Remembering My Bishop

Remembering My Bishop

As a clergy person in the United Methodist Church, I no longer have membership in any local church. So my “church” becomes my annual conference. When I first made this transition out of local church membership, I felt a little lost, but over the years I have found a spiritual home in my annual conference. I have learned to love its people, to be invested in its wellbeing, and to think of its bishop as my pastor. So it was good for me that Monday night happened to be the first meeting of our annual conference’s General and Jurisdictional Conference delegation. Two days after the death of our bishop, it was good to sit with my “church” folk, to tearfully sing Amazing Grace, and to share stories and feelings about Bishop McLee.

Since then, I have been slowly recalling the various experiences I have had with the bishop. Some of those recollections are quite serious. I remember significant and tense meetings between the bishop and MIND’s steering committee, as we struggled through the relationship between pushy activists and institutional representative. But I also remember how affirmed I felt as a young adult in the conference when I heard that the bishop gave the prestigious role of leading Bible study at annual conference to a young adult pastor, Simeon Law. Those are some of the serious memories I have of him.

But a lot of my memories of Bishop McLee make me laugh. There was the dark and gusty Sunday afternoon when the braver members of the conference crowded into a Harlem church on the eve of Hurricane Sandy for Bishop McLee’s official commissioning and introduction. I smile as I remember how the solemn and anxious assembly dropped our collective jaw, opened our collective eyes real wide, and smiled a collective grin as our new and unknown episcopal leader stood in the historic church, next to its old organ, in front of the distinguished leaders and elders of our conference, and began rapping his sermon!

Then there was the time I received a message from his office saying that the bishop wanted to talk with me. In the United Methodist Church, for a member of the clergy, this is a frightening development. Before returning the phone call, I frantically called my husband to talk through the only two possibilities I could imagine: I was either getting moved from Church of the Village or I was being charged for performing same sex weddings. Pregnant with our first child, we talked through all of the implications for our family of each of these life-changing potentialities. Finally, with an elevated heart rate and a lot of prayer, I returned the fateful call, only to find that Bishop McLee just wanted to thank me for an email I sent him months before.

And then, of course, there were the amazingly random conversations I had with Bishop McLee. Like the time he told me he used to be a gymnastics coach (What career did Bishop McLee NOT try out?). Or the time we had a long and passionate exchange about the most dysfunctional scenes in the newest season of America’s Next Top Model (This may be my favorite recollection of him.).

These memories crack me up because they are all so surprising. A bishop who raps sermons. A bishop who randomly calls just to say thanks. A bishop who can talk gymnastics and who watches trashy reality TV. Sometimes I felt like Bishop McLee did things different just to be different–just to see the looks on our faces.

But I know it wasn’t to draw attention to himself. I know it was really to show us that God can be in the different and the unconventional too. That God doesn’t just live in the old formal liturgies or the nice church folk talk or the denominational leaders. But God lives in rap music and discomfort and young people and even in Tyra Banks. The way he tried to stretch us to see God and leadership in the unexpected made us sit on the edge of our seats, watching for the sacred in every part of our lives and every part of ourselves. This constant watchfulness for God’s Spirit is something I will hold close to me, one of the many gifts I and many received from the ministry of Bishop Martin McLee.

I share now the poem we used in worship for the summer, which feels so right today.

When Great Trees Fall
Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

For any who want to celebrate the bishop’s life, we will be at Riverside Church on Monday at 11am. Details about the funeral arrangements can be found here.