Friday, May 11, 2018

United Methodist Women touched my life

In the fall of 1978 I was an M.Div student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.  But I wondered some days if I had heard God right about this call to ministry. 

My District Committee of Ordained Ministry had put my ordination interview on hold, so I could be interviewed again. I had no role models at the seminary for women in ministry leadership. Only the librarian was a woman. All the other leaders else were men, white men, except for an Asian professor who taught Greek and New Testament.

Then came word of the Consultation for United Methodist Clergywomen in Dallas, Texas, in January 1979. I wanted to go so badly, but money was an issue. So going to Dallas was a clearly a pipe dream. That was until the United Methodist Women of my home church (Lansdowne UMC in Baltimore) stepped up to the plate and sent me the money to attend the consultation. 

It was life-changing and inspirational. It gave me the courage to keep following my call, as I saw capable, bodacious clergywomen preaching and leading with grace and skill.  Those faithful women of Lansdowne will never know just how much it changed the course of my ministry.

Other bishops have been similarly blessed by women and women’s groups. Bishop Joaquina Nhanala, episcopal leader of Mozambique and South Africa, received support from the Women’s Fellowship of the Mozambique Annual Conference for Theological Studies.  She became the first woman elected to the episcopacy from the continent of Africa. But first, scholarships from United Methodist Women helped her follow her call to ordained ministry and prepare for the leadership she is now providing to the church.

“I am a product of United Methodist Women,” Bishop Nhanala has said, adding that she’s not alone. “A lot of women are now in a position to have a say because of the efforts of United Methodist Women.”

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, recently retired from leading the UMC in Germany, was the only female UM pastor in her country when she considered going into ministry. She became the first women outside the U.S. elected to the episcopacy in 2005. Women inspired and supported her along her path of ministry as well.

United Methodist Women continued to change my own life. Later when I served Christ UMC of the Deaf, a deaf congregation in Baltimore, Md., the UM Women’s Division sent our entire UMW unit to the Women’s Assembly. The women were inspired by the vision for mission with women and children and youth that they had never experienced before.  

They were asked to sign a song on stage in front of 10,000 women, and the song was “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale.” I remember one of the lyrics was “God of the ages, God near at hand, God of the loving heart.” I felt the “loving heart” of God through the generous gift of mission from the UMW to this humble unit of women at that amazing Assembly gathering in Kansas City, Mo.

 In 2012, as a fairly new bishop, I was able to give back to the UMW by writing the book study for their Mission u topic, The Church and People with Disabilities.  It gave me a chance to write from my passion for ministry among people with disabilities. I hoped to teach the church how to provide access to and empower such people, and thus learn that disability does not mean inability.

As I plan to attend the May 17-20, 2018 UMW Assembly in Columbus, Ohio I can only wonder who will be inspired next to be a bishop, or a pastor, or a missionary, or a servant who will lead the church into the future?  We celebrate our own Barbara Drake, who will be consecrated a Deaconess at this event.

No doubt, others will follow in her footsteps in the years to come because of her servant leadership model. Mission inspires mission; and constantly, women lead women into higher forms of mission and ministry around the world.

As they celebrate 150 years of ministry, the UMW has a bright future of empowerment through mission and loving hearts. These women continue to inspire me with their relentless call for justice for women and children and youth everywhere. They are touching lives each day and making a difference in our world and in our church.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Let us rejoice in our United Methodist heritage

United Methodist Heritage Sunday this year falls on May 20. That is also Pentecost Sunday, giving the day a double-heritage significance, since that is when we celebrate the birth of Christ’s church.
Speaking of births, however, I invite us all to begin our United Methodist heritage celebration a month early, on Sunday, April 22, in order to commemorate the birth of our denomination from merger and reorganization 50 years ago. That labor-intensive birth happened on April 23, 1968. But it came after nearly a decade of prayerful negotiations, General Conference legislation and prevenient mergers of racially segregated annual conferences—like ours—until the glorious day of delivery when we finally became The United Methodist Church.
The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church—both denominations being offspring of earlier mergers themselves. The new denomination abolished Methodism’s Central Jurisdiction, created in 1939 to unify and segregate annual conferences with predominantly black churches and members across the nation, like our former Delaware Annual Conference.
So, in 1968 and in the years that followed, after a history of divisions and dubious mergers, we finally got it right, for the most part. Getting it right meant reorganizing churchwide agencies and creating legislation and special commissions to monitor our still-unfinished journey toward racial and gender equity and denominational inclusiveness. For that same journey and others, it also meant creating special programs and funds, Special Sunday offerings and eventually, missional priorities.
It meant—and it still means—living into our divine call to manifest integrity, generosity, grace and other bedrock Christian values, as we strive to become what our own annual conference approved as its vision statement in 2017: United in Christ, Committed to Transformation.
We are 50 years old as a denomination this year, and we have made much progress. But there is much more to be done. I pray that our life expectancy, our arc in history, is long, with no end in sight, and that it will forever bend toward justice, in James Russell Lowell’s famous words.
The year 1968 was one of emergent change, not only in our church, but across our nation and throughout society. There was turbulent racial conflict, violence in our streets, war, protests and questions about the relevancy of the church. 
The Rev. Dr. Albert C. Outler, a prominent theologian at the time, cast a vision for the Uniting Conference in his address on the morning of our merger ceremony.  He called for the new church to be steadfast in unity and committed to ecumenism and evangelism in word and deed. He also stressed the need for the church to reform itself from being an insulated institution to actively demonstrating the presence of the living Christ.
In order to reform, he said, we needed to be “…a church united in order to be uniting, a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive, a church ‘cruciform’ in order to manifest God’s triumphant agony for mankind (sic).” When he finished, the 10,000 people at Dallas Memorial Auditorium gave him a prolonged standing ovation.
Dr. Outler’s call is still with us today as we celebrate 50 years of United Methodism.  If each one of us would take to heart these principles of unity, ecumenism, evangelism and reform, we could become the church that our founders envisioned many years ago, as they sought to spread “scriptural holiness” across the land. 
“This is the day the Lord has made,” said Outler. “Let us really rejoice and be glad in it—glad for the new chance God now gives us.”
Indeed, for the next month, from April 22 through May 20, and for months and years to come, let us really rejoice and be glad in this faithful, if not faultless, heritage we share as United Methodists. Let us clothe ourselves in love, seeking always to be transformed as those redeemed through grace.  And let us be glad for our unity in a Christ who “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). Yes, glad “for the new chance God now gives us.”
Please read and share these recent accounts, resources and ideas to help celebrate our United Methodist history, as we celebrate 50 years together. Also, be sure to view the compelling, 11-minute historical video that shares diverse views on the in 1968 merger of the EUB and Methodist denominations and related concerns.
Also, UM News Service will publish a story at this week on the end of the segregated Central Jurisdiction in 1968, and later a story on the creation of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR). They will finish their UMC 50th anniversary series on Monday, April 23, with a story about people who were at the 1968 Uniting Conference. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Native Americans and the Church: Past, present, future

Sunday, April 15, is “Native American Ministry Sunday” in the United Methodist Church. I hope that every church will take a special offering to aid Native American seminary students and the many wonderful ministries that are happening in our Committees on Native American Ministries (CONAMs). More importantly, I hope on that Sunday people will learn something about this vitally important part of our church’s witness to its past, present and future.

At our 2016 Annual Conference session we engaged in an “Act of Repentance” for the sins committed against many indigenous peoples of the world by invaders who conquered, colonized and oppressed them, often decimating their populations and societies. In our country indigenous people were treated shamefully for the most part and the church was too often complicit in that mistreatment.

To this day the wounds of discrimination and genocide live on as a part of their historical trauma. The good news is that as we repent and partner with our Native American brothers and sisters, much healing and good can come. We need each other to survive. We as a church are not whole unless all are included and empowered for ministry and mission. Healing comes as we repent and then do the works of repentance. Let’s keep this before us!

Two key events focusing on Native American struggles and losses, as well as culture and contributions, will occur in our conference this weekend. Our CONAM will celebrate Native American Ministries Sunday, April 15, from 4 to 6 PM, at Camp Innabah (712 Pughtown Road, Spring City), with a festive and informative gathering for worship, a fellowship meal and first-person accounts of UM persons and churches serving God in mission among Native peoples. All local church CONAM representatives are urged to attend for information and networking. Please learn more and try to attend.

On Saturday, April 14, Lititz UMC (201 Market St., Lititz) will host CONAM’s presentation of the Loss of Turtle Island exercise (from 9:30 to 11:00 AM). It is a dramatic, interactive, multimedia demonstration that teaches the history and impact of Europeans' conquest and colonization of Native peoples in the Americas and the Church's complicity in that history. I participated in this same activity last fall, when CONAM presented it at Camp Innabah. It is powerful. Learn more and share the event flyer.

Young people from Oneida United Methodist Church, who attended the Peg-Leg Flamingos youth leadership conference in September, present a tribal flag to water protectors at Standing Rock. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin

And during the first weekend of May the “Peg Leg” empowerment youth camp will welcome a gathering of young people who have Native American heritage. They will be at the West River Camping and Retreat Center in the Baltimore Washington Conference. Many leaders of our conference and others around the country will participate in this movement to strengthen young people for leadership.

I will participate in the closing worship there. In preparation for the event, I spoke to the Rev. Carol Lakota Eastin, a Native American District Superintendent in the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference. She and Ragghi Rain Calentine from the Peninsula-Delaware Conference are working together to make this a deeply spiritual experience for the participants.

Dr. Lakota Eastin said to me that they are emphasizing two things: prayer and activism. As we pray, we are called to go out and “do” the work of God. That is a good word for all of us. Pray and do!

I look forward to the world that our young Native American people will bring to us as they engage in this work of God. May we find ways to partner and open doors for their giftedness to shine.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Being April Fools

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NRSV) 

No one wants to be called a “fool.” In American Sign Language the sign for “fool” looks like a person (represented by a forefinger) being struck with a fist of the other hand. Indeed, fools might be considered fortunate if only their egos are bruised.

The word “fool” conjures up images of weakness, gullibility, and stupidity. But like many things about the counter-cultural, and at times counter-intuitive, faith that we practice, as true followers of Jesus Christ we can gladly—and wisely—proclaim that yes, we are fools.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We are fools for the sake of Christ….When reviled, we bless, when persecuted we endure, when slandered, we speak kindly.” (I Corinthians 4:10 a, 12 b)

Easter this year falls on April Fool’s Day (offering a second 2018 coincidence, after Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day February 14). The secular occasion’s origins are also religious. April Fool’s may go back to the time of Pope Gregory XIII, who changed the Christian calendar so that the first day of the year was January 1 and not April 1, as had been the case under the Julian calendar. Some people back then continued to follow the old calendar. Those who did were known as “April Fools” and were subject to tricks and ridicule.

We who follow Christ’s ways can be rightly called “fools” because we don’t follow the world’s way of dealing with adversity. Christians bless, endure and speak kindly when we face persecution and adversity.

That’s what Jesus did when he spoke seven times while hanging on Calvary’s cross, suffering and dying from a brutal crucifixion. He uttered humble words of love, forgiveness, care, assurance and faith. This kind of grace under pressure attitude is not foolish or weak but extremely powerful. It demonstrates an awesome power of mind and heart that transcends painful but superficial agonies to accomplish a greater purpose.

It can change the world. It always has, and it always will.

Linda Brown just recently passed away at the age of 76. Her legacy of counter-cultural determination will live on forever. Her father, an African Methodist Episcopal clergyman, sued the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, for refusing to admit his daughter into an all-white public school. That school was in walking distance, while the all-black school was several more miles away.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on May 17, 1954, ruled unconstitutional and thus, ended, the unfair “Jim Crow” segregation laws that forbade children of color from receiving an equal education in public schools attended by white children. Those laws were part of a racist, oppressive culture that had to be countered and overcome.

Linda and many other black students began attending formerly white schools. They were subjected to much racist abuse and rejection; yet, they remained steadfast, teaching the world that racism, hated and evil are no match for love.

A successful student, Linda never received a grade lower than a “B” in any of her classes. She later became an educator in a Head-Start program serving low-income, mostly black families. (Chicago Tribune).

Easter will fall again on April 1 in the year 2029. But we can be April Fools every day, all the time, as we move through the world with the counter-cultural attitude of our risen Lord.

Mere mortals may have mocked and mourned his demise on Good Friday. But He got the last laugh on Easter Sunday, as He turned death into life and through love overcame hate. And the foolishness of the cross (I Corinthians 1:18) became the greatest movement in human history.


Friday, March 23, 2018

Faceless Christ, Headless Disciples

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

In Berlin there is the Chapel of the Reconciliation. It was rebuilt after the reunification of Germany and the destruction of the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany from 1961 to 1989.

Originally, there was a much older church building located in that same space, which was built in 1894. It was destroyed in 1985 by the Communist government because this abandoned church blocked strategic security site lines on the Berlin Wall. The church was in the way.

During reconstruction of the chapel in recent years, excavation of the rubble from the original church miraculously revealed the entire chancel piece that use to hang over the original altar. It was still intact. Today it hangs in the center of the reconstructed chapel, giving the this sacred space a poignant connection between the past and present.

The altar piece had an elaborate carving of a scene from the Last Supper below the cross, which sadly had taken a beating during the church’s destruction of 1985. The face of Christ is missing, and several of the disciples have no heads. It was decided that the damaged parts of the chancel piece would not be repaired but left as is to remind congregants and visitors of the dark history of the Nazi regime and the Cold War.

A Christ with no face is a curious thing to see. There is no expression, no hint of personhood. Headless disciples too conjure up disturbing thoughts of decapitation and suffering. 

During this Holy Week I look at the picture of this altar piece, imperfect as it is, as a call for me to strive to be the face of Christ to a world that suffers from much painful alienation and division. We are the face Christ uses and shows to the world. And as his disciples, we can expect to enter into the fellowship of his sufferings as we take up our own crosses for the ministry of Christ.

But through it all, we know and are convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ. Nothing. “Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.” (Romans 8:38-39)

As the Apostle Paul reminds us of that timeless truth, let us also remember, during Holy Week and henceforth, that while inseparable from God’s great love, we should also remain inseparable from one another in Christ Jesus. May it always be so. Amen.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Grateful for the Congo Partnership

I returned in February from a 10-day mission trip with an eight-person team of clergy and laity from both the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware conferences.  Our Philadelphia Episcopal Area has been in partnership with the Central Congo Conference for over a decade, and there is much to celebrate.

This was my third trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and my second trip to the Central Congo Conference. Each time I continue to be amazed at the work of God that is happening among faithful people there. What did I see?
  1. I saw a deep respect for The United Methodist Church, its mission for souls and its appreciation for missionaries who began the work there over 100 years ago.
  2. I saw passionate worship in song, prayer and sermon. People of all ages gather to worship God in great numbers.  The material lives of these people are meager, but the Spirit of God in their souls is the sustaining fire for life.
  3. I saw people working very hard in schools, seminaries, hospitals, farms, clinics, trade schools and churches to improve and build up the lives of the people and the community. I saw them being witnesses for God’s love.
  4. I experienced radical hospitality in hospitable accommodations, bounteous meals, and gracious and generous gifts from those who honored us. Whole towns came to greet our plane singing, dancing and waving palm branches. People who had nothing gave us generous and sacrificial gifts of clothing, rice, goats, chickens, carved wooden crafts and jewelry. Bishop Daniel Lunge and his team went all out to show us the utmost respect and make us comfortable.
  5. I experienced their concept of mission as the work of starting new churches. They collected money for that purpose so more might know the love of Jesus. Many pastors start these new churches with no salary whatsoever. They do it out of their love and desire to serve Christ.
  6. I saw many improvements since my last visit. There were much needed hospital repairs, e-readers for seminary students, new churches erected, a new well dug, a children’s program that started with a few children now increased to 1,000 children and 43 teachers, a new pediatric clinic with modern equipment and solar power, a second refugee children’s feeding program, bed nets in every home to prevent the spread of malaria and improved maternal health.
  7. I experienced the amazing work of Rev. Jonathan and Donna Baker, our UM Global Missionaries, who have labored in the vineyard there for the past three years bringing untold resources and wisdom for the upbuilding of this partnership. They are responsible for promoting and executing many of the projects listed above.  In addition, they operate a cataract eye surgery clinic every year that literally gives sight and hope to the blind.  They will be retiring at the end of March as GBGM missionaries but not retiring from the work of the Partnership.

I am grateful for the Congo Partnership and to all who graciously supported this mission trip with prayers and financial support. There is still much work to be done, and even the smallest gift goes a very long way in the Congo.  I encourage every church to consider putting the Congo Partnership into their budget as a regular line item and watch God work!

This is a solid project with a long track record of faithfulness and productivity that all of us can be proud to support.  As God blesses us, let us continue to be a blessing to the people in the Congo.


Want to learn more about this powerful, eye-opening, uplifting mission adventure? Read “Mission tour reveals Congo Partnership’s lifesaving impact” and also Bishop Johnson’s and the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm’s “Notes from the Mission Field.” Also, view our 2018 Congo Partnership Visit Flickr album to see more photos!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Celebrating Women’s History Month

Malala Yousafzai: The power of one voice

Malala Yousafzai was born in 1997 and grew up in the northwest Swat Valley region of Pakistan. As a child she was fortunate to have access to education because her father, Ziauddin Yousfzai, operated a private girls school in her hometown. This part of Pakistan was under Taliban rule and they did not believe that girls should have an education. 

When she was 11 years old Malala wrote a blog essay for the BBC British television network describing what it was like living under Taliban occupation. This story appeared in a New York Times documentary, and it got a good bit of attention in print and on television. She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Unfortunately, all this attention made her a target of the Taliban. On October 9, 2012, she was attacked and shot in her head by a masked Taliban gunman. Miraculously she survived the assassination attempt and was sent to England for treatment.

This horrific act of violence against a young girl created overnight a huge outpouring of support for her cause. After her recovery she became an international speaker for the rights of education for all children, especially girls.

In 2014 Malala became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  As a result of her advocacy, the United Nations passed a petition in her honor that led the country of Pakistan to ratify its first ever “Right to Education” bill. She has established a nonprofit organization that raises funds to provide education for girls, and she has written a number of books. In 2015 she opened a school in Lebanon for Syrian refugees.

Currently, this bright, dedicated, inspiring young woman is enrolled at the Lady Margaret Hall (College) in Oxford, studying for a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics. There is no telling what she may do and accomplish in the future, but we can guess that it will be beneficial to young people.

I give thanks for this courageous young voice and visionary in our world, who believes in the education of girls and the opportunities that come with freedom and justice for all people. Many of our United Methodist missions around the world focus on the education of girls; and our global society has reaped the benefits of these efforts ever since.

Only when everyone is respected as equal and equally able to access education, health care and the basic needs of life can the entire world begin to thrive and be at peace.

Malala is a shining example of a young person who is changing the world. Just as she tells us, we should never underestimate the power of one voice, especially of one who bravely speaks out for justice and human rights. Happy Women’s History Month!

Sources:Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World,  by Ann Shen, San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC, 2016  p. 209. Also, Wikipedia