Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Surrounders

On the first weekend of this year, organizers of the annual Peninsula-Delaware Conference Youth Rally in Ocean City, Maryland, were challenged by a blizzard that blew in the day before the rally began. The leaders had a difficult decision to make about cancelling or going ahead with the effort.

All cancellation decisions are difficult. But after much prayer, it was decided that the event should continue to go forward. The theme was “Marathon” and the key scripture verses were Hebrews 12:1-2.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings too closely; and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Throughout the rally, featured speakers and Christian rock bands emphasized the importance of endurance in the face of the challenges that are a key part of a life of faith in Jesus Christ.  Jesus is indeed the model, and our “way, truth and life” for this journey.

I pondered the word “surrounded” as I witnessed the rally in action.  Chapter 11 of Hebrews gives an extensive history lesson about the saints of God who lived before us and who now are in heaven cheering on the contemporary church.  Indeed the “crowd in the cloud” is there, but so are the “surrounding” support systems for the throng of teens who attended this three-day marathon of speakers, music, break-out groups, and fun.

I give God thanks for the many pastors, youth leaders and parents who sacrificially gave of their time, their sleep, their means and their hearts to spur on a new and present generation of young Christian leaders. They are in a race for the emergence of a new church that they will lead into the future.

I heard one pastor say, “There are two new souls for the kingdom, who accepted the Lord last night.”  I heard another leader speak about a young woman who has felt a call to ministry.  I saw groups of young people gathered in a corner, surrounded by their leaders, joining in prayer together.  I heard Taylor Bullis, a 9th-grader from Bethel UMC in Dagsboro, Del., give a spirit-filled sermon of encouragement to her peers.

We need to be “surrounders” of the next generation.  A popular African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child” still rings true.  According to an NPR researcher cited in Wikipedia, there are a number of proverbs that point to this same sentiment:

Lunyoro (Bunyoro): “A child does not grow up in a single home.”
Kihaja (Bahaya):  “A child belongs not to one parent or home.”
Kijita (Wajita): “Regardless of a child’s biological parents, its upbringing belongs to the community.”

Whatever version you want to follow, the truth is still the same.  In the household of faith all of us are responsible for the spiritual nurture of our young people.

For the youth who have attended this youth rally and others, how will you and your church endeavor to surround them and offer them ways to grow in their faith, grow in leadership and grow in love and concern for their neighbors and for the world?  How will you help them to “lay aside every weight and sin which clings too closely” so that they can run with endurance the race that is set before them, their confident gaze fixed ever on Jesus.

Youth rallies are not a “once and done” kind of thing.  They are a “spark plug” that requires the follow-through engine of the church to ignite and put youth ministry into motion and to build momentum.

Youth rallies, including Pen-Del’s and Eastern PA’s conference youth rallies, are an ongoing, potentially fruit-bearing process that we, as the church, need to embrace and take seriously as key to our Christian calling.

Be a “surrounder” of the young people in your midst. If you don’t have young people in your church, reach out to surround and support youth in your community. And you can always support the efforts of other churches with young peoples’ ministries.

This work is ours to take up and do, each of us, so that we can be the contemporary “cloud of witnesses” so needed for this generation.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Arrested but undeterred




In a blog post titled “Ten Things You May Not Know about Martin Luther King, Jr.,” by Christopher Klein, published April 4, 2013, we read some interesting facts about the great civil rights leader who changed the world forever.

For example, I never knew that his birth name was “Michael” but was later changed to “Martin Luther” after his father went to Germany and learned about theologian Martin Luther’s pivotal Protestant Reformation work.  King’s father legally changed his own name as well.  The renaming was perhaps a premonition of the groundbreaking work that young Martin was later to accomplish.

I did not know that Dr. King started college at the age of 15, or that he survived a near-fatal assassination attempt by a woman who stabbed him with a letter opener in a department store.

I did not know that King’s mother was assassinated in 1974 by an armed intruder during a Sunday worship service while she was playing the organ. How did I miss this?  Church shootings are not new, although they are still rare. But they are becoming more common and more deadly. That tragic trend, as reported in our news media, makes them feel new to many of us.

On and on Klein’s article goes, offering amazing facts about the life of a man whose legacy continues to shine the light of truth and courage, of freedom and justice. Only that light can dispel the shadows of deception, cowardice, injustice and oppression that still enshroud our nation in its mistreatment of people without privilege or power.

The thing that I was not surprised to read was that King was arrested 29 times for his faithful social justice work.  Be it civil disobedience, or trumped-up arrest charges, or something as trivial as jail time for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-miles-per-hour zone, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was no stranger to prisons and jails.

Still today, “truth” is often put in jail. “Power” is not pleased with the concept of equality. To unleash that value on the world is an affront to those who hold all its authority and privilege.

The crucible of incarceration gave King time to write important letters and to pray. But it also no doubt steeled his determination to keep doing the work. Indeed, his imprisonment was in itself a glaring example of the injustice he was confronting.

Still today, people are put in prison unfairly; but often it is the very impetus that spawns liberation. Consider that word “impetus.” It is defined as “the force or energy with which a body moves” or “the force that makes something happen or happen more quickly.”

Former South Africa president and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela used his 27 years in prison to become a force of deliberate wisdom that unleashed the firepower for a whole new way of life—of truth and reconciliation—for all his people.  King’s frequent imprisonment did the same.

I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s assertions in 2 Corinthians 4 of overcoming similar adversity and frequent imprisonment to spread the truth of Jesus Christ’s gospel:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (v. 8-10)

How many times would I be willing to be imprisoned for my convictions, for my mission to spread truth and advocate for justice? How can we work to make our law enforcement and prison systems more equitable for people of color and for people who are doing the sacrificial work of promoting human rights?

These are thoughts I ponder on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I thank God for his courage and his voice that continue to challenge us and help shape and inspire our world. And in my thanks, I am reminded, as we all should be, of Paul’s opening words in that chapter: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Healing the reproach of women



During the Advent season we often study the life of John and Baptist and his godly parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. During her pregnancy with this holy child, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Thus, the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” (Luke 1:25).

What was her reproach? Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and no doubt, she was disdained for this by her society. The worth of a woman in her world and in many cultures depends on their ability to bear children. In some societies male children are the ones that count the most; so not even a female baby is good enough.

A woman who has no children is at fault for some reason, even though modern medicine has proven that the husband can also be the cause of the family’s infertility. In the Bible we read of a few other women who faced reproach and were desperate for a child: Sarah, Rebekah and Hannah, to name a few.

In our society women are not under the same depth of condemnation if they do not conceive. Women have careers and many kinds of other interests than motherhood. However there is still unhappiness and social pain when a couple who want children cannot conceive for some reason.

Reproach of women is not lost on our society. The practice of sexism is a form of reproach. Still today, women get paid less than men for the same work. Most corporations have men as their CEO’s; and sexual abuse and domestic violence mostly happens to women.

I have seen this in our church. At least once every year someone who knows that their pastor is leaving will call my office and say, “Don’t send us a woman pastor.” I have handled numerous complaints of sexual misconduct and harassment by clergy and lay people during my tenure in this area.

Many fine women pastors have had difficulties in ministry, not because of their lack of skills or calling, but because some in the church (men and women) cannot accept their authority or the unique gifts that they bring. Some even misuse the Bible to justify their discrimination against a woman pastor.

What do we do about our modern-day reproach and sexism? We talk about it!

Time Magazine announced last week that their “Person of the Year” was not a person but a group of women known as the “Silence Breakers.” This is a group of women who came forward and shared painful accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of men in positions of power. First one, then another, then others, emboldened by women who led the way and opened the prison gates of oppressive secrecy for them. As more and more brave women come forward to share their stories and speak their truth, things can get better.

I remember as a young adult I experienced sexual abuse two times. Once a co-worker at the school where I taught pushed me against a wall and kissed me. On another occasion the father of the groom at a family wedding found me in a quiet corner and accosted me with some inappropriate touching.

I never told anyone about these attacks, but that is how the practice of abuse continues. When molested and abused women (and sometimes men) keep silent, the offense is somehow condoned and considered safe and bearable. Sometimes when they do speak out, victims are demonized, not believed, and then ostracized, making them victims a second time.

Recent revelations of women cadets allegedly victimized and forced out in retribution for reporting sexual assaults at our nation’s Air Force Academy follow in a long line of disturbing reports at colleges and military installations in recent years. In so many places, we are losing talented, dedicated women who want to serve their nation, their professions, perhaps even their churches, because so many are traumatized by extreme gender bias, violence and sexual assault, and then punished for naming their perpetrators.

The church needs to have honest conversations about these issues and strive to live in more healthy ways, as we continue the work of ministry. First steps include talking, teaching and creating safe spaces for people to share their stories. As we come to know and confront the truth of how our sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, friends and colleagues are being assaulted, then revealing and reconciling that truth may one day set them free.

Then, the Lord may look upon them, as He looked upon Elizabeth, and take away the inhumane reproach of women—and others who are abused and rejected for who they are—among our people.

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Monday, December 4, 2017

Purple or Blue: What color is your Advent?


When I go to various churches on Sundays during the season of Advent I always ask the pastors, “Do you wear purple or blue stoles?”

In recent years we have seen the color blue more and more, in addition to the traditional purple. According to www.umc.org “The Christian year has two cycles: the Christmas Cycle (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany) and the Easter Cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost).

“Within each cycle are a preparatory season symbolized by the color purple and a festival season symbolized by the color white. After each cycle there is an ordinary time of growth symbolized by the color green.

It goes on to say that the color purple represents both royalty and penitence, while blue symbolizes hope. Purple and blue are both acceptable colors to use during Advent.
(“Why are there different colored altar cloths?”)

Upon further examination, I found that the shade of blue for Advent is often a deep, dark blue. It is like the color of the predawn sky just before the sun rises. It brings with it the meaning of expectation and anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.

Other sources remind us that the color blue is associated with the Virgin Mary. She is depicted in the color blue in many of the icons and religious art images of the past. (www.stpaulsivy.org “Why Blue for Advent”)

The season of Advent is all of this and much more. We prepare for Christmas with times of self-reflection and repentance; but we anticipate the celebration with much preparation ,like we do when a special visitor comes to our home.

We revere the newborn Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Our humble Savior came to serve and give his life for our sins so that we might know the promise of life everlasting in heaven. With the dawn of his coming, all of creation will be filled with his glory.

May you have a purple-blue Advent and teach well the meaning of the season to those who may only be with you at your churches during this time of the year. The most important color to wear is love, which is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission for the world and “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:14)


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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thanksgiving in all circumstances

Altar design by Karen Barkowski. John Coleman photo.

The hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” was written by a Lutheran minister, Martin Rinkart (1586-1649). We sing it often during this season of Thanksgiving in praise of our “bounteous God.” But the backdrop of this hymn writer’s life was filled with death, looking nothing like a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting. 

Rinkart penned the words of this hymn during the Thirty-Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics. He was one of four parish pastors serving at that time in Eilenburg, Saxony, located in East Germany. But when the war continued to rage on, one pastor left, two died and he alone was left to serve the people.

Eilenburg was a walled city. So, it became a place for refugees, and thus, there was a great shortage of food. Then the plague set in, and scores of people died from this dreaded disease.

Rinkart performed 40 to 50 funerals a day, including his wife’s funeral. It was estimated that he buried more than 4,480 people.

After the plague came an invading army of Swedes demanding that tribute be paid. The besieged pastor served as the negotiator with the Swedish army; and he paid them the tribute with his own money. When the army refused to leave the town, he gathered the people for intensive prayer. Miraculously, the Swedes departed in peace.


Through it all, Martin Rinkart faithfully gave thanks to God. Indeed, this hymn was an expression of his grateful trust in God despite the extreme hardship he and others were experiencing.

We, too, are called to faithfulness despite, and in the face of, life’s trials. I doubt many of us have ever experienced the depth of tragedies that happened during the time this beloved hymn was penned. But all of us face difficulties and suffering.


The Apostle Paul tells us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18) 


May God continue to help us recognize and give thanks for the unmistakable, abundant blessings in our lives, even those forged from the burdens life imposes on us. And when we look back later, may we reflect on God’s steadfast providence and goodness to us, through it all. 

History source: hymnary.org

Learn more about Martin Rinckart and this favorite hymn on the UMC Discipleship Ministries website article, History of Hymns: “Now Thank We All Our God.”









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Friday, November 10, 2017

Strength for Service to God and Country


As we prepare for the annual observation of Veteran’s Day, November 11, I would like to call to your attention a wonderful resource produced by our United Methodist Men: Strength for Service to God and Country.

This inspirational book comes in two versions. One is for military service men and women. A second version is produced for local emergency service personnel, such as first-responders, police, fire fighters and medical professionals.

This resource can be purchased through our General Commission on United Methodist Men at www.StrengthforService.org.

Originally distributed during World War II and the Korean War, it was revisited by a Scout named Evan Hunsberger, whose advocacy for the book’s republishing was his Eagle Scout project in 2002.

How wonderful it would be if our churches could purchase copies of these devotionals and distribute them to our community servants as well as our men and women in the military. It would be a wonderful way to show honor and appreciation this year during and after our Veteran’s Day observance.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Bishop calls for action against PA gambling expansion



November 8, 2017
On October 26, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted 109-72 to approve a significant expansion of gambling in our state, House Bill 271. The bill was approved by the state Senate the previous day. Four days after the House action, Governor Tom Wolf signed the legislation into law. The legislation was quickly moved, taking only 18 hours between its introduction and its passage in the House. In fact, lawmakers had only two hours to read the massive 939-page bill. This stealthy rush through the General Assembly minimized scrutiny. Obviously, public input was thwarted.

This new law will create 10 mini-casinos in regions without a casino, allow some truck stops to operate video gaming terminals, regulate fantasy sports and online gambling, legalize online gambling portals at casinos and airports, permit the state lottery to sell tickets and offer games online, and legalize sports betting (if Congress allows it nationally). Proponents of this legislation hope to open gambling to new markets, especially younger players.

Only Nevada exceeds Pennsylvania in commercial casino revenues. This law marks the biggest expansion of gambling in the state, since it first legalized casinos more than a decade ago. Pennsylvania now becomes the fourth state with internet gambling and the first to allow both casino and lottery games online.

But, this is not the end, there is still a way that the public can respond. A provision in the new law allows municipalities to opt out of this gambling expansion. Local governments may pass a resolution prohibiting a "mini-casino" within the boundaries of their municipality. Such a resolution must be sent to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board by December 31, 2017. County governments have the same option regarding truck stop gambling. Many lawmakers, who voted against this legislation, are recommending such action. There is not much time.

The UM Social Principles state, "Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, [and] destructive of good government... As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the Practice... Organized and commercial gambling is a threat to business, breeds crime and poverty, and is destructive to the interests of good government. It encourages the belief that work is unimportant, that money can solve all our problems, and that greed is the norm for achievement. It serves as a "regressive tax" on those with lower income. In summary, gambling is bad economics; gambling is bad public policy and gambling does not improve the quality of life."

As bishop of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, I strongly urge members, clergy and conference agencies to act during this limited response period. Prayer followed by meaningful and effective action is an exercise of faith. We ask that you contact your local government councils, as soon as possible. Ask when the next meeting will be and ask to have this mini-casino prohibition put on their agenda. Plan for residents to attend these meetings and be ready to support this resolution.


Sincerely,
Bishop Peggy A. Johnson