Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Church’s One Foundation

Rev. Samuel J. Stone

Anglican priest, the Rev. Samuel J. Stone penned the words to the beloved hymn: “The Church’s One Foundation” in 1866. (Book of Hymns #545)  According to Warren Shiver, author of Stories behind the Hymns, it was written as a call to unity in the church during a time of controversy. 

South African Bishop John William Colenso (first Church of England Bishop of Natal, mathematician, theologian, Biblical scholar and social activist) had contended that the Bible was a myth.  He was deposed for heresy, then later reinstated. But all the while there was deep division in the South African Church about these issues. 

Rev. Stone writes: “Though with a scornful wonder we see her (the church) sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” 

This humble parish priest was passionate about the church remaining unified as a body here on earth even in the midst of controversy.  In his hymn he connected the church of the living with the church triumphant.  

The saints in heaven are depicted as those who are encouraging the church by keeping watch and praying as the divisions raged on below.  This imagery can be helpful for us today as we struggle with disagreements over Disciplinary paragraphs.  

Another of Stone’s passions was to teach the church the meaning of the Apostle’s Creed.  According to Warren Shiver, he wrote a series of twelve hymns that explain the theology of the creed. “The Church’s One Foundation” was the ninth in the series that taught about the holy, catholic (universal) church and the communion of the saints.

My favorite line in the hymn speaks of that “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”  As I reflect on the passing of my parents this past year and I anticipate “All Saints Day” this week it is comforting to remember that sweet communion, that unexplainable fellowship with the “great cloud of witnesses” above (Hebrews 12:1) who, even in glory, are cheering us on. 
We should remember that the saints who lived before us faced theological controversy and suffered persecution and even death for the cause of Christ. It is our turn to take up the mantle and continue the ministry of Jesus in this present age.

When our way forward is not clear, the sound and fury of contention can be deafening, and our ministry can get stalled at times. As Christians debate each other, what a comfort it is to know that “the great church victorious shall be the church at rest” someday.  

We will one day enjoy reunion with those saints who pray for our reunion here and now. And best of all, we will have “union with God, the Three in One,” our one true foundation who supplies our every need. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Repentance as Decolonization

During this quadrennium United Methodists are studying the acts of inhumanity that people have committed against indigenous peoples around the earth. Each annual conference is slated to have an “Act of Repentance” during a regular annual session.

Our Philadelphia Episcopal Area will join in this observance during both of its 2016 annual conferences (Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware). This gives us time to learn and reflect upon what has happened in the past, to repent and ultimately move toward reconciliation. 

At a recent conference at the United Nations Church Center in May 2014  the plight of indigenous peoples and the concept of “repentance as decolonization” was discussed. ( As Native American people in the United States were “colonized” onto reservations and robbed of their land and ways of life, the act of decolonization would be the true fruit of repentance. 

Giving back the benefits of that land would be a worthy sign that majority-culture people understand the wrong that was done to those who were the First Nations in this country.  We can make progress toward this goal by respecting the culture and property of Native peoples and finding ways for the U.S. government to assist them in getting higher education, employment, property ownership, health care and social services. This requires advocacy, and advocacy only comes through awareness, the awareness that Native American communities have been denied the very fundamental rights afforded to other people in this country. 

At this United Nations Church Conference on Indigenous Peoples Dr. Heather Elkins, a professor at Drew University Theology School, participated in a video project in which she showed  a piece of art that was painted by Native American contemporary artist Leslie Gates. It is a figure of a Native American who was on the “Trail of Tears,” the brutal forced exodus of Native people from their lands that was part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The United States government implemented it under the presidency of Andrew Jackson. 

This artwork showed a solemn figure covered with a blanket. The blanket, when seen up close, comprises hundreds of canceled U.S. postage stamps. These stamps are the ones we see frequently with U.S. flags on them and the words “Liberty,” “Justice” and “Freedom” inscribed on them. 

The stamps shown as “canceled” remind us that for the Native American people their liberty, freedom and justice have been canceled because of racism,  greed, oppression and evil.  During the Trail of Tears thousands of Native people were marched along a perilous route from their homes in the East to barren reservations in Oklahoma, often during the bitter cold winter. There were many deaths due to exposure, disease and starvation.

As some prepare to celebrate Columbus Day on October 13, others will decry the sordid history of exploitation and genocide it represents. Indeed, it is important for us to remember indigenous peoples who suffered at the hands of Europeans who came to America and treated its Native occupants cruelly for the most part. 

If we are truly repenting for the misdeeds of our forebears we need to “un-cancel” the stamps of liberty, freedom and justice. We need to decolonize our hearts, amend our ways and write a new, living chapter of redemption in our history together. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Time to Love

"Time is
Too slow for those who Wait,
Too swift for those who Fear,
Too long for those who Grieve,
Too short for those who Rejoice.
But for those who Love,
Time is eternal."

Those verses penned in 1904 by poet, professor and statesman Henry van Dyke, a native of Germantown, Pa., are timely for us who remember "9/11," our national day of tragedy 13 years ago when brutal terrorists took over our skies, plunging hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A small legion of American heroes prevented the hijackers of a third airliner, United Flight 93, from reaching their dreaded goal, mostly likely the U.S. Capitol, and instead forced them to crash into an empty field near Shanksville, Pa., killing all onboard.

Today on 9/11/14 there are memorials again being held at each crash site, remembering and mourning the thousands of fallen victims and our many heroes who responded at great risk to these attacks, including those who sacrificed their lives in Shanksville.

We wait desperately for an end to our war on terror, an end that may never come. We fear the rise of a new force of Islamic extremists, ISIS, now wreaking havoc, brutally murdering thousands, inflicting destruction across Iraq and Syria, and threatening to infiltrate Europe and America in their horrific campaign. The only question about this "existential threat," as some describe it, is not if but when.

We grieve for those we have lost in this terrible war on terror-from the first victims of 9/11 ripped from the embrace of loving families, to the courageous, often youthful soldiers we have lost in battle, to non-military victims, including two American journalists recently executed in grisly fashion just to send a message of hate and vengeance. We grieve for them and for their families.

We rejoice all too briefly when gallant soldiers return home from war to rejoin their families and surprise their children, when those who have lost limbs, eyes and other parts of once-healthy bodies rise above their losses to gain new hope and new lives through healing, support and their own determination to survive and live on.

And finally, we love, as we must, as Christ teaches and shows us how to love: by rejecting hate, casting out fear, and growing through our grief and pain to find hope and healing on the other side. We learn to no longer wait for an end to hate, fear, suffering and war, but instead to work for a new beginning, a new chance to experience for ourselves and express to others a perfect love gained through courage, forgiveness and faith in our own promised resurrection.

With wars behind us and rumors of war upon us, let us not wait, or fear, or grieve endlessly. But let us instead strive to love-ourselves and others-as deeply and as completely as we can, and then strive to love even deeper.
Then our rejoicing will rise in the morning, take flight in the noonday and last to comfort us through the darkest, dreariest nights. And then time-not the awful curse for those who fear or grieve without ceasing, but the blessed, grace-filled gift for those who love and rejoice persistently-that time will be eternal, if not in this life, then in the life to come.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Thankful for the Ministry of Bishop Martin McLee

My e-mail box and telephone have been filled with messages about the recent passing of Bishop Martin McLee, bishop of the New York Annual Conference.  He entered the church triumphant on Saturday, September 6, while on a leave of absence. 

We as a denomination and as individuals are filled with grief and disbelief as we process the news.  We reflect on the brevity of life but also the amazing impact one life can have and the awesome work that this bishop was able to accomplish in two short years. 

Bishop McLee was an advocate for justice in his conference and around the United Methodist Connection.  He brought new vision and leadership to the Northeastern Jurisdiction Multi-Ethnic Center for Ministry.  He handled a complaint around the issue of same-gender weddings with faithfulness and grace.  He preached with power in speech and song, often bursting into the chorus of a well-known hymn to accentuate his message.

Bishop McLee was a communicator.  Early on I figured out that he was great with text messages.  He always answered.  I would text “I am praying for you,” and he would respond, “It is getting better” or “God is with me.”  He was always filled with hope and positive energy that encouraged us all. 

Even during his illness and rehabilitation he looked upward and trusted in a God who provided for every need.  He would frequently address the body as “beloved” knowing that everyone is a precious child of God, no matter who they are; and in God’s love he embraced all.

I texted Bishop Martin on Saturday morning.  I thought it was strange that he did not answer me.  He always answered.  Seems that he answered the call from God to rise up to new life and a higher call in the kingdom of light. 

There is no telling what he is doing now, gifted with renewed strength and eternal life in heaven. We will join him someday. But on this day we pray for all who mourn across our Connection and especially for the New York Annual Conference, even as we celebrate the living legacy of his leadership in ministry there. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

How Beautiful!

Christian vocalist Twila Paris recorded a song entitled “How Beautiful” a number of years ago.  In it she describes the body of Christ, not only Christ himself but his body, the church.  One line from the song came to mind during my recent visit to the Congo: “How beautiful when humble hearts give the fruit of pure lives so that others may live.” 

Bishop Johnson with Rev. Kumbe,
a D.S. in East Congo for six years
I saw this happening every day in the Congo during my 10-day tour.  Many are sacrificially preaching the gospel there with little or no salary.  One of the District Superintendents who just completed six years on the cabinet received $10 per month as her total compensation.  She has had no modern vehicle for transportation.  But even with the hardship of walking or riding a bike to visit her churches she also established five new congregations on her district during her tenure.
Our team had dinner with a Congolese pilot, Gaston Ntabamo, from the “Wings of the Morning” aviation ministry one evening.  He is one of our United Methodist missionaries who serves in the Congo.
Gaston Ntabamo, pilot
He makes numerous flights from the remote villages to the only full-service hospital in the area at no charge to the patients thanks to our United Methodist Mission giving.  He has saved hundreds of lives during his years of ministry.  In addition he serves as the pilot for many of the United Methodist bishops as they travel to areas where there are no passable roads. During the war in the Congo 10 years ago this pilot risked his life to evacuate stranded missionaries. 

Bishop Johnson with Dr. Phillpe
Okunda from Tunda
When I attended a meeting of pastors and lay leaders in the Congo they spoke about their evangelism methods.  They are the fastest growing area in our denomination and we can learn much from them.  A missionary doctor stood up to speak.  He said to me “You visited my home in Tunda four years ago.”  I then remembered this young doctor who I met when Rev. Jonathan Baker (Pen-Del Pastor and leader of our Congo Partnership) brought a team to the Congo in 2010. 

I recall how ill-equipped the village hospital was and how the medicine we brought was so greatly needed.  This doctor continues to serve in this remote area, giving a life line to thousands who depend on him.  He reminded us that evangelism begins with meeting the physical needs of people.
Presentation of donated
anti-malaria bed nets
I got to see malaria-preventing bed nets being distributed and I thanked God that we had a part in it by collecting money for “Imagine No Malaria.”  I saw boxes of Malaria medication, testing equipment and community nurses in action thanks to your generous giving. Never grow weary of collecting money to eradicate malaria! The need is still great.

We met a family in a large worship service who did evangelism using food. The bishop publically thanked them for providing all the meals during their annual conference session, which lasted for seven days!  They donated huge quantities of rice, casaba and several animals for butchering. 
Their college-aged son saved money all year to donate a sack of sugar for this effort.  They also did all the cooking and serving and sent people home with the leftovers.  Their daughter takes food ministry on the road and regularly travels to small villages and gathers people around a meal and shares the gospel.
Family that donated food for
Annual Conference
This family has hospitality in their DNA!  Long ago their great-great grandfather was the local tribal leader that first welcomed Methodist missionaries into the town of Kindu in 1922.  Imagine the courage it took to invite this stranger into their home at a time when no one had ever experienced a visit from a missionary. 

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Methodist mission in Wembo Nyama.  Rev. Jonathan Baker and Jackie Onwu (former missionary to the Congo from Pen Del) from our partnership represented us at this event.  Bishop Walter Lambuth and Dr. John Wesley Gilbert were the first missionaries there back in 1914.  They traveled by foot, by hammock, by river boat and by rail to get there.  When the church was born there local leaders were empowered to be in charge of their ministries and the work as continued ever since. 
Wembo Nyama has been an important educational center for Methodists through the years.  I am happy to hear that the children’s evangelism program that was started by Rev. David Ryan (a pastor in Eastern PA) through our Congo Partnership has spread to over 4,000 children.  Parents are seeing how their children have changed since they have come to know the Lord through this vital ministry.

Swahili for "Jesus is Lord"
I thank God for the hands that literally served the Deaf community in Kindu during my visit to the Congo.  At our celebratory service in which we dedicated new buildings paid for by the Nashville Episcopal Area of the UMC there was a sign language interpreter who signed non-stop in the hot sun for 3 ½ hours so that the Deaf worshipers would be included.  This he did for no pay and walked 10 miles to get to this event.
How beautiful is the body of Christ!  That is us when we give the “fruit of pure lives” in humble service to the world that Christ loved and died for.  How beautiful are you, Eastern PA and Pen-Del Conference churches, pastors and lay people.  I know of many of you who have gone out this summer bringing hope and wholeness to numerous missions all over the globe. 

Bishop Johnson preaching
at worship service
I thank God for the Congo Partnership eye surgery team that ministered to hundreds of people this summer helping people see again. I thank God for Miriam’s Table, that is a project that gives hope to many children in the Congo, thanks to Sue Keefer’s (of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference) efforts. I thank God for the many VIM work teams that have gone forth from our conferences rebuilding homes and lives after hurricane and tornados.  I am also aware of a number of local feeding programs, international pastor’s schools, summer camps and youth service projects that bring the light of Christ and trains up a whole new generation of believers.
Those who serve would tell you they don’t do it to be thanked or praised.  They serve sacrificially out of love of Christ and have the awesome privilege of being his hands and feet in the world.  I encourage you to find even more new ways to be “The Body of Christ” and enter into the joy of your Master as you give the “fruit of pure lives.”

(Please continue to give to our Central Congo Partnership by sending donations to our conference treasurers with “Congo Partnership” in the memo line.)
(From left) Bishops Gabriel Unda Yembe (East Congo Area),
Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda (North Katanga Conf.),
Peggy Johnson and Bill McAlilly (Nashville Area)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Standing our ground: 'We are all accountable'

On August 9 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American youth in Ferguson, Mo., was fatally shot multiple times by police officer Darren Wilson. Bishop Minerva CarcaƱo, president of our General Commission on Race and Religion, responded in a public statement that, “We are all accountable for his death and accountable to the African American young people in our communities everywhere.”

That is so true. Michael was our child. So were Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, two other teenagers killed by gun shots in 2012, their assailants acquitted of their deaths by Florida’s notorious Stand Your Ground law.  
Nine-year-old Antonio Davis of Chicago was slain just last Wednesday, August 21, by gun shots that tore through his young, innocent body as he likely sought to escape gang violence. He too was our child. And so were too many others taken from us in recent years in Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities and towns across our nation.
The quaking ground on which we must stand is our accountability to children and yes, adults, of African American and other races, who are victims of violence-random and senseless or premeditated and prejudicial, by law-breakers and law-keepers. We must assert clearly, loudly that every life has value and promise, especially every young life, even in the most unpromising circumstances.  
And the loss of each life, no matter how distant or disparate from us, diminishes us nonetheless. In the course of our prayers and anxious discourse, or even in our bewildered silence, that undeniable truth must strike a deep, solemn, reverberating chord in each of us.
We live in a society that is full of terrible violence, racism and socio-economic inequities. We as individuals and as members of our churches and communities need to do all we can to squarely face and address these daunting tragedies in and beyond our churches, in our families, communities, schools, workplaces and our personal lives.  
We are all vulnerable when any one of us is vulnerable. There is no us and them. There is only us. We claim to be followers of Jesus Christ, who crosses boundaries and “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:14) Well, he not only teaches us to do likewise; he demands it.
Hip-hop singer Lauryn Hill recently reprised her song “Black Rage” in response to the racism, poverty, disrespect and disregard faced by many in Ferguson and similar communities around our nation. She cites “blatant denial, squeezed economics, subsistent survival” as some of the reasons for this continued cycle of violence and distrust that too often erupt in upheaval. The pain felt there must be our pain too, wherever we are. We must see it, hear it, feel it and speak it from our hearts. And the dire need for serious, creative remedies must be our common quest.
How can you help? Well, where do you see or hear about these same struggles happening around you, in your community or other communities near or far? Poor schools and substandard education, rampant unemployment and poverty, growing hunger, dilapidated homes, unsafe streets, inadequate municipal services, distrust and conflicts between residents and police, high rates of incarceration, racial bias and mistreatment.
How can you help? Through joining local and state advocacy efforts; providing  tutoring and higher education assistance; offering preparatory employment training and job search help; supporting community gardens and healthy food stores; getting involved in sweat equity ministries like Habitat for Humanity to provide affordable housing; starting recreation, arts and crafts and other activities for youth after school; holding community forums and gatherings for relationship building and dialogue; and generating citizen education, research, documentation, legal help, negotiation and advocacy to reduce and respond to mistreatment by police.  
That’s just a start. Some churches can do more; but every church can do something, especially through church and community partnerships.
Actually, the way we start is to look and listen to our communities and get to know residents, schools, businesses, organizations and other participants from all walks of life. And then we must demonstrate the outreaching, redemptive love of Christ, as John Wesley reminds us, in all the ways we can, to all the people we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can.
"This past week I've watched an American city become something akin to a war zone," says popular actor Orlando Jones in a recent online video. He then borrows from the also popular ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, where people are accepting the challenge to pour ice or cold water over their heads and make contributions to help find a cure for ALS, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”  
Jones, a lifetime member of the NRA, pours instead a bucket of bullets over his head. He then tells viewers, “I'm challenging myself to listen without prejudice, to love without limits and to reverse the hate. That's my challenge to me and hopefully you will accept this challenge too."
I accept Jones’ challenge wholeheartedly, and I urge each of you to do the same: Listen without prejudice, love without limits and reverse the hate.”
Dear members and churches of our two conferences in the Philadelphia Episcopal Area, I ask you to seek ways to help balance the scales of justice in this world so that everyone gets what they need, everyone is treated with respect and no one is seen as “less than” or undeserving of the blessings of life.
Christ tells us to "watch and pray always." So let us watch keenly and not be blind or deaf to what is happening in our midst. Let us not be mute or immobile and thus fail in our calling to be active witnesses to God’s transforming love, mercy and justice in our world.
Please join me in watching, praying and working for a nation--and indeed, a world--that is free from using violence as a misguided, tragic solution to life’s struggles. Together we must see it, hear it, feel it, speak it and then do it “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an overflowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Monday, August 11, 2014

My memorable visit to Smith Island

Perhaps the most unique appointment in the Peninsula-Delaware Conference or maybe even the entire connection is the Ewell-Smith Island Charge, located on the Salisbury District.  This three-point charge (Calvary –Rhodes Point, Ewell and Union – Tylerton) is served by the Rev. C. Richard “Rick” Edmund, and he is beginning his 15th year there as pastor.  It is accessible only by a 45-minute boat ride and every week

          Pastor Rick goes by foot, by boat and by car to his churches, making the entire circuit each Sunday.  My husband Mike and I traveled there for a weekend in June and were joined by District Superintendent, Rev. Fred Duncan and his wife, Pat.  We were treated to some amazing hospitality.  These people are master chefs!  Imagine having crab omelets, Smith Island cake, maple-cured bacon, home-made rolls and peach ice cream!  

          Everyone there travels around by golf cart, and there is a general store, a museum, an elementary school (with only 12 students), a few bed and breakfasts, and a lot that has to do with the work of watermen.  The main business on the island is of course catching crabs and oysters.  Everywhere you look there is water and fields of reed grasses and cranes and gulls gliding over-head.  No city noise, no glaring lights here….just sheer silence and the voices of nature.

          Many generations have lived on Smith Island and everyone is like one large, extended family where people take care of one another. Each does what it takes to maintain the services and functions needed for simple and gracious living, be it collecting money for the light bill, picking up trash, working at the general store or running the boat taxi to and from the mainland. 

         Last winter the boat taxi, bravely transported a very sick woman, accompanied by Pastor Rick,  to the mainland in the middle of a blizzard with 70 mph winds.  The boat captain, Otis, said there was zero visibility and he depended solely on GPS to find the shore.  They were given a citation by the state for their act of bravery on behalf of the woman who needed emergency care.  It’s the kind of commitment that people have for one another on the island.

          My goal for visiting the Smith Island was to spend some time at the churches there, and I was not disappointed.  Early in Methodist history an evangelist named the Rev. Joshua Thomas sailed up and down the Chesapeake Bay preaching the gospel.  These churches were some of the fruits of his labors.  I was very impressed by the deep love for God in the hearts of the United Methodists there. 

         Ewell UMC begins its service each Sunday with a half-hour of praise and testimony.  One after another, people stand and tell others what God had done for them the past week, and they give thanks for the many miracles of healing and restoration in their lives after illnesses or trouble.   I wish all of our churches would do that, as testimony strengthens our faith.

          Throughout the morning services I attended people shared their faith in God during prayer time as well.  The man who took us by boat to the second service in Tylerton was a waterman. He told me earning a living by crabbing is hard work, and sometimes folks would predict a lean year. But he said, “God has never let me down, God has always taken care of me.” 

          Maybe that kind of trust is why churches on the island pay their apportionments in full each year.  Some pay before year’s end, even when they don’t know how the money will come in.  They trust in God to take care of their church, and they do their part.  I wish that for all of our churches, because it is not faith unless there is obedience no matter the circumstances.

          Each church had a choir whose members sang with all their hearts and a pianist who could roll out the gospel songs as well as any concert hall virtuoso.  On Sunday night there was another church service, led by the laity with more singing and testimony and even a poem or two read.  The church is the center of the community, where people gather to discuss community concerns as well as things eternal. 

          They have an active historical society, and after Hurricane Sandy the community lobbied the government for recovery funds instead of opting to receive state funds to buy out the residents.  Christians need to be living their faith in church and in the community, and these folks don’t draw the line between the two. 

         The weekend I visited the island there was a special treat: The Reminders, the local singing trio of John Thompson, Kevin Short and Ed Shockley, sang at each church and also performed an outstanding gospel concert in the afternoon.  They sang in the camp meeting pavilion where there is an annual week-long revival.  We sat on the long wooden benches and there was plenty of sawdust around our feet.  Among their many fine renditions the Reminders performed an original song, “The Waterman,” that spoke about the lives of people who live on the Chesapeake Bay. 

          “I am a Waterman, that’s all I know” was repeated again and again in the chorus of the song.  I would say the life of a waterman is enough to know….respect for God, nature, family and community.  If everyone would just know that the world would be a better place.  God bless the people on Smith Island and I encourage everyone to go over there and take a look.  You will come home well-fed: physically and spiritually. 

Take a look and listen at The Reminders singing “The Waterman."

Note: Having completed my recent leave, I will be visiting the United Methodist Church's East Congo Episcopal Area from August 12 until August 22.  Please keep me and the people there in your prayers.  Contact Amy Botti at if you need assistance from my office.