Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Persevering Prayer

Jesus told a parable about a man who was in need of bread to serve some unexpected guests. The man went to the home of a neighbor and continually knocked on the door until the tired, reluctant neighbor got up and gave him the bread he needed. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, “Ask and it shall be given to you, seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9).

Does this mean that if we ask enough times we will get the answer we want?  Does this mean that God is a sleepy, reluctant neighbor who will not respond to our needs until we nag him to the point of annoyance?  Or does this mean that everything we ask for will be granted sooner or later, like a celestial mail-order house?

The answer to all of these questions is “No.”  God loves us too much to allow our prayers to be answered in any way but the best way. It is difficult to watch a tragedy and question why God does not intervene. But the meaning of prayer has more to do with the “sifting of wheat” in our souls during the process of prayer than merely “getting” the answer we seek.

It takes time to pray. Prayer is slow work, as is the molding and shaping of our wills to God’s will. It takes time to pray; and as we do, our prayers can come into alignment with God’s will so that we are praying in the Spirit of God, rather than our own human desires. It means that soulful prayer—like many human conversations—needs to be a lot more listening and a lot less talking.

I often find myself on conference calls using a toll-free number to connect various callers onto one conversation. One of the rules of conference calls is to use the “mute” button when you are not talking so your background noise does not interfere with the conversation. When the “mute” button is pressed your voice cannot be heard but you can listen.

As we pray we need to put the “mute” button on and listen to what God is saying about the things we are praying about. God’s perfect will sometimes is for us to wait; and sometimes it is a different goal or plan altogether. Sometimes the answer is “no.”

In the act of persevering prayer we do hear back from God. As we do, we can often find that our disappointment is actually an appointment to a better plan given to us by the loving hand of God. We can trust that God cares enough to give us the very best answer, often one more blessed than we could have imagined.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Black History Month Focus--“Hidden Figures”



If you haven’t already, I encourage you to see the historical movie “Hidden Figures.” The story plot is based on real events and the lives of three African American women who worked for NASA during the beginning of the U.S. space program.

In the 1950s the women who handled the math calculations for the space program were known as “the colored computers.” The movie portrays day-to-day examples of racial and gender discrimination they initially faced, including disrespect from some white coworkers and others, even from some African American men.

Yet they persevered and gave significant contributions to the space program, which could not have succeeded without them. I am grateful that the real-life Ms. Katherine Johnson, one of the three featured in the movie, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 from President Barack Obama. That honor and this movie make it clear that these brave women are hidden no more.

Yet, people who are hidden figures continue to abound in this world of ours. They are people who have done incredible work for the promotion of good in the world and in the church but receive little or no acknowledgement. Many times, that is due to institutional racism that tends to reward the majority culture at the expense of people of color.

Sometimes people become “hidden” because of their gender, class, ability, orientation or religion. Whatever the reason, the effect is the same: devaluation, invisibility and a huge loss for all of us. That is because when one of us shines, we all shine. But when any of us and our abilities are cast into shadows or marginalized, we all suffer more than we can know.

Young people are looking for role models, and we need them in all colors, genders and walks of life for beneficial mentoring and progress to happen. We must acknowledge that everyone is gifted by God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and intended by their Creator to use their talents for the good of all. It doesn’t work so well when some people are relegated to stay in the corner or in a separate place, while someone else gets credit for their work.

Another lesson of this movie is the importance of people getting out of the way to allow for social change. Had the film’s white boss, Al Harrison, kept all the power to himself and others like him we may have never landed on the moon. He broke down barriers to let true giftedness in. This takes humility and courage.

Celebrating black history in February and throughout the year is important for everyone because we are all in this world together. As we remember the history and the stories of the past we can celebrate our gains together. And we can accept the challenge to do a better job of bringing our gifted leaders out of hiding, while empowering everyone to achieve for the good of all.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Long, Long Way to Go


In early December I participated in an ecumenical dialogue held periodically between The United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church. During the three-day meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, we visited the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. The church is historic partly for tragic reasons.

On September 15, 1963, just before Sunday school, a secretly placed bomb, made of 15 sticks of dynamite, exploded. It ripped through this house of holy worship and took the precious lives of four young girls:  Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Diane Wesley and Carole Robertson.

As I sat in that serene church on a sunny December afternoon, it was hard to imagine the horror of it all and the evil infecting the hearts of people who would commit such a horrific crime.

Following our visit there, we walked over to the Civil Rights Museum where we could see the patient, painstaking progress that has occurred step-by-step since 1963.


The words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogy at the joint funeral of three of the girls were ringing in my mind: “This tragic day may cause the white side to come to terms with its conscience,” he said. “In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Life is hard—at times, as hard as crucible steel—but today, you do not walk alone.” 

Down through these many hard years it is at times clear that the African American community has not walked alone. Much progress has happened, and many on “the white side” have found their conscience, some even enough to journey with those trying to overcome racial oppression.

Fast-forward to the trial of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who, just 18 months ago, entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and viciously killed nine people gathered for a Bible Study.
It is clear to me that we still have a long, long way to go. Despite years of progress, the evil root of bigotry is alive, though not well, and it sprouts acts of disrespect, blatant hatred and racially motivated violence every day. We—all of us—must challenge it and try to dig up that diseased root. It must become a daily effort and our daily witness.

I echo the words of Dr. King: “White people need to come to terms with their conscience.”  As we remember the life of this great civil rights leader, and as we celebrate the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on January 18-25, may white members of our denomination take time to deeply examine our conscience…down to the root. May we acknowledge sins of commission and omission, sins of thought, word and deed. 

May we search our attitudes and behaviors, examine our church practices of reaching out and welcoming in. Do we use our voices, our political power to speak out against the continuing civil rights abuses in this country and for the improvement needed in human relations? 

Where can we be in better alignment with, and a better reflection of, the great love God has given to us through Christ Jesus, a love that we are to share with all our brothers and sisters?

I pray that we all will strive daily to overcome hate and division and to embody what this “drum major for justice” called “a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” Amen. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

New Beginnings

 The beginning of a New Year conjures up for me the image of a new start, a rebooted computer, a right-sizing of clutter on our desks, the balancing of a check-book, a new resolve to do things better.  New beginnings are never successful unless there is a serious ending to that which is old, and some of that is harder to let go of than it would seem.

The prophet Samuel in the Old Testament had labored long with King Saul’s monarchy, but it was heading for a dismal end. Samuel was grieving the fall of this leader and his part in choosing this tall, shy young person from the tribe of Benjamin years ago. In the midst of his grieving comes a word from the Lord.

The Lord often talks to us through grief and times of uncertainty. It is often the place where we finally stop all our noise and listen to God’s voice. Never shun grief and pain because there are clear and compelling messages that need our attention in order to move on in healthy ways.

God says to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel?  Fill your horn with oil, and go.  I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” (I Samuel 16:1)

The beginning of a new, godly monarchy begins with God commanding Samuel to put away his grief over the old one. May it be true for us as well.

As you ponder the new things you will do in this New Year be sure to intentionally deal with any residual grief of the old.  Pray through this pain. Seek to reconcile with those you have wronged, and forgive those who have wronged you. You may even choose to seek professional counseling.  Until the old thing is healed it will continue to creep into your “new” thing.

This thought is heralded well in one of our beloved hymns (UM Hymnal, #383) penned by Brian Wren:

This is a day of new beginnings,
Time to remember and move on.
Time to believe what love is bringing,
Laying to rest the pain that’s gone.

For by the life and death of Jesus
Love’s mighty Spirit now as then
Can make for us a world of difference 
As faith and hope are born again.

Then let us, with the Spirit’s daring,
Step from the past and leave behind
Our disappointment, guilt and grieving,
Seeking new paths and sure to find.

Christ is alive and goes before us
To show and share what love can do.
This is a day of new beginnings
Our God is making all things new

May the “Spirit’s daring” bring you a fresh start in 2017, giving you the courage to deal with past pain and then to move on!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Privilege


We are living in a time when our country is becoming more and more aware of white privilege. According to Wikipedia, “White privilege is a term of societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in Western countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political or economic circumstances.”

Around our conference in recent months we have called white people together in small groups on our districts to learn about this reality in our world and in our churches. More of us will gather in churches and districts this month and next to discuss what it means to use that privilege and power to discriminate and build walls of institutional racism.

Many white people unknowingly have lived in a “white bubble” of family and social circles all their lives. They may not realize they have privilege that on a broad, systemic level causes harm to others who don’t. These are important conversations, and we will—we must—continue having them, as we enter courageously into ventures over these next four years that respond to the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference’s Call to Action. It is a call to begin building racial awareness and understanding, while making progress in the cause for racial equity and harmony among all peoples.


Hearing privilege


Recently, I had lunch with an old friend who works with the Deaf community, and she told me about the new twitter feed #hearingprivilege. I have worked in the Deaf community for many years, but this was new to me. It is similar to the dynamics of white privilege. Hearing people have many more advantages than those who cannot hear. Yet it is often taken for granted. Here are some of the tweets: 


“Hearing privilege is being able to hear the ‘loud and verbal commands’ given by the police before they shoot.”

“Being able to find and meet with a mental health professional who speaks my language (sign language).”

“To be able to walk into your gurdwara (Sikh) or mosque, church or temple and fully understand and participate.”

“To be educated in your own language, alongside people you can actually understand.”

The truth is, everything we are and have in life can be a privilege. And it can all be shared with less privileged sisters and brothers.

I remember Deaf members of the Deaf Church I served in Baltimore having “seeing privilege.” Some other members were deaf and blind; so those who could see had a privilege over those who could not.

Some of the Deaf members would interpret the visual signs of the worship services for the Deaf-Blind members through a tactile sign language that “spoke” into their hands. Thus, the Deaf-Blind members could “feel the Word of the Lord” by a tactile reception of the signs.


Privileged and unprivileged


The church, the full Body of Christ, is this amazing, diverse collection of privileged and unprivileged people living through a variety of situations and scenarios reflected in our races, ethnicities, socio-economic status, genders, abilities, sexual orientation, health, ages, and so on. We are, within ourselves, a unique collection of both privileged and underprivileged people on any given day.

Yet, no privilege is as universal as those that relate to the basic human body. Each of us has a body of some kind; and at best, most of us are “temporarily able-bodied” until the processes of aging and death take their course.

Disability crosses all lines of race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc. Sadly, however, many of our churches are ill-prepared to receive people with disabilities. Not only are they unable to receive them physically, with accessible buildings and services; but often church members have inaccessible “hearts” that fail to welcome disabled visitors. It is even harder to find churches that engage in the greatest form of accessibility of all: empowerment.

I was at the meeting of the NEJ Committee on Native American Ministries recently when its president, Cynthia Kent, praised the UM Church for offering her a place where she could be both a Native American and a Christian. “I did not have to leave who I was at the door when I joined the United Methodist Church” she said. “I praise God for that.”

But as I consider disability access it is true that many people can’t even get into the doors of our churches because of the architectural barriers. Many are still not able to even enter. Is that true of your church?


Disability Awareness Sunday


I encourage all of our churches to hold a Disability Awareness Sunday this year, whether on the official observance date of Jan. 22 or another Sunday. Use the Disability Awareness Sunday Resources website for sermon ideas, liturgies and hymns.

Invite a person with a disability to be the preacher. Do an accessibility audit of your church and report findings to your congregation. Explore avenues to serve and involve people with disabilities, so they can use their unique gifts to enhance the ministry of the Body of Christ.

I Corinthians 12:22 reminds us, “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Understanding that principle and giving honor to those among us who lack advantages is the first step to eradicating “able-bodied privilege.”


MORE INFORMATION: 


The Discipline
, the book of procedure and legislation of the United Methodist Church, states that the church is to be inclusive, and that it should enable every person to participate in its life (¶ 139). It further states that all persons with “mental, physical, developmental, neurological, and psychological conditions or disabilities” are fully human and full members of God’s family, with a rightful place in church and society. In recognition of this status, the church is to be in ministry with all people who have any special need, and to enable their full participation in its activities. The church is also to be an advocate for equality (¶ 162, emphasis added).

To recognize and affirm these statements, a Disability Awareness Sunday is to be observed annually. The date is determined by each Annual Conference. An offering may be received for disability ministries if the conference chooses to do so (¶ 265).

If churches want to receive and designate an offering on Disability Awareness Sunday, they can give it to UMCOR’s “Disability Ministries” Advance Special # 3021054, which provides “resources and funding to develop ministries that include and empower persons with disabilities and their families.”

Pastors and lay leaders may contact Disability Ministries Committee members in their districts to offer disability awareness promotion ideas. (See the list on the epaumc.org Disability Ministry webpage.) Or contact committee chairwoman Barbara Skarbowski at bskarbowski@gmail.com or 717-584-6170.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

"The Work of Christmas Begins"



A Christmas and New Year's Greeting from Bishop Peggy A. Johnson, Philadelphia Area.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Preach Social Justice on Sunday, Jan. 15



Advent is a special time of waiting, anticipating and preparing for the sacred, birth of Jesus Christ. So in this appropriate time I want to call on all of you to look ahead to 2017 and particularly to our growing concern for social justice. 

The prophets who proclaimed the birth of Christ—including Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah and Malachi—looked forward to this coming Messiah who would deliver salvation. But just as importantly, he would bring justice, freedom and righteousness for all God’s people.
Isaiah 11:4 declares that “…with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”  Isaiah 61:1 proclaims him as one who will bring “good news to the oppressed, to bind the broken-hearted, and proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.”  

The coming of Christ is forever connected to fostering right relationships between people, and it is a key part of the gospel that we need to preach in our pulpits and model in our ministries.  John Wesley, our Methodist founder, said, “There is no holiness but social holiness.”  (Works of John Wesley, Vol. XIV, p321)

I ask that everyone preach a social justice sermon on Sunday, January 15, 2017. This is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. His legacy in the forefront of America’s Civil Rights Movement can be a powerful backdrop for any sermon. It is a legacy of striving against great odds to follow Christ in the pursuit of love, freedom, mercy and justice for all.

There are many directions that sermons preached on this day could go. But I urge all preachers to use this time to speak prophetic words about the social injustices that hinder peace and progress in the communities where you serve, or in our state or country. 

Call on everyone who listens to do something about social justice as a response to God’s Word. Ask and help people to become better informed, to participate in the political system, to speak out when people are being left out or oppressed, and to do something to make the world a more just and welcoming place for everyone to live.

In this way we can faithfully fulfill the ministry of Christ that we so happily herald during the Advent season. Sadly, too many of us soon forget the reason for this season and pack away our sacrificial sentiments along with the Christmas decorations when the new year comes.

Recently I viewed a documentary on Netflix titled “13,” which refers to the U.S. Constitution’s 13th amendment that abolished slavery.  It explains in compelling ways the history of slavery, “Jim Crow” laws and practices ensuring racial discrimination and oppression, civil rights advocacy and the mass incarceration epidemic in this country. 

Perhaps a timely social justice sermon could focus on the prison system. According to this documentary and other sources our country imprisons far more people than any other nation on earth.  We have gone from 357,000 prisoners in 1970 to 2,306,200 in 2014. 

One in three African Americans can expect to be in the criminal justice system at some time in their life. And although they are less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans make up 40.2 percent of the prison population. 

How have our laws and money-making enterprises created this “prison-machine”?  What are some better ways to live and thrive together on this planet with justice and respect for all? These questions can offer interesting topics for preaching, teaching, dialogue and active response.

Know for sure that if and when you preach this social justice sermon there will be some who will not be happy with you. “Good news to the poor” can mean not-so-good news to the rich and powerful. Truth and justice is never a simple, easy goal to achieve in this world. Many of those with money and power have the upper hand in controlling the process and would prefer to keep things the way they are. 

Preach social justice anyway. Salvation comes from Jesus Christ, and along with our salvation comes a new way of living in which we are all equally sisters and brothers. Together, our goal is to be all that we anticipate and celebrate on Christmas Day: the loving presence and liberating power of Christ in this world.  Amen.