Retired bishop reflects on ministry, diagnosis

akennedy@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 24, 2009 

Finally.

That’s what the sign says at Bishop Marion Edwards’ back door. Given to him by a friend, the sign means that after 40 years of living in church-owned housing, the clergyman and his wife bought their own house. The minister promised his wife that she could pick it out, and renovate it to her liking.

“It’s nice to have our own home,” Linda Edwards said.

They moved to the Harris County backwaters after Marion Edwards’ retirement in 2004. It’s a picturesque spot, with an expansive view of the water from most rooms in the house; and the company of a faithful old dog named Bruno. Things were going along pretty swimmingly until one night in June.

“Linda and I were sitting here playing Scrabble and I had chills and wasn’t feeling right,” Edwards said in a recent interview. His blood pressure was elevated, and Linda got him to St. Francis. “That’s about all I remember, until later.”

He spent three weeks at St. Francis, and five weeks at Wesley Woods, affiliated with Emory University Hospital, in Atlanta. He had septic shock, then pneumonia, and nearly died. “Because of that, they began to notice things in my chest they couldn’t account for,” the bishop said.

Doctors found a malignancy in the lungs originating from another part of his body. Turns out it was the pancreas. He’s just started chemotherapy.

He found out about the cancer in August.

“I never smoked. That’s the first thing they asked me,” he said. Edwards was then transferred to the Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta; then the Edwards decided to coordinate treatment between Emory and the John B. Amos Cancer Center in Columbus. “I’ve been on quite a journey. ... I spent 40 years dealing with people going through crises and suddenly you wake up and you’re on the other side. I might would have been more sensitive and understanding. You begin to deal with your mortality in different ways. Earlier, there’s an illusion of immortality and being in control.

“I pray for healing but I can only do that within the will of God. I’ve told people, ‘I’m not afraid to die’ but of the process of dying, even though I know I’ve got a home in heaven.

“I do want him to be healed, if possible,” said Linda.

Meanwhile they find themselves surrounded by love.

“One of the great sources of healing already has been the worldwide support,” he said. “The Council of Bishops, which meets once a year — we’re all together on email. We’ve had an outpouring of love and support from them. I have friends from when I grew up in Springfield, near Savannah. I hear from them and am reminded how I’m being supported. That is a source of healing. “I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for the community of faith. ... Linda is a tower of strength and support, and she also suffers the pain,” Bishop Edwards said.

She is the former Linda Layfield of Columbus. The couple have three children and two grandchildren. The couple met in 1957 while students at Young Harris College in north Georgia. They married in 1962. Bishop Edwards served churches around the South Georgia Conference until his election as a bishop in 1996. (His last pulpit was St. Luke in Columbus, for eight years.)

In his illness, “I see God as very present. I’ve not experienced any kind of anger but it’s ironic that I walked up to death’s door and I got through that and I’d been exercising and walking, and then to get the news. I’ve wondered why you get saved from one experience and suddenly another one is thrust upon you. ... But I do know that attitude has a great deal to do with healing. Some respond to chemo, and Dr. (Andy) Pippas said there’s no way to understand why some do and some don’t. Right now I have no symptoms to speak of.

“I’ll never forget the night the doctor told me I have multiple spots. Subsequently they sent me to get biopsies. He said he was 95 percent sure it was malignant. That was sobering. Since that time, I’ve gone through valleys and peaks and I’m learning to live day by day, with the realities. If God can get some glory out of it, healing would make sense. But if not, there is the other kind of healing. Right now I’m coping with it.”

Two relatives who are clergymen have been strong supports in recent days. His brother, the Rev. Bill Edwards of Kennesaw, Ga., is a retired United Methodist minister. And a cousin he hadn’t been in touch with for years, the Rev. Jim Rentz, is a Baptist minister and counselor in Spartanburg, S.C. Marion Edwards’ primary care physician,Dr.Tom Wade, suggested he find a spiritual guide to go through the cancer journey with him. He turned to his cousin.

“That was a good idea. ... The older I get, the less I know. You live under the illusionthatyouhaveacorneron the earth and you’ve got the answers. And as a minister, you’re in a calling of preaching and counseling and pastoral care, and you’re in the business of helping people through life’s dilemmas. It puts you in a position of having all the answers, theological or otherwise. I’m humbled by the fact that I don’t have all the answers,” Edwards said.

The first occasion he had to preach after his illness this summer was Oct. 4 at Fort Valley United Methodist Church. It was homecoming. The church holds significance for him because it’s where he got his start. Edwards was the youth minister from 1960-62.

“I was impressed that he hadclearedeverythingelseon his calendar but this event,” said the Rev. Ellis Carpenter, pastor of the Fort Valley church.

The Rev. Helen Berenthien’s first introduction to Edwards was in 1991. They talked for an hour on the phone, when she was a senior seminarian in Atlanta and he was interested in hiring her as his associate at St. Luke. They then had subsequent in-person meetings. There was some concern that Berenthien, a former attorney, was 60 years old. Edwards thought “we might get a couple of good years out of her.”

Eighteen years later, Berenthien still works at St. Luke; and they laugh about it now.

“He believed in me and he helped me all along the way,” she said. “He is such a precious person.” With his illness, Berenthien has noticed “a calmnessandan assurance. He said to me, ‘I didn’t want this to happen and I hoped to serve God longer; but it’s in God’s hands.’”

Berenthien noted that even though cancer is an unwelcomediagnosis,doctorsmay not have found it had Edwards not had pneumonia.

To remind him of God’s presence, Edwards carries in his pocket a cross made of cedar. It folds neatly around his fingers. A minister in North Carolina made it for him and sent it. Fingering the cross in his left hand, he said: “Through theyearsatnightI’veprayed, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray to God my soul to take.’

“The secret of the Psalmist is Psalm 118. One day is all we’ve got.”

For as long as he can remember, the ordained ministry was Plan A.

“I had a conviction and a sense that God wanted me to be a minister. I was in youth programs growing up and then had an opportunity to associate with numerous pastors and was impressed by them. ... Being the pastor of a church is a great experience. There’s nothing like it but I think God did gift me with the ability to work with pastors and lay people, as a district superintendent, and then as a bishop; and I hope I made a difference.”

Berenthien thinks he has only improved as a preacher in recent years. He occasionally preaches and teaches at St. Luke, where Linda Edwards is a member.

During his eight years as a bishop, he pointed to two highlights that bear his footprints: the founding of a United Methodist seminary in Moscow, where the chapel is named for him and Linda, and for which he helped raise money toward the $50 million price tag. And in North Carolina, the Merci Mission Center, founded in 1999 in Goldsboro, assists with disaster relief. Hurricanes Fran and Floyd followed on the heels of his arrival as the North Carolina bishop; and he helped organize cleanup and relief through the storms.

“Since then I was called the Disastrous Bishop,” he joked.

Mission and outreach have been two passions. When he was at St. Luke, he helped the church become a 50/50 congregation, meaning half the collections went to the operation of the church, and half went out — locally and globally. And soon before his retirement, Stuart Gulley, then the President of LaGrange College, asked if he would becomeBishop-in-Residence for the school. “Sometimes when bishops retire they’ll settle in a local church or a school,” Edwards said. “My primary role is roving ambassador for the college, in the South Georgia and North Georgia conferences and into the Carolinas.” He plans to speak again on behalf of the school, depending on his course of treatment.

He and Linda were watching a movie recently and this was the message:

“The years reveal what the days miss. The wisdom of the years gives you the knowledge and perspective that the days cannot give.

“If I could carry back what these last six weeks have taught me, it would have given me a lot deeper sensitivity to people and their hurts.”

For instance, many years ago a woman in one of his churches came to him upon learning her teen-aged daughterwas pregnant. “Themother was a very religious woman and she was struggling with the question of abortion and what to do. I’ll never forget what she said: ‘You have just not lived long enough to understand.’ I couldn’t begin to know what she was dealing with.”

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