I’m not sure when I first met Beth Luton. There is a sense that she’s always been around in my life, a prevenient presence that is comfortable from the beginning. Her family has been intertwined in my life for the past twenty years from the time I decided to visit the West Nashville United Methodist Church of which her sister was the pastor. A couple of years later, after Kay and I married, we made our way to Clarksville and Madison Street UMC to discover that Kay would become the pastor for Beth and Diane’s parents. I’m sure that it was some time during those years that we first met Beth, and as I said earlier, it seemed from that time on that she had always been around.
The story deepened of course when I made the trek to Atlanta to attend the Candler School of Theology only to find Beth firmly installed as the Continuing Ed Director for the school. While neither of us ever had the time to completely connect outside of school, Beth’s easy spirit allowed for regular conversation and gossip about life in both the North Georgia and Tennessee Annual Conferences. We were both very busy, with our schooling, raising our kids, and our various commutes. But we were friends, able to share with one another the struggles of our lives.
During one of my summers in Atlanta, the friendship deepened as I worked for Beth on the Course of Study school as the chaplain for the school. It was there that I discovered an entire other world of relationships for Beth, and an ability to nurture people of all backgrounds and theological stripes for ministry. Beth was deeply loved both faculty and participants in the Course of Study school, something that took a bit of work since many of the participants were stressed to the max by the demands of schooling in the midst of other jobs. During my time there I experienced a Beth who was both nurturing, but also very tough when confronted by those who attempted to thwart the system in some way. Although small in stature, she was no pushover in any way, and would stand her ground with anyone for something she believed in. We had great fun that summer, and I have always appreciated Beth’s willingness to let me learn beside her about ministry to ministers.
When I graduated from Candler, we (as is normal) drifted apart. I heard from afar that she was battling cancer for the first time, and Diane kept me up to date on that battle. I heard that there were struggles in her marriage, and found myself praying for her for the struggles of health and relationships for I always believed she deserved happiness and success. We would occasionally see each other at Annual Conference when she would come for the seminary luncheons, and it always felt like we were picking up as if we hadn’t been apart, but then we would go back to our busy lives.
Just over a year ago Beth entered my life again in a big way. I received an e-mail out of the blue from her. “Here is an opportunity you should be aware of,” she wrote. “Consider this a personal invitation to come.”
It was an announcement about a program Beth was leading. It was a program for mid-career pastors to travel to the Holy Lands, funded by the Cousins Foundation. It was a pilgrimage to the places of the Bible with very little out of pocket cost for the participants. Beth and Roberta Bondi would be leading the trip, and there would be 20 pastors participating in the experience for 14 days. It was an opportunity that was unbelievable, and I never would have known about it if Beth hadn’t sent my that note.
The invitation and my acceptance into the program came at a good time. I was tired from five years of ministry in a tough setting. I was facing the first United Methodist General Conference in five quadrennia that I wouldn’t be involved with. I needed a pilgrimage, although I’m not sure I knew it at the time. There was no way that Beth would have known that in her invitation, but God again used her to minister to this minister who needed time away.
So we went to Israel. For two weeks we traveled the countryside with Beth leading the way. She not only knew the country (having made friends during previous trips) but she also knew that the pastors on this trip needed Sabbath – a time to get away from the pressures of work and let their hair down. She was pastor and den mother rolled into one, but able to find time in the midst of leading an unruly group for reflection and quiet to reconnect with her God. The joy I experienced during that trip has sustained me for the past year, and will never forget the laughter we experienced at the table together with a beverage in our hands telling stories about our lives.
Beth “moved home” to Nashville right after that trip, but as is so typical we rarely got to connect. She was traveling all the time, making a home here in Nashville, and entering into a new relationship with the man that would become her husband. I was raising kids, trying to pastor a church, and juggling all the things that I juggle. We continued to pledge to one another that we would get together, but our lives didn’t allow it to happen, and as is true for all of us, we both believed we had time.
We didn’t. I had seen Beth in January at the Congress on Evangelism, and shortly after came word through Diane that Beth’s cancer had returned. From afar I heard that things were not going well and that the cancer was progressing quickly. We connected a couple of times via Facebook and E-mail, but yesterday, I learned that Beth has left this world for the other world.
I have given up trying to make sense of death, of trying to discern some sort of hidden meaning in the experiences of those who leave us far before their 80 years. Frankly, as I sit here this morning, I’m a bit angry at God, for Beth was a gifted person filled with life who radiated love and grace. There is no understanding why this happened, why Beth has had to leave us.
What we are left with is her legacy, a legacy that witnessed to hope in Jesus Christ. No, this death makes no sense (no death ever does). But there remains a hope in something more, a meaning to our lives that comes through our relationship with Christ and the way in which we follow after Jesus. Beth, my friend, walked in the way of Jesus. She demonstrated servant leadership to its fullest, and mediated both the grace and toughness found in the life of Christ.
There are many today who grieve. There are many today who will miss her. There are many today who wonder “why?”
There is no “why?” today. There is only “what’s next?”
That is the question that Beth Luton lived out in her life, and I am sure is witnessing to in her death.
Bye Beth. We will miss you.