Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the passing of a giant

I've just returned from Bishop Bob Morgan's funeral in Birmingham, AL. I can understand if his passing doesn't mean a lot to you, but it means a lot to me.

Bishop Morgan served a number of churches in Alabama before being elected as a Bishop of the United Methodist Church in 1984. In his 16 years of active service, he served in Mississippi and Kentucky. Before retiring in 2000, he served a term as the President of the World Council of Bishops.

I did not know Bishop Morgan until after he'd already retired. In 2000, he took a position at Birmingham-Southern College (my alma mater) as the Bishop-in-Residence. "The Bish," as we called him, taught a number of classes, helped connect the college and church, and served as a spiritual adviser and surrogate grandfather to students at the college.

I met the Bish near the end of my sophomore year. He was planning to lead a trip to Greece and Italy that coming January, to follow the footsteps of Paul. I had a friend already signed up, and I went to ask him if there was room for me.

There wasn't. Typically for the Bish, the trip filled up almost immediately. People flocked to his classes, not because they were easy (they weren't), but because of the Bishop himself. I've never met a more grounded, kind, self-giving person in all my life.

Rather than sending me away, however, he spent a few minutes talking to me. I was considering ministry, I told him, though I wasn’t sure in what form. I’d felt God’s calling on my life, but I didn’t grow up in church so I did not have any real ministry role models after whom to pattern my life. He encouraged me to sign up for his Pauline Writings course next semester. That course was full already, but he would make an exception just for me. And, he said, though the trip was also full, he would find a way to include me. I was thrilled.

The following semester, I got to know Bishop Morgan better. His Pauline Writings class had to meet in the auditorium of the science building, as he famously made “an exception just for you” to anyone who asked. Before each exam, Bishop Morgan and his wife, Martha, had the whole class over for dinner--and not your standard pizza or tacos. Martha broke out the good china and cooked real food. We were treated as family. I’d never experienced that kind of hospitality from someone who wasn't a blood relative. Over the course of my last two years at BSC, I probably ate with the Bishop and Martha 15 times. We went over before every test, a number of times before our travels in Europe, and more than once afterwards.

I have great memories of that trip. The Bishop was seventy years old, and yet he and Martha hiked up a mountain with us to visit the monastery at Meteora. He delighted in showing us the acropolis, the bema in Corinth, the ruins at Thessalonica. In Berea, I think, the hot water wasn't working, so the Bishop announced to us at breakfast that he was very so very sorry we had to take cold showers, and that as for himself, he’d “sat on a stool and had Martha hose me off.”

While it had been the case that I’d had no role models in ministry before meeting Bishop Morgan, he (knowing that I needed a role model) made sure during that trip to spend time with me, to visit with me, to give me time to ask questions, to gently encourage me to pursue United Methodist ministry. While I can’t say that Bishop Morgan is the only reason I am a United Methodist pastor, I can pretty certainly say I wouldn’t be one without him.

After we returned home, Bishop Morgan continued to spend time with me, encouraging me, mentoring me. Stacey loves to tell the story of our senior year in which we both took a class from Bishop Morgan called The Parables of Jesus. We fell in love while studying together for that class, but the story she most loves is that while taking the map portion of the final exam (with 40 other people in the room), Bishop Morgan walked over to me to look over my shoulder and see how I was doing.

Seeing that I was totally losing it on the map (geography is not my strong suit), Bishop Morgan proceeded to just tell me the answers. In the middle of the exam. You could almost see the ears of the people sitting around me perk up as he said, “no, put there here, put that there.” So I did. I think the map is the only portion of that test I got 100% correct.

I could go on, but I know that this is my story, which is why I find myself so heartbroken at Bishop Morgan’s passing. I do want to make one final point.

Bishop Morgan could have actually retired in 2000 when he “retired” from ministry. I know for a fact that in his final years, the Bish suffered from a number of diseases and health problems that should have kept him out of the classroom; after our trip up the mountains of Meteora, I learned that he’d been in excruciating pain the whole time, having torn a tendon in his left foot. And yet he kept up the mountain, kept teaching, kept doing God’s work.

Stacey and I had the chance to be present in October of 2010 to see Bishop Morgan receive an award from the Candler School of Theology. In his remarks, he called the work of mentoring students the most important of his career. I've learned this week that five active bishops in the UMC count him as a mentor. The number of students from BSC who entered ministry during his tenure must be well over 100; 13 of his former students are in seminary today.

When I learned Sunday of Bishop Morgan's passing, I spent some time thinking about our sporadic contact in recent months, as one tends to do after the passing of a mentor. But rather than feeling guilty about the lack of contact—Bishop Morgan knew what he meant to me—I've realized that to be a mentor is to give up that reciprocal relationship. A mentor does not offer guidance with the expectation of return. A mentor gives with the expectation that the one being mentored will, in turn, mentor. It is a faith in the goodness of God, the goodness of the people made in God's image.

This kind of faith—the kind that gives without an expectation of return—seems awfully rare some days. I've got a feeling Bishop Morgan would want me to spend the rest of my life trying to make it less rare. Whether you are young or “retired,” I hope you’ll join me in trying.

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