Saturday, April 19, 2014

'Let It Go'

       At this year’s Academy Awards the soundtrack single that took first place was “Let It Go,” from the Disney movie “Frozen.”  This is a defiant song of liberation as Queen Elsa no longer holds back her ice-making powers.  She sings of freedom as she builds a spectacular palace of ice with flicks of her wrists.

        Some of the lyrics whisper words of resurrection to me: “The fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all.”  And “I’ll rise like the break of dawn.”  

       The main message of Easter is resurrection, not only resurrection from bodily death but from death to our souls.  It is quite possible to be brain dead and yet bodily alive due to medical science.  It is equally true that people can be dead spiritually and in need of resurrection through faith in Christ. 

       Christ not only brings us life eternal in heaven but spiritual resurrection of our earthly souls and minds while we are here walking on the earth.  Paul writes to the church in Ephesus: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.” (2:4-5) Through faith we have the power to be free of sin and the bondage it holds on us.

       Like the ice queen in the movie, prior to her liberating change of heart, we sometimes are bound by fear, by guilt, by doubts.  Even those who know the Lord fall back at times into an attitude of worry, having flashbacks to times when we have failed, looking around at friends and comparing ourselves, or casting a judgmental eye on the ministry of others or their theological beliefs.  All of that brings spiritual death, and we so easily allow it to entangle itself around our souls.

Let it go!  Let it go by once again claiming the freedom and deliverance that Christ offers us on a daily basis.  Let it go by giving up the need to “fix” others who disagree with us.  Let it go by living a life of thanksgiving and gratitude for the enormous cache of blessings that God has bestowed on us.   

       This Easter as we sing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” let us also sing “Let it Go!” And then let us go forth and live resurrected lives in Christ.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Choose Life

Easter is all about life!  I enjoy Easter the most when it falls later in the spring because the flowers and trees look so much more resurrected than when we have Easter in late March.  Easter is all about life and not just the rebirth of the nature around us but most importantly about the spiritual life that comes when people experience a resurrection in their soul through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Spiritual resurrection is what the church is all about but sadly at times the church can become stagnant and more about preservation than about outreach and transformation.  When that happens it is on a path of death and uselessness. In a recent visit from the General Board of Global Ministries Rev. Patrick Friday addressed our mission conference with a compelling call to becoming a “movement” once again.  He showed a YouTube video clip (produced by ConnectnMission) entitled “The Movement” in which he described the resurrection decisions that John Wesley made that changed the world forever.  Wesley was a priest in the Church of England and for the Methodist movement to happen Wesley had to decide between:
  • The status quo (institution) or the uncertainties of a movement
  • The comfort of tradition or the adventure of experience
  • The security of a building or the passion of the people
  • The organization of the rich or a church of the poor
  • The life of stability or the life of unending persecution

Wesley chose the latter because of his “heart-warming” spiritual encounter with God and the Methodist Movement was born.  Still today the choices are before us.  The one brings sure death to our beloved church the other brings life, growth, transformation.  Ask yourself how does your church stack up against the choices that John Wesley made.  Where can you make some changes? The call is every before us to choose life…now is the time. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Women’s History Month: Jarena Lee, A Pioneer Among Preachers

In Jean Miller Schmidt’s beautifully written book, Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism (1760-1939), we read many accounts of sturdy Methodist women preachers.  One such woman, a true pioneer, was Jarena Lee of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
       She was born in 1783 in Cape May, NJ, the daughter of free but very poor parents.  Jarena became a Christian at age 21 under the ministry of none other than the Rev. Richard Allen, founding minister of Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia and later the first AME bishop.  She felt a call to preach at that time and spoke to Allen about it; but he explained that the rules of Methodism did not “call for women preachers.”  He did  allow her to hold prayer meetings and exhort after sermons were preached. 
       Jarena married the Rev. Joseph Lee, the pastor of a black church in Snow Hill, N.J., and they had two children.  Within six years there were a number of deaths in the family, including her husband, and she moved back to Philadelphia, where she again attended Bethel AME Church. 
       During one Sunday service she stood up and began preaching after the preacher in the pulpit lost his train of thought.  Rev. Allen heard her impromptu, unexpected sermon. He was so moved that he endorsed her as truly called to preach. Jarena Lee thus began her itinerant ministry, starting in local house- churches before finally taking to the road to preach in New York, Maryland and Ohio.
       Sometimes Jarena traveled on foot and depended on the hospitality of those she visited.  She received no salary. At one point she was able to connect with a group of Wyandotte Indians in Buffalo, N.Y., and when she preached to them through a translator, they found faith in Jesus Christ. 
       She experienced a good bit of “push-back” for being a woman preacher, but she never gave up.  Sometimes she would use humor to counter her detractors.  When confronted by a particular elder who objected to women in the ministry she said:
       “And there let me tell that elder that as far back as Adam Clarke’s time, his objections to female preaching were met by the answer, ‘If an ass reproved Balaam and a barn-door fowl (rooster) reproved Peter, why should not a woman reprove sin?  Maybe a speaking woman is like an ass, but I can tell you one thing: the ass seen the angel when Balaam didn’t.’”
       Throughout her long life and ministry Jarena Lee offered support to other women preachers and exhorters and even financed the publication of her own book, when her denomination’s book committee would not do so.  Because of her witness and determination many women followed in her footsteps, including Sophie Murray, Elizabeth Cole, Rachel Evans and Harriet Felson Taylor.  She never lived to see the General Conference of the AME Church finally license women to preach; but nothing stopped these women from proclaiming God's word. They just kept on following God’s call.
       Oh beloved, why are we so often found to be in the business of blocking people from fulfilling their call to ministry?  We are like Joshua who complained to Moses that Eldad and Medad, two of the elders of Israel, were preaching to the people at an un-prescribed time and place. “My lord, Moses, stop them!” he said.  But Moses answered wisely “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  (Numbers 11:29b) 
       I thank God for the relentless and undeterred ministry of Jarena Lee, and I call upon all who feel disenfranchised and unappreciated by denominational rules and structures to preach the gospel to whosoever will listen.  Depend on God, and don’t become discouraged or bitter. 
       Obedience to God takes many forms, and God will always equip those whom God has called. Jarena Lee’s life is a powerful, living testimony to that truth. During Women’s History Month in March let us hear once again the clarion call to obey God and not let anything stand in our way. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Legacy of Service: In Celebration of Black History Month

          The year was 1976 and I was attending the Inter-Varsity Urbana Missionary Conference with a group of young adults from my home Bible study group.  It was a time in my life when I was struggling with a call to ministry and trying to decide whether to leave the teaching profession and go to seminary. 
          The conference was an amazing panacea of famous speakers such as Dr. Billy Graham and Dr. John Stott.  There was powerful music, numerous workshops and display tables with recruiters from mission organizations all over the world.  In between speakers up on the main stage at this huge coliseum there were mission advertisements that lasted for only a minute or two.  One caught my attention.  A large African American gentleman seemed to have a speech impediment.  He spoke passionately about deaf people in Africa. 
          “We need workers to go to Africa and help establish deaf education.”  That man was none other than Dr. Andrew Foster.

          According to “,” Foster was born in 1925 in Birmingham, Ala.  A bout with spinal meningitis left him without hearing at age 11.  His family eventually moved to Chicago and he graduated from high school in 1951.  He then attended Gallaudet College, the only liberal arts college for the deaf in the United States at the time.  Foster was the first and only black student there, and in 1954 he became their first black graduate. 
          As a student at Gallaudet he worked with a number of inner-city deaf groups and felt God's call to become a missionary.  After graduation he traveled to Africa where there were only 12 deaf schools on the entire continent.  He sensed God calling him to establish more schools. 
          Foster became a married father with five 5 children.  But he continued to travel to Africa and eventually became the first director of the Christian Mission for the Deaf.  During his career he established 31 schools on the continent of Africa, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet College in 1970.
          Sadly he was killed in a tragic airplane crash in 1987 while traveling to Kenya.  But his legacy of missionary work and caring for those without a voice still lives on in the schools that he established and among the many deaf leaders who have followed his noble example. 
          Dr. Foster overcame much discrimination as a deaf person and as the only black student at an all-white college.  He used that experience and courage to face the overwhelming challenges of convincing international educators of the need for deaf education.  His overcoming spirit won many hearts; and I, for one, can say, that his one minute speech at the Urbana Missionary Conference was a turning point in my life. 
          We never know how the seeds we plant may grow into something much bigger when they mature and bear fruit.  I am sure that if Dr. Foster were alive today he would be amazed to see the growth in his schools and how his influence changed an entire continent’s outlook on how deaf people should be treated. 
          As we celebrate Black History Month I salute Dr. Andrew Foster as a reminder to us all to keep planting seeds of empowerment and to believe, even when we can’t see it, that God can and will do great things if we remain faithful.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

My Mother’s Eyes

                When I was a singer in the Cherub Choir at Lansdowne Methodist Church in 1960 we sang an anthem on Mother’s Day that went something like this:  “My mother’s eyes are watchful eyes that never fail to see where she may find some happiness or gain some good for me.”  That was my mother, the one with the watchful eyes.  For Janie Mae MacLeod Olver family was everything and her vigilant eyes were always looking for ways to bless her family.  God was the only thing more important to Mom than her family.   
                Mom graduated third in her high school class academically but she never wanted to go to college or have a career.  Her goal in life was to raise a family!  She married at the age of 19 and only worked outside of the home in order to earn money to help with bills and see that my sister and I went to college.  Her career as a school secretary was ideal for a mother with small children who attended the same school.  It was handy to have mother downstairs in the school office if you ran out of lunch money or got sick.  We would walk home together when there was an early dismissal because of snow.  The day I graduated from college she quit her job working as a school secretary.  Before she retired she coaxed the principal she worked for into putting in a good word for both of her daughters when they were applying for teaching positions in the Baltimore County Public School system.  We were both hired.   
                Mom spent the next 10 years of her life taking care of her aging parents and Dad’s aging siblings and then came the grand-children.  Never was there a grandmother like my mother.  She spent many, many days watching the children and taking them on exciting trips and buying toys and clothes.  She was always looking with her blue eyes for things that they would enjoy reading and lavished on them countless interesting picture books.
                Mom also loved to take photographs and her camera was like a second set of eyes for her.  Photography was her life-long hobby and passion.  She had over 100 picture albums that documented the events of our family life with meticulous detail.  Each photo was carefully placed on magnetic plastic pages and decorated with stickers and flowers.  Mom was a perfectionist and we were used to posing for pictures several times in order to get the lighting and positioning just right.  Mom was never in the pictures much herself, but her watchful eyes looked at them with pride and every birthday and holiday gathering was not complete without the ceremonious picture-taking of the family sitting around the table together. 
                With her eyes she always made sure that my skirts were not too short, that my hair was parted straight down the middle, that homework was done right, that kitchen counters were clean, and that the crafts for her Sunday School class were perfectly arranged in little boxes.  She also could see when I was sad and encouraged me, stayed up all night watching me when I was sick, watched me practice the organ so that I could play for the worship service at church at the age of 14, and she cheered me on at every school play or ministerial accomplishment.
                Mom loved family history and wrote detailed genealogies of both sides of the family.  She knew more than most of our Mormon cousins about our interesting and occasionally colorful relatives from the past.  As I leafed through her genealogy books full of pictures and stories of these forefathers and mothers I could see her eyes telling their stories of their hardship and triumph. 
                Once I talked her into giving a speech at one of my churches about our family history for a Woman’s Day tea party.  Although she was an extreme introvert and she would have rather died than stand up and speak in public, she did it.  She did it to make me happy and the talk was illustrated with colorful pictures and amusing antidotes.  Mom was a star that day with everyone was looking at her for a change!

                Mom loved Dad.  They were soul-mates for life. Married for 65 happy years!  She kept Dad organized.  Mom arranged for all the family vacations and details of administrative life around the house.  Together they raised kids, cats, and one special Boston Terrier named Dolly.  In retirement they took quite a few bus trips together to vacation resorts and she brought her camera along, taking pictures at every stop and fashioning them into a special trip album when they got home.   Together they grew older and moved to Charlestown Senior Living Community and enjoyed retirement years with less house-keeping responsibilities and more time to take pictures, help out with grandchildren and volunteer at church. 
                Mom’s two eyes grieved over my one eye.  I was born with micro-opthalmia.  My left eye did not develop normally for some unknown reason and I could not see out of that eye.  Mom noticed that the minute I was born and told the doctor in the delivery room that there was a problem.  They did not believe her at first but later the doctor came into her room with a sad face and told her that her watchful eye had been right, her baby was blind in her left eye.   He said she should be happy because normally babies like me were totally blind and I had one good eye.  Mom never took any pictures of me when I was a baby.  She was afraid that those old-fashioned flash bulbs on her Brownie camera would hurt my sighted eye.   Later Mom came to “see” that this one eye was my calling in life for disability ministry and God had planned it all along for good.  It takes the eyes of faith to see that kind of thing.  Mom had that kind of vision as well, the eyes that see God’s hand at work in all things, even during the disappointments of life.  
                Mom saw God in the beauty of nature and especially and at the dawn of a new day.  She used to take my sister and me to see the sunrise over the ocean during our seaside vacations when we were children.  Her favorite hymn: “Still, Still with Thee” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, speaks of a radiant purple morning sun and the” sweet consciousness” of being with the Lord.  The last verse reminds me of Mom’s transition into life eternal:
                “So shall it be at last, in that bright morning when the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee; Oh in that hour, fairer than daylight’s dawning, shall rise the glorious thought I am with Thee.”  I have no doubt that Mom is seeing that celestial sunrise with her blue eyes in heaven at this very moment.   

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Finding Hope on a Mission of Peace

           I experienced a remarkable, dual cultural immersion during my recent visit to South Africa. I accompanied 18 United Methodist youth from nine regional conferences across our Northeastern Jurisdiction (NEJ). The goals of our Mission of Peace, lasting from December 28 to January 15, was to broaden our cultural awareness, build bonds of peace among diverse peoples and learn about the vital mission of the church in the world.  Truly our mission was about making disciples and seeking transformation.
Three of the impressive high school-age youth on this adventure were from our Eastern Pennsylvania Conference: Madeleine Devitis, Adrienne Newcomer and Mia Sanchez.  I was one of four adult chaperones, representing the NEJ College of Bishops.  And while this journey drew me more deeply into the well of my own Christian faith, it also gave me a double immersion—brief but meaningful-- into the culture of young people and the culture of South Africa.

  The Power of Immersion

 My experience with youth culture was inspiring.  Our young people are spirit-filled, curious, passionate about social justice, and immersed in social media.  They sang, prayed, preached, befriended and encouraged one another throughout the trip.  I also enjoyed watching them interact with the youth of South Africa.

Among uncommon people in an unfamiliar land, they found common, familiar ground, as they talked, laughed and ate together.  And they discovered new emotional connections as young people of faith.  I believe the church is in good hands—in God’s hands—with this promising young generation, both now and in the future.  Indeed, God often deploys young people to bridge the chasms too often created by their elders.  And it almost always begins through immersion.

          My encounter with South Africa—a place where painful chasms are being bridged daily—was largely colored by the transformation the country is experiencing since the dismantling of its former system of racial segregation and discrimination known as Apartheid.  During the years of Apartheid the racial minority, people of European heritage, sorely oppressed the overwhelming majority of indigenous people.  They subjugated people of color through racial classification and population control, substandard education and restricted employment based on race, designated residential areas and a police state that harshly enforced those policies. 

              During this time in their history, from 1948 until the early 1990’s, many of the churches and church leaders supported the government regime. Yet, some took the bold step of opposing the painful oppression.  One such prophet was Bishop Peter Storey, leader of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.  During his 40 years of ministry he played a significant role in the anti-Apartheid struggle.  His life was threatened many times by the police, and he even preached against Apartheid at gun-point. But he was undeterred.


   Courageous struggle, resilient hope

              We had the honor of hearing him speak during our visit to South Africa.  He reminded us that the church needs to stand for the truth, even when it is difficult.  He commented that Apartheid could have ended sooner if the church had “been the church” in those early days.  
   Bishop Storey told us that an important role of the church is to bind up the broken-hearted and to live the Christian alternative to the world’s way of life.  He taught us that we need to live like Christ in all of our dealings with people, and that during times of disagreement and struggle we should respond in non-violent ways.  

   We as the church today need to remember the words of Bishop Storey and to keep before us the principles of South Africa’s greatest leader, Nelson Mandela.  He presided over the end of Apartheid when he became the nation’s first democratically elected president.   

   I thank God for the opportunity to visit this land of courageous struggle and resilient hope.  The memories and principles of Christ-like living that I learned there will live on in my heart for years to come.