Remembering Jim Fowler

My dear friend of fifty years, James W. Fowler III, died on October 16 after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease that lasted over 12 years. Jim was famous for his work on faith development, a project he started soon after he entered into a life of teaching and research.

His Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, was translated into several languages and became standard reading in theological and pedagogical institutions around the world.

Fowler Festschrift in white dress shirt and striped tie holding a red book

I only wish more people would heed his insights when they foist mini-sermons on unsuspecting five-year olds in church services! Jim went on in his final decade to lead Emory’s Ethics Center as it found its feet in the multi-verse of a sprawling complex of teaching and research where he was situated.

As towering, as they say, as he was in the academic world, Jim was also more than that. He was a man of our mountains, who could talk with the roughest worker of roads and fields in our county as well as utter poignant prayers at the bedstead of our neighbor and friend Charlie Goodson as he lay dying.

It was Jim who took me to lunch at the Golden Buddha near Emory one day over twenty-five years ago to tell me about the parcel of land that was available next to his recently completed retirement cottage on the slope of Wolfpen Mountain. We would sit, as we planned that day, on one of our decks in our later years, sip bourbon (George Dickel) and talk theology. His disease robbed us of that experience, but we still crammed in a lot of others through the years.

His wife Lurline asked me to make a few remarks at his funeral, knowing that I would turn to poetry to draw out some of our common thanks and grief. As I turned to my inner thoughts I remembered that Jim was towering in a literal as well as an intellectual sense. Above all, the image of his hands came before me and led me to the poem I share today.

I’ll begin with the prefatory remarks I made last Saturday at his well-attended funeral service at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church, situated on the Emory campus. I hope it gives you a sense of the man and why so many people were touched by his life.


As I sat down in the student seat for my first class at Harvard fifty years ago a large hand reached around from the man in front of me. A warm voice said, “Hi, I’m Jim Fowler.” And so our friendship began. Seminars and conversations formed the friendship of our minds, while earnest, hard contested handball games left us sweating and laughing at a nearby gym.

I soon learned about his heart’s home in the mountains of western North Carolina, little knowing that our lives would finally intertwine on the mountain that he and Lurline chose for their retirement years and where we have had a home for the past twenty-five years.

And I learned that he was full of gratitude and praise, praise I sometimes thought too lavish for some of those around him—until he started praising me. This was my first evidence that his faith was at a higher stage than my own!

But this expansive praise and gratitude really said that he was thankful for his life, a life he shared with others—a life that needed ever-deeper and broader community, a dream that many of us here today lived into over the years. So we, too, can lift our minds, hearts, and voices in praise and gratitude.

Toward the end of his mental life, we sat together for a long lunch on my deck, going over his poetry file—various writings that expressed his thoughts in forms beyond his academic prose.

And so, as I have tried to integrate his spirit and his memory into mine, I turn to a form that he loved, and to his hands. Hands that reached out to me as they have to so many others over the years. Hands that are an image to me of his life. And so I share these words with you.

He was within his hands

            so deep,

            his hands so large and powerful

            to hold us up,

            to bear with us.

They were capacious as his heart,

          spread open so that they could hold it,

          give it out to everyone

           as if a heartless world would faint and fall without its warmth.

They were as supple as his mind,

         shaping thoughts,

         kneading them until they formed

          a bread to share with us.

And they were quick,

snapped shut

in rhythm with his quips and booming laughter

leaping from his mouth like

startled deer

bounding out of unseen lairs.

Yes, they could clench themselves,

impatient with an obdurate unforgiving world.

They were such human hands in that.

But they could also place a diamond

         on another’s finger

         on a mountaintop

         where his heart’s home remains.

And from his fingertips through lettered keys

         flowed forth the streams of words

         in faith that someone out there listens and responds.

They were hands that spoke of mountains overflowing

  with an apple spring of blossoms

  filled with hope, longing for the sun.

As we walked up the mountain that he loved,

  we stumbled to each higher bald

  through thickets full of blackberries and briars,

  and paused at each successive view,

  where stretching out his hands

  he threw up exclamations of his gratitude,

  “So Beautiful,” he shouted to the hills.

Even when the verbs ran off,

          the scaffold of his grammar washed away,

  the hands still lifted up and brushed against the sky to utter


  as we looked into rainbows gestured by his circling hands.

When we finally reached the top

 and looked around bewildered by the grandeur of it all,

 he stood still beyond the words,

 his head above the world,

 his supplicating hands reached out,

 became the words themselves,

 his face

 flash flushed

 against the brilliant sun,

 burning radiant with God’s Glory.

Handed On

October 24, 2015

5 thoughts on “Remembering Jim Fowler”

  1. Bill,
    Your sentiments are themselves beautiful. Thank you for sharing your deeply heartfelt sentiments about a man that some of us know only through your words, yet a touching encounter for us too.

  2. Thank you for your loving remembrance of Jim Fowler. I wasn’t aware of his death or the challenges that he had to face before it.

  3. Bill, this is lovely. You have captured a wonderful man. Liz told me how great the service was and it is amazing that your stories intertwine, all you on the mountain. I am sorry for your loss. Mr. Fowler was so kind and witty the first time I met him. An amazing soul from what you have said. And even in his sickness a model of faith for those around him. He lived out the ultimate gesture of faith. Thank you for sharing these beautiful words on your blog. I feel as if I were there. Pippa

  4. What a fitting tribute to a great scholar, wonderful colleague, and a saintly human being! I was blessed with his colleagueship too. Thank you Bill.

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