Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Loss of a Minister: A Tribute Born of Grief

I was stunned and saddened yesterday to learn of the death of my dear colleague The Reverend Doctor Tim Jensen. Tim’s brother, Erik, posted an entry on Tim’s blog stating that Tim had slipped into a coma on Saturday evening (8/8/09) and died peacefully the next morning. I will miss Tim profoundly.

I first met Tim in 1998 when I began attending services at the Wy’East Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Portland, Oregon where Tim was serving as a part-time consulting minister. Wy’East met on Sunday afternoons in space rented in a Mainline Christian Church on the corner of 39th and Steele, just a few blocks from the Reed College Campus. I continued to attend the worship services at First Unitarian in Portland where I was moved by Rev. Marilyn Sewell’s powerful preaching. I attended Wy’East with my fellow UU students at Reed College.

Tim was my minister and pastor. Then he became my mentor and I, his protégé. Then he became my friend. Then I became his colleague.

Tim blessed me by welcoming me into a pulpit to preach for the first time. We co-preached a sermon on the religious life of Thomas Jefferson. That he endured my debut is a testimony to his graciousness. He welcomed me into the pulpit on the condition that our work would not go to waste. A short time later we took a weekend road trip to Washington State where we preached at a small UU Fellowship on the Olympic Peninsula. On the way home we opened the envelopes that contained our honorarium checks. His was several times larger than mine. Tim declared that this was unacceptable. We had shared the service 50/50 and would split the honorarium accordingly. On the way home we took a detour and enjoyed a ride on the Bainbridge Island ferry in Puget Sound. We later took a road trip together to the 1999 General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

In the summer of 1999 I left Portland to attend Harvard Divinity School. I brought with me Tim’s gift to me upon receiving admission to HDS, an Oxford Annotated version of the Bible. Over the next few years Tim and I stayed in contact by email. When he came through Boston he would take me out for ribs at Red Bones in Davis Square or for Italian in the North End. As I prepared to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in September of 2002, Tim invited me to join him for a five day stay in the parsonage on Nantucket Island, where Tim served a two year interim ministry. He invited me to guest preach in Carlisle, Massachusetts early in his ministry there. Tim’s encouragement and graciousness meant more to me than I have the words to express. I have met few people as generous as Tim.

When I think of Tim Jensen, many images come to mind. One image is an island. Tim served some of the “island” congregations in our movement. After student ministries in Boston and Seattle (where he learned at the feet of two giants of our movement, Rhys Williams and Peter Raible) his first call was to serve the UU congregation in Midland, Texas. Serving in this location meant a plane flight to be able to meet with his closest UU colleagues. Tim joked that his “parish” stretched east to west from Ft. Worth to El Paso (605 miles) and north to south from Lubbock to San Antonio (407 miles). Tim was the “Unitarian Bishop” of a 246,000 square mile parish. Tim’s second island ministry was a two year stint as interim minister on Nantucket. As a deeply reflective soul with a book reading addiction Tim had the perfect temperament for this type of service.

In total Tim would serve in Midland, Texas, in Hillsboro, Oregon, at Wy’East in Portland and a number of part time positions at congregations scattered across Washington and Oregon, on Nantucket, in Carlisle, Massachusetts, and, finally, in Portland, Maine. My heart goes out to all those whom Tim served in ministry.

Tim Jensen’s education was tremendous. He earned a BA from Western Washington University, an M. Div. from Harvard, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington (studying under Annie Dillard), a master's degree in religious history from Oregon State (studying under Marcus Borg), and a Ph.D. in religious history from the University of Oregon. He joked that this made him a “Crimson Viking Husky Beaver Duck.”

Tragically, 18 months ago and while still just newly called to his dream position in Portland, Maine, Tim was diagnosed with lung cancer. As I write about Tim’s life, I face disquiet and discomfort, embarrassment and shame. I believe I could have been a much better friend to Tim during his illness. I had several short phone calls with him following his diagnosis, but more or less dropped away over the past year or so. The reason for this is not a mystery to me. My relationship with Tim was multifaceted. We were colleagues. We were friends. I considered him my mentor and he considered me his protégé. And yet, all of these ways in which we were related were secondary. He was my minister, my pastor; I was his “parishioner.” As a life-long Unitarian Universalist and as a minister for the past 6+ years I have been ministered to by my colleagues more times than I can count. That is what we do as colleagues. But care does not define my relationship with those colleagues. They’ve been colleagues, friends, teammates, advisors, mentors, advisees, mentees, and so on. But, I have had only two other colleagues besides Tim whom I have been able to call my minister first, and all those other things second. How do you minister, I mean really minister, to your minister?

On the afternoon of Thursday, August 6th, I heard from Tim for the last time. He sent an email to the UU Ministers Association email chat list. His email contained many of the common qualities of his communications in general: an uncommon generosity of spirit, a deep respect for the office of ministry and for the pastoral office in particular, wisdom, and an awe-inspiring grasp of our UU history. Embedded in that email was a message to me: Tim stuck a paragraph addressed to me in the middle of the email. He complimented me on the series of UU history essays I had recently posted on my blog. He asked me to call him soon. I did not call soon enough. Approximately 48 hours later he lost consciousness for the last time.

While I grieve not having the chance to say goodbye, I can tell you with certainty how the phone call would have gone. He'd have shifted the conversation away from himself. He'd ask me with sincere interest how my life and how my ministry were going. He'd speak kind words of praise to me. He'd take the time to offer wise counsel, charging me not to forget certain offices of ministry. But, how I wish I had called him sooner!

There is so much more I could write. I could write about Tim’s Boston Terrier (of course!) named Parker (of course!) and how much joy he received from his animal companion. I’d have to mention his love of basketball and how he was not impressed by high-flying acrobatic dunks. Tim enjoyed a high school girl’s basketball game more than an NBA dunk-fest. He valued sound fundamentals and appreciated a player making an astute pass to a teammate more than he appreciated a player creating his or her own shot. This speaks volumes about his approach to ministry.

In lieu of a list of the week, I’d like to share a list of fond memories of Tim:

1) Our preaching road trip to Washington State and our ferry ride across Puget Sound in 1999.
2) Going to the North End for a delicious Italian dinner and outstanding wine during the 2003 General Assembly in Boston.
3) His introducing me to Garrison Keillor (by playing a multi-cassette Best of Tales from Lake Woebegone collection) on a road trip from Portland to Salt Lake City in 1999.
4) Two gifts from him that I treasure: a Bible and a lapel pin depicting the rainbow and the dove from the story of Noah’s Ark.
5) Meeting for coffee in Concord, Massachusetts at the conclusion of my first year in the ministry and receiving his wise counsel and wonderful insights.