Monday, December 12, 2022

To my Disaffiliating Friends: Don't Believe What You've Been Told

    I was stunned, then I just shuddered and sighed the other day when I read an email from a member of a disaffiliating Methodist church in another part of the country, hurling ferocious and false accusations at me for staying United Methodist. The surprise is that this is someone I know, who’s been in my church for worship, and even went to Israel with me 13 years ago.

   It began “We thought you were a believer who preached the word and accepted Jesus as the divine son of God. But after learning you’re still in the United Methodist Church, we are shocked that you now believe Scripture is not the Word of God.” It went on to express disdain that I don’t accept Christ as my Savior and that I deny there’s a Holy Spirit, and that I don’t have any moral standards – and on and on, at great length.

   I share this, and my response to this friend, because it is a witness to why some Methodist churches are being duped into disaffiliating – and it’s just plain wrong to hurl mud at fellow Christians period, much less for what is a fabrication. I replied, “You know me, a real live United Methodist pastor who from your own experience is deeply rooted in the Scriptures. Yet you’ve swallowed the misinformation and caricatures being spread by those who are recruiting churches to disaffiliate. You’ve concluded I’m not a believer, I don’t lift up Scripture as the Word of God, and I deny the divinity of Jesus. False, false, and false. The Holy Spirit does not guide Christians into bogus, malicious ideas about other Christians.” I might have added that I know hundreds of United Methodist pastors, and I can't name one of them who doesn't take Scripture as of God, or denies the divinity of Christ or that there's a Holy Spirit - or that there are no moral standards.

   Trying to be gentle but clear, I suggested that the only place such misinformation might have come to them was their own disaffiliating Methodist church. Even knowing me, the emailer didn’t ask what I believe or if I’d changed, but simply parroted what had been spoonfed – so all I can conclude is that this well-known disaffiliating church teaches a smug, judgmental way of behaving, which is not of God or any moral standard that qualifies as Christian.

   Near the end of my friend Ryan Danker’s very fine book, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism, he tells how in 1764, John Wesley wrote a letter to 40 or 50 clergymen, who were divided on issues, challenging those Methodists who were at odds with one another to “speak respectfully, honourably, kind of each other; defend each other’s character; speak all the good we can of each other.”

   So, if any disaffiliators are reading: stop the libel. Stop the falsehoods. Stop the misinformation. Stop the logical fallacy of finding some United Methodist somewhere who said something awry, and then inferring that, Aha, that’s United Methodism!

   And if you’re a United Methodist who’s sticking around, don’t get too smug either. Our sisters and brothers who are disaffiliating are more like us than we realize: operating out of hidden fears, we all rush to judgment against those who aren’t us. Wesley could be a harsh dude, but he was right on what God asks of us. We don’t assault one another’s character. We defend, we speak respectfully, always. And we always tell what really is the truth, and if we don't know, we just hush.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Pilgrimage to Turkey, September 2023

Join me as we return with yet another group to visit ancient Asia Minor, modern Turkey, the historic birthplace of worldwide Christianity! We’ll visit 6 UNESCO World Heritage sites, take in stunning landscapes and architectural wonders, and delight in Turkish food and culture.

September 17-29, 2023

Cost (as of today, could fluctuate a little due to flight variables): $4,200.

       $750 single supplement, and $545 for a 2 night extension in Istanbul.

           -- includes flights (US to Turkey, and short flights within Turkey), hotel, breakfast and dinner daily (almost), guide, driver, tips and taxes.

  Our guide will be Gülin Pazaroğlu, who has become a treasured friend to the Howells and others in our church family! She is an extraordinary guide and a great friend. You'll love her! 

  Our itinerary will be different from any other, beginning in the far east and heading west. We begin in:

  Antioch, the cradle of Christianity in Acts. We explore the ancient “cave church” of St. Peter, and other biblical era remains, staying at the Museum Hotel. Then on to:

  Tarsus, the birthplace of Paul, and Seleucia, the port where Paul and Barnabas sailed on mission. Then to:

  Urfa (ancient Edessa, the cultural center of early Christianity), taking time to visit Gobekli-Tepe, Zeugma and Gaziantep, among the most astonishing archeaological finds ever, rewriting all we’ve known about the early history of humanity. Then on to:

  Cappadocia, the geological wonderland, with cave churches; the home of the Cappadocian Fathers, the wisest of early Christianity’s leaders. We’ll stay at Cappadocia Estates, an unforgettable venue. After a stop in picturesque Aphrodisias, one of ancient Rome’s grandest cities, we’ll make our way to:

  Pamukkale, the visually stunning calcite deposits, with the healing waters of thermal baths, right next door to Hierapolis and Laodicea, excavated cities once visited by Paul, and recipients of the Book of Revelation.. We’ll stay at the lovely Doga Thermal Hotel. Then, with a stop at Sardis (another of the “7 cities of Revelation”), we’ll get to:

  Ephesus, the crown jewel of Turkey, where Paul preached and was imprisoned, where John and Mary lived out their days, the site of one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis, and its famous library. Finally, we come to:

  Istanbul, ancient Constantinople, which replaced Rome as capital of the empire, the home base of the Church for centuries, literally littered with great churches and mosques. This will be a shorter than usual visit, just a day. For those who wish to see more, we offer a

 2 night extension, to see more and enjoy the city’s sites, the fabled market, and restaurants.

   *** To learn more or to apply to join this pilgrimage, email me at james@mpumc.org

 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Christ was born!... so Methodists could vote?

     This morning, I woke up remembering how often I’ve said “A virtue of Methodism is it’s not in our DNA to wake up in the morning and think ‘We’re right, and everybody else is wrong’ – and how within Methodism, we can disagree without killing each other, or getting a divorce.

    This recollection probably drifted into my head because last night, like so many nights in recent weeks, I went to bed grieving questions that had come my way about some Methodist church or another ramping up to a vote on whether to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church. When I hear this, I shudder, and try then to recall the humorous truth of a clergy friend of mine who will snap a photo of the crowd during an especially tedious, cantankerous and dull denominational meeting, and text it to me across the room with the caption, “Another unintended consequence of the resurrection.” I saw a Facebook photo of church I love holding hearings to help them decide. Not what Jesus had in mind.

    An unintended consequence of the resurrection? or since it's Christmas, of the incarnation? Jesus came so we could… vote? Zealously, I advocate voting – in the United States. In the church, it’s hard to imagine a more destructive activity. Quakers, and a great many other Christian bodies, don’t vote. They discern. And the kicker here is: United Methodists don’t have to vote. And shouldn’t vote. “Somebody told us we need to vote.” You don’t, and if they told you this, or recruited you, they are well-meaning, but misguided. If your church is gearing up for a vote, you can and should back up, take a deep breath, and not forge forward into what will inevitably be a church division – the worst conceivable witness to a skeptical world, not what Jesus had in mind when he came into Mary’s womb or went to the cross.

    An analogy: Lisa and I have stayed married for 36 years. What if, for Christmas, we entertained speakers on the virtues of divorce (“I finally found the love of my life,” “No more socks on the floor”) vs. staying married (“He’s getting creaky but he’s a dear”) – and then we took a vote on whether to aim for 37 years. Thankfully, we don’t have to vote. We have disagreed with one another on a great many issues (as has our church) all along. What I find, with her, is that when it gets tense and I am sure I am right, I quite often am wrong. Being right is way overrated anyhow. As best I can tell, it only hurts the other person, and puffs up my ego.

    Some say to me “We have to draw a line!” Did Jesus say this? Here’s maybe the single most important reason not to vote to disaffiliate: at the 2008 General Conference, I spoke from the floor and said "We have for decades declared that ‘We do not condone the practice of homosexuality.’ This has not prevented one person from being gay. It has, though, alienated tens of thousands not just from our church but from any church." Want to talk about an unintended consequence of the resurrection or incarnation? The question isn’t Who’s right? but, as in my marriage, Who’s hurt? I meet them all the time: people who used to go to church, don’t and won’t now, and the first or second reason they give is because the church is judgmental, and specifically because they judge and exclude gays.

    Those who lobby churches to disaffiliate argue “It’s not about LGBTQ inclusion.” I’ve been wrong in saying they are wrong. I’ve been right, in that Methodists have strongly disagreed and stayed together over dozens of huge issues – but it’s this one that has created congregational votes. And yet, they are right. It’s about how to be the Body of Christ in this moment in history, when division is little more than a mirror image of what’s going on in our country politically. Instead of healing America, voting Methodists are letting themselves be ruined by America.

    On sabbatical several years ago, I found myself in a pub, sitting next to a guy. I asked what he does in life. “I’m a shepherd.” This piqued my attention, so I quizzed him about shepherding, including this question: “Why are there always sheep and goats, never just sheep, never just goats.” He glanced upward as he stroked his beard and said “We just find that they do better together.” That’s United Methodism; we're better together. Instead of a smattering of broken-in-half churches all over this country, none thriving while all claim they are right, if we simply don’t vote, and stay with the one who brought us to the point, we can still be better together – an intended consequence of the resurrection and, since it’s Christmas, the incarnation.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Hope: Saving 1 Life. A sermon preached in Krakow, Sept. 25, 2022

   Watch here. Text below.

    Jeremiah 32, beginning with verse 1. The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar.  At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the guard which was in the palace of the king of Judah.  Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: Behold, Hanamel your uncle will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field which is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’  Then Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Buy my field which is at Anathoth.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.  And I bought the field, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver.  I signed the deed, sealed it, and got witnesses.  Then I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch, in the presence of all the Jews who were sitting in the court of the guard.  I charged Baruch in their presence, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware vessel, that they may last for a long time.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.’”

    Jeremiah. We know him as God’s great prophet during the darkest days of the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar and the mighty Babylonian army, destroying cities and killing the Israelites. But during his lifetime, the Israelites mocked him, laughed at him, and tried to ignore him. Nothing was more laughable than his one and only business deal, purchasing a little tract of land in the small town of Anathoth, on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

   Jeremiah had grown up in Anathoth. When I was a little boy, my family lived in Savannah, Georgia. My favorite place was an old brick structure on a little spit of land sticking out into the Atlantic Ocean called Fort Pulaski. And my school was called Casimir Pulaski Elementary School. Pulaski, you may know, was born in Warsaw. He fought for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against – yes – the Russians. Then he came to America and fought against the British, until he was shot and killed in my hometown, Savannah.

   In a way, Pulaski was a failure. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fell. The battles in which he fought were losses. In America he had a few successes, but he died, only 34 years old, far from home. He had never married or had children. When he drew his last breath, he did not know if the war would be won or not.

   What is God asking of us? To succeed? To win? To see the fruit of our labors? No. God asks us to have some courage. God asks us to love. God asks us to hope. Hope isn’t some naïve belief that tomorrow ill be a better day. Hope is prepared is tomorrow is worse than today. Hope depends on God’s future. Vaclav Havel, when he was President of Czechoslovakia, said Hope is the ability to work for something simply because it is right, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not.

   In America, 70 years ago now, a Christian farmer named Clarence Jordan read his Bible and thought he was supposed to do what it said. So he created a commune where white and black people lived and worked together – in rural Georgia in the 1950’s. He got kicked out of his church, and the Ku Klux Klan (a racist terrorist organization) burned all of the crops just as it was time for the harvest. A news reporter stood in the burned out field with Jordan and said to him, “You have failed! What will you do now?” Jordan replied, “We’ll plant again. God doesn’t ask us to be successful. God asks us to be faithful.”

   About 800 kilometers from here is a small town in Lithuania called Birzai. Several times, I have visited there and stayed with my friend Regina. She grew up as an atheist, but then converted to Christianity as an adult. Her house is tiny, with no running water. I thought of her as poor. But one day she took me with her to the people she thinks of as poor, delivering food and medicine she could hardly afford for herself, praying with the poor, hugging them, reading to their children. The poor serving those poorer. I asked her, “Regina, why do you sacrifice what you really need for yourself for others?” She was puzzled by my question, saying “That’s just what Christians do, right?”

    Jeremiah purchased a field he couldn’t really afford, when no one was buying property, when its value would only drop lower and lower. He would get no return on his personal investment. It was a dramatic act of hope. His investment was in God’s future, not his own. He was revealing to skeptics that God was still God, that rough times were ahead, but in the end, God would reign. He was a man of tremendous hope. He didn’t need to see the return on his investment. But he knew it would come, someday, in God’s good time.

    The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said “Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime. Therefore, we are saved by hope.” To the world, hope looks like foolishness. What fool would purchase land during the Babylonian invasion? What fool would re-plant crops, knowing they probably would be burned down again? What fool poor person shares with poorer persons? The apostle Paul wrote about the “foolishness of the Gospel,” urging us to be “fools for Christ.” It’s God’s wisdom, this foolishness. It’s hope. It’s joy.

    Two things in closing. Jeremiah signed the deed and sealed it up in a jar – and we read about it, 2,500 years later, in a very different language, on the other side of the world. Jesus broke bread and shared wine with his disciples in a room in Jerusalem, and we have the audacity to believe we are there with him, with them, 2,000 years later, on the other side of the world. Next Sunday is, for us, World Communion Sunday. We are foolish enough to believe that, even though our group will be back in America, we will mysteriously and mystically be here, in this room with you at our Lord’s table. It’s a miracle. Skeptics may scoff. But we are one, across time and space. It’s God’s time and space. We are his Body, always together, separated only by miles and hours and language. We are One in the Spirit. Christ stretched his arms out to embrace you, and us, reaching around the globe, enveloping all of us in a love that cannot be crushed or lost. Foolishness to the world, but our good reason to hope.

   And then there’s this. Casimir Pulaski fought bravely, for a lost cause, and then for a winning cause he never witnessed. He probably saved several lives, but we know about one life he saved. At the Battle of Brandywine Creek in 1777 – which the Americans lost! – Pulaski saved the life of George Washington. If he had not saved that one life, America probably would have lost the war. America would not have had Washington as its first President. That one life mattered in ways Pulaski and the other Americans fleeing that battle just to survive could never have imagined. Jews often say that to save one life is to save the world.

    A few days after the Russians invaded Ukraine, I was talking with our Bishop here, Patrick Streiff. He reported to me that the Methodist churches in Poland were stepping up with great hospitality and courage to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Guests. Friends. He told me that a young woman got off a bus, walked into a Methodist church, and gave birth a few hours later. Everything we do, we together, the Body of Christ across this globe, our church and your church, really just one church in God’s heart, is about saving one life. That one child: who knows what that child will become? Maybe a future President of Ukraine. Maybe the one to bring peace to eastern Europe. Maybe a scientist discovering a cure for cancer. Maybe a pastor, or a parent. Maybe just a Christian, a faithful disciple of Jesus, another companion of Jesus, and my children and their children.

   I saw a woman wearing a t-shirt the other day that said “Hope addict.” We are hooked on hope. We invest in God’s future. We will be faithful. It’s just what Christians do. It includes all of us, and is bigger than us. It’s as big as just one child, like the Christ child himself, God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Young Karl Barth Preaching, Offending and Reassessing

     I laughed out loud a few times while reading Christiane Tietz’s wonderful new biography of Karl Barth. Once was during her recounting of his first pastorate in Safenwil. Full of Gospel zeal, he encountered (for the first time in his life) real people with profound social and economic troubles. His sermons began to veer toward what some regarded as “political,” and he was deemed by quite a few to be “socialist.” The common folk cheered all he had to say.

   But not Walter Hüssy, the grown son of the local factory owners who had financially paid for the bulk of the church building’s construction a few years earlier. He penned an open letter to Barth, published in the town newspaper: “Barth’s agitating speech was an attempt to sow discord between employers and employees. The owners after all are those who pull the cart, and need some elbow room.”

   Barth replied, in the same newspaper: “My honored sir, may I loan or give you a few good books where you can teach yourself some things? You address me in my role as pastor, that I should have a mediating effect. That would suit you! With your permission however, as pastor I set myself a different program, over which I owe no accounting to you. You may be older than I, but nonetheless you are still young enough to develop better insights. I sincerely wish you that.”

   The following Sunday, the church was packed beyond capacity! The slugfest was all the talk of Safenwil. The paper published an anonymous column entitled “The Red Danger in Safenwil,” noting Barth’s subversive agitation, and stating uncertainty whether he was really a good Christian or not. The Hüssys promptly departed the church – with their large donations.

   His professor of theology in Basel, Paul Wernle, corresponded with him, leading him to rethink not the content but the tone of his remarks. Wernle suggested he’d answered “crudeness with crudeness and rudeness with rudeness.” Pondering this, Barth admitted “When I read Hüssy’s attack, I didn’t feel any personal offense, but a desire to fight: take up the sword of the Lord and Gideon! I didn’t intend anything but to run down an enemy of a good cause. But now, fourteen days later, as the smoke has cleared, I must acknowledge that I behaved in an Old Testament-like fashion. My gesture appears less heroic now, and I can sense all the egocentric aspects that contributed to it.”

   He resolved to do better next time. On this, he never made significant progress. Preaching five years later, he asked out loud if Safenwil didn’t need a different pastor, “a pastor from whose sermons the love of God emanates with such power that you have to feel it, that you are moved. I apparently am not able to speak to you in such a way, because apparently in myself there is something very deeply not in order with God.”

   I am moved by these words, and hope they were genuine. Barth, I believe, trusted so firmly in the power of the Word to effect change that, when he observed a listlessness, a lack of response in his people and the town, he looked within seeking an explanation.

   Soon thereafter, he grew more acerbic: “You wish for me to be a false prophet, the pastor who pleases the people. To have a pastor in this village means to have eternal unrest in the village, a person who in the most uncomfortable way will continually question everything and give unexpected replies to all questions.”

   And so, also mortified by theologians who could curtsy to the German war efforts, he wrote his Epistle to the Romans, called by theologian Karl Adam “a bomb on the playground of the theologians.” A new congregation gathered around him: countless young theologians and pastors around the world breathing in his fresh new life. And his pastoring in a small village days were over. Should we say … thankfully?

   For all of us screwing up the courage to say what we need to say, and searching for the right tone, in some little church somewhere, we want what is within us to be "in right order," and we want to speak truly - even if they do not ask or pay us to stir up eternal unrest. For me, noticing a titan like Karl Barth walked this same difficult road, is encouraging.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

A Message for the Church on Election Day


   A reminder or 2 to people of faith on Election Day. God is still God, and will be tomorrow. Political ideology is our idolatry - on both sides! and both are fake gods that can't deliver. Elections and policies matter, but Church does not equal country, never has, never will. The Church's work does not change today.

   The most important day in history isn't today; it was Good Friday, which N.T. Wright calls The Day the Revolution Began. Our task is God's agenda, which sometimes looks conservative, sometimes liberal, always carried out in humility, compassion and determination.

   Pray: not for your guy to win, since that won't usher in the kingdom of God, and if your guy loses, God is still God and the Church has loads of work to do. Pray for your soul, for the soul of the nation, for the world, and for the Church to be the Church. Ephesians 5:1 says "Be imitators of God," the God who has grieved throughout history over far worse than we're dealing with. How do we imitate God?

    Thomas à Kempis, on the heels of a pandemic that killed one-third of Europe, and during brutal political wars in the 15th century, wrote The Imitation of Christ, which includes this: "Lord in what can I trust in this life? And what is my greatest comfort on earth? Is it not yourself, O Lord my God, whose mercy is limitless? Have I ever prospered without you? Did I ever suffer ill when you were at hand? I would rather be poor for your sake than rich without you. I would choose to be a wanderer on earth with you than to possess heaven without you. For where you are, there is heaven; where you are not, there is hell. You are my sole desire. For you I sigh, pray and cry. I cannot put my trust in any mortal to afford me help sufficient for my needs, but in you alone, O my God. You are my hope, my trust, my strength, most faithful in all things.”

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Complicated, Infrequent, Maddening: Reflecting on my Dad's Life and Death

   Sigmund Freud said that the most important day in a man’s life is the day his father dies. If so, that day for me was Wednesday, July 15. My dad turned 95 on March 5, when we last had a good long visit together. On Father’s Day he suffered a stroke, and spiraled down from there. I got to see him briefly, given Covid restrictions, 6 days before he passed.

   Let me work through my thoughts and emotions in front of you now. Helps me, as a writer, to do so in this way – and I suspect my experience of people’s sympathy might help all of us moving forward. With loving intentions, we speak words of comfort to one another. I understand well that when we do so, we inject, we transfer our own feelings about our own family into the stories of others. Surely they feel as I did or would. Comforting words are all comforting, but then at the same time some aren’t so comforting, or aren’t connected to reality, feeling like little pin pricks to fend off. I don’t fault any of the hundreds of people who’ve reached out to me. I am humbled, and so very grateful. I feel loved. My story with my dad probably explains why I need that – but then why everybody else does too.

   My dad, Cecil Artus Howell (known as “Jack” as a young man and in old age) and I had a complicated, infrequent, and maddening relationship. Grieving might just be harder, or at least very different, when this is the case. And I know (given my work!) that our relationship, while unique, was hardly that unusual. I suspect that’s why Jesus stored up his best energy and imagination for that story about the wonderful father who threw a party for his lost son – as if Jesus knew some of us who have a hollow or painful place where “father” is supposed to be would desperately need to know that God is our father and is like that father, instead of like our own fathers.

   Positives: my dad was raised in a warm, hard-working, pious Baptist family in Oakboro, a little town in Stanly County about an hour from Charlotte. Growing up, I spent much time there with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It was heavenly, like a womb of compassion and joy. I wonder if God grants some of us an experience of such an “other” place so we will know to long for and even expect that beyond this life there really is a “better place.”

   My dad’s family endured the Great Depression. Tough people - and, like many Depression survivors, always a bit fearful you might run out of money one day. He never went to a day of college, and covered this fact up deftly throughout life, which is not easy. As a mechanical engineer producing nuclear fuel at Westinghouse in his second career, he hired and supervised college- and graduate school-trained people. He always knew he knew more than they did. He could fix or build anything, diagnose what was awry in any machine and make it all good. He changed the oil in his car into his nineties and did his own plumbing, not because he was cheap (which he was), but because he wanted to be sure it was done right.

   As part of that “greatest generation,” he left the small Oakboro school after grade 11 and joined the Army Air Corps. Flew in World War II, the Berlin Air Lift, and briefly into Vietnam. He did what Sarah Palin claimed to do: stationed in Alaska, he and other flyers kept an eye on the Russians, back in the 50's. Like most World War II veterans I’ve known, he was humble about it (even about being shot down over Europe), with no trace of rah-rah patriotism.

   I was born on Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, where we lived until I was 8. My dad earned stripes, and taught me to march and shine my shoes (which were duly inspected every Saturday evening). In 1964, he retired with full benefits, moved us back to North Carolina briefly, then landed his job with Westinghouse in Columbia, SC, where he worked until retirement – which he flunked twice, returning to work after a few weeks of realizing he didn’t have much else to do.

   Having come to adolescence during the Depression, money mattered in a big way to my dad. He was frugal with what he earned, and invested aggressively and smartly in the stock market. After retirement, he became a day trader, watching the ups and downs of stocks all day, every day. If I called and said How are you doing? his answer indicated if the market was up or down. Into his 90’s, he bore that stress all day, every day. His knowledge of corporate America was astonishing. For an uneducated guy with zero family money, he made a lot, and was proud of it. And cheap. I always paid for dinner; he put up no fight at all.

   Now to the harder aspects of things. My dad was, somewhere deep inside, a tender, loving soul. His family was that way. It would peek out now and then. But mostly I experienced him as distant, cold, critical. He never said things like I love you. When he died, many Facebook comments said “I know he was so proud of you.” But this was not something he ever said, to me or anybody else about me. I read the words, and feel a slight jolt of wishing he had been. He was sharply dismissive of my going into the ministry, thinking this was a “waste” of my life. He abounded with criticism. My clothes, my car, my inability to fix a car, my friends. Nothing suited. 

   He was distant: when he was in the Air Force, his work took him away for weeks, even months at a time. When he returned home, he gave great hugs. But then he was gone again. In adult life, he just was distant. His telephone evidently was a one-way contraption. It could receive my calls, but it seemed incapable of calling me. He never ever in calls or visits asked things like How are you doing? How are your children? How is your work? I’ve wondered if he had some kind of narcissistic disorder. Intriguing to diagnose maybe, but not a happy circumstance when it’s your father who’s the narcissist. He very rarely saw my children. I don’t believe he saw my son, his only grandson, until he was nearly 3. He never came to a ballgame or a ballet recital. He rarely remembered anybody’s birthday. He never volunteered. He never made a donation to a non-profit or church.

   I don’t blame him all that much, oddly. He married my mother, and they waged a long, dispiriting, bloody war with one another (like so many marriages, although people cloak this fact and pretend otherwise). Shouting, throwing things, physical battle, stomping out in a rage: this was my home life. It is a gross understatement to say my mother was a prickly, difficult person. Yet he loved her. A touching moment, very late in his life: after he was mired in the nursing home, with no visits allowed due to Covid, I began printing out and mailing him old photos every day – from his teenage and early military years, of his siblings, his parents, his flying buddies. He loved this! I found photos of his wedding to my mother. After hesitating, I sent them anyhow. He phoned me: his phone actually was a 2-way phone! and spoke tenderly of how beautiful she was, how much he had loved her, how he wished he could have made it work.

   But it didn’t work, and their battlefield was littered with the debris that was my childhood, and my sister’s. I remember telling him I was going to college. He seemed puzzled, and tried briefly to dissuade me, suggesting I get a job and support myself. Mind you, he didn’t support me. I worked my own way through school, and with no regrets at all. About that time, he reconnected with an old flame, Bonnie, the deep love of his life. An ugly divorce case ensued – but then he was free from my mother. He and Bonnie spent every waking minute together. In their 30 years of marriage, they spent one night apart. But she was icy, didn’t want to be around my dad’s kids, or my kids.

   And so I don’t blame him so much. Yet, people say “Enjoy your happy memories!” I can recall a handful from childhood. His hugs when returning home. Playing catch a few times. He came to a couple of my football games in high school. But in my entire adult life, it would be hard to point to some moment and say Aha, now that was a happy memory. Naturally, I blame myself too often about this. What could I have done to make things different? I tried. But maybe I was too proud? Did I get this trait from him, along with a tenacious work ethic and a resilient stubbornness?

   I was impressed at times by my dad. His third wife, Lorraine, began to suffer from Alzheimer’s shortly after their marriage. I watched him visit her in the nursing home, when she showed no flash of recognition – and he held her hand, kissed her, spoke tender words of love to her, combed her hair, every day. That is a memory that makes me happy.

   People have said many religious things to me since he died. “He’s with God,” or “You’ll be together in heaven,” or whatever. I most certainly hope so. Yet he not only thought it was a waste of my life to be a pastor. He seemed to believe church was a waste of time. He never said so, but then he never attended. Well, he came to my wedding in a church, and to one of my three children’s baptisms in a church, to an occasional family funeral, and even to worship at Myers Park Church a couple of times, clearly dragged there by Lorraine before her dementia set in. I did ask him late in life if he ever prayed. He laughed, and then growled, “Yeah, I pray for my stocks to go up.”

   So if you believe my dad is in heaven, now, you have to have a pretty expansive theology of who goes to heaven. I have space in my theological mind for people like my dad who don’t go to church, who don’t pray, who don’t believe, who don’t make the slightest effort to follow Jesus, who don’t do anything for anybody else, to be with God forever. I’ve been stridently criticized by church people over many years for writing and thinking such thoughts. Yet I know I am in good company with many of our greatest theologians and church leaders, from Origen to C.S. Lewis to Karl Barth. If you prefer to think of him in eternal perdition, I pity you. I believe he is with God, not because he was my dad, but because of what we know about the heart of God. Fortunately, God has liberated us from having to know or decide on such things. Ours is, of course, to hope.

   I suspect Freud was right in some ways I cannot fathom just now. Since my dad died, I’ve been in a funk. No tears. At least not yet. But a numbness. I’ve not been answering the phone, even when called by my dearest friends. I don’t really have words I can attach to this mood, the drumbeat of feelings that aren’t the usual kind of grief. I’m not mad, or resentful. Even his impassioned admonition to me as a 20 year old who had just announced I was going into the ministry, “You only have one life; don’t waste it,” I still welcome as giving me the laser focus I needed for why I would do such a thing. I think I’m just sad. Maybe. I’m not fond of could’ves or should’ves. My father died. Period. A complicated life. Like everyone’s, I suppose. With lasting impacts on others. Like everyone’s. He was my father. I favor him. He's tangled deep in my soul. Always will be. 

   Thank you, thank you, thank you to every person who has reached out to me. You’ve buoyed me up and encouraged me. I think of the times I have most likely assumed things about relationships that were off kilter, maybe a little hurtful. I hope they too were well-received as bumbling but sincere expressions of love and care. Let’s never assume though. Let us never say I know how you feel. If you ask How do you feel? you might get an earful, like this blog. Or the person might do the best she can muster in the moment, which is to say Fine. We are. And we will be. Mostly likely, and hopefully, forever, if God our Father’s love is as all-encompassing and tender as we dream it surely must be.