Wednesday, August 24, 2016

‘If You See Something, Say Something’



It is written all over train stations and airports: “If you see something, say something.”  This slogan is an important safety mantra that reminds us that suspicious behavior of strangers out in public needs to be reported to the authorities.  It can save lives and a million heartaches. 

However, we don’t have to use this slogan only to mean the reporting of nefarious activity.  If we see something good, we can say that too!  How often our hearts have been encouraged by a kind word or an unsolicited “Thank you.” 

Sadly, we are too quick to say something negative or speak up about things that are not going our way. But we neglect to appreciate the carefully prepared communion table, the flowers in the front yard, the faithful clerk at the post office holding your mail while you have been on vacation.

I carefully follow bills that pass through the halls of our state governments that have implications for children, the poor, health, and social justice. Again and again, those who work to lobby for human rights remind us to thank the lawmakers after they fight for a bill that brings a voice to those without power. Often lawmakers and public servants hear more complaints than commendations.  Everyone needs encouragement from top to bottom.

If you see something, say something.  Be like the Apostle Paul who reminds us, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) And then “say something.”  Give a good word today!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

To those who have been given much

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are an amazing event, full of wonderful stories of people overcoming adversities and adversaries with sacrifice, determination and love. 

One story I heard recently was about Brenda Martinez, an athlete from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who is competing in a number of track events. She comes from a working-class family.

She explained in an NPR interview how hard her parents worked to find the money for her training. Her mother sold homemade tamales, and her father took on additional home improvement side jobs to raise the necessary funds. 

Through their sacrifice and hard work, and Brenda’s hard work, too, she was able to compete and make her way onto the U.S. Olympic team. She told the interviewer that she believes in giving back. She is raising money to send low-income young people to camps where they can prepare to compete in sports. 

Every one of us, on some level, has been gifted by God with talent, means, strength, and insight. But it has not been given to us to keep to ourselves. Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b) 

Too many people receive gifts from God but don’t willingly share them, turning a deaf ear to what God asks of them. They help create or sustain abject need in the midst of abundance.
In God’s economy the world is supposed to operate through human beings sharing with one another. The crisis of world hunger and other shortages that too many people experience on this globe are simply the result of a shortage of heart.

There is enough food to feed the world six times over, but the humans will not share.  The delivery system in God’ economy starts with people realizing that sharing is God’s plan and that we are blessed to be a blessing. It starts with each of us determining daily what it is God has gifted us with that can be shared with another. In so doing we inspire others to do the same, and the cycle of blessing goes on and on and on. 

The greatest joy on earth comes to our hearts when, like Brenda Martinez, we see the good we can do by giving ourselves away.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Grateful!


At the United Methodist Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference in Lancaster, Pa., July 11-15, our demonstration of hospitality exceeded my wildest expectations!

The Eastern PA Conference, along with some support from the Pen Del Conference, hosted this event, and I am grateful for the many women and men who worked tirelessly, around the clock it seemed, to greet and serve our many guests. People commented to me again and again about how friendly the staff was and how well things were organized. Many thanks to all!

This historic conference gave me many reasons to be grateful. I am grateful that I have been reappointed as the Bishop of the Philadelphia Area for another four years. This has been an answer to prayer, as I feel that my work is not yet finished.

With the strong possibility of episcopal area realignment in 2020, I will be in a unique position to help shepherd that process. I appreciate the many letters, e-mail messages and phone calls saying "Congratulations" and “Welcome back.” Truly it is a blessing to serve in this wonderful area at such a crucial time as this.

I am grateful that we have two new bishops--two new sister-bishops--both sister-bishops of color, joining the NEJ College of Bishops. What a joy to watch Bishop LaTrelle Easterling and Bishop Cynthia Moore Koi-Koi be elected and to hear their words of hope and excitement as they greeted the conference.

God is up to something with these vibrant new leaders. Bishop Easterling will serve in the Washington Area and Bishop Moore Koi-Koi has been assigned to the Pittsburgh Area.

I am grateful for the “Call to Action" to the jurisdiction and the College of Bishops issued by the NEJ BUMP, BMCR, and BLF organizations. This bold, timely statement calls the church to accountability for affirming the value of black lives and all lives of color.

The statement sets into motion a number of agendas for dialogue, training, relationship-building and programming that each conference will be responsible for in the quadrennium ahead. I look forward to the work we can do together to dismantle racism and build bonds of peace.

We have much good work to do in these next four years, empowered by our strong faith and our determination to do what is right. May these be blessed years of prayer, study, spiritual growth and ample commitment to serving others, sharing our faith and growing churches to the glory of God.

And may the fruit of all that we do be revealed in bold new disciples who are engaged in world-changing mission for Christ. To behold that fruit would make me eternally grateful.


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Starving for Justice, Running into the Chaos

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

'Running into the chaos'

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

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

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

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

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

A call to prayer and advocacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

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

CallToPrayer

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Division

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

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

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

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

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

Division a grievous thing

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

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

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

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

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

I need you to survive

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

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

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

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

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