Friday, January 15, 2021

Confluence on Inauguration Day

The word “inauguration” (New Oxford Dictionary) means, “The beginning or introduction of a system, policy or period; the formal admission of someone to office; a ceremony to mark the beginning of something.” 

Next week our country will hold its Presidential Inauguration.  It will be in the foreground briefly against a current backdrop of political turmoil, last week’s violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, and a worldwide health crisis. And more turmoil, more attacks are threatened.

It is my prayer that on that day we can begin to heal and find ways to mend our chasms of deep division. We all bring converging ways of thinking, believing and being. 

There is a tiny city (population 780) in Western Pennsylvania, in a borough of Somerset County, known as “Confluence.”  It is named as such because it is a place where three rivers come together: the Casselman, Laurel Hill Creek and Youghiogheny rivers. When these rivers meet, there is turbulence but also the benefit of becoming a bigger river, which makes this area a great place to do fishing and boating.

Great things can happen if we flow in the same direction

Divergent political thoughts (be they Republican, Democrat or Independent) often create turbulence. If we can somehow manage to flow in the same direction, like these rivers, some big—indeed, great—things can happen in the future.

Everyone thrives when we work together as a nation for the good of all. At the end of the day, rivers are all made of the same water; and we are all God’s children made in the same image and likeness of God. We are all different by the design of our Creator, so that we can accomplish all that is needed through our different gifts and passions.

On January 20, 2021, may we inaugurate not just a new President or his new policies, but a new period of respect and cooperation that will yield peace and prosperity for all. May that be especially true for those who are poor and oppressed, who live in the dim margins of our nation’s bright political and economic fortunes.

This can only be accomplished as we seek to do the will of God, acknowledging and using the resources of the Holy Spirit. Psalm 85:10 expresses my prayer for the future of our country: that “steadfast love and faithfulness meet and righteousness and peace kiss each other.” May it be so!



Monday, January 4, 2021

Thoughts on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Celebrate MLK’s birthday weekend, Jan. 15-18

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  You may have always wondered about his name. Was he or his father named for a famed, rebellious monk and professor who left the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s? 

MLK, Jr., much like his German namesake of long ago, also began a reformation—not of religion but of race, as he led a pivotal civil rights movement for racial equality in this country. It was truly a movement because it continues to ripple out in ever-expanding circles of justice-seeking social change.

The story behind his name comes from Dr. King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. (1897-1984). He was named Michael King by his parents, and he named his son Michael King when the future civil rights leader was born in 1929.

From ‘Michael’ to ‘Martin’

In 1934, the elder King, who was at the time the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., traveled to Berlin, Germany, for the World Baptist Alliance. During that trip abroad, he also visited France and the Holy Land.  Afterwards he changed his name to Martin Luther King.

When asked about it, he said he had an uncle named “Martin” and another uncle named “Luther.” But one can only surmise that his visit to the home of the Reformation and its leader also spurred his interest in the name he adopted.

Throughout his ministry in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Sr. was a brave and tireless reformer working for racial equality. His passion for justice burned even brighter after his visit to Europe.

“Daddy King,” as he would come to be known affectionately, was active in the NAACP. He led a huge voter registration drive in Atlanta, braved numerous personal threats, and worked for the equalization of salaries for African American teachers, to name just a few of his achievements.

‘I am a man.’

The elder King was once pulled over by a police officer for a minor traffic violation, and the officer called him “Boy.”  Martin Jr., who was in the car, observed as his father pointed to him and said boldly, “This is a boy. I am a man.”  The chastened officer quickly wrote the ticket and moved on. 

Ironically, those same self-affirming words, “I am a man,” were emblazoned on signs worn by Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., when they marched for fair treatment and racial equality in 1968. MLK Jr. went there to march with them and help lead their fight when he was tragically assassinated April 4.


One cannot over-emphasize the legacy of justice and reform that was instilled in both the heart and the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. From his father he learned and experienced first-hand the meaning of the Christian “social gospel” of liberation for the oppressed.

From his father he learned how to work through the system to bring about change. His father taught him to take risks for the greater good and to bravely speak “truth to power.”

Our decisions, actions proclaim who we are

Today our decisions and actions—or our indecision and inaction—whether to seek justice for all or to accept the status quo of inequality—make our lives visible billboards that proclaim who we are and what we believe. Whether we intend it or not, we are role models for younger generations and even for one another.

If we claim the name of Christ in our faith, then we should live up to that name, as MLK Jr. lived up to his. We should strive to be living examples of the one whom we claim to follow.

What do young people learn from you?  How does your life demonstrate a profound commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who came to set captives free and bring recovery of sight to the blind—the literally and spiritually blind of this world?  

I ponder these questions as I celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He set a fire of justice on a thousand hills that continues to blaze brightly.  He lived up to his name and to the principles of his faith. Let us all try harder to do the same.   

Resources:  

Also, read How Martin Luther influenced Martin Luther King Jr.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Believe


This time of year, the word “Believe” shows up in curious places. It’s printed on glossy department store shopping bags and sewn on wooly Christmas sweaters. 

It is a comfy word, kind of holy but not too holy, because, after all, the Christmas season has become more of a festival of commercialism, family gatherings, and feasting—but less about Jesus or his mission. 

Madison Avenue would still like to maintain an air of magic in its advertising by using the word “Believe.” It is something you can’t buy, something miraculous, even if that only means telling a little girl, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” to believe in.  Deep down inside we all want to believe in something beyond ourselves, something reassuring and eternal. Such things cannot be purchased at the mall and placed under the Christmas tree.

Bedrock of the Christian faith

Believing is the bedrock of the Christian faith.  It is the affirmation of what we know and profess about God’s mission to save the world.  Believing in Jesus means we are trusting in him for the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life.  But it doesn’t stop there. 

Christians are called to live in alignment with the essence of the teachings of Jesus, who is present with us in the Spirit once we believe.  We become his agents, so that when people see what we do in is name, they too may come to believe and follow Jesus. Believing is a lifetime of service, not just a one-time decision of the heart.

What does your witness look like? When people encounter you in the world, do they experience the love, acceptance, generosity and grace of Jesus in you?  Can people with heavy loads to bear believe that God really cares about them because of the generosity that you extend?  Do people from a different ethnic background experience the hospitality and kindness that you would give to Jesus himself? 

Leo Tolstoy’s classic Christmas story “Martin the Cobbler” features a poor cobbler who was told in a dream that Jesus would visit him on Christmas Day. Instead of Jesus at the door, there were three needy visitors, and he helped each one.  By the end of the day, Martin was sad that he did not receive a visit from Jesus as promised.

‘To one of the least of these…’

In a vision, the Lord explained that the three needy visitors Martin helped were indeed his visit in disguise. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  (Matthew 25:40).

Still today, Jesus visits us in the anxious faces and outstretched hands of persons in need—the stranger, the alien and even those we don’t particularly like.  As we serve them with grace and generosity, we are proclaiming to the world what we believe and whom we serve. This is a profound way to inspire belief in our divided world. It is our very best tool of evangelism.

Believing is not just a wistful word, the lyric of a song or a shiny decoration on a Christmas tree.  It is a two-fold process of faith and works.  The two are inseparable, as we navigate through our Christian journey in the world and especially at Christmas. That is when the world is looking and listening a little more closely for signs of hope, for good news and for something to truly believe in.



Friday, November 20, 2020

“Rejoice!”

Deacon Jerome Kiel and his wife Marie

Deacon Jerome Kiel was the only Deaf Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Baltimore years ago when I was serving as the pastor of an all-Deaf United Methodist congregation.

It was significant that he achieved the office of Deacon because holy orders were rare for culturally Deaf people who used sign language exclusively.  This was true not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but also among United Methodist and other mainline denominations. 

Deacon Jerome was a faithful pastoral presence at the “Little Flower” Deaf congregation for many years. He was at the end of his ministry when I was beginning mine, and I appreciated so much his ministerial wisdom and gentle patience with my rookie mistakes.

Back then, the Roman Catholic, United Methodist and Lutheran Deaf congregations in Baltimore offered many shared. ecumenical events, especially during the seasons of Advent and Lent.  Our Wednesday night dinners and worship services gave us a chance to learn about each other’s beliefs and traditions. We had so much in common. 

During Advent one year, I learned from Deacon Jerome the meaning of the pink candle on the Advent Wreath.  I was mistakenly taught that it was the last candle to be lit during the four Sundays of Advent and it signified God’s love at Christmas. That was not the true story at all! 

Advent began in the 4th century when the church was getting more converts than it could handle because Emperor Constantine had declared that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire.  Prior to that time people preparing for baptism would do so exclusively during the season of Lent. Then they would be baptized and brought into church membership on Easter Sunday.


With so many new candidates for baptism, the church needed to offer a second option. That became the season of Advent (prior to Christmas); and baptism would happen on Epiphany Day, January 6..

Because of that, the Advent season was marked as a time of preparatory penance for sin, personal examination and prayer. The liturgical color for sorrow and repentance is purple, as it is during the season of Lent.

Pink (or rose), the color of “joy,” became a part of the Catholic Mass every year on the third Sunday of Advent. The opening missal (a book containing the texts used in the Catholic Mass throughout the year) included the Latin word “Gaudete,” which literally is a command to “rejoice.”  (There was also a designated “pink” Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as “Laetare,” which calls for Jerusalem to “rejoice”.)

The church taught that in the midst of this season of penitence and sorrow, there needed to be a reminder about the joy of the Lord.  It was a call to rejoice in the truth that Jesus has come, is with us, and will come again. Nothing can separate us from that relentless love of God. 

I thought this was a wonderful thing since pink has always been my favorite color. During the years of my pastoral ministry, I took full advantage of “Gaudete Sunday” with pink bulletins, pink flowers, pink offering envelopes, pink altar cloths, etc. The worship service on the third Sunday of Advent was always a time of rejoicing, second only to Christmas Eve. 

Deacon Jerome died one morning after a long illness during the season of Advent.  A box arrived at my church a few months later. In it was an amazing and deeply meaningful gift: Deacon Jerome’s pink Deacon stole. I have kept it as a cherished reminder of this saint who knew the meaning of the joy that comes from serving God with generosity, compassion and love.

This year’s Advent season comes at a time when our church struggles to keep preparations for the coming of Christ at the forefront of our minds. As usual, we seek spiritual introspection while the world is screaming for holiday festivities and non-stop commercialism.


But this Advent season is most unusual, burdened by the threat of more COVID infections, political unrest in our country and theological division in our church. It might be hard to “rejoice” on that third Sunday of Advent when you cannot hold regular Christmas services in the same way due to social distancing concerns. Our cherished gatherings of family and friends are also clouded with concerns and fears of becoming viral “super spreader” events.

“Gaudete” calls us, commands us, begs us to “Rejoice” nonetheless, because when we rejoice even in the midst sorrow, difficulty and uncertainty, it is an affirmation of faith that God is still God.  “Emmanuel” means God is with us. 

God will work all things together for good, even when we can’t see our way forward.  When we rejoice something deep within us feels the joy of the Lord that is not dependent on circumstances but rather on that “peace that passes understanding.”

We need Gaudete Sunday more this year than ever.  Light a pink candle in your heart and on your altar. Celebrate the joy of the Lord.  Also, remember to do something to bring joy to someone else whose journey is especially lonely and difficult this year.  Spread the “pink!”  Rejoice!


References:

www.umc.org “History of Advents for United Methodists”

The Catholic Herald, December 8, 2016

www.catholic.org  December 8, 2004

Thursday, October 29, 2020

‘Do No Harm’


The “Three Simple Rules” offered to us by our Methodist founder John Wesley are:

  1. Do no harm.

  2. Do good.

  3. Attend to the ordinances of God (that is, spiritual disciplines that keep you close to God).

It is no small matter that the first of the three is “Do no harm.” Everything we do has a potential for harm.

Striving to “do no harm” compels us to think before we act, with a focus on how our actions might affect other people. Something that may seem harmless to us may be seriously harmful to others, depending on their life situations, culture or other circumstances.

We can’t do enough to be culturally competent Christians, always learning and exploring the values, histories and life experiences of people whose cultures are different from our own. Sadly, racism and white supremacy have blinded many European-Americans from seeing the harm they often cause. Such is the case with sports team names and mascots that misappropriate Native American images and cultures, and that too often depict them in derogatory, harmful, stereotypical ways.


According to the National Congress of American Indians the name “Redsk*ns is a racial slur that is rooted in a governmental bounty announcement calling for the bloody scalps of Native Americans in the 1800’s.”

Many sports teams use mascots that depict Native people as savage, violent people. And while some may think their depictions are somehow positive or even noble, they are nonetheless a misappropriation—indeed, a theft—of Native identities that don’t belong to them. As some Native advocates say, “We are not your Indians.”

Such misuse of cultural imagery contributes to the disregard of Native peoples’ personhood as an important community in the family of God. There is a high rate of hate crimes committed against Native Americans as a result of this negative influence, and it creates serious psychological, social and cultural harm. (www.ncai.org/proudtobe)

UMC stands against Native American mascots

The United Methodist Church has long advocated for the removal of such sports team names and mascots. Our 2016 Book of Resolutions states that, “It is demeaning to depict Native Americans as violent and aggressive by naming a sports team such as the ‘Braves’ or the ‘Warriors.’ The use of such names is not conducive to development of a society committed to the common good of all its citizenry, not to the self-esteem of Native children…Furthermore we urge all United Methodist-related universities, colleges, and schools to replace any mascots that demean and offend our Native American sisters and brothers. We also support efforts throughout our society to replace such mascots and symbols.” (pages 334, 335).


Teaching about this is a way of “doing no harm” and “doing good” at the same time. Society is slowly, finally waking up to this offense, and I thank God for the progress we are seeing.

The NFL team formerly known as the Washington Redsk*ns is now the “Washington Football Team,” effective July 23, 2020, until they decide on a new name. This action comes after decades of much grassroots advocacy to change the name. Suddenly, in the midst of the surging Black Lives Matter movement, pressure from now-conscientious corporate sponsors finally won the day.

Each one of us can speak out about things like this in our various spheres of influence. You don’t have to be a corporate sponsor to politely engage, educate and encourage others to do good and to refrain from doing or abetting harm.

The stereotypical, inaccurate depiction of Native American people and practices in old western movies is harmful. So is the inappropriate misuse of Native American traditional dress as costumes. It is important for all of us to be informed, insightful and respectful.

Doing good to reverse harm


I am happy to have heard a newscast recently about an Irish lacrosse team that bowed out of the 2022 World Games in Alabama so that the Iroquois Nationals can take their spot. (
NPR October 1, 2020). This Native American team from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was excluded from participating because they were not from a “sovereign nation.” It was sadly ironic because the Haudenosaunee were the originators of the game of lacrosse, which they initially called the “medicine game.”

People rallied in support of this team, and 50,000 people signed a petition calling for the organizers to reconsider. The organizers recognized this was a mistake; but the roster of eight teams was full.

That is when the team from Ireland, one of eight that made the roster, decided to reverse this harm and instead to “do good.” They gave up their place in the competition, saying that no one would be going to these world games in the first place if the Iroquois (part of the Haudenosaunee confederacy) had not invented the game of lacrosse.

As many of us now say, “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God!” There are so many ways we can live this out, as we strive faithfully to navigate our lives with gentleness and respect for all people, in obedience to God. Find your voice, use it to speak out for others, and make a real difference. Our world needs it now more than ever.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Don’t forget to V.O.T.E

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I am happy to announce that I completed my mail-in ballot and have officially voted in the fall 2020 election.  Whatever your political affiliation, I urge you to be sure to vote.

The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens,” according to the United Methodist Social Principles (para. 164 in the 2016 Book of Discipline).I encourage you to participate in the following important ways:

V – stands for “volunteer.”  Volunteer to help a neighbor, friend or family member cast their vote by driving or accompanying them to the polling place or helping them to cast their ballot by mail.

O – stands for “open mind.”  Study the candidates’ positions and platforms to determine your choices.  Have open and civil conversations with people regarding some of the important issues that are a part of this election season.

T – stands for “teach.”  Teach people about the “strong ethical influence” (Social Principles) the church needs to exercise in order to insure a fair election process. Identify and challenge policies and practices used to limit or suppress voter participation—such as, closing and limiting the number of polling places, stoking confusion about voting by mail, locating unauthorized ballot drop-off boxes in communities, etc. In our country’s long history, there have been overt attempts to exclude people from voting, especially among people of color, women, college students and the poor. The “people called Methodists” believe that all are of sacred worth and have a right to a legitimate place in the election process in a free democracy.

E – stands for “engage in prayer.”  No matter the outcome of this election, there is much we as citizens of this country can do together to promote the welfare of all. Pray for God’s Spirit to move among us as a nation during this time to inspire with peace, transparency and civility. There should be no place for mud-slinging and mean-spirited rhetoric and actions. 

Many United Methodist bishops, including myself, signed onto a letter, titled A Crisis of Faith and Democracy,” which further describes our civic duties as followers of Jesus Christ. May God be with us as we journey toward Election Day 2020 and beyond.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Say the Name


By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

While marching in a peaceful protest this spring there were many people carrying signs bearing the names of African Americans who had died in fatal encounters with law enforcement officers. These names were chanted over and over again as we walked along the streets. 

The name that stuck out for me was Breonna Taylor, the only woman on the list. Her case, seeking justice for her killing in a botched police raid on her home in Louisville, Kentucky, reached a disappointing conclusion last week. It has taken a long time for many anxious people. 

Many people in Louisville are seeking more information from the Grand Jury. That body, in secret deliberations, ruled that no one would be charged in the death of this much-beloved emergency medical technician with a bright future ahead of her. Taylor’s tragic death happened back in March when police, using a “no knock” warrant for a drug investigation, shot and killed this innocent, unarmed, 26-year-old woman in her home. 

Since that time, “no knock” warrants have been outlawed by the state. And the city announced it would pay a $12 million settlement—but not admit official wrongdoing—in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Breonna Taylor’s grieving family. The city promised to make other policing changes also. But there are still calls for more justice; and there are still protests in the streets.

What do we, as people of God, do about this?  It is tempting to be silent and move on with our lives, and see this as “one more sad thing.”  There are shootings in our streets every night locally as well.  We are all weary of the pandemic, the catastrophic weather incidences, the out-of-control fires out west, and the unending political polarization in our country.

However, we must not be weary in well-doing. There is always something we can do, even when we are tired. My suggestion?  Continue to “say the name.”  

“Say the name” of Breonna Taylor and others who are victims of injustice in this world. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This controversy in Louisville affects all of us. 

So, we should have conversations about how we as a nation can do a better job at restorative justice—that is, justice that not only brings an end to conflict but also tries to help individuals and communities find healing.  Retributive justice is the easier, faster but more polarizing path. Restorative justice changes systems, and it can heal hurts and wounds. It brings everyone into the beloved community. 

Christianity is founded on a system of justice inaugurated by our Savior, Jesus Christ, whose suffering and death binds us together as one family of God which seeks to restore people on all sides of a debate.  There is still hurt in Louisville because there is not yet full restoration. “Say the name” so that conversations about justice continue to happen in your sphere of influence.

Say the name” of Breonna Taylor because the names of women who have died at the hands of law enforcement are not as prominent as the names of men.  We might surmise that fewer women are involved in these cases in; but I believe there is a gender bias. Women of color have been largely marginalized in this society, and their tragic deaths often are less reported. 

Learn the stories and remember the names of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, Shantel Davis, Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson, Ralkina Jones, Charleena Lyles, Alexis McGovern, Yvette Smith, Ayaina Staley-Jones, Raynetta Turner, Janisha Fonville, Natasha McKenna, Eleanor Bumpurs, Tyisha Miller, LaTanya Haggerty, Margaret Mitchell, India Kager, Mariam Carey, Kendra James, Sharmel Edwards, Adaisha Miller, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Alexia Christian, Mya Hall, Kayla Moore and Tarika Wilson.  All of these women have died in recent years in violent law enforcement encounters.  

Courtney Bryan is an African American musician and composer who composed a work entitled “Yet Unheard” for symphony and chorus.  This masterpiece raises the name of Sandra Bland and continues the conversation about women who have experienced violence but their cases have not been resolved.  Say the names of women you know of in your context as well.

“Say the name” of Breonna Taylor (and all those in our country working for justice) in your prayers. Prayer is still the most powerful force on earth and the one largely ignored, even by God’s people.  Pray for individuals, families, police officers, state officials, courts of law and our churches.  

We usually pray asking God to act; but our prayers should also spur us into action, especially as we listen for God’s response. So, pray that we will work for peace, at God’s direction, and that we will listen to each other, especially those with whom we disagree. 

Listen, hear and heed the voice of God when it gives us direction as to what steps we should take to help to bind the wounds of this nation.  Pray all of this in the name of Jesus, who bids each of us to take up our cross of sacrificial commitment to true justice, peace and righteousness. 

Say Christ’s name, for there is real power in the name of Jesus. And as we do, let us echo the names of those forgotten victims—both living and dead—whom Christ calls us to remember. 

Conference to hold prayer walk in Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As pain and tensions continue about prosecutorial decisions in the killing of Breonna Taylor, the Kentucky Conference will hold a prayer walk for healing, concluding in a worship service in Louisville’s Jefferson Square Park. "Seeing Through Another's Eyes: A Prayer Walk & Worship Service for Healing" is set for Sunday, Oct. 4, at 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time. The event will be livestreamed on the conference Facebook page. Read announcement. Prayer in the midst of sorrow. Commentary: Moving forward from here