Monday, May 22, 2017

Ascension Day – What are you waiting for?



Thursday, May 25th is Ascension Day. It is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember Christ’s ascension into heaven. It happened 40 days after the resurrection (Easter) and it is recorded in the Book of Acts.

Jesus was telling the disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and all the ends of the earth. Then Jesus ascended and a cloud took him out of their sight. “While they were gazing into heaven two men stood by them in white robes and asked, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:10-11)

During the recent Council of Bishops meeting I had a conversation with Bishop Christian Alsted from Denmark. He explained that in his country Ascension Day is a national holiday. Some of the churches have torch-led processions around the church building to remember Jesus’ ascension and to officially end the season of Easter. They also bless fruits and vegetables at the churches, and people have an off-day from work.

It is interesting to me how little we observe Ascension Day in the United States in our churches, when truly, this is a day of great significance. The men in white, who spoke to those first apostles have a message for us as well: “Just don’t stand there looking up, get busy.”

Jesus is coming again and we need to be about the business of being witnesses for Jesus in our day and time. We need to be out of our church buildings and into the world blessing not only fruits and vegetables but the lives of people in our community and the world.

We have not fully completed our celebration of Easter if we are not making the church visible to the world by our witness of words and love in action. This is time-sensitive business. Jesus is coming again and unless we tell the story people will not know the good news of Jesus’ life-giving grace for all people.

So what are you waiting for? Tell your story, tell Christ’s story, and see how far the good news will spread.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

God bless the Babushkas


Recently I had lunch with two United Methodist pastors from Russia who are visiting some of their supporting churches. 

The place of the church in Russian in the 21st century is better than in the past when the Communist revolution swept into the country. But according to the Christian Science Monitor, Russia has emerged nowadays as the most God-believing nation in Europe.

The missionaries I spoke to credit much of this to the Babushkas*, who kept the faith alive during the state-sponsored repression. They were the grandmothers, with head-scarves and wrinkled faces, who were dismissed and ridiculed by the Communist leadership because of their religious belief. But they refused to give up their faith and kept it alive in secret and through their witness.

As we think about mothers during this Mother’s Day weekend we need to reflect on the faith that women, mothers and grandmothers often bring to a godless world. Often it is the quiet voice that is the most tenacious and strong. I give thanks for those faithful women in Russia who never gave up on their faith in God.

Never underestimate the power of your faith, even when you are seen as insignificant, misguided or old-fashioned. It will strengthen, sustain and save you in the end, giving you victory when all else fails and has fallen away.

*Babushkas are literally head scarves worn by Russian women that cover most or all of the top of their hair and heads, leaving their faces uncovered.

For another testimony about the faithfulness of the Russian, Christian women often called Babushkas, read the Christian Forum blog post "Thank God for the Babushkas."

Monday, April 10, 2017

Good News or Fake News?


There is a lot of talk recently about “fake news” with various reports of false information being projected as truth in our media outlets. 
During the U.S. presidential campaign there was a fake news account of a child abuse ring happening in a pizza parlor in Washington, DC, that was allegedly the work of one of the candidates. This story prompted a 28-year old man to drive six hours to investigate and retaliate. 
He came into the pizza parlor firing an assault rifle because he believed the story was true and was trying to help the abused children. This is an extreme example of what can happen when fake news is out there posing as truth.
Fake news is not a new thing. On that first Easter Sunday the tomb was empty and guards witnessed the resurrection. The Gospel of Matthew records that “for fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”
Later that day these same guards met with the chief priests and explained what happened.  Then the fake news was invented. The guards were bribed to tell people that Jesus’ disciples came by night and stole his body while they were asleep. 
Fake news are manipulative lies often founded on fear and hatred that seek to spread the negativity of misdeeds, death and despair.
Good news, on the other hand, is the power of God to transform death into life, turn despair into hope and cast out fear through perfect, divine love. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the best news ever witnessed in the history of humankind. 
Because Jesus lives, we too can live forever after our mortal death. We can live our lives for Christ fearlessly and hopefully now because of this promise of resurrection. 
Each of us has a choice about Jesus: either we believe he arose from the dead, and we inherit his gift of eternal life through faith; or, we believe death is the last word, and life here on earth is all there is. 
Good news or fake news. If you have chosen the “good news” path, then it is your responsibility to pass on this good news, to share this gift, that others may know of this ultimate blessing.
I see Facebook postings of good news every day: new grandchildren, graduations, birthdays, vacations, weddings and engagements. Clearly, good news is meant to be shared!
When was the last time you told someone that Jesus Christ is the Lord of your life and that you live for him because of the good news of his resurrection and yours?  That is the testimony people need to hear so that they might seek to learn about Jesus and come to have faith in him. That’s the stuff new and revitalized churches are made of: souls delivered from bondage, hopefulness found in the midst of loss and tragedy, loving acceptance that can heal loneliness.
Moreover, don’t just tell the good news. Be the good news. How? By the way you act in this world, by the kindness you offer, the generosity in your giving, the forgiveness you offer no matter how difficult, the Christian value of inclusiveness that you honor among people who are different from you. 
Be a “sermon in shoes” wherever you walk, by your active testimony of holy living.  Fake news produces confusion, hatred and fear.  Good news instills courage and hope, life and love that goes on and on and on into eternity.  Celebrate Easter by proclaiming to all the good news—outstanding news—of Jesus Christ in word and deed.

            

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

From House to House

On the morning that the e-mail notice came informing United Methodist bishops that Bishop Felton E. May* had been diagnosed with cancer, I immediately texted him with assurance of our prayers and support. Bishop May called me a few minutes later and we had a memorable conversation, one that I will never forget.

It was the last thing he ever told me. He said, “When I was a child growing up in Chicago some missionaries from a Baptist church came to my family home and brought in a flannel board and told us stories about Jesus.

“They came to the people telling the good news. It had a profound effect on my young life. Tell your pastors and churches to do that. Get out into the streets with this message.”

What good advice, what a timely word for us, because we live in an era of “personal-pan pizzas” and concerns for privacy. Likewise, the things of faith are so often kept quietly locked inside of church buildings.

People back then, and still today, do not all come flocking to the doors of our sanctuaries. We need to intentionally go out to peoples’ homes. Bishop May’s words need to be in all of our hearts, as we continue the ministry God has set before us.

As I met with the new ordination class for a time of reflection and prayer recently, we reviewed the Historic Questions of John Wesley that are asked of every person seeking full membership and ordination. Among them is this question: “Will you visit from house to house?”

The centuries between John Wesley’s time and ours perhaps make us pause about the practicality of this mandate. People are not always welcoming of visitors in their homes. Some people are often not even at home much of the time. And some pastors are not comfortable visiting peoples’ homes for a variety of reasons.



In his book Have you Faith in Christ? A Bishop’s insight into the Historic Questions asked of those seeking admission into full connection in the United Methodist Church, Bishop Ernest Lyght reminds us that “it is still appropriate for pastors to visit from house to house in today’s culture, with all of its limitations. There is no substitute for personal contact with one’s parishioners. However, one must understand local culture and govern oneself accordingly.” He gives this further advice:

“Visit from house to house in all the places where this is acceptable to your parishioners. Use the telephone to call people and let them know that you are thinking of them. Invite small groups to come to the parsonage for dessert and conversation.


“Have a breakfast meeting with a small group of people. Visit people at their work site by appointment. Go to the places where people gather in your community (post office, general store, volunteer firehouse, and so on). God to places where young people gather (sporting events, school plays, concerts). Make contact with the small groups that are a part of the church’s program. Participate in town meetings and community events. Cautiously use social media as a means of communication with people. Get involved personally in an ongoing community project. Join a civic club, or participate as a volunteer in a community organization.” (p. 61)

I urge you, along with the wisdom of Bishops May and Lyght, to “visit from house to house.” Clergy as well as our lay leadership will further the cause of Christ as we do. We never know whom we might visit that might later become a great leader in our churches and communities.


*NOTE:  Bishop Felton Edwin May passed away Feb. 27. A Memorial Service for him will be held on Saturday, April 1, at 11 AM, at Asbury United Methodist Church, 926 11th Street, NW, Washington, DC. The Washington Area Episcopal Office has secured rooms at a nearby hotel. For information contact Joyce King at bishopeasterlingoffice@bwcumc.org.

Read UM News Service’s obituary: Bishop May, ʽholy boldness advocate, dies at 81. Read our coverage of Bishop May’s passing

Monday, March 27, 2017

‘United Nations of the World’—Doing God’s work and ours

I am a Baby-Boomer, born of parents who experienced World War II. My father was a tail gunner in the Air Force on the island of Guam.  After the war, in 1948, the nations of the world decided to start the United Nations for the purpose of working for diplomacy that would prevent more world wars in the future. 

In elementary school I learned about this wondrous building in New York City, and I remember clearly the music teacher bringing her piano on wheels into our classroom and teaching us this song:

“United Nations of the World, United Nations flags unfurled.
When there is trouble brewing, don’t run for cover, Let nations get together and just talk it over!”

While in high school, in 1968, I went on an annual conference youth bus trip to New York City to visit the UN Building. Again, I was struck by the enormity of the task.  We learned about apartheid on that trip, and I wondered greatly about this process of diplomacy versus war.  It would be a long time from 1968 until the end of apartheid in South Africa, but it happened.

Last week I attended the Spring meeting of the General Board of Church and Society.  I serve on this board along with five other bishops and many lay and clergy from around our connection.  The Rev. Megan Shitama Weston, of the Peninsula Delaware Conference, is one of the clergy from our episcopal area serving on this board with me. 

So much has changed since 1948 and 1968. But the theme is still the same. Talk things over. Come together around common goals for the planet. Have respect for all people.  This is none other than God’s work!

In 2015 the United Nations established the “Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals to Transform Our World by 2030.”  They are as follows:
  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and wellbeing
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. ndustry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on Land
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals
Many in The United Methodist Church and the Church universal believe and work toward these goals. There is something that each one of us can personally do.  We can engage in diplomacy in our local settings to promote equality and peace. We can share our means to help eradicate hunger and inequalities.  We can advocate and vote for laws that protect our environment and promote health care for all. 

The leaders of the General Board of Church and Society are asking us to ask our U.S. Ambassador to the UN, a United Methodist herself, to promote these development goals.  Please write to her at:

H.E. Nikki R. Haley

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary

Permanent Representative

U.S. Mission to the United Nations
799 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY  10017

In this way, your voice can be heard to promote peace in this world.  It is the responsibility of all of us.

The ending of the song that I learned in elementary school goes like this:
“UN, we know that you’ll build peace and understanding. 
We know the toughness of the job that we’re demanding. 
So let all our flags be every unfurled!
The United Nations of the World.” 

This is the world that God made and loves and wants to redeem. It is slow work.  It is our work.

Photo by Levi Bautista, GBCS.
Read more and see photos about the General Board of Church and Society’s recent visit to the UN in the UM News Service story, “Active legacy: United Methodists at the UN.” Learn about the Church Center for the United Nations, the United Methodist-owned building where the board’s directors met and where ideas are crafted and taken to the UN conference rooms and assembly halls across the street.

The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, top executive of Church and Society, recalled her first visit to the United Nations in 1967 as a 16-year-old. “Seeing King Hussein of Jordan walk into the U.N. immediately following the Six-Day War (in the Middle East) changed my world view,” she said during a report to directors. “The church gave to me the vision of what a global Christian and citizen might look like.”

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.