came Monday that there had been significant damage to the heart muscle. I would need longer recuperation and rehab. So, I was granted six months of medical leave from my episcopal duties.

Every day began with the Covenant Prayer, along with reading Psalms, primarily the laments. Ever so gradually, my discomfort was replaced with acceptance.

Uncertainty continued about the future.  It became evident that the pace and stress of the active episcopacy was too much for my weakened heart. Being laid aside from that position was necessary.

But new doors opened. I joined the faculty at Duke Divinity School and was “ranked” with a marvelous community of students and scholars. For seven years, I relished my new vocation!

Then we hit another brick wall. Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia, a progressively debilitating disease.The Covenant Prayer again came to the forefront of my daily prayers. This petition was repeated several times daily:

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.”

Being laid aside from the full time faculty position followed. A move to South Carolina “ranked” us with family and subsequently with some of society’s most vulnerable citizens, those with dementia diseases.

Wesley’s Covenant Prayer continues to challenge and enrich my life. The future remains uncertain. Amid the uncertainty is the confidence that whatever circumstances emerge, I will be able to more faithfully affirm

“I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.”







Schism Is a Failure of Love and Leadership

Talk of schism in The United Methodist Church abounds, exposing an already distracted church. Contemplating split precisely when the world needs an embodied message of reconciliation is a transparent betrayal of the church’s nature and mission.

John Wesley in his sermon “On Schism” declares:

To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together; and the greater the love, the stricter the union. . . . It is only when our love grows cold, that we can think of separating from our brethren. And this is certainly the case with any who willingly separate from their Christian brethren. . . The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause.[1]

As Christ’s followers, we are commanded to love one another with the same love with which Christ loves us. Love is precisely the criteria by which the world knows we are disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”(John 13:15).

However we may rationalize schism as faithfulness to truth and orthodoxy, or as the cost of bold prophetic witness, the world correctly sees it as the failure to love. A church that cannot struggle together with conflicts over sexuality, interpretation of Scripture, and orthodoxy has little to say to a violently divided world.

The failure to love is also a negation of the church’s leadership. History is replete with examples of the church’s failure to provide leadership in times of polarization and division.

A historian of American religion, C. C. Goen, provides a relevant case study. His book Broken Churches, Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the American Civil War chronicles denominational schisms as precursors to the violent breech in the nation.

Though he does not contend that the churches caused the split, Goen argues that the denominational divisions represented a tragic “failure of leadership.” The Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians opted for retreating into homogeneous ecclesial enclaves rather than engage in difficult conversations on slavery and human dignity. Attempts at persuasion gave way to legislative coercion. When legislation failed, division and violence became the attempted solutions.

Rather than leading the nation toward justice and reconciliation, the denominations simply mirrored society’s brokenness. By splitting into self-justifying enclaves of like-minded congregations, the denomination opted to mirror the brokenness in society.  The church, thereby, provided an ecclesial model and theological underpinning for a broken nation and subsequent civil war.

The United Methodist Church is once again positioned to provide leadership to a world dreadfully divided and retreating into dangerous ideological ghettos. Will we once again exhibit a failure of love and leadership?

I am finding a hopeful alternative in an unexpected place. I have the privilege of providing a pastoral presence with approximately forty people living with some form of dementia, their families, and staff who care for them. Those marginalized children of God embody reconciliation and oneness that transcends uniformity.

Every worship service is Pentecost at Bethany, the memory care facility. Although each participate is unique and the religious backgrounds include Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and “none,” we gather as one community. Many have lost verbal abilities and comprehension. Theological and creedal abstractions elude them. Behaviors are unpredictable. Disruptions are accepted in stride.

It is not uncommon to hear a resident sing “Amazing Grace” in her native Portuguese or another in Spanish or Italian. A Jewish man joins in praying the Lord’s Prayer. People who can’t remember their own name recite Psalm 23 in unison. Some who have forgotten who Jesus sing “Jesus Loves Me” with gusto.

Much of the language is babble and incoherent. Yet, there is an understanding that transcends cognition. I asked, “How is it that you seem to understand one another?” A woman whose persistent petition during intercessory prayers is for world peace, responded: “We love one another. We communicate with the heart.”

That is leadership! That is love! Loving one another and communicating with the heart! That is the way forward for a denomination that claims as its mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”




[1] Albert C. Outler, editor, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 3(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 64.

“It is what it is!”


“It is what it is! I’ve got it. I wish I didn’t have it, but I have to make the most of it!”

Those are the remarks of my neighbor and friend, Dale Sessions, who is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He is among my mentors, teaching me about courage, discipleship, and ministry as he approaches his disease with characteristic courage, exuberant humor, and disarming authenticity.

Dale has seen the disease at its worst both as a professional and as a family member.  His ministry has included the pastorate as an American Baptist clergy and the chaplaincy in mental health facilities and addiction treatment centers.  Prior to retiring, he was the chaplain in a long term care facility where he provided pastoral care for elderly veterans, including those with dementia.

Dale is prophetically pastoral and pastorally prophetic.  He envisions a world of justice, compassion, reconciliation, and peace; and he has been an advocate for peace, civil rights, and economic justice. He has facilitated change in systems and individuals by helping others see new possibilities and to believe that change is possible, at both the personal and community levels.  He resists the notion of victimization and helplessness; and with compassion and humor he instills hope that things can change for the better.

His experience with Alzheimer’s has been painfully personal. Both his father and brother died from the disease after years of relentless loss and decline.  Following his father’s death and his brother’s diagnosis, Dale was acutely aware of his own risk. He thought and wrote a lot about the possibilities awaiting him.  But something deep within enabled him to accept the negative prospects, which he faced with “eyes wide open.”

Soon after symptoms began to appear, Dale courageously sought an evaluation.  Immediately upon receiving confirmation of the disease, he volunteered to be part of a clinical trial at Emory with the hope of helping others.  He willingly relinquished his driving privileges and began making plans for his diminished capacities. He and his lovingly supportive wife, Norma, moved into a retirement community.

Alzheimer’s disease is relentlessly stripping away Dale’s exceptional language and cognitive abilities. Once an avid reader and astute analyst of contemporary culture, he can no longer comprehend a simple lunch menu or remember the last news report. Once a gregarious extrovert who lit up every room he entered, Dale’s world and circle of friends have narrowed. Silence is becoming more prevalent than his jolly laughter. The twinkle in his blue eyes is giving way to that recognizable detached glare.

Dale’s dealing with his Alzheimer’s is an example of what Marilynne Robinson calls “prevenient courage.” In Gilead, she 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… to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.” (245-246)

What accounts for Dale’s courage in confronting his disease? What were the experiences which contributed to this “prevenient courage”?  We can assume that those whom Dale served and his experience with his father and brother helped to shape his own response. He saw those whom he served as his friends, teachers, and colleagues in ministry.

Each of us can increase our awareness of and response to those around us who serve as our teachers, preparing us for whatever lies ahead. We can affirm “It is what it is!” with courage because we are held in community. People with dementia, people with mental illness, people struggling with addictions and others whom we might think have little to offer, are part of that community!

I share Dale’s story of courage to emphasize that people with dementia have gifts to share.  They minister by their presence. I wish everyone could have witnessed the power of his presence as he and I shared Communion with residents, staff, and family members at Bethany memory care facility. And, you should have seen the courage and grace in Dale’s tear-filled eyes as he served me Communion!

“It is what it is” and it is GRACE!

[I did an interview with Dale a few months ago when his language skills were more intact. I wanted others to hear Dale’s comments and to witness his courage and discipleship. You can access the eight minute interview on YouTube: https://youtu.be/Sff-fgZ8Des.]

“I Don’t Want to be a Burden”

“I don’t want to be a burden to my family. My kids have their own lives and shouldn’t have to be burdened with me,” said the mother in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

I’ve made the statement myself and heard it from Linda when she was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia.  We moved near our daughters for support in our declining years; but I still struggle with the balance between support and being a burden.

“Being a burden” is high on the list of fears of older adults.  The fear is rooted in the dangerous myths of individualism and self-sufficiency.

Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and theologian at Duke University, lists five societal mistakes harmful to people with dementia. One is the notion,”It’s good not to be a burden (and not to need others).”

“The remarkable thing about human life,” writes Dr. Kinghorn, “is not that humans are frequently a burden to each other, but that bearing each other’s burdens is simply what humans do. It is care and relationship, not isolation and individualism, which are normative to human life.”[i]

We come into the world as dependent creatures and the interdependency only grows more complex and multi-layered as we mature.

Therefore, bearing burdens is integral to being human! I am increasingly convinced that we have an innate need to nurture and care for others.  Bearing burdens is in our DNA! I see it daily in my relationships with residents in the memory care unit.  Many people with dementia are hypersensitive to feelings as expressed in voice tone and non-verbal communication. Many seem to intuitively know when someone is angry, frustrated, lonely, or not feeling well.

We recently found Linda in another resident’s room. She was bent over the sleeping man, gently stroking his shoulders. She was overheard saying, “I’m sorry. If you’re having a problem, I will get them to help.  It’s okay if you’re just sleeping.  I just want to make sure you’re okay. I love you.” John, about whom she was concerned, is in the severe stage of his disease and tends to be isolated from other residents.  Linda seems to sense his need for support and she has a need to provide support!

This dynamic of bearing burdens and being burdens is rooted in the very nature and mission of God.  God declared to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them. . .” (Exodus 3:7-8). God is a burden-bearing God.

In Jesus the Christ, God “pitched tent” among us and shouldered our burdens all the way to and through the Cross and sets us free to bear one another’s burdens.

Bearing burdens is part of what it means to the body of Christ: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way . . . you fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV). Bearing one another’s burdens is an opportunity to share in Christ’s self-emptying love.  Furthermore, in bearing one another’s burdens we meet the Risen Christ and grow into his likeness.

Bearing burdens is not a burden when shared in covenant community of love. Burden-sharing is part of the Christian community’s identity and mission.

I often enter the memory care unit feeling weighted down with the burden of loss and grief, assuming that I am there to lift the burdens of those trapped in confusion and vanished memories.  When I take  time to enter the world of those who bear the burden of the disease, be they staff, residents, or family members, a mysterious connection occurs. It may be a faint smile, or sudden sparkle in the eye, or an unexpected hug, or a jolly laugh, or a friendly “hello.”  But in that simple moment of joy, those whom society considers as burdens lift my burdens.

Together we meet the One who extends this invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV).

 [i]Warren A.. Kinghorn, “I Am Still With You”: Dementia and the Christian Wayfarer,” Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging, 00:1-20, 2015.



Cognition can be an Idol

Living with and ministering among people with dementia is shifting my priorities and way of viewing the Christian faith. I am being confronted with my own idolatry.  I think I may have made an idol of cognition, thinking straight, and being intellectually competent.

Knowledge has always been a priority for me! Education became important very early. I’m not sure why. My parents only went through the sixth and eighth grades. The only book we had in our home was the Bible. But somehow “knowing” became important to me.  I suspect it was partly compensation for feelings of inferiority born of economic poverty.

I never considered myself to be smart and those intimidating standardized tests varied that I’m not “intellectually gifted.” But I worked hard, made good grades, and got lots of affirmation from teachers and others. Being intellectually proficient has been and continues to be highly valued. I genuinely want to love God with my mind.

I’ve spent a lifetime clarifying my beliefs and  helping others make intellectual sense of Christian doctrines. I’ve written books and articles on the importance of right beliefs. I have taught and preached those doctrines as a pastor and seminary professor. Beliefs and intellect do matter!

But the margins of my thinking are shifting! When Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia (FTD) in 2009, I was deeply immersed in the hyper-intellectual environment of Duke Divinity School. I spent my days teaching and writing. I graded students on their intellectual comprehension and integration and their oral and written communication skills. I was in intellectual heaven!

What a contrast to my current context! Now I am immersed in a different world.  While continuing to teach part time in seminary and the church, my daily life is among people whose intellectual comprehension and communication abilities are being stripped away by disease. Abstract thinking has ceased. Reading is nonexistent. Memories have vanished and only the present is real.  Most words have been deleted from their lexicon and verbal expressions are garbled and disconnected at best.

Many of those with whom I relate no longer know their families and some have forgotten their own names. Several don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. None of my congregation at Bethany can claim to know or explain such orthodox theological affirmations as the Trinity, Incarnation, Justification, Salvation, Atonement, authority of Scripture, etc. Many have forgotten who God is!

Yet, I have never been among people who seem closer to God and more faithful in their discipleship than those who live at Bethany, the memory care facility where my beloved Linda now resides.  I remind them regularly that they are in the home of Mary and Martha where Jesus felt most at home. I suspect Jesus feels more at home at this Bethany than in many churches.

Dementia shifts the margins of orthodoxy from the intellect to the heart, from knowing to being. Neuro-cognitive impairment provides a different lens through which to view such core doctrines as Creation, Incarnation, Imago Dei, Salvation, Discipleship, Vocation, etc.

What does it mean to know God? What does it mean to “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” when the person doesn’t know who Jesus is? Can people who are unable to comprehend and/or recite the orthodox creeds be disciples, full members of the church?  Do people with dementia have a calling, a vocation?

Where do people with dementia fit into the mission statement of The United Methodist Church: “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”?  What is “right” and “wrong” behavior when the ability to make decisions has been lost? What would the local church look like if people with dementia really belonged?

These are among the questions I am raising as my understanding is shifting outside the margins of the abstract thinking. The people at Bethany know God, Jesus, and Church in ways that transcend cognition.

We have made cognition an idol if we assume that salvation is the product of our thinking. Some theologians have identified reason as “the image of God”, buying into Rene Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am.” That’s idolatry! That’s just plain wrong! The notion contributes to the dehumanizing and marginalizing of people with cognitive diseases.

At Bethany, the issues that occupy the contemporary church have little, if any, relevance. Arguments over who is orthodox and who isn’t, the definition of marriage, and which religion is right aren’t on their experiential radar. Those are abstractions, outside the margins of their existence!

What’s real are Love, Belonging, Dignity, Safety, Peace, Connection, and Presence that transcend the margins of intellect and language. The cognitively impaired know God, though they may no longer know about God!

The cognitively impaired are now my primary teachers! They are teaching me things I’ve not learned in books or from the intellectually astute. If we will enter their world, they just might save the church from its idolatrous notion that we are saved by our intellectually constructed doctrines and abstractions! We really are saved by GRACE!