Saturday, July 9, 2016

Starving for Justice, Running into the Chaos

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Just days after our nation once again celebrated its freedom on Independence Day, July 4, news and social media reported two fatal police shootings of African American young men in Baton Rouge, La., and a suburb of St. Paul, Minn.  “We are starving for justice” was the desperate cry of a woman quoted in one report. 

That cry should haunt the soul of all Americans and all people of God. America's devotion to its founding principles of “freedom and justice for all” is sorely in need of an overhaul. 

It is tragic when people are starving for food. Indeed, it is doubly tragic because the earth produces enough food to feed twice the need on this planet. Failure to distribute food to neglected areas causes people to starve. Human greed and lack of cooperation create the problem, not scarcity.

The same is true of justice. Everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and our country was founded on the principle of justice for all people. So when some people are starving for justice while others have plenty, it is contrary to everything we believe in.

When justice is denied to anyone it is denied to all; and all suffer for it, whether they know it or not.  We are one body, one nation, one people. And like the body of Christ, when one part suffers we all suffer. Indeed, those members who have less honor should receive more, so that "the members may have the same care for one another." You can find that bit of timely wisdom in 1 Corinthians 12:14-26.

'Running into the chaos'

Following these two tragic killings we were horribly reminded of our connectedness as one body in the worst way. An angry, misguided assailant wreaked deadly vengeance on undeserving police officers at the end of a nonviolent protest march in Dallas, Texas. While they were protecting marchers and maintaining the peace, five heroic officers were brutally slain and many others were wounded.

It was reported that during the worst moments of this horrific scene, as bullets were flying and confused marchers were fleeing in terror, uniformed police officers were seen “running into the chaos.”  It was a haunting report that calls to mind the many law enforcement personnel and firefighters who ran into the chaos of the World Trade Center on 9/11, risking their lives to save lives. 

We are profoundly grateful for courageous public servants who responded back then and still do today to incidents of violence and crisis, putting their own lives at risk to help others.  We are thankfully aware of the overwhelming majority of good police officers who do heroic work compassionately and professionally in our midst.

In every profession there are those who abuse their power or do not treat everyone fairly. They dishonor both their profession and their peers.

There is certainly much work that needs to be done to improve human relations among all people. We as a nation must be healed of our racism and bias, our fear and hatred of "the other," especially those among us who respond to differences with arrogant disrespect and violence, often escalating tension and conflict to dangerous outcomes.

A call to prayer and advocacy

Again, I call us to vigilant prayer and advocacy for our country and for a world where violence, especially gun violence, has become a crisis of unbelievable proportions.  Through advocacy we need to share justice, like food, with people who are denied and who starve for what we have. 

We need to appreciate and support all our public servants who "act justly, love mercy and walk humbly" in the performance of their duties. And certainly, we should honor and emulate those who willingly “run into the chaos” of conflict and danger to save lives.

We are fortunate followers of Jesus Christ, who bore the painful cross of our salvation unto death. So we should do no less by seeking to apply the healing power of God’s love where there is hatred, injustice, discord and violence.

To do so involves sacrifice and putting ourselves at risk.  But just as we are one body, this dual crisis of injustice and violence is everyone’s problem, and it needs everyone's participation to build relationships of trust and respect for all people, especially those who may lack honor and equity in our discriminatory society. Only by suffering together can we survive together and triumph over our common adversities.

The tools of civil discourse--listening, hearing with one’s heart, and sensitively sharing honest perspectives--can go a long way to changing this world’s climate of fear and distrust. The Cabinet and I will have conversations next week about ways in which we can engage the full conference in this vitally important work.

As we go forward please join us in prayer and in your own commitment to change. Thank you.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

2016 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference: Calling us to pray and be 'salty'

CallToPrayer

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I call the pastors and members of the Philadelphia Area (both Eastern PA and the Peninsula Delaware Conference) to a time of prayer for the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference which will be held in our area at the Lancaster Penn Square Convention Center July 12-15.

At this gathering delegates from conferences across the jurisdiction will elect two bishops. Bishop Marcus Matthews will retire, and we have another vacancy from the untimely passing of Bishop Martin McLee. On the night of July 14 the NEJ Episcopacy Committee will meet to determine which bishops go where for the next four years. I may or may not continue as the bishop of this area, but we will know the decision on July 15.

Our episcopal area is the only one in our jurisdiction that has two conferences. Conversations about us dividing and each conference becoming part of two other episcopal areas--as two-point charges with adjoining conferences--appear to be on hold. When we appealed for an extension during General Conference in May the Inter-Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee voted to allow the NEJ to continue to have nine bishops for another four years.

The call for downsizing in the first place came as we fell below the required number of church members to maintain funding for nine episcopal areas in the NEJ. This extension gives us four additional years in our current configuration.

Also General Conference approved a petition calling for a study of how we determine the number of bishops in each jurisdiction. Counting church membership alone may not adequately measure missional potential and the vital need for resident episcopal leadership among conferences.

In today’s society people may participate but are less prone to becoming full members of churches or other organizations or religious entities. The study results will likely come to the 2020 General Conference. This could affect our episcopal area, but signs at this time point to the probable downsizing of the NEJ to eight episcopal areas in 2020. However, nothing is certain.

At the NEJ Conference we will also:
  • consider various resolutions;
  • hear reports from our various mission projects;
  • elect officers and vote on a budget;
  • memorialize those who have passed on since our last conference;
  • engage in an Act of Repentance for sins against indigenous peoples;
  • celebrate Bishop Matthews's retirement;
  • hear the “State of the Jurisdiction” report from Bishop Devadhar; and
  • engage in worship experiences around the theme “Quilted by Connection.” The highlight will be our consecration of the two new bishops on Friday, July 15, at First UMC in Lancaster.

Many faithful lay and clergy members in our area have worked tirelessly for the last four years planning for this event. Our area leadership shines like the sun on numerous committees; and many financial resources have also been contributed.

In addition, the NEJ College of Bishops will meet in the Pen-Del's Conference's Easton District on August 9-12 for their annual summer retreat.  This is another shining example of our area providing connectional hospitality to others from our heart of generosity.

Please pray for the NEJ Conference and for all our delegations. May they have wisdom and guidance from  the Lord.  Pray also for the Rev. Derrick Porter, who has been endorsed as a candidate for the episcopacy by the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference.

The Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto, from the Eastern PA Conference, was endorsed by the Hispanic/Latino MARCHA caucus and is thus, also a candidate. He was not endorsed by the Eastern PA Annual Conference, which did not endorse anyone this year.

Whoever is elected, I ask you each to pray for them, for the entire College of Bishops and for our other jurisdictional, annual conference, district and denominational leaders. We all will bear together a heavy mantle of responsibility over the next quadrennium to lead our United Methodist Church faithfully and fruitfully in its continuing, Christ-given mission.

The Spirit of God is moving among us as we make these structural and leadership decisions.  But each of us is called to be “salt and light” in our local churches and communities every day.  No matter what happens at the NEJ Conference we still have the same mission to make disciples of Christ and live like Jesus, that the world may be transformed.

Recently I heard a Vacation Bible School children’s choir sing the well-known tune “If You’re Happy and You Know it.”  Instead of singing the lyrics “If you’re happy and you know it,” they sang “If you’re salty and you know it.”  Instead of singing “Clap your hands” or “stomp your feet,” they sang “help a friend” and “show some love.”

That is the sacred, faith and life-affirming work we all have to do whether we are in Lancaster, Pa., or wherever we are.  Ultimately, that is the goal of all of these 2016 conferences--General, Annual and Jurisdictional: to order the church in such ways that we can effectively do the work of Christ.  That work is making the world more tolerable with our help and our love in the name of our Savior. Amen.

Monday, June 13, 2016

No more targets of hate and rejection. Make love our aim!

People of color, people with disabilities, women, people who are poor, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender all know this: Who you are can be dangerous!  Recent tragedies born of hate—like the historic carnage that assailed victims in Orlando, Florida, yesterday—are proof of that ever-present danger.

You have to watch your back. Your very safety is potentially at risk every single day. There is a “pecking order” in this world, and if you happen to be in one of society’s “target” groups you get the message in a million subtle and sometimes life-threatening ways. That message is that you are “less than,” and not worthy of the same respect, opportunities and dignity available to those who possess power.

I grew up in a middle-class, all-white” bubble” of suburban society in the mid-sixties, and I never felt the slightest pinch over who I was as a female in my racially segregated, male-dominated community.  I chose a gender-appropriate career of teaching vocal music in an elementary school; and I led choirs and played the organ for church. I was rewarded by my society for this humble place of service.  

It was not until I went to a predominantly male seminary to study for the ordained ministry that I encountered the “less than” blow to my face. I was not prepared for it. I was challenged on many levels for daring to seek ordination in the man’s world of ministry.

One professor routinely would address the class (in which I was the only woman) “Greetings, future pastors and pastor’s wives.”  I was only acceptable to him if I took the role of a pastor’s wife.  The hardest thing was that classmates would pick up their black leather Bibles and quote Paul against me, saying I was “unscriptural” for seeking authority that was designated for men only and for refusing to be silent in the church. 
           
We need to be careful of how we use the Bible. It should never be a weapon against someone; nor should we take a few Bible verses, to the exclusion of the whole of scripture, as a tool for maintaining supremacy over others. This is not an unheard of practice in the 2000 years of the Christian church. There are verses in the Bible that are used to keep “targeted” people in their inferior place, both in the past and still today.
           
Fast forward to our country’s most deadly and heinous mass shooting that wreaked havoc in Orlando early Sunday morning, just hours before many of us went to church.  President Obama called this an “act of terror” and an “act of hate,” targeting a place of “solidarity and empowerment” for gays and lesbians.  (MSN.com)

The alleged gunman’s father shared with the news media that his son may have chosen this nightclub for the massacre because of his strong views against gay people.  Mateen’s political alignment with the Islamic State (ISIS), along with his anti-gay sentiments, made for a doubly lethal motivation for murder and mayhem. 
           
As United Methodists we believe in the sanctity of life and the “sacred worth” of all individuals (2012 Book of Discipline, paragraph 161F). In Christ no one is “less than.” God created all of us as equals and as equally precious. No one should be targeted for bias, discrimination, hatred or violence of any kind.  
           
During this time of grief and healing we need to:
  1. Pray: Pray for the victims, for their families and friends, and for the city of Orlando. We need to pray for our church as it continues to struggle with the debate over human sexuality and ministry that is on the hearts and minds of United Methodists during this era in the life of the church. We need to pray that our study of Scripture allows God to speak to all of us about these issues as we move forward and to teach us to love more deeply and more broadly. We need to pray for a solution to terrorism and the continual stream of violent outbreaks of gun violence in our country.
  2. Talk: Talk to people who are different from us, around whom we may feel uncomfortable because they have different personalities and perspectives than our own.  Listen to their words and hear their hearts. Seek to understand their interpretations of faith, life and Scripture. Ask innocent questions with grace, and try to understand their unique journeys in life.
  3. Act: Act in ways that model, for those who watch us, a civil way of walking and talking on this earth, a way that respects all, that rejects violence and hate-filled rhetoric, and that seeks to build bridges of understanding and acceptance. Act with genuine humility, and be willing to have less in this world so that others can have more—more respect, position, power and opportunity. 

At the end of the day, all of this is really about who is “in” and who is “out.” There is a sinful, human tendency in all of us to believe there is not enough to go around and that “our people,” “our beliefs,” “our way of thinking” represent the only true way. In that tendency of errant thought and behavior we create idols of ourselves and thus, find ourselves in opposition to God, who alone is worthy of worship and allegiance. God alone determines who is in and who is out.  

But the inviting, welcoming, loving Spirit of God is alive and moving among us in this world, urging us to foster peace, understanding and reconciliation, to overcome our differences and divisions, to heal the hatred and rejection in our world. Be a part—in fact, be a leader—of that movement in all the places, times and ways you can, wherever you are and especially in your church and community.

Be the disciple and the transformation we need in our world for such challenging times as these.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Division

Kay Woo holds up a peace cross during a report from the Committee on Peace by the Korean Association of the United Methodist Church, May 19 at the 2016 General Conference. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

...So that they may all be one. (from John 17:11b)

One of the most moving events that I attended at General Conference was the Korean evening of celebration and prayer for unity. For nearly 70 years the Korean Peninsula has been divided between North and South Korea, separated by the Cold War between Communist countries in the East and Capitalist nations in the West. Even after the Korean War cease fire in 1953, the two nations never signed a peace treaty and remain technically at war.

The Rev. James Chongho Kim holds a cross, assembled 
from two pieces of wood,  symbolizing the two Koreas,
during a report from the Committee on Peace by
the Korean Association of the United Methodist Church, 
May 19, at the 2016 General Conference.
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
This truly sad division of one people into two opposing nations has left families separated for generations. Many have never seen their loved ones again or even know their fate.

At this General Conference gathering there was a gracious dinner and several presentations about this tragedy and about the hope that someday there will be a united Korea once again. We were further encouraged by a presentation from Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, of the former West Germany, and a pastor from the former East Germany, who both spoke of the reunification that miraculously occurred there in 1990. They said they did not believe that unification would ever happen, but God made a way. Koreans of goodwill on both sides of the peninsula are fervently praying for a similar miracle.

Division a grievous thing

Division of people, especially people of the same ethnicity and culture, is a grievous thing. The concerns that divide people are never as big or important as the essential values that should unite them. But we humans are obsessed with position, power and pride. And while some may cling to long-revered principles, too often they forget Jesus’ priority that, “The greatest of these is love.”

When people focus on what unites us, so much more can be accomplished. The human family can prosper. And swords and spears--instruments of death and destruction--can be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks--farm implements used to nurture life. This is certainly true for the family of God in The United Methodist Church.

The division in our denomination around issues of human sexuality and ministry is deep and hard. Inflexible lines have been drawn by people who are passionate on both sides. Yet, at every General Conference I always feel something else.

I feel these “middle” people, the ones who want peace and moderation. They are there, quietly choosing through their votes to soften the hard lines, voting for “may” instead of “must,” for grace over the law. We witness them promoting a generous goodness, instead of planning strategies in closed-door meetings to defeat the “other.”

The gracious “everyone is welcome” spirit that this middle group promotes is the unifying Spirit of God. It affirms my belief in God’s amazing Pentecost Spirit. And it gives me hope: hope for Korea, hope for our human sexuality and ministry debate, and hope for every place on this earth where humans are in deep conflict and division. Our very survival and prosperity depends on it.

I need you to survive

Hezekiah Walker’s famous song: “I Need You to Survive” speaks well this sentiment:

I need you. You need me. We’re all a part of God’s body.
Stand with me; agree with me. We’re all a part of God’s body. 
It is his will that every need be supplied. 
You are important to me, I need you to survive.”

When we think like that, we can’t be drawing swords against each other, using weapons of division and discord against one another. Instead we need to be like the Apostle Paul, who encouraged us to use the “weapons of righteousness” (II Corinthians 6: 7), in which we overcome our divisions with “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God.”

Over the next few years the Council of Bishops has been charged with crafting a way forward so that the UMC can remain unified despite the divisions between our different beliefs about human sexuality, ministry and marriage. Pray for this process. Pray for the church, our church, as it continues to pursue its mission and ministry in the world.

Pray for unity and for peace, especially in the body of Christ. That, in his name, we may all be one.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Fire, Wind and Stones

Pentecost in 2016 happens during the United Methodist Church's General Conference, on May 15.   It is the birthday of the church, a commemoration of the day when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in that Upper Room with a mighty wind and tongues of fire. 

The disciples spoke in many different languages that day and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ to people from a variety of cultures and lands.  The Spirit gave the power for this proclamation to all people.  That’s the fire and the wind part.

The Book of First Peter talks about stones.  “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (2:4-5)



We are born again by the power of the Spirit and we are called to work together as the church to be a collective spiritual powerhouse.  Each of us is a stone with Christ as its cornerstone. 

Many years ago I was involved in a renovation project of an old stone church building that had been built in 1846 and was abandoned in 1922.  The roof has been burned off in subsequent years and many of the stones that formed the walls of this church had fallen out of place and were scattered on the nearby ground. 

The stone mason we hired had a huge task of reassembling the walls.  Each stone had a particular place.  Some were large, some small, some had angles and sharp edges but all were needed for the structure to be recreated.  We are like these stones, each unique, each important, all a part of the church. 

How true of our United Methodist Church today!   All are needed to do the work of ministry that began on the day of Pentecost.  May we be a household of faith that offers “spiritual sacrifices” of praise and ministry in the world in the 21st century. 

Only as we keep Jesus as our cornerstone will we stay together and stay strong as a church.  We need to lean on the Holy Spirit for the power to overcome our differences so that all will know the saving love of the living Christ. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Conquering death and fear


In a recent interview on National Public Radio Gene Kopf talked about his 14-year-old daughter Abigail who was nearly killed in a recent mass shooting in Kalamazoo, Mich. In the March 12 interview he also discussed the question he posed to the two Democratic candidates for U.S. President.  He said he did not want the standard answer of more criminal background checks. 

The interviewer pressed Mr. Kopf further about what should be the answer to the increasing amount of random mass violence.  The Kalamazoo shooter was legally able to purchase the firearms he used; so tighter laws would not have prevented his purchase. 

The father of this 14-year-old victim, who is still being treated for the gunshot wounds to her head, said we have to do something about fear in this country.  It’s the culture of fear that is driving up the violence. 

There are few ultimate answers to world's fears to be found in the halls of Congress, or in our schools, or in our military or law enforcement agencies.  We can write laws.  We can teach non-violence.  We can teach tactics about what to do if a mass-shooter attacks.  We can arm ourselves with the greatest military and personal arsenals in the world.  But it can’t ultimately take away fear. 

Fear and anxiety are a huge part of life in our world today.  We fear the extreme terrorism of ISIS, strange and violent weather patterns, the increasing number of mass shootings, the Zika virus and other diseases, the outcome of this year's Presidential election for some, the numerical decline of our churches and memberships.  Fear naturally creates a desire to protect and defend.  However nothing can fully protect us from suffering from earthly tragedies. 

But we as Christians have the ultimate answer.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “We should not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (I Thessalonians 4:13-14). 

Belief in the Lord Jesus Christ for life everlasting is the ultimate answer to our fears.  We are not immune from the suffering and fearful events of this world.  We may indeed suffer but our ultimate hope in Christ's resurrection gives us the strength to live in fearful circumstances with peace.

Methodism's founder, John Wesley, as a young man, was in a vessel sailing to the North American continent when a storm arose at sea.  The violent storm could have easily swept away this tiny ship, and everyone could have died. 

John Wesley came upon a group of Moravians on the ship who were singing praises to God.  He wrote in his journal, “Storm greater: afraid. But the Moravians were trusting God so simply and so completely that they evidenced no signs of fear, and they even persevered in their plans for worship service.  In the middle of the singing a gigantic wave rose over the side of the vessel, splitting the main sail covering the ship.” 

We can sing when we know that even if the worst happens, we are caught up into the loving arms of God forever.  This is what Easter is all about. 

Jesus arose so that we can be free from the fear of death and free from fear of the perils of this life.  This promise is the sure anchor of our faith in any storm.  We as Easter people should model this kind of faith and endeavor to teach it to the world.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”

Somebody prayed for me,
had me on their mind,
they took the time and prayed for me.
I'm so glad they prayed
I'm so glad they prayed
I'm so glad they prayed for me.

Dorothy Norwood, Alvin Darling. Kosciusko Music, Savgos Music Inc., Peertunes Ltd


One of the more important requests that Jesus’ disciples ever made was to ask the Lord to teach them how to pray. They noticed that John the Baptist was teaching his disciples how to pray and they wanted the same instruction (Luke 11:1).

In response Jesus gives them the model prayer of all time: “The Lord’s Prayer.” In its simplicity is its profundity. It includes adoration, praise, petition, repentance and even a strong teaching embedded in it about the reciprocity of forgiveness and being forgiven.

But Jesus does not stop there. He tells a parable about the inopportune visitor at night begging his neighbor for bread. The persistent beggar gets the results he wants from his sleepy neighbor because he would not give up asking. It has been said that “We have not because we ask not.” I think Jesus is saying here, “We have not because we give up too soon.” Persistence in prayer is probably the most important teaching that Jesus had to offer his disciples on that day long ago.

These words are still important for us as contemporary disciples. We need to pray continually and not give up when we have a pressing need.

Every week I pray for a different district in my two conferences. There are 10 districts in all. The district resource assistants send out an e-blast to the clergy and lay persons on their district rosters; and people e-mail me their joys and concerns.

What a blessing it has been to hear about some of the answered prayers. Some of these prayers have been the fruit of years of faithful prayer for a health concern, for a young person who has strayed from the faith, for a long-standing conflict in the church, or a building project in an international country that has been completed.

The faithful Christians of the Eastern PA Conference and the Peninsula-Delaware Conference know the power of persistent prayer, and their lives give testimony to God’s gracious providing.

Keep praying! Nothing happens in this world apart from prayer.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson