I was at a memorial service for a church member’s mother yesterday morning, and had my phone off most of the time. But when I got out of that service, within seconds of turning it on, there was a call from Bill that Kathleen Baskin-Ball had died a short time before. I just happened to be about 10 minutes away, and so yesterday I spent the better part of the afternoon at their home with family and friends. It was a tough day, to say the least.
No blog, no memorial, can ever be eloquent enough to honor the life of such an incredible woman. Others will offer their own thoughts at various times, I am sure. And I sense that her service Saturday will be a marvelous celebration of the various parts of her life and ministry.
All this is to say that, as with much of the writing I do here, this entry is as much as part of my own catharsis and healing as anything else. If others find it meaningful, all the better…EF
“My, but we learn so slow
And heroes, they come and they go
And leave us behind, as if we’re s’posed to know
— Joe Walsh (The Eagles), “Pretty Maids All in a Row”
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies…”
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
— St. Paul (from 2 Corinthians)
Kathleen Baskin-Ball was a good friend. I can say that about her. And I can I promise you that dozens –perhaps hundreds– of other people can say that about her too. In fact, a funny thing happened to me this past week. At least three of my clergy friends told me exactly the same story. Three of them, to a person, said something like this:
“I always thought that Kathleen was one of my best friends….but then I gradually grew to understand that everybody feels that way about her!!!”
I suppose at first, when you learn this truth, it can be a little off-putting. But you eventually come to realize it says very little about you and everything about her.
Kathleen was better at finding, keeping, and loving friends than perhaps any other human being I know. She had a unique sense of being able to fold-in those close to her, to make friends, loved ones, church members, feel special and loved.
Whether Kathleen was in the presence of a Latina single-mother from West Dallas, or a United Methodist Bishop from West Texas, Kathleen treated everyone she met not only with respect, but with a deep sense of love, affection, and caring. If you were with Kathleen, you got the sense that Kathleen cared about you…loved you….would do anything she could to help you. Perhaps it struck some people as a little unreal, almost “too good to be true.” But it wasn’t an act. It was who she was to the core.
My first memories of Kathleen were at Annual Conference events, when I would see from her across the room as she addressed us clergy-folk about “Nueva Esparanza,” the church in West Dallas she served at the time. The church shares a corner of the Wesley-Rankin Center block.
I didn’t know her personally then, just “knew of” her. But I remember thinking even then of what poise and grace she showed, to so confidently advocate and love the people of West Dallas. She understood that the ministry there was a special calling.
One of the things Kathleen did so well was to gather people together in groups. Somewhere along the way, some of my colleagues formed a book study group we came to call “Listening for God.” (from the name of the first study-series we ever used…) I was a honored to be a part of it. Kathleen as also a member. It was in that group that I got to know her better. We’d meet about once-a-month for some years, ostensibly to study some book or guide, but also always to check in about what was going on in our lives. In that group, we loved and prayed each other through changes in ministry, through joyful and painful movements through our personal relationships, and through struggles about what it meant to be a part of “The Connection.”
Kathleen struggled with leaving West Dallas and Nueva Esperanza. Folks worried about her, for her sake. As she readied to leave I think she probably knew that no ministry setting would ever again be filled with quite the same combination of heartbreak and reward. Those of us who knew her then know how she poured her heart and soul into it, even going so far as to live in the community. But being in that kind of ministry setting is a bit like being a doctor in a “M.A.S.H.” unit. Eventually, for the sake of your own soul, you must get some distance, no matter how much you love the people, or how good you are at your job. And in getting that distance, you must trust that others will continue the work.
Kathleen moved from there to Greenland Hills UMC, in East Dallas, where John Thornburg served for many years. She had some marvelous years at Greenland Hills. And it was there that, through her stories about that church, I came to understand one of her most enduring character traits: Kathleen had the ability to take people of polar opposite opinions, and bind them together with the sheer force of her own personality and will.
On key issues of the day, such as homosexuality, people with completely opposite beliefs found themselves worshiping together at Greenland Hills, and staying united as the church. A part of this was surely the working of God. But another part of it was surely their love and respect for Kathleen. They understood that she trusted and loved them, no matter “where they were.” And she was determined to model a church where everyone could be welcomed to the table equally, and where everyone could STAY at the table TOGETHER.
This is not an easy thing to do. Frankly, it takes an extraordinary personality to do it. And sometimes, it only happens through the sheer will of strong personalities like Kathleen’s. For those looking in from the outside, she made it seem easy…like breathing. It flowed out of her, and it inspired people to be their best.
One night –in the months just before Kathleen went to Suncreek and I came to Northaven– I had a CD Release party at Poor David’s Pub down on Greenville Avenue. I invited all the folks I knew from the various parts of my life. Lots of family and musician friends came. So did lots of clergy friends, and so did lots of folks from HPUMC…especially the Single Adults that I’d worked with for many years.
I remember Kathleen was sitting at a front table, off stage right, with some Greenland Hills staff and some “LFG” friends. I remember her cheering loudly, almost to the point of embarrassing me! (She was going to make sure I knew how supportive she was!) Somewhere else among the crowd that night was Bill Ball, sitting at a table of HPUMC single adults. Bill and Kathleen had met years before. But on this night, they re-met.
Kathleen would later say that initially she thought Bill was probably a great guy, but a little young for her. And, actually, she thought about setting him up with somebody else she knew! (Always thinking of others…) But as the days passed, she eventually said to herself, “Why would I want to do that?!” (And as they met for coffee, getting to know each other better, Bill began asking her the same question!)
The only thing I remember of that time is that they both called me the week after the show.
Bill called to say something like, “Hey, I saw Kathleen Baskin at your CD release party…”
Kathleen said, “Hey, I hadn’t seen that Bill Ball guy in years…”
Of course, being a typical guy, I was too dense to put two-and-two together at the time.But sparks were soon flying!!
I actually remembered one other tidbit from this time period when I sat down to write today. I remembered how, privately, each worried what everyone else would think of their romance. Kathleen worried how the Greenland Hills folks would take a new romance in her life. Bill –who was at the time the president of our largest Single Adult class at HPUMC– worried how the singles there would take the news and what would happen to the class should he and Kathleen get married (which seemed more and more inevitable…).
And know, what? That was just like the two of them…to be concerned about how their love would affect others!
Soon, they were dating. Soon after that, they were married. And one of the high honors of my ministry was when I officiated at their wedding.
Bill and Kathleen were not a couple I would have originally put together. But once they were together, I could not imagine them apart. They were a marvelous team in life, and in ministry. They just seemed to “fit.”
When Kathleen moved to Suncreek UMC in Allen, she did it like she did everything: with a sense of purpose and sense that what she was doing was greater than herself. She knew that a suburban setting would be far different from West Dallas, or even Old East Dallas. But I think she knew intuitively that she had the gifts and graces to be a truly marvelous pastor there. And I remember her taking quite seriously is her role as a woman leader and what an important step it would be for her to be appointed as a woman pastor to this large suburban setting. And, as anyone who’s been paying attention knows, Suncreek has flourished and thrived under her leadership.
In fact, throughout her ministry, she always seemed keenly aware of how important it was for her to step into leadership roles, not only as a pastor, but as a woman pastor. When she was elected to lead our North Texas Delagation…or when she chaired a General Conference Committee…she did so not out of a sense of her own ambition, but also with a keen sense that her being there served as a role model for others. I remember very clear conversations with her about this, and always thought it beautiful that she sought to be role model for others.
Today, the day after her death, I woke up to the sense that there are likely thousands of grieving-people all over North Texas and beyond. Kathleen was such a LIGHT in so many people’s lives that her death leaves a dark hole that likely cannot be filled. The harder truth about it is that we who are counted on to be spiritual guides –the clergy of the North Texas Conference– are grieving as deeply and as painfully as anyone. If we are honest, many of us are feeling our own sense of loss and weakness.
In fact, I literally felt it Monday night. All through the evening, I felt that something wasn’t quite right. I had headache, a stomach ache, and couldn’t figure out why. I even started crying at one point, and told Bill yesterday that I almost called him. It seems clear to me now that there was some mysterious “spiritual sympathy” happening.
My intuition is that I’m not alone in that at this moment, and that perhaps thousands of others are feeling it too.
And so, in our weakness and tears, we find ourselves with “why” questions.
Here’s an honest truth: at a time like this, we clergy struggle with those “why” questions just as much as the next person. That’s what drew me to the lyrics from the Eagles’ song, “Pretty Maids All in the Row,” to start off this blog. Sometime last week, that song got stuck in my head, and over the past few days, I’ve realized that it was because of the lyric I quote above.
There is a sense that at times like these, people turn to us clergy-folk and ask us ” why” questions….”as if we’re s’posed to know….”
Friends, sometimes there are simply no good answers to the “why” questions of life’s suffering. I realize that this is not a very satisfactory answer. And even as I write it (as one who is expected to have a brilliant answer) part of it feels like a copout. After all, aren’t we “s’posed to know?”
But human beings have been struggling to find satisfactory answers to “why” questions for thousands of years, and the answers never seems to come. Heck, you could argue that the entire book of Job is one long essay about the futility of focusing on “why.”
Perhaps there is a different place to focus…
In a Dallas Morning News story about Kathleen that came out just last week (from great reporter, Sam Hodges), a man who is friend and mentor to many of us, Bill McElvaney, suggested that at times like these, the best questions are not the “why” questions at all, but the “how” questions…
In the story, Bill asks: “How are we going to get through this and support one another?”
To my way of thinking, there is another “how” question out there too…and one that, frankly, holds a lot of inspiration and hope for us:
“How does how Kathleen died teach us to live?”
The older I get, the more I come to believe that often we die much as we have lived. Rabbi and Therapist, Edwin Friedman used to say transitional events, such as a death, do not so much mark a change in a person or a family, so much as they magnify and illuminate what is already present. As I said, the older I get, the more I tend to see that this is true.
So it is that if we’ve been fearful in life, we are often fearful as death approaches. If we have been loving in life, we are often loving as death draws near. Like all stereotypes, there are definitely exceptions to this rule. But the reason I bring it up here is to note how completely consistent Kathleen’s life and death were to who she was as a person.
As many of you already know, Kathleen chose to die with extraordinary openness, grace, and love. Kathleen and Bill made a remarkable –almost unheard of– choice over the past ten days: to throw open the doors of their home and their lives and welcome in anyone who wished to come, in order to say goodbye. On most days during her last week, she greeted first tens of people…then hundreds of people…and maybe even thousands for all anyone knows. She spent time with them. She told them how she felt about them. She listened patiently as they shared their feelings too.
It started, as Sam Hodges’ DMN story notes, with an afternoon of clergy colleagues this past Monday. We clergy came through the door in a steady stream. And, on behalf of those of us who were there, I will observe that it felt like the heart of what our “Connection” is supposed to be….coming together for mutual support and love as brothers and sisters. Our “Connections” does not always feel that way. But thanks be to God when it does.
But that was just the beginning. Hundreds of friends from West Dallas, Greenland Hills, Suncreek, and beyond, came through to share some time with Kathleen. Carolers from Greenland Hills showed up Monday night. Kathleen shared a meal of Maine lobster with her covenant group and their spouses. Groups put up luminarias. Minister friends continued to stop by. A group of musician friends came in Friday night for a houseconcert and night of song. ( I was sorry to miss it!) In the midst of it, Kathleen managed to attend Thanksgiving celebrations at both the Baskin and Ball households.
And then, to top it off, there was this past Sunday, just a little more than a day before she died. Kathleen was scheduled to do quite a few baptisms during the Sunday morning service. And by the time it was finished, she had done 37 of them! To hear others tell it, the people simply kept coming and coming. When that was done, she spent the afternoon with the Suncreek Youth Choir and their families. And then she had one last visitation with folks from 5-7 pm. (They tell me that folks started lining up an hour ahead of time!).
And when those final visits were done, it seems now that she was done too. We had said our goodbyes to her, and she had said her’s to us. And it was time to go.
Friends, I’ve talked to several minister friends in the past day and we all agree….even in our relatively decent physical condition, that kind of schedule would be draining. And I am sure it took a toll, and I know that there are some friends and family would rather have seen her not do any of it. And even among those who can begin to understand why she did it, there are many of us scratching our heads in awe that she was able to do it.
But one thing is clear: she would not have had it any other way.
There was no keeping everyone away, or keeping her away from everyone. One of Kathleen’s most endearing traits has always been an openness about her life, an ability to laugh at herself and, frankly, an ability to not take herself too seriously even at times that might seem embarrassing, or even horrifying, to others. She had a lightness of being that allowed her to be bluntly open and vulnerable about herself and her situation when she was in the best of times, and when she was in the worst of times too.
So, in retrospect, all we can say is “of course she threw the doors of her home open, because that’s what she always did. That was just Kathleen.”
But, on this morning after, it seems clear to me now that even in her death she was showing us HOW.
How, not to die, but how to live. She reminded us that the great transition we make is not from “life to death,” but from “life to life.”
It’s not that the why questions are not important. It’s simply that the how questions mean a whole lot more.
How does God love us?
More deeply, broadly and passionately than we can possibly imagine. And with a love that never ends.
How are we to love each other?
In the same way…living each moment…embracing each obstacle that comes our way as simply a part of the journey of life into life.
How are we to die?
With the confidence that life never ends, that nothing is lost, that even in our most broken moments (perhaps especially in them) God is present.
When Kathleen was at Nueva Esperanza, one of the signs and symbols of that community was a chalice that came to be known as “Timothy’s Cup.” It was a communion chalice that became such a revered symbol it’s image is now a part of the stained glass window in that church.
Timothy’s Cup became famous when it was broken by one of the children of that community (Timothy). Kathleen and Sarah Wilke rescued the cup, used it as a teachable moment with Timothy, and the eventually found a way to piece the cup back together.
Ever after, Kathleen used that chalice as a sign and symbol for that community. It became for her an outward and visible symbol of the broken, yet sacred, nature of that community together….a reminder that in our brokenness we can still be whole and still be of God. I recall that she would occasionally bring that cup to Annual Conference events when she shared about the ministry of Nueva Esperanza.
It strikes me today that, near the end of her life, Kathleen became a living “Timothy’s Cup.” Her body, although broken and weak, was a still a powerful vessel for God’s love and grace to so many people in these last weeks.
In the scripture at the beginning of this blog, Paul reminds us that our treasures here are on this earth are simple “jars of clay.” Perhaps even our bodies are these jars?
This fact, Paul says, allows us to trust that any blessing and love brought forth from us is not ultimately our doing alone but God’s. We are but vessels for the time we are here on earth. We are all, Paul says, vessels of Christ’s brokenness and, yes, even vessels of Christ’s death. Paul says we carry a sense of Christ’s death in us, so that life can shine through us.
So, in the end, while there may be no good answers to the “why” questions, there may be some powerful answers to the “how” questions.
I believe I can say with great confidence that Paul describes how Kathleen Baskin-Ball lived. I believe he also describes how she died.
And perhaps the great sermon she was trying to teach us over these past ten days is that –to the level and to the extent God individually calls us(and everyone’s call is different)– we all ought to likewise live and die.
“In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us….we are not alone….thanks be to God!”
Or, as Kathleen would say, “Glory Be!”