Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Eclipse 2017: A moment in time


If you haven’t heard we are expecting a “Great American Eclipse” on August 21. The moon will pass across the sun in such a way that the sun will be blocked for a short time. All that many will see is the corona, or crown, of the sun peaking out behind the moon.

This will occur across the continental United States, where we will be able to see varying degrees of darkness, depending on where we live. Those residing in areas along a diagonal path that stretches from Oregon to South Carolina will be able to witness this phenomena in its fullness, with the moon blocking the sun completely. In the Northeast, our view of the eclipse will occur in the afternoon.


A solar eclipse to this degree has not occurred in the United States since June 8, 1918. But there have been many other eclipses through the years.

According to The Scientific American (August 11, 2017), an eclipse is a great opportunity for scientists to study the sun by examining the corona as the moon passes by. That radiant crown is described as “ethereal wisps of superheated plasma.” It can best be seen during an eclipse, although scientists can study the sun at other times as well.

During this brief window of opportunity, “eclipse scientists” will examine the magnetic field of the sun, test next-generation technologies, create thermal maps and learn about the chemistry of the corona and what makes it heat up. All of this must happen in a short span of time. They must be prepared and use their time well.

The Apostle Paul speaks about time in Ephesians 5:16. He encourages us to “be very careful how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity because the days are evil.”

Indeed, time, like the eclipse, flies by us, and we must not delay in doing the things that God has called us to do while we have the chance to do them. We do not always get a second opportunity to do that act of kindness, make that contribution, encourage a friend, or share our faith with someone who is struggling. Every delay can lead to more delays, and every lost opportunity is a lost blessing.

What have you been putting off that needs to be done? Who is God nudging you to contact? Don’t put it off. As Jesus said, “As long as it is day, I must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” (John 9:4).

Make the most of your gift of time and precious opportunities today!


How to look at the eclipse without burning your eyes


Sunglasses are not nearly strong enough. Filters made from food wrappers and other household materials? Also a bad idea. Even masks designed for gas welding are not going to cut it.

For the millions planning to watch the Aug. 21 solar eclipse, ophthalmologists say proper eye protection is essential. Staring at the sun — even when three-quarters of it is blocked by the moon, as it will be in much of Pennsylvania and New Jersey — can damage eyesight. Read more

Monday, July 31, 2017

All I need to know about life


A number of years ago there was a book titled All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. It highlighted some of the basic life lessons many of us learned as children, such as: share everything; play fair; don’t hit people; put things back where you found them; be aware of wonder; hold hands and stick together; and so on.

I would like to say that all I need to know I learned from United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries in the Philadelphia Area. In the Eastern PA Conference we have Carson-Simpson Farm Christian Center, Gretna Glen Camp and Retreat Center, Innabah Program Center and Pocono Plateau Camp and Retreat Center. In the Peninsula-Delaware Conference we have the Pecometh Camp and Retreat Ministries.

All of them teach essential lessons that lives of faith can offer. In the Christian community modeled at our camps people—especially young people—learn:
  • how to share, both in giving and receiving generosity; 
  • how to respect people and value diversity; 
  • how to seek fairness and reject violence; 
  • how to appreciate and care for our bodies, our souls and all of Creation; and 
  • how to “hold hands and stick together” even with people who may think and feel differently from us. 
Campers learn about the wonders of nature as they share time in the woods, in a lake, at the river, on a mountain. Campers hear Jesus Christ’s wonderful words of life and are invited to accept Christ as Savior and Lord. Some, like many before them, receive and accept their call to serve in ministry and mission at camp. It is a place where we learn all we need to know.

This summer I was privileged to visit three camps. I got to see the wonderful Grandparent and Grandchildren Camp at Innabah and the Day Camp program at Carson Simpson, where sign language was taught and Deaf visitors who attend Lighthouse Fellowship UMC in Glenside came to see the young people sign songs.

I also took part in a new camp at Pecometh where Deaf children and their parents came for a family retreat, as well as a weeklong Deaf Adult Group Home camp. All of these camps were full of joy and activity, of people learning and sharing with one another, valuing diversity and appreciating who they were and whose they were.

The giftedness and grace of campers, along with selfless volunteers and staff, can create in these special settings, during these special times, personal and community wholeness. Experiencing worship and learning stories of Jesus here can change lives and reach the hearts of young people who may not otherwise attend our churches on Sundays.

This is really important ministry; and I urge all of our congregations to support our Camp and Retreat Centers generously with your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service and your enthusiastic witness. They are God’s special place apart, where we share the life and light of Christ to make disciples and transform lives.


Monday, July 17, 2017

‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’

There was a song a long time ago by Bobby McFerrin that goes like this:
            “Here is a little song I wrote
            You might want to sing it note for note
            Don’t worry, be happy
            In every life we have some trouble
            When you worry you make it double
            Don’t worry, be happy.”
This might seem a bit simplistic or na├»ve or maybe even impossible, but these words are also a message from Jesus. 
On the “Sermon on the Mount” he says: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” (Matthew 6:25).  We do worry because some things in this life make us fearful and often seem to challenge our very existence. 
Looking around this world, it does not take long to have concern about the endless wars in the Middle East, North Korean long-range missile testing, senseless mass killings, deaths of so many people of color caused by law enforcement officers, and deaths of law enforcement officers, global warming, and Congressional efforts to eliminate healthcare safety nets.
Even our denomination’s fractious conversations about unity versus separation can cause distress. The list of things to worry about seems endless, and indeed, when we worry that list seem to double.  
Did Jesus know all of this when he told us not to worry about our lives?  Some very bad things happen in life that do not get fixed up with happy endings like in the movies. 
But Jesus takes us up on a mountain, above the sorrows and struggles of life, and tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33) This is the bigger picture that goes beyond our present moment and lives on into eternity.
Jesus knows about our sorrows. He was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), and he promises to be with us in our suffering.
As we keep our eyes open, seeking first the kingdom of God above all else, even our hard times can be used for good. We can help others who are walking along our journey of suffering, by offering them the empathy and support that only those on the path can give. 
We can look to the promise of heaven where all things are made right and justice prevails. This is our ultimate answer when the things of life cannot bring restoration and healing. We can work to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God while we are still here. Then as we do, we will find true meaning and purpose in life, and we will be sustained in hope.
It all comes down to faith. Faith is that which we cannot see but the substance of which gives us full confidence.  Faith gives us the patience, peace and hope for the future, despite the fearful conditions of this life.
“God is with us, and God is faithful.” You might want to sing that song, that blessed assurance, note for note. Jesus reminds us not to worry like the Gentiles (or like those who don’t know God). So, believers, “Don’t worry, be happy.” 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Pastoral Transitions


This is the week in most annual conferences in the United States known as “transition week.” Pastors who are moving to another assignment typically begin on July 1. There is a period of welcome and adjustment to a new environment, a new group of people, a new place to live and all the million things that go into a move.

Many pastors have spouses and children who transition with them, so it is not just the pastor who has many adjustments to make. Churches too have new things to get used to as they welcome new pastors. And there is often a bittersweet mixture of “good-byes” and “hellos” in the hearts of church members.

I ask that you do the following things listed below. (These suggestions are based on concerns that come up every year during transition week.)
  1. Pray for those in transition: pastors, families and churches
  2. Churches need to welcome their new pastors and new families with as much hospitality and love as they can muster. 
  3. Pastors need to leave their churches when they leave their churches, and not continue to have pastoral ties with families in ways that interfere with the ministry of the new pastor. At least a one-year window of absence from all contact is requested, unless one is invited back by the new pastor for some reason.
  4. Parsonages need to be left clean and repaired. 
  5. Pastors should attempt to learn about the new church before changing the worship style and things that people are used to doing. There is plenty of time to make changes, once people get to know the pastor and everyone understands each other. 
  6. Contact the district superintendent if there are any concerns about salaries or promises made at the pastoral take-in. They are there to help. 
Remember to pray for our retired pastors who may not be assuming a pastoral assignment in retirement. They are starting a new journey of life and need our support as well.

The itinerant system of moving pastors is not perfect, but it has many advantages. The gifts of pastors vary greatly. With pastoral changes churches get to enjoy a variety of expressions of worship and styles of ministry that can bring health, strength and imagination to our congregations.

The most important thing is to keep the goal of preaching the gospel and making disciples as the driving passion of the church. God will lead both pastor and church into new, potentially exciting opportunities for spiritual growth and outreach.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

To love and welcome all


Bishop Johnson (right) with the Rev, Herb Snyder
I had not planned to attend the Philadelphia Gay Pride Parade on Sunday, June 18.  Even though it was mentioned in one of our annual conference resolutions as a place that the church should be present, I imagined it to be a secular and not very sanctified event.

Since I was leaving to travel to Pittsburgh for an NEJ College of Bishops meeting that day, I was sure that time would not permit me to join the parade. However, God had other plans for my day. 

My husband Mike was asked to preach at Historic St. George’s UMC in downtown Philadelphia that morning. A member of the church told us the Gay Pride Parade was in walking distance of the church, and it would begin just around the time church service was over. Down 4th Street and onto Market Street we went with our faithful church member, who served as both our walking guide and our interpreter about the LGBTQ community. 

What I saw was much of what one would expect: a colorful, Mardi Gras-like celebration with much dancing, music, beads and candy tossed to onlookers.  What I did not expect were the many floats and marchers who were there as support groups that offer health care, education, family resources, counseling and yes, spiritual guidance--practicing what we so often preach.

There were people of all ethnicities, ages, and abilities present. A number of churches and interfaith groups were marching in the parade, including several of our Eastern PA Conference churches. Their message was about being welcome and sharing the love of God with and for all people.  I am so glad that the Church—our Church—was present there proclaiming this embracing, life-giving message.

I respectfully acknowledge, with every ounce of my bishop’s heart, that there are Christians of goodwill in our conferences who do not agree about issues around homosexuality and gender identity. Nonetheless, we are mandated by our Discipline to be in ministry with all people, and all means all. 

All means all 
All people includes this part of the world’s humanity. God makes the Judgment call at the end of the day, whatever that will be; so it is not our job. For far too long we have been arguing over particulars, authoring and amending resolutions, and speculating about a church schism. But all we are asked to do is simply to love and welcome all people. 

I encourage all our churches to exercise our denominational mandate to be inclusive. There is grace to be found when you meet and listen to the stories of people who are different from you. Be willing to stretch beyond your “comfort zones” and go there to listen and connect with them.

Christ calls us to invite and welcome folks—different folks—into our churches and activities. It means we need to go into communities and engage people where they are—where they live, celebrate, suffer and struggle daily to gain dignity, human rights and loving acceptance.


Editor’s Note: At the Eastern PA Annual Conference June 15-17, Resolution 2017-11 encouraged all churches to practice Radical Welcome to LGBT persons. It explained that, “practicing radical welcome can be defined as holding or participating in special events in June (Pride Happenings) and October (Coming Out Happenings) to let LGBTQ people in our churches and communities know that they are welcome in our churches, and by offering special prayers for the LGBTQ people and their families in our churches and communities on a special Sunday in the months of June and October.

The resolution further recommended “that the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference invite the Reconciling United Methodists of Eastern Pennsylvania and other interested churches to represent the Conference as a welcoming presence at Pride Parades and Outfests in their communities in June and October 2017. Presenters withdrew the resolution after efforts by some conference members to amend it with deletions during debate.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A response to the opioid epidemic


When we hear the word “epidemic” we typically think of a disease like Ebola or some virus or infection that spreads rapidly and causes much illness and death. In the case of the current opioid epidemic, the disease is addiction and the results are as catastrophic as any killer disease.

Our country is currently experiencing a staggering pandemic of drugs that is taking the lives of millions and causes misery and sorrow to millions more family members and friends of the victims. The statistics are unbelievable. According to the health department, in 2016 there were 4,642 drug overdose deaths in PA (up by 37%); in Maryland there were 830 cases (up by 66%); and in Delaware 308 people died (up by 30%).

Nationally the number of overdose deaths in 2016 exceeded 59,000 (up by 19%). All are reporting increases in deaths happening in the suburban areas of their states. This epidemic is crossing all lines of class and culture. The Philadelphia Inquirer (June 1, 2017) reported that librarians are being trained to administer the lifesaving overdose antidote Narcan as part of their job. “Overdose drills” are as common as fire drills in public library facilities like the one in Kensington.

Recently I visited the Lebanon Women’s Detention Center and Chaplain Marilyn Nolte, with the Eastern PA Conference Cabinet. I met a number of inmates. Many of them are incarcerated because of drug offenses and have a history of drug addiction.

Most shocking to me was the large pink heart we saw on the bulletin board that was cut in two to indicate a broken heart. On the heart were the names of at least 100 women who had been in the prison, had done their time and gotten out, and had either committed suicide or died from drug overdoses. These are our young people, each one a precious daughter, wife or mother, trapped in the chains of this disease. I thank God that we have a UM chaplain there working with these women.

It is easy to throw up our hands in despair when we read these statistics and hear these stories. But as people of faith, every one of us can do something to light a candle of hope. The recent “UNITE Quakertown” anti-drug abuse rally, sponsored June 10 at a local park by Quakertown UMC, brought together interfaith partners, human service agencies and community groups, along with musical performers and speakers. All are helping to spread the word about this terrible epidemic of opioid abuse and offer some practical things people can do.

Here are some of the “take-aways” from this day-long community festival:
  • View addiction as a disease and not a moral failure. 
  • Decriminalize and offer more treatment options instead of prison time. 
  • Set up more Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery groups in churches and communities.
  • Teach elementary school children about the dangers of drugs. 
  • Offer after-school and summer programs for at-risk young people. 
  • Partner with hospitals to support drug-addicted mothers and their addicted newborns. 
  • Pray for and with addicted people and their families.
  • Promote laws and governmental policies that keep funding for health insurance and Medicaid that assists with drug addiction remedies.
At our Lenten Day Apart for clergy next February, in both the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware annual conferences, we will have more conversation about drug addiction. The Rev. Dr. Barry Steiner-Ball will present some of his work in this area of community outreach and treatment.

The root cause of drug use and drug abuse is pain. We experience physical pain, emotional pain and spiritual pain in life, and drugs may at first take away that pain. But with continual use and increased dosages it can easily become an addiction.

People of faith can come alongside people suffering pain, all kinds of pain, to offer healing, encouraging community support and helpful spiritual resources that no pain pill can offer. As followers of Christ and loving ambassadors of the gospel, we can bring the words of life to this drug world of death. Always offer people Christ and make your church a place of welcome and support.

Monday, June 5, 2017

June is Gun Violence Prevention Month




Violence is such huge part of our world right now that one can rarely listen to the news on radio or TV without learning of a new incident of horrific violence. We are still reeling from the recent terrorist bombings and mass stabbings in England, and attacks on other innocent people in our own country.

Gun violence is particularly prevalent in our country. I believe it is important for our churches to teach about this epidemic and promote healthy ways of preventing senseless harm.

The 2016 United Methodist Book of Resolutions encourages our churches to make “preventing gun violence a regular part of our conversations and prayer times.” It goes on to say, “Gun violence must be worshipfully and theologically reflected on, and we encourage UM churches to frame conversations theologically by utilizing resources such as Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities: Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4, produced by the General Board of Church and Society.”

(The 'Gun Violence Prevention' page on umcjustic.org is another helpful resource: www.umcjustice.org/what-we-care-about/peace-with-justice/gun-violence-prevention)

It also encourages us to “partner with local law enforcement agencies and community groups to identify gun retailers that engage in retail practices designed to circumvent laws on gun sales and ownership, encourage full legal compliance, and to work with groups like ‘Heeding God’s Call’ that organize faith-based campaigns to encourage gun retailers to gain full legal compliance with appropriate standards and laws.”   (2016 Book of Resolutions, page 394)

As a church we can also become politically active by promoting local and national level laws that prevent or reduce gun violence in some of the following ways:
  • universal background checks on all gun purchases;
  • ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty;
  • prohibiting from purchasing guns all individuals under temporary restraining orders due to threat of violence;
  • banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and weapons designed to fire multiple rounds each time the trigger is pulled; and
  • and promoting new technologies to aid law enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety.  (2016 Book of Resolutions, page 395).
Finally, my word to you today is to consider anger. The basis for much of the violence we see in this world today is anger. Jesus speaks of anger against one’s neighbor in a dramatic way in the “Sermon on Mount.”   

He said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)


These are strong words based on much wisdom. Anger gives birth to murder and violence. Churches are also a place where we can teach faith-filled ways of dealing with anger through conversation, mediation, forgiveness and restorative justice. 

Every one of us can do something to curb the violence in our world. Ask God to lay on your heart what you can be doing to promote peace and end this scourge of murder and mayhem in our world.  Use the month of June, which is “Gun Violence Prevention Month,” to make some concrete plans.  We are to be the salt and light of the world!