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Commentary: Bishop McLee ‘knew the Shepherd’

By the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell*
September 12, 2014

I am discovering that since I first heard of the death of Bishop Martin D. McLee last Saturday (Sept. 6), my writing is taking the form of my doing "grief work" in response to his death. One of the books that I shared when I was active as a pastor helping grieving families was titled, "Good Grief." Thus, much of what I write during these days represents my attempt to discover "good grief," as I  grieve over the death of Martin D. McLee.

I googled the New York Annual Conference website and read again, the "Meet Our Bishop" article that was posted when Bishop McLee became the bishop of the New York Area. The article ends with these words:

"Bishop McLee is known as a bridge-builder committed to bringing people into a relationship with Christ through both evangelism and social justice ministries. He is a servant leader at heart.

"The words of Phillippians 4:4, 'Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,' is one of the guiding Scriptures of Bishop Martin D. McLee's faith journey."

"...bridge-builder...relationship with Christ through both evangelism and social justice ministries...servant leader at heart."

It is said of some people, "he/she is able to walk with kings and queens, yet has the common touch." Was it Bishop McLee's law school education or his theological education that best enabled and empowered him to walk with royalty, yet possess the common touch?

We are living in a time when it appears that the Constitution of the United States may affirm the God-given humanity of all people, more so than does the Bible of the church. The U.S. Constitution when it is interpreted at its best "screens people in," whereas the Bible when it is interpreted at its worst "screens people out."

I wince when I hear or read those who proclaim "faithfulness to Scripture" in ways that make it sound as being far more important than "faithfulness to God, and to Jesus who embodies the will and intent of God."

Sadly I — and I dare say many who will read these words — have found it easier to be faithful to Scripture than to the God and Jesus of Scripture. There is that old story that many of you know about the oratorical contest in which each speaker was to recite the 23rd Psalm. One speaker spoke with such eloquence, diction and skill that when he finished, the audience stood and cheered him. Another speaker, an old man, went to the microphone and recited the psalm, but he was not eloquent, nor was his diction perfect or oratorically skillful. When he finished, the audience was silent, and an amazing, unusual and overwhelming atmosphere was felt throughout the church. The church was quiet and people began to turn to each other and silently wonder what was happening.

After almost 5 minutes of silence, the old man went back to the mic and said, "You are probably wondering why you cheered the young man, but were silent after I spoke. I believe I have the answer: The young man knows the psalm, but you sensed that I was deeply acquainted with the Shepherd of the psalm."

Martin D. McLee, bishop of The United Methodist Church, former pastor and district superintendent, was trained to be a lawyer. He knew the psalm, but more importantly, it was evident that he knew the Shepherd of the psalm! That is why those of us who knew him, those who experienced him as pastor, district superintendent and bishop, and those for whom he was a "drum major for justice," are able to rejoice even as we grieve his death. That becomes an essential for our "good grief"!

Caldwell is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Asbury Park, N.J.