good grief


Mom’s cancer, with relentless, rapacious appetite, spread from her lungs to her brain, then to her brain lining. Her decline, swift, over the sparest number of weeks, and savage, instant by inexorably passing instant, stripping her of bodily function and proffering only pain.

On April 28, 2017, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins, the mother of my wife, my mother in law, a proverbial force of nature, yea, verily, nature itself in the immensity of her love, died.


Since then, I have watched and continue to watch Geneva’s daughter, my wife, Pontheolla, grieve, embracing her sorrowing, weeping heart and soul…

through those initial moments of her acknowledgement of the inevitable; the oncologist saying those dreaded, yet essential and candid words, “There is nothing more we can do”…

through the calling of family members and friends, receiving, responding to their questions, “How?” “When?” “Why?”, accepting, answering their expressions of concern with a  gracious “Thank you”, a slight and earnest nod, a sympathizing falling tear, soon followed by a pitying flood…

through the planning of mom’s funeral, truly, justly a celebration of her life supremely, freely, fully, faithfully well lived; the testimonials from persons from ev’ry path of her earthly being and doing; the songs of praise and the prayers to God, all bidding, believing in her gladsome greeting in the heavenly habitations…

through engaging mom’s affairs – initiating probate, closing accounts, and cleaning her home, sorting through the years of the daily accumulations of living, but more, existentially, spiritually, moving through her space still warm and welcoming with the manifold memories of times spent luxuriating in the wealth of her hospitality…

and through every day and counting since, Pontheolla hails as blessed her ev’ry reminiscence, honors as the bounty of her holy sorrow her ev’ry tear, holds fast to her ev’ry thanksgiving for the nonpareil grace of God incarnate in the life and love of her mother…

Hers is good grief.


this psalm, our song

Psalm 23 (2)a sermon, based on Psalm 23, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017

Jesus the Good Shepherd, James Tissot (1836-1902)

The theme of the Fourth Sunday of Easter always is Jesus the Good Shepherd.[1] So appropriate in this season of the resurrection as we continue to proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” in gratitude for the One who, through his dying and rising, leads and guides us, shepherds us from the wasteland of sin and death to the realm of life eternal.

So appropriate that we read one of the most, if not the most beloved and well-known of the psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Three observations…

This song embraces the rhythm and flow of life. Therefore, it is a truthful observation about the way things are, the way we are. Our lives are characterized by constant movement. Any notion that we ever are motionless is an illusion. Even when standing still, we, bound to this Earth, are moving at hundreds of miles an hour. And our perpetual motion, in thought and feeling, intention and action, at times, perhaps largely, is by our choosing in accord with our beliefs and values and, at other times, at the compulsion of chance and circumstance beyond our control. Point is, we always are being led and guided by something.

This song encompasses deeply comforting images and the starkest, darkest realities. Therefore, it is an honest commentary on our experience of life in this world. Our life as a journey is replete with the poetic joys of verdant, not barren pastures, calm, not raging waters, and right, not crooked pathways and the proverbial sorrows of valleys overshadowed by death and enemies, appearing in the presence of problematic people and times of trial and tribulation.

This song echoes, resounds with confidence in God. Therefore, it is a believer’s testament, and, for us, as Christians, a disciple’s witness to a life of faithful pilgrimage with the One we follow, Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Let us then, as human and Christian, pray this psalm as the song of our lives. And when we reach our earthly end, “the house of the Lord”, it is God’s goodness and mercy that “follow” (the Hebrew literally translates “pursue”![2]) us. For as we, in this life, ever are on the move, we, in the fullness of eternity, forever will be on the move. Therefore, any notion that at death we are at rest is also an illusion!

One of the petitions in our Burial Office captures the mystery and beauty of our continual becoming in the presence of God: Grant (Almighty God) that, increasing in knowledge and love of Thee, (we) may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in Thy heavenly kingdom.[3]

We, in our journeying through this world, draw ever closer to that inexorable moment when we cross the threshold to the next. We, even now, by faith, delighting in the foretaste of eternal life, then, by sight, will partake of its fullness of the presence of Love, Who is God.[4]

Geneva Watkins

This past Wednesday, we buried my mother-in-law, Geneva Theodosia Reynolds Mack Watkins. “Theodosia” means “gift of God”. And that, surely, Geneva was…is! For she, for me, personified the heart, the soul of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is, that we are to be as he is – the Word, the Spirit of God in flesh; enfleshed in our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions. I experienced this embodiment of the being and nature of God in Geneva’s unconditional love and kindness and in her unstinting forgiveness. No finer person and woman have I known. And I believe, I know that Geneva, pursued by God’s goodness and mercy, dwells in the house of the Lord forever, going from strength to strength in her life in the perfect service of God’s praise.

And as she knew in this life and now knows in the fullness of God’s glory, I pray we, too, know every time we sing this psalm of our lives that “The Lord” – only God Almighty in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit; not anyone or anything else! – “is our shepherd!”


Illustration: Jesus the Good Shepherd, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Photograph: Geneva Watkins standing at the flowered cross, Jamestown Road Church of God, Bishopville, SC, Easter Day, March 27, 2016.


[1] John 10.1-10 is the day’s appointed gospel.

[2] I find this – the conception that God’s goodness and mercy, as a zealous hunter chases prey, pursue us; though not to harm us, but rather and only to have and to hold us in loving, eternal embrace – an endearing, enduring idea!

[3] The Burial of the Dead: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 481

[4] A reference to 2 Corinthians 5.1-7 (my emphasis): For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling; if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.