Where Does God Dwell?

The Sacrament of Summer Days

220px-2009-0619-BayView-CottagesWe spent the past week at  Bay View, Michigan.  It’s a summer community on Lake Michigan that started as a Methodist camp meeting in 1875.  Later it joined the Chautauqua movement, providing a summer program of religious, cultural and educational activities that continues to this day.  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places because of its perfectly-preserved Victorian “cottages.”  (Don’t let that word fool you; most of them are actually large houses.)

I had the privilege of preaching and lecturing during the last week of their 141st season. The cool breezes gave hints of autumn which is definitely on the way…up north, at least.  Many  residents have left.  Some of the cottages were already closed for the winter ahead.  By the end of October the community will be entirely shut down until next spring.

In the final lecture, I shared a beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson which captures the feeling of “Indian Summer,” those last fleeting days of warmth before the coming of autumn.

These are the days when Birds come back
A very few—a Bird or two
To take a backward look

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophistries of June
A blue and gold mistake

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf

Oh Sacrament of summer days
Oh Last Communion in the Haze
Permit a child to join

Thy sacred emblems to partake
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

Where Does God Dwell

Sunday’s sermon included Psalm 84.  It opens with these beautiful words:

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord of heavenly forces!
My very being longs, even yearns,
for the Lord’s courtyards…
Yes, the sparrow too has found a home there;
the swallow has found herself a nest
where she can lay her young beside your altars.

I said that it’s hard to imagine a lovelier dwelling place than Bay View. Who wouldn’t want to be like a sparrow and find a home in such a lovely place away from the ugly, noisy, messy, conflicted, painful world out there? Who wouldn’t like to hide away in the idyllic memory of a mythical past? Who wouldn’t wish that the rest of the world might be just as lovely a dwelling place as this historic community?  Who might not wish that we could make the world like this again?

But the writer goes on:

Those who put their strength in you are truly happy;
pilgrimage is in their hearts.
As they pass through the Baca Valley,
they make it a spring of water…
They go from strength to strength,
until they see the supreme God in Zion.

There’s scholarly debate about whether the “Baca Valley” was a literal place, some dry, barren desert. Or whether it is a symbolic place. Some translations call it “the Valley of Tears.” Either way, most of us have been there. We know what it’s like to be in a dry, barren place. We know how it feels to walk through the Valley of Tears.

But people of biblical faith always have “pilgrimage in their hearts.” They carry God’s “dwelling place” with them.  As they walk through the dry, barren, pain-soaked valley of tears, they transform it into a place of springs. Assured of God’s presence, they go from strength to strength until they see the fulfillment of their hope in Zion.

I suggested that as these modern Methodists come to the end of their summer in a lovely place and pack up to go back into the sometimes ugly, messy, conflicted places from which they came, they get to choose.

Is God’s dwelling place at Bay View?
Or does God dwell in the place where we live and work the rest of the year?
Does God only dwell in an idyllic past?
Or does God’s presence give strength for the present and hope for the future?

Even we Floridians, for whom autumn is something we read about in poetry, need the assurance that God’s dwelling place is wherever we are.

May we find the dwelling place of God in our Baca Valley.
May we find God’s strength in our Valley of Tears.
May we know the presence of God in the sometimes ugly, messy, confusing conflicted places where spend the winter of our lives.
And may we be people of faith who travel with pilgrimage in our hearts, so that as we walk through the dry, barren places of this world, we will make it a spring of living water that brings life to others.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

What Donald and I Have in Common


“You Have Sacrificed Nothing” 

I finally found one thing that Donald Trump and I have in common.

In the eloquent words of Khizr Khan, Donald Trump and I “have sacrificed nothing” for this country.  (I’m sorry, Donald, but working hard to make lots of money is not generally considered to be a sacrifice.) The Khans earned the right to point this out on behalf of all the parents who have buried a child in the service of our nation.
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Mr. Trump and I both had deferments during the Viet Nam draft.  In 1968, I received a 4-D deferment because I was going to seminary to prepare for ministry, for which I’m both unashamed and grateful.  In addition to four college deferments, Trump got another one because he had bone spurs in his heels.

Neither of us made the sacrifices that some of our peers made by being drafted or enlisting to go to Viet Nam.

Nor did I make the sacrifice of others in my generation who protested against the war in Viet Nam.

Bob Lyon was the first Christian pacifist I’d ever met.  He was my New Testament Greek professor in seminary.  I’ve forgotten most of what he taught me about Greek, but I’ve never forgotten what he taught me about taking Jesus seriously in ways that have challenged and guided me ever since.  But I’ve never made any sacrifice for attempting to follow Jesus in the way of non-violence (except for the loss of some friends along the way).

Mr. and Mrs. Kahn reminded me of the unearned gifts enshrined in our Constitution that Donald Trump and I inherited from the generations who came before us. They are a legacy I want to pass on to my grandchildren and to the immigrants Emma Lazarus  described as “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Donald Trump and I have made no sacrifice for this nation.  The difference is that I  humbly acknowledge that fact and Trump either cannot or will not.

Trump’s behavior has demonstrated that he is apparently incapable of empathy for the pain of others, humility in the face of suffering, or the slightest bit of remorse for his self-aggrandizing arrogance. It continues to confirm his declaration that he never apologizes and never asks for forgiveness. 

Changing My Heart 

None of this comes as a surprise.  The surprise has been the way my heart has begun to change.

Diana Butler Bass is a leading scholar and writer on American Christianity.  Her recent reflection on Donald Trump challenged me, as a follower of Christ, to move from disgust through pity toward compassion.

My heart, my baptism vows, my sense of ethics compel me to respect the dignity of all human beings and to try, try, try to navigate my words regarding others with kindness…

And this is the best I can do: Donald Trump is a broken, wounded, person who seems painfully unaware of his own humanity, unfit for the office for which he is running, a violator of the American community, and one who does not know what truth is…The kindest thing we can do is tell Mr Trump as loudly and consistently as we can that we — the good people of the United States — reject him as a leader and that he needs to go home and examine his heart and rediscover his own soul.

God loves you, Mr Trump. And the hope and dream of that God is that when we find ourselves wrapped in the presence of ultimate love & mercy, that we treat others with equal grace and tenderness. This is the path to human maturity. Your money, your television show, your fame, and your quest for power mean nothing if you lack love.

I do not fear you. I pray for you. (https://www.facebook.com/Diana.Butler.Bass)  

The deepest thing Donald Trump and I have in common our common need of undeserved forgiveness and unearned grace.

The one whose wrongdoing is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered over, is truly happy!

When I kept quiet, my bones wore out;
    I was groaning all day long—
    every day, every night!—
because your hand was heavy upon me.

So I admitted my sin to you;
    I didn’t conceal my guilt.
    “I’ll confess my sins to the Lord, ” is what I said.
    Then you removed the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:1-5)

Although we have sacrificed nothing, the greatest sacrifice of all has been given for us.

This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him. This is love: it is not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other. (I John 4:9-11) 

For a multitude of reasons, I can never vote for Donald, but I can pray him.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kind of Leader We Need

What Kind of Leader Do We Really Need?

It goes without saying — though I will say it anyway! — that we are facing deep divisions in both our nation and (speaking as a United Methodist) in our church.  What kind of leaders do we need to show us the way forward?

I had never heard of William White, but he’s become a model for me of the kind of leaders we desperately need at this moment in history.

220px-William_White-Bishop_Episcopal_Church_USA-1795 (1)Born in Philadelphia in 1747, White was a priest in the Church of England. In spite of his ordination vow of loyalty to the King, he supported the Revolution and served as chaplain to the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1789.  He then served for ten years as the Chaplain of the Senate. He led in writing the constitution for the Episcopal Church in America and became its first Presiding Bishop.  One writer points to the way his “gifts of statesmanship and reconciling moderation” led the church through times of revolutionary upheaval and change.

I was drawn to White because of the collect in his memory that is included in the Episcopal calendar of daily prayers on July 17.

O Lord, in a time of turmoil and confusion you raised up your servant William White, and endowed him with wisdom, patience, and a reconciling temper, that he might lead your Church into ways of stability and peace; Hear our prayer, and give us wise and faithful leaders, that through their ministry your people may be blessed and your will be done; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Don’t miss those words: wisdom…patience…a reconciling temper…wise and faithful leaders. They became my persistent prayer for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference as it elected five new bishops for the United Methodist Church. They are my prayer as our Council of Bishops attempts to lead our denomination through this critically important time in our history. They are also my prayer as we continue to make our way through the noisy conflict of this Presidential election season.

A Time of Turmoil and Confusion

Like William White, we live in “a time of turmoil and confusion” in our church, nation and world. What kind of leaders do we really need to lead us through these revolutionary times “into ways of stability and peace”?

There’s always the temptation to go for the “strongman” who feeds on our fears and frustrations and promises to solve every problem by the sheer force of his personality and power.  We’re always tempted to deepen the polarization that separates us, to listen only to those who reinforce our preconceived assumptions, to demonize those who disagree with our chosen positions and to make every issue an “all or nothing” decision without being willing to search for the “common good.”

William White represented a very different kind of leadership.  His leadership was rooted in the wisdom that comes from broad learning; patience that looks at each decision in light of the long-term implications, not immediate gain; and faith that grows out of lifelong disciplines of biblical reflection and spiritual growth.  All of which resulted in a “reconciling temper” that brought people together who would otherwise have been driven apart.

For United Methodist readers, I commend James Howell’s recent blog Four Compelling Reasons Conservative and Progressive United Methodists Have to Stay Together as an example of that kind of leadership.

May God give us leaders in every area of our lives who lead with wisdom, patience and a reconciling temper, that together we might find ways to stability and peace.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Spacious Skies

Fireworks Under Cloudy Skies

The skies weren’t “spacious” over Washington last night.

A text from a friend who was watching the fireworks from a condo looking out over the Mall said, “The balcony was wet and the clouds were low but the show this year was hauntingly beautiful.”

PBS later confirmed that along with live shots of the cloud-covered Mall, they dubbed in recorded clips of crystal clear nights in the past.

It could be a metaphor for the way “the patriots’ dream” we celebrated yesterday sometimes seems like a beautiful vision that haunts our memories and hopes under the cloudy skies of our current political divisions. We can hope.

(Musical note: I love “The 1812 Overture” with its cannons, choirs and chimes! I also wonder if folks realize that we’ve borrowed it from Tchaikovsky, who wrote it to commemorate Russia’s defeat Napoleon’s invasion of his homeland. Perhaps our adaptation points to deep, common ties between often competing nations.)

For Spacious Skies

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The skies were spacious over Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when I was there as the teacher for the Dakotas’ Annual Conference a few weeks ago. The sun was peeking over the horizon when I made my way onto the running/biking/walking trail that winds its way along the outskirts of the city.

As a rare visitor to the Great Plains, I was in awe of the “spacious skies and amber waves of grain” that stretched out as far as I could see to the north and west of the city. A cool, early-morning breeze contradicted the blistering heat of coming day.

Making my way along the trail, I remembered the Psalmist’s words: “In tight circumstances I cried to the Lord; the Lord answered me with wide open spaces.” (Psalm 118:5 CEB)

That phrase — “wide open spaces” – also appears in 2 Samuel 22:20Psalm 18:19, Psalm 31:8, and Psalm 119:45.

Old Testament scholar and friend, Dan Johnson, confirmed that the Hebrew word, merhab means “vast expanse” or “broad domain.”  It refers to “Yahweh’s celestial abode,” in other words, “spacious skies.” It can also mean “salvation.”

The Spacious Skies of Salvation

Walking under spacious skies that morning, I realized again that being “saved” means that by God’s grace I am being released from the suffocating smallness of life turned in on itself (we call it “sin”) to live in the spacious greatness of God’s boundless life and love.

Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. (Romans 8:4-6 CEB)

I’m being set free from the “tight circumstances” of a rigid legalism that needs to squeeze everyone else into my narrow assumptions so that I can experience expansive receptivity to others.

I am being healed of the sin of selfishness to live into what Thomas Merton called “the infinite unselfishness of God.”

I am being saved from a life motivated by self-serving so that I can experience the self-giving life of Jesus Christ.

So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. (Romans 8:12)

In God’s love, I’m living toward a life “undimmed by human tears.”

In all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. (Romans 8:37-39)

Thanks be to God for the spacious skies of saving grace, unending love and relentless hope.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Words Won’t Work

Sometimes Words Don’t Work

A preacher’s job often involves trying to put words around experiences or ideas that are too big, too deep, too strong or too painful for words to describe.  Try as we must, there are times in all of our lives when human language cannot contain what we feel; times when words don’t work.

By God’s providence, the Florida Annual Conference  met in Orlando last week, the first time in living memory that we met there.  Still reeling from the attack at the Pulse nightclub, we prayed, sang, lit candles and reached out to support our pastors who serve the Orlando community, particularly those who have a history of welcome and support for LGBT men and women.  We affirmed a powerful statement from our Bishop and Cabinet.  First UMC of Orlando hosted an amazing Interfaith Prayer Service and St. Luke’s UMC (the church we birthed 37 years ago) became a center of hope and healing for folks in the Disney-Universal community.

And yet…words simply won’t work to carry the full weight of this tragedy and what it represents in our community and nation. The tragedy is only compounded by the inability of the Senate to approve reasonable gun control legislation that is support by 85-90% of the American people.

Groaning Prayer 

At times like these, I’m grateful for Paul’s promise that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  (Romans 8:26 NRSV)  J.B. Phillips’ paraphrase says “agonising longings which never find words.”

Perhaps providentially, one of the devotional guides I use in my personal prayer life quoted John Bunyan last week: “The best prayers have often more groans than words.”

I think the writer of the 77th Psalm might have been feeling that same loss for words.

I cry out loud to God—
    out loud to God so that he can hear me!
During the day when I’m in trouble I look for my Lord.
    At night my hands are still outstretched and don’t grow numb;
        my whole being refuses to be comforted.
I remember God and I moan.
    I complain, and my spirit grows tired.  (Psalm 77:1-3)

Relentless Hope 

But Paul doesn’t leave us speechless. The word that works when all other words fail is hope. 

We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.  (Romans 8:24-25)

Again, Bunyan wrote:  “Hope has a thick skin, and will endure many a blow.”

When CBS News asked my friend Tom McCloskey, the Lead Pastor at First UMC, Orlando, how he keeps believing that things will get better, Tom said, “My faith says that one day all will be equal.”

That’s hope with a thick skin. It’s hope that is grounded in the assurance that one day God’s kingdom will indeed come and God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

For the psalmist, that hope was rooted in remembering God’s work in the past.

But I will remember the Lord’s deeds;
    yes, I will remember your wondrous acts from times long past.
I will meditate on all your works;
    I will ponder your deeds.
God, your way is holiness!
    Who is as great a god as you, God?
You are the God who works wonders;
    you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples. (Psalm 77:11-14)

When other words won’t work, the word that works is hope.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

Please Don’t Call It “Senseless”

Was It Really “Senseless”?

Of all the words pundits are using to try to make sense of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the one that makes no sense to me is “senseless.”

If by “senseless” you mean “unconscious” as in “I was knocked senseless,” you may have a point. The sheer magnitude of the devastation, the reality of the blood and gore, the immensity of the pain, the depth of the sorrow can overwhelm our senses and leave us stunned, nearly incapable of any response other than tears.  Our assurance is that the Spirit prays within us with “agonizing longings which never find words.”  (Romans 8:26)

But if by “senseless” you mean “done for no reason, nonsensical, lacking sense or meaning,” I beg to differ. In its own diabolical way, this horrendous event makes perfect sense.  

The Recipe for Death 

We may not know everything, but know enough to name the primary ingredients that produce this deadly stew.  

  • Begin with a violent male (there has only been one woman involved in our recent history of mass killings) who, for whatever complex concoction of reasons, has a history of anger, resentment, spouse abuse, racism and hostility to gay men.
  • Add a dash of an apparent inner conflict with his own same-sex attraction.
  • Measure a spoonful of ISIS radicalism that turns home grown terrorists into martyrs.
  • Stir in a generous helping of the easy availability ammunition and guns.
  • Mix it together in an emotional pressure cooker flavored with virulent fear-mongering and boiling over with political rhetoric that gives voice to the worst prejudices, hatreds and fears that ferment in the basement of our culture.
  • Bring it to a boil with the assurance that the gun-lobby-owned cooks in the Congressional kitchen will do nothing to turn down the heat.
  • Serve it up in a place where it can do horrendous damage.
  • Call for prayers and moments of silence to honor the dead.
  • Prepare for it to happen again.

It just makes sense.

The Consistent Ingredient 

One thing that really is “senseless” — meaning “without sense or reason” — is why we do not deal with the one ingredient all of these mass shootings have in common, namely, some version of an “assault” rifle. (I realize that term is used loosely and that AR does not stand for “assault rifle,” but the AR-15 has been the weapon of choice in 13 of our recent mass shootings.)

It’s also senseless is that while 90% of the American people (87% of the Republicans) support background checks for gun purchases, every effort to implement them has been defeated in Congress.  But even that makes sense when you “follow the money.”

Let’s be clear: No one (including Hillary Clinton) intends to “abolish the second amendment,” regardless of how many times Trump says it.  But if we can reduce the number of deaths in car accidents by requiring seat belts and if we can reduce the deaths by lung cancer by banning smoking in public places, then why can’t we save at least a few lives with reasonable gun control?  (President Obama spoke eloquently to this in an NPR Town Hall.)

It just makes sense.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rise of the “Methodist Middle”

Surprised in Portland 

According to the New Testament book of Acts, surprising the Church is the Holy Spirit’s idea of a good time.

When the leaders of the early Church thought they had figured everything out or when they were at loggerheads and didn’t know where to turn, the Spirit would suddenly surprise them with a new way forward that they never expected.

My consistent prayer for our General Conference has been that the Spirit would once again surprise the Church by opening a new or unexpected way through the conflicting convictions about same-sex relations that have divided our denomination for four decades.  I described my hope for that surprise in an interview with  MinistryMatters. 

The Methodist Middle

The irony is that Methodists have historically been people of the via media, the “middle way.”  Not a mushy middle, but what Bishop Scott Jones calls “the extreme center.”  It’s a clearly defined core of faith that allows space around the circumference for a variety of convictions as to how the faith is lived out.

In Portland, I experienced the Holy Spirit surprising the church in what one friend described as “the rise of the Methodist middle.” Magrey deVega described it as the parents in the front seat telling the squabbling children in the back seat to calm down. My experience at General Conference is consistent with Adam Hamilton’s description of  “A Hopeful Way Forward”.

I was surprised…

  • When the General Conference voted to ask the Council of Bishops to lead us in finding a way to unity through our division;
  • When the Bishops offered a wise option for a Commission that would not simply kick the can down the road, but would offer a specific plan for a way through our division into a new way of being together;
  • When I observed that the current and successive Presidents of the Council of Bishops are very wise people with exceptional gifts for leading with a non-anxious, moderating presence;
  • When the GC finally adopted the Bishop’s proposal and held to it in spite of attempts by the folks on the extreme ends of the continuum to scuttle it.

My hope and prayer is that the Spirit will continue to surprise us by drawing together a Commission that will clearly define the center of our life together that will include grace-filled ways for those who find that center to be either too conservative or too progressive to find their way into other ways of ministry.

As I wrote this I remembered an 18th Century Anglican hymn says:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

I was surprised when I found it set to a new tune here, which only demonstrates that the Spirit still has surprises for all of us!

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portland, Poet & Pentecost

On the Oregon Trail 

I fly to Portland on Monday to look in on the UMC General Conference.  Having been a delegate to these quadrennial events every time since 1980, I’ve enjoyed looking in online this time without doing all the homework or enduring the sometimes endless debates over details of parliamentary procedure.  It will be good to visit with friends from around the world and to see how the Spirit is moving among “the people called Methodist.”

General Conference is an utterly-unique, globally-diverse, spiritually-uplifting, legislatively-tedious, linguistically-challenging, organizationally-dysfunctional and physically-exhausting experience in denominational life that could fit Winston Churchill’s description of democracy as being the worst form of government except for everything else. With all of its strengths and weaknesses, it’s a living body that represents who we are as a global church family.  Tom Berlin offered an accurate description of it in his blog.

The Poet of Pentecost 

Providentially, this Sunday mid-way through the Conference is Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended like flames of fire on the first disciples and the Church was born (Acts 2:1-21).  It’s worth hoping that just as people from all around the world were gathered in Jerusalem that day, that the global family gathered in Portland will once again experience the fire of the Spirit energizing us to passionately and powerfully fulfill our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The Pentecost story reminded me of these lines from T.S. Eliot.  They are worth reading several times.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

 Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

Both in the church and in the world, these are critical days to be reminded that we will be “consumed by either fire or fire.”

I take that to mean that we get to choose the fires of selfishness, anger, hostility, division, meanness, envy and greed, or the fire of the Holy Spirit which the New Testament defines as “love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:16-25) Our only hope lies in the choice “to be redeemed from fire by fire.”

May God’s people everywhere experience a fiery Pentecost.

Grace and peace,

Jim

Mom Is a Coal Miner’s Daughter

A Coal Miner’s Daughter

Like most coal miner’s daughters, my Mom was made of strong stuff. I guess she had to be.

Born in 1921, she and her five siblings grew up on a small farm in the hills of Western Pennsylvania in a frame house without indoor plumbing. (I remember when they put it in.) They really did walk a mile through the snow to the little one-room schoolhouse through sixth grade. After that, they road the “jitney” on the railroad tracks to get into Brookville for high school.

They walked a mile in the other direction to the little, white frame, one-room church where Mom first learned what it means to follow Christ.

Mom says they didn’t know they were poor, because everyone around them was just like they were. My grandfather worked in the coal mines and my grandmother canned vegetables from the garden to see them through the winter. My brother now weaves rugs on the century-old loom that they used. He does it as a hobby, but they did it to keep food on the table during the Depression.

Mom was always grateful for Mr. and Mrs. Davis who took her as a live-in housekeeper so she get through college and become a school teacher.

A Woman of “The Greatest Generation” 

Like so many women of her generation, she married Dad just before he and his brothers went off to war. Three of them came back. Jim, who by all accounts was the joy-bringer in a family infected by Germanic seriousness and burdened with hard work, was in a B-17 that was shot down over Holland. My brother visited there and saw where the farmers buried him until the war was over and they brought him home. My parents promised to name their first-born son (who happened to be me) in memory of him.

In ’47 she gave birth to the set of twins my Dad had predicted before he came home from the war. She still introduces me as “one of my twins.” Another brother arrived eight years later. All three of us would agree that being our Mom was just about the most important thing in her life.

If truth be told, there were times when her love smothered and over-protected us. But now that I’m a parent and grandparent, I am in awe of the way she loved us enough to let us go. I came to Florida, my twin brother went to Michigan, and our younger brother to California – all of which are about as far away from Western Pennsylvania as you can get. It had to be painful for her, but she wanted us to find the life we were called to live.

Her life wasn’t always easy. There was the fire that destroyed my father’s business, going back to teaching to put us through college, the cardiac surgery from which my Dad recovered and the cancer from which he didn’t. She was only 59 when he died, an age that seems younger to me every year. But the strength that was her birthright and the God in whom she trusted saw her through. She was determined to live on, and she did. Before she turned 90, she faced the death of two more husbands.

We celebrated her 95th birthday last week. She’s not as strong as she used to be. The legs that carried her to that one-room schoolhouse are immobile. The fingers that played hymns on the piano are gnarled. The voice that sang in church choirs is softer. Big chunks of her memory have faded away. thumb_IMG_2643_1024

Strength in What Remains 

What remains is the smile on her face, the strength of her love and the depth of her faith. We’ve never doubted her love for us, for our wives, our children and grandchildren. We’ve never questioned her faith in Christ. Her life of prayer continues to be her source of strength and a model for all of us. She loved us enough to let us go, and when the time comes, we pray that we will love her enough to let her go as well.

I’m grateful that years ago she made the plans for her death. She requested that at her memorial service we sing “Abide with Me” with that beautiful last verse:

Hold thou the cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I give thanks for this strong woman, for the indomitable strength of her love and for her unwavering faith in Christ. She has abided in Christ and Christ’s love abides in her (John 15:4-5).  That’s about as good as it gets.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

 

All This And Heaven, Too!

All This And Heaven, Too! 

When I arrived at Trinity Church, DeLand, Florida, in 1972 as the spiffy, new, fresh-out-of-seminary Associate Pastor, I heard people say good things about a former Senior Pastor named Jim Rowan who had left an indelible mark on the life of that congregation.  As time went by, I watched his joy-filled, faith-centered, thoughtful leadership in the Conference and in the churches he served. He was a leader among the “greatest generation” of Methodist preachers in Florida and a model for ministry for my generation.

Yesterday I attended his Memorial Service at First Church, Lakeland, where he served for eleven years and from which he retired in 1991.  He was ninety years old.

Jim’s daughter, Jana, whom I knew as a teenager at the youth camp, spoke for the family.  She talked about the way her father could find exuberant joy in little things, like boiled peanuts, fresh oranges, or new socks on Christmas morning.  His face would light up with his day-brightening smile and he’d say,  “All this and Heaven, too!”  Sometimes he would ask it as a rhetorical question of utter amazement over little things:  “All this?  And Heaven, too?”

Stumbling Toward Seventy 

Those words resonated with a passage I had just read in a book of essays by Marilyn Robinson, whose novel, Gilead, won the Pulitzer Prize.  In contrast to her novels, The Givenness of Things is heavy reading.  I often had to read a passage several times to let it sink it, but it was worth the effort.

She said something surprising happened as she turned seventy. That caught my attention because just having turned sixty-nine, I can see it on the horizon.  She described it as “some ticking upward of pleasure and intensity that is really not what I had been led to expect.”  

She said the things in which she takes pleasure have not changed, but “they are all refreshed.”  Then she wrote:

I know my life is drawing to an end.  The strangeness of life on earth first of all, and then of everything that takes my attention, is very moving to me now.  It feels freshly seen, like a morning that is exceptional only for the atmosphere it has of utter, unimpeachable newness, no matter how many times old Earth has tottered around the sun. 

I really expected to feel older than I feel right now.  Most of the time, I still feel like one of the youngest guys in the room, though I know the calendar (and the receding hair line) prove differently. Caring for my soon-to-be 95 year old mother is more than enough evidence of just how difficult the aging process can be. Old age isn’t for wimps!

But facing that reality, I’d also like to experience “some ticking upward of pleasure and intensity” in the things that continue to bring pleasure, laughter, love and grace into my life.  In stark contrast to all of the negative, divisive and mean-spirited stuff in our culture today, I’d like to be a little more like Marilyn Robinson, with eyes open to the “utter, unimpeachable newness” of each day.  I’d like to be more like Jim Rowan, always grateful for small pleasures, always aware that we are given, as an undeserved gift, all this and Heaven, too.

Grace and peace,

Jim