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!

 

 

 

Linda’s Birthday

Birthdays are occasions to declare that people are stories rather than symptoms; and sharing love is the abiding theme of our stories. In the sharing of love, our stories intersect with God’s Story.
Thank you, Linda, for your remarkable story of love! Being part of that story is the greatest joy of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

as Linda moves deeper into her dementia

An Unexpected Communion

It happened shortly after a visit last week from Karen, the hospice chaplain and friend who visits Linda regularly. We sat in the sunroom and listened to Linda as she mumbled  incoherently but keeping time with the music playing in the background.

As she always does, Karen ended her visit with a short prayer, calling Linda by name and asking Jesus to continue to be with her.

Shortly thereafter we returned Linda to her bed for her evening meal. As the caregiver, Arlene, slowly and gently placed the pureed food in Linda’s mouth, Linda slowly and clearly spoke these surprising words, “Have. . .  Communion. . . today.”

Arlene called to me to come from the kitchen where I was preparing Linda a dish of her favorite dessert, ice cream. She told me what Linda had just said. I asked if she wanted to have Communion. But, by this time, her thinking had moved on and her speech returned to scrambled words.

I ran to get grape juice and wafer which I keep on hand. By the time I returned, Linda was sound asleep.

Early the following morning before the caregiver arrived, I gave Linda her morning medication. She seemed especially alert, looking intently at me as I smiled and said, “I love you!”

I asked, “Linda, would you like Communion?” No visible response, only calm silence. I retrieved the chalice with grape juice and wafers.

Standing beside her bed, I sang “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace.” Then I recited Psalm 23 and parts of Romans 8. She remained in uncharacteristic silence, even reverence. I prayed the Words of Institution from memory.

“We are remembering Jesus. He loves us and is with us now,” I said as I dipped the wafer in the cup and placed it on her tongue.

A slight smile and a glimmer of peace appeared on her face. “Thank you, Jesus, for loving us and being with us,” I prayed as I peered through my tear-stained eyes. She quickly drifted into a serene sleep.

It was a holy, transcendent moment of keep connection with God, one another, and “the great cloud of witnesses.”

The experience confirms the mystery of the Sacrament as well as the puzzle of the human mind. I don’t know for sure what triggered Linda’s comment, “have Communion today,” but I suspect it was Karen’s presence and prayer.

I really don’t know if she understood any of my words as I recited Scripture and sang familiar hymns. I can’t comprehend what was happening in her world as I placed on her tongue the signs of Jesus’ self-emptying love.

This I do know: There was more going on than can be intellectually understood by either Linda or me.

Furthermore, the most important ministry is PRESENCE! The chaplain’s attentive presence likely kindled an embedded memory and a connection that cannot be broken by brain disease!

 

 

“She’s Been Loved to Life”

Clasping hands 2Linda entered Bethany, the memory care facility, in May 2015. It was a painful decision for us.  The subsequent eighteen months were the most excruciating I have experienced as she declined cognitively and physically.

By April 2016, she had lost 20 pounds and was becoming increasingly frail. After extensive medical evaluation, Linda was approved for hospice care.

She remained in Bethany for another six months. Confusion, fear, disorientation increased. She was gradually forgetting how to eat and walk. Her weight loss continued.

She was unable to perform minimal personal care, which made her ineligible for “assisted living.” She had to either be transferred to skilled nursing or taken home with full-time care.

I wanted her home! I asked the nurse practitioner for a prognosis of time remaining. Understandably, she was reluctant to project a time. But she said, “Perhaps six months to a year.”

It is now October 2018, thirty months since Linda was admitted to hospice care.  Although she can no longer walk and is confined to the bed and dependent for her personal care, she is more peaceful and less fearful.

“I would never have thought that she would still be with us!”  The nurse practitioner said with amazement during a recent visit.

As I stroked Linda’s hair and caressed her forehead, a pleasant smile and twinkle in the eyes appeared.

The usually stoic nurse said with evident emotion, “She’s been loved to life!”

Tearfully I responded. “We are determined to provide three things for her–physical and emotional safety, appropriate comfort, and the assurance that she is loved just as she is.”

“It’s obvious that she has all three. I just wish everybody could have what Linda has,” remarked the experienced and compassionate nurse.

I feel enormously blessed that Linda and I are both surrounded by love, and it is love that gives us life.

We are blessed with two daughters who love their mother with the unselfish love they received from her; and their families, including our grandchildren, share that love.

We have the help of caregivers to whom caring for Linda is a sacred vocation.

A couple from church bring a meal each Thursday, simply because they care.

A neighbor couple drop in almost every day to lend support.

I, too, wish everyone could have what we experience! Is that not what God desires for the human family–safety from unnecessary danger, comfort amid loss, and unconditional love and care?

We all need to be “loved to life!” Isn’t that why the church exists?

 

Splitting Asunder What God Joins Together—Truth and Love!

Aside

 

A battle rages within The United Methodist Church! It’s ostensibly between “Traditionalists” and “Progressives” over homosexuality, authority of Scripture, and adherence of doctrine. But I propose that the conflict may expose an underlying, festering heresy: the severing of truth and love.

“Traditionalists” seek to preserve the truth of the Bible and doctrine as contained in historic creeds and the Articles of Religion, and they call for enforced adherence to established norms.

“Progressives” advocate for continuing divine revelation and the prioritizing of love as the core of Christian doctrine, and they call for expanding the circle of inclusion.

The stage is set for the apocalyptic showdown at General Conference in February 2019. The weapons of inflammatory rhetoric, proof-texting, political strategizing, and either/or dichotomies have been mobilized.

It’s either truth OR love, doctrinal faithfulness OR cultural accommodation, biblical authority OR philosophical relativism, traditional marriage OR sexual sin, my way OR the highway!

Let’s be reminded that dialects are integral to the gospel as viewed through the Wesleyan tradition

  • faith AND works
  • knowledge AND piety
  • personal AND socialtruth-and-love
  • justification AND sanctification
  • doing no harm AND doing good
  • sin as person AND systemic
  • church as local AND Universal
  • doctrinal standards AND theological exploration
  • sound doctrine AND holy living
  • discipleship as belief AND practice
  • truth AND love

In the Bible and Christian tradition, truth and love are inseparable, integral to one another. They are conjoined twins, each giving life to the other. Either without the other is neither authentic truth nor Christian love. When they are severed, the gospel is truncated with calamitous consequences.

In the name of defending truth, people have been persecuted, jailed, banished, and killed; and countless people have been demonized, demeaned, marginalized, and ostracized.

In the name of love, people have engaged in all kinds of exploitative, degrading, dehumanizing behaviors and activities; and devastating personal and social evils have gone unchallenged.

Methodists have long struggled with the tension between maintaining sound doctrine and living Christlike love. John Wesley’s sermons, “On Schism” and “Catholic Spirit” document his own internal battle. He holds fast to the church’s doctrines grounded in Scripture and Tradition while giving priority to holiness as “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”

For Wesley, the truth of doctrine lies in the character produced in its adherents. Lives filled with the love of God and neighbor are the evidence of doctrinal truth, not biblical prooftexts or scholastic arguments. And the truthfulness of one’s love is how closely it resembles the self-emptying love (agape) of Christ.

“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is an often-used mantra in the academic world. The statement from John’s Gospel, however, has a condition attached to knowing the truth.

Here is the statement in context: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciple; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’”(8:31-32).

The truth that sets us free is not abstract formulation about Jesus. It is relationship with Jesus. In Jesus Christ, truth and love are perfectly and inextricably joined. Truth and love flow from relationship with the One in whom the two are one.

What does this mean for United Methodists searching for a way forward as a denomination. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer as to the best institutional configuration for the future.

But I am convinced that splitting into “traditional” and “progressive”, “conservative” and “liberal” is NOT the way to bear witness to the unity of truth and love. The dichotomy implied in those labels is false, a betrayal of the One who is Truth and Love. To form denominations around those labels would be to institutionalize heresy.

Truth and love are woefully lacking in our polarized, deceitful, and violent world. Untruth and hate are being normalized in the prevailing culture. Our social fabric is being ripped asunder. The common good is being trampled underfoot.

The witness of a community that embodies truth AND love is sorely needed. The church can’t be that witness by splitting asunder what God joined together in Jesus the Christ.

We need “a come to Jesus” meeting and declare to the world that Truth and Love are inseparable in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we can together find our way to truthfully love and love truthfully.

Early Morning Prayer

Sovereign and ever-present God, whose love is steadfast, whose truth is inexhaustible, whose beauty is boundless, and whose goodness is without blemish: You have called us into a new day filled with occasions to share love, to explore truth, to delight in beauty, and to embody goodness. Open us to your redeeming presence so that your love, truth, beauty, and goodness will flow freely and untarnished through us. May we not restrict the flow of your love with hate and malice. May our narrowness of mind not confine your infinite truth to our limited intellectual grasp. May our busyness and self-preoccupation not blind us to the inestimable beauty that surrounds us. And, may our sin and brokenness not distort the purity of your goodness. Through your grace enable us to be beacons of love, truth, beauty, and goodness in a world filled with hatred, deceitfulness, ugliness, and evil. We offer our prayer in the name of the One who is the incarnation of boundless love, infinite truth, limitless beauty, and perfect goodness–Jesus the Christ. Amen

When in Doubt, Love!

Wedding photo 2

Saturday, June 30, is our 57th wedding anniversary. It’s a bittersweet, reflective time!

Linda has reached the stage in her disease that she rarely acknowledges my presence. I’m not sure that she now knows who I am. After being married for 57 years, expressions of love and affection go largely unacknowledged.

Several times throughout the day, I stand or sit beside her bed, take her hand, caress her face and hair, and kiss her on the forehead or cheek. I feed her, brush her teeth, watch her sleep.

Often in the quiet of the early morning, I sit in silence beside her bed and wonder: Does it matter to her that I am here? Who am I to her now? What is going on in her mind? Why does my presence sometimes seem to agitate her? Why does she often say “quit” when she is touched?

Those are painful questions for which there are no clear answers. But I have come to this conclusion: When in doubt, love! I don’t always know how best to express that love, whether leaving her alone is sometimes the loving act. But withdrawing love is not an option.

It’s not because I promised 57 years ago that I would love her in “sickness and in health.” I don’t love her out of a sense of duty. Loving her brings joy, meaning, fulfillment to my own life. Neither do I consider her a “burden.” Just her being is a gift! I love her now as she is, as I loved her as the gorgeous and vibrant young woman I married.

There’s a mystery in all this! Linda continues to teach me a lot about life and what it means to love in this broken and confused/confusing world.

Political chaos, corruption in high and low places, mass shootings, normalized hate-filled rhetoric, disrespect for others, cruel separation of migrant children from families, scorn for the poor, widespread racism, arrogant nationalism, . . .! Feels like the nation has lost its mind!

And my own beloved denomination which I have served since my teenage years is tragically divided over homosexuality and threatens to split as we did over slavery in the nineteenth century. To do so, will damage our witness to God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ and simply mirror the brokenness in our nation. Feels like the church has lost its mission!

I don’t know the best way forward for our nation. Political parties have conflicting agendas and visions. Compromise and the common good are being sacrificed on the altar of personal power and partisan agendas. I know that we as citizens can’t withdraw from the process, even if we feel our vote and advocacy make no differences. Love demands that we stay engaged!

Neither do I know the best way forward for The United Methodist Church. Some caucus groups are drawing lines in the sand and maneuvering politically to win votes, all in the name of faithfulness to truth and doctrine. I realize that whatever is done will be rationalized as devotion to God and our Wesleyan tradition. But I think John Wesley had it right, “All schism is a failure to love!” At least, least us confess our failure to love!

I sometimes feel overwhelmed! Grief and loss are constant companions. So much is beyond my control. My life partner seldom knows me. The future looms ominous. Some problems seem unsolvable. The nation totters. The denomination falters. Doubts arise.

Yet, I am learning from a love honed over more than 57 years this practice: When in doubt, love!

So, I will continue to love Linda even if she doesn’t recognize me or acknowledge my presence.

I will stay engaged on behalf of justice, compassion, and hospitality in our land and love those whose political views are contrary to mine, even if it seems to make no visible difference.

And, I will continue to serve the church whatever institution emerges and whatever forms my service takes, even if I don’t see any results.

After all, love will win! God IS love! The pivotal victory has already been won in the Crucified and Risen Christ.

Amid personal suffering, political corruption and violence, and rigid religious threats, Jesus LOVED and prayed, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”

When in doubt, we will love as Christ loves us!

hands_11.4.2017

“Betrayed with a Kiss and a Sword”

Jesus asked the piercing question of the disciple-turned-conspirator: “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” (Luke 22:48)

Why a kiss? Would not a slap or pointed finger or clinched fist be more appropriate means of betraying Jesus into the hands of his opponents? But, no! Judas betrayed with a sign of affection!

Upon closer reflection, however, Jesus’ question is appropriate for all who claim allegiance to him. We rarely, if ever, hear expressed outright hatred or denunciation of Jesus. Yet, we all betray!

Most often our betrayal takes the form of declared affection for Jesus. Here are a few ways we betray Jesus with a kiss:

  • Singing “O How I Love Jesus” while hating those who are different
  • Declaring “Jesus Is Lord” while prioritizing partisan politics above the common good
  • Claiming Jesus’ forgiveness but holding grudges and seeking vengeance
  • Affirming love for God while despising neighbors near and far
  • Singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World” while failing to provide all children with access to education, medical care, safety and love
  • Proclaiming “God is Love” with anger in our voices and hate in our actions
  • Honoring him with our lips while our lives are far from him
  • Saying “Lord, Lord” and failing to do what he says, go where he goes, and welcome those whom he loves

Judas resides in all of us!  We, too, betray with a kiss!

But Judas wasn’t the only disloyal disciple present in the garden when Jesus was arrested. Luke tells us, “One of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear”(22:50).

Jesus responded resolutely, “No more of this!”

The kiss and the sword have much in common as forms of betrayal. History is replete with efforts to violently defend Jesus.

The Crusades were fought in name of loyalty to Jesus. Scientists were burned at the stake under the guise of protecting religious doctrine. Preachers used the Bible to promote slavery! Klansmen terrorized and murdered with burning crosses and prayers of devotion to Jesus. The Bible has been used as a sword of discrimination against women.

Defending Jesus with physical, verbal, and emotional swords is a pervasive means of betrayal. Could these be subtle contemporary examples of betrayal with swords?

  • Using Scripture as a weapon for exclusion, hatred, and discrimination
  • Promoting hatred of Muslims, immigrants, gays, and others in the name of defending the Christian faith
  • Applauding the Sermon on the Mount while defending possession of assault weapons as a “God-given right”
  • Proclaiming God’s preferential presence in “the least of these” while advocating public policies that damage the poor, vulnerable, and powerless
  • Increasing spending for weapons of war while decreasing support for education, healthcare, housing, and food for the under resourced

But the final word in the Christian gospel isn’t betrayal! It’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In Matthew’s account of Judas’ betrayal, Jesus calls him “friend.” Judas’ kiss may have been betrayal, but Jesus’ response was one of steadfast love.

After admonishing the disciples against violence, Jesus healed the victim. The final word was/is healing, not violence.

From the cross, Jesus spoke the ultimate response to all forms of betrayal: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Whether betrayed with a kiss or a sword, Jesus forgives, reconciles, transforms.

Can Doctrines/Beliefs Become Idols?

Our Sunday School class had just concluded a session on idolatry. Martin Luther’s statement had launched our conversation: “Whatever your heart clings to and trusts in is your god.”

We defined idolatry as making ultimate that which is finite and intermediate, elevating the finite to the infinite; or mistaking symbols for the reality they point toward.

We proceeded to name values, practices, and realities that our hearts cling to and which shape our decisions, priorities, and character. You can imagine the “gods” named: consumerism, sports, politics, the media, success, productivity, etc.

After the class dismissed, a member approached with a question. “Can Christian doctrines and beliefs themselves be idols? Can creeds become more important than God?” Good questions!

If the answer is “yes”, the follow-up question is when do creeds/beliefs become idols?

No doctrinal formulation or theological affirmation totally captures the essence and reality of God. The Infinite cannot be compressed to fit into the finite. The best our language can do is point toward God. There is always more to God than can be confined to human understanding and experience.

Therefore, creeds and beliefs become idols when no room is left for mystery and further theological exploration. If no questions remain, growth ceases and dogmatism becomes god. Airtight certainty that we know God fully means we have the wrong god.

When doctrines/beliefs are locked in rigid intellectual compartments with little or no impact on our character, actions, and relationships, they have become idolatrous.

Religious beliefs and affirmations can function similarly to the notion of life on other planets. Such life may exist but it has no impact on daily living.  That’s what John Wesley referred to as “practical atheism”— intellectually acknowledging the existence of God but the affirmation has no influence on behavior.

Doctrines/beliefs can become weapons of coercion, manipulation, and domination of others. In so doing, they become idols. The history of Christianity is replete with illustrations of such idolatry.

The Crusades were fought in the name of evangelism. Slavery was defended by idolatrous interpretations of Scripture. Women have been denied equality and subjected to abuse by religious doctrines/beliefs. Scientists have been burned at the stake in defense of an idolatrous doctrine of creation.

Persons of differing sexual orientations and identities have been treated with cruelty, violence, and rejection in the name of faithfulness to the Bible.

When doctrines and beliefs motivate hatred, disrespect, and violence toward others, those doctrines and beliefs are idols. Any belief that denies the inherent worth and dignity of every person as made in the image of God fails the test of true orthodoxy.

Here is the test of all Christian doctrine and belief: Does it promote love for God and neighbor? Any theological affirmation that promotes and motivates hate becomes a form of blasphemy against God made known in Jesus Christ.

The real test of doctrine is the character it produces in individuals and communities. Sound doctrine and strong character are integral to one another.

Christian doctrines and affirmations in the hands of persons with malformed character become distorted and dangerous. And doctrines/beliefs that sanction hate, superiority, and exploitation form persons and communities that hate, exclude, and exploit.

Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Julian, captures the essence of beliefs that become idols. Following a scene in which a violent argument breaks out over the doctrine of the Trinity, the author proclaims:

“Even a child could see the division between what the Galileans (i.e., Christians] say

they believe and what, in fact, they do believe, as demonstrated by their actions. A

religion of brotherhood and mildness which daily murders those who disagree with

its doctrines can only be thought hypocrite, or worse.”

Yes, doctrines and beliefs can become idols!? We would all do well to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1John 4:1).

What is the test? Do my doctrinal affirmations and beliefs form persons and communities in love, compassion, humility, hospitality, and justice?

That Which Endures

A friend whose wife died from Alzheimer’s disease said, “Living with dementia is like having a perpetual funeral.  Every day brings another loss until nothing remains but grief.”

I can relate to the feeling! Dementia diseases gradually strip away memories, ideas, decisions, mobility, initiative, bodily control, recognition of family and friends, and finally breath itself. Each loss triggers grief and the one you miss is sitting beside you. We lose them a brain cell at a time!

Of course, it isn’t just dementia that strips life from us. Everything passes away—our looks, our intellect, our abilities, our energy, our mobility, our health, our independence, our cherished relationships, our productivity, and finally life itself.

Is there anything that survives through all the losses? Is there a constant which holds us together amid perpetual change, persistent loss, and death’s finality? Or is grief all we have left?

Living and working among people with dementia has confirmed for me that one reality not only endures but actually thrives amid loss of cognitive and physical functioning. Dementia erases memories, strips away knowledge, garbles or mutes language, diminishes abilities, narrows relationships.

But this remains:     L    O    V    E          hands_11.4.2017

The Apostle Paul declared it more than twenty centuries ago: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end”(1Corinthians 13:8).

Love is not sentimentalism or warm fuzzy feelings.  It is entering the messiness, anguish, resistance, and hostility of the beloved with a non-anxious, gentle presence. It is action on behalf of the wellbeing of the other. Love is radical acceptance when behaviors feel unacceptable; compassion without expectations; continuing to care when the caring is not returned.

The expressions of love change, but the reality endures. I have known scores of people with one or more of the dementia diseases. I have yet to meet one who did not respond to being loved, even those in a comatose state. And even when the ability to express love is gone, love is generated with those who enter the person’s story.

Linda no longer comprehends the word “love.” Yet, she expresses and responds to love! Language now fails her; but gentle touch, brushing her hair, a smile assures her of value and worth. She can no longer feed herself, so slowly placing food in her mouth becomes a sacrament of love. Mobility is gone! Turning her in the bed or smoothly transporting her to a recliner become means of bearing her in the arms of compassion.

She no longer has control of bodily functions. Washing her and keeping her clean is an exercise in love’s humility and servanthood.  Her filters are gone and emotional control is lost. Being with her, absorbing her anger and frustration with non-anxious presence enfolds her in unconditional love.

The love is reciprocal. Linda’s expressions of love are rarely verbal. Occasionally, she will say “thank you” to a service rendered.  But her more typical expressions of love are these: a fleeting smile, reach for my hand, raising of an eyebrow, look of recognition in her eyes, calling my name or that of our daughters, growing calm with a caress of her face.

Love endures because love is God! The Scriptures clearly declare: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7).

Love is that which is ultimate and the most permanent reality in the universe! Everything else may pass away. LOVE is as permanent as God for God is Love!