Tuesday, November 12, 2019

'Tear Down this Wall'*: A Pastoral Letter

This week is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. This wall was erected after the second World War and it divided East and West Berlin.

During The United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops fall meeting our bishops from Germany testified about the jubilation and amazement felt when the wall came down. People were able to move about freely from one side to the other. Not a single shot was fired.

Humanity is well-acquainted with walls, not only physical walls but the walls of difference that are found in hearts and minds. We are quick to erect attitudinal walls around our differences and our beliefs.

Walls create alienation, separation, fear, distrust and violence. Such a wall stops ministry dead in its tracks, and it is never the will of God. God sent Jesus to deal with walls. Ephesians 2:14 says "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility."

A wall of separation in the UMC

United Methodists are well-acquainted with a wall of separation about the marriage and ordination of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Our Book of Discipline states that all people are of sacred worth, but it includes a wall concerning the practice of homosexuality being "contrary to Christian teaching."

At the 2019 General Conference the traditional prohibition against the practice of homosexuality was maintained, same gender marriages continued to be banned, and it was expanded to include more enforcement and a broader scope of what defines homosexuality. There were also more additions to the process of filing complaints against people who engage in practices found in the list of "chargeable offenses." Being a self-avowed and practicing homosexual and performing a same-gender wedding are on that list. The added measures will be effective on January 1, 2020.

I write this pastoral letter to the flock of God in the Eastern Pennsylvania and the Peninsula-Delaware conferences, my beloved Philadelphia Area. It is a passionate plea that you do not engage in filing complaints around the issue of homosexuality. It simply exacerbates the painful, formidable wall that stands between people of good will who have different hearts.

Homosexuality complaints and trials do harm


Complaints and trials do an enormous amount of harm to everyone. Our baptism vows call us to "resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." Nothing good can come from this battering. We can never legislate a heart.

As your bishop I am bound to receive and process complaints, but I do not believe it is helpful to engage in church trials. So, I will not refer any such complaints for a church trial. I say this not out of a sense of rebellion against the rules in our Book of Discipline but out of my pastor's heart that wishes to defend the people of our conferences against this destructive, divisive and expensive process.

The complaint paragraphs in the UM Book of Discipline call for a resolution that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities and that can bring healing to all parties. Instead of filing a complaint, I suggest that those who have experienced harm begin with a conversation.

Engage people with whom you disagree. Hear their hearts and engage in humble inquiry about a person's life story and perspective. Explain where the harm is and craft a peace plan. And most importantly, pray with each other!



Power of prayer to tear down walls, build a just peace

When I visited Germany last year and toured the former site of the Berlin Wall, our guide said that the Communist government was "no match for prayer and our candlelight vigils." The power of the risen Lord is available for us to tear down our walls, but we need to have the humble will to work at it and pray for it.

Is this not what Paul meant in Romans 12:18 when he said, "As far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all"? I humbly suggest that you engage in these steps before sending a complaint to my office.

We are living in a "liminal" (transitional) time as we prepare for the May 5-15, 2020, General Conference. At that conference delegates will consider how we as a denomination can maximize our witness and craft a form of unity that brings a new wind of hope for all people.

Catch sight of God's vision of a church that is busy making disciples of Jesus Christ, a church that is engaging in ministry and mission, a church striving for equality and equity for all people.

We can only get there as we employ with grace all of the giftedness of the Body of Christ, not just one "side" or the other. Dividing our church would cut off some of our needed giftedness. We can only accomplish this vibrant ministry as we take down the walls in our hearts and "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God." (Micah 6:8)

I close this letter with two verses of a hymn that was sung in Germany during the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. It spread like wildfire around the churches, both East and West, as people yearned for freedom and unity. May it be a song in all of our hearts as well:
          
          Have faith is God's new pathways, walk on in this new day.
          God hopes you'll be a blessing for all upon the way.
          The one who in the days gone by breathed life in us and hope,
          Will lead us to the place where God wants and needs us most.

          Have faith in God who shows us new paths that lead to life.
          It's God who comes to meet us, the future is in God's hand.
          Who follows God is full of hope, now and forevermore.
          The door for us is open, the land is bright and free.

*"Tear down this wall" was the appeal U.S. President Ronald Reagan made in his Berlin Wall speech in West Berlin, Germany, on June 12, 1987.


Humbly submitted,



Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Thursday, October 24, 2019

All Saints Day



The Church calendar includes “All Saints Day” on November 1 each year to remember truly faithful Christians who have gone before us and to contemplate and perhaps even emulate their heroic lives. One of the benefits of my time serving on the Roman Catholic-United Methodist dialogue team has been a new appreciation for the saints and martyrs and their many feast days. 

At the very first meeting I attended in 2016 at the St. John’s Abbey (a Community of Benedictine Monks) in Collegeville, Minnesota, I saw the actual remains of Saint Peregrine, who refused to worship the Roman emperor and was martyred in the year 192. His body is covered with jewels and a white cloth as it lay in a glass coffin.


Recently I learned about Saint Lucy when I observed a picture of a young girl holding a tray with two eye balls.  The priest on the dialogue team explained that this saint was also a martyr who lived in Syracuse, Sicily.  She died during the Diocletianic Persecution in 304 AD because she refused to marry, due to a vow of purity she made to God.
Lucy came from a family with much wealth, but as part of her Christian virtue, she distributed much of her gold and jewels to help the poor. The man to whom she was pledged in marriage was none too pleased about this “squandering” of her wealth that he expected to receive. So he turned her into the governor for punishment. The governor in turn demanded that Lucy burn sacrifices to the emperor. This she refused to do and was condemned to death. 
According to legend, the soldiers who were instructed to execute her could not move her, even with a team of oxen. Then they tried to burn her, but the flames would not consume her body. Finally they gouged out her eyes and thrust a sword down her throat, and she died.
St. Lucy is often represented in Scandinavian Advent festivals as a young girl dressed in white and wearing a crown of evergreen with burning candles. She is always carrying a basket of bread. This is reminiscent of Lucy’s distribution of food to the poor and to those hiding in the catacombs.  The candles on her head are there to light her way in the darkness and leave her hands free to hold as much bread as possible.
This charming account of St. Lucy is still worth pondering today as we approach our observance of “All Saints Day.”  Lucy made a promise to God and kept it!  Like Peregrine, she refused to worship the emperor. For that, she was willing to sacrifice her life through death by torture.
Lucy also had a heart for the poor and those who were being persecuted. She gave generously to them, which also led to her persecution and death.

Still today, the light of Lucy’s wreath of candles shines for us saints who yet walk the earth seeking to serve others and to worship only God. Each day we proclaim our faith and devotion to God by our words and our actions. Each day we have the opportunity to give generously and sacrificially to those in need. 
Living the Christian life has never been easy. But as we remember the lives of devoted saints that have gone before us, we are grateful and encouraged that their holy example cheers us on for higher levels of service and sacrifice.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Via Dolorosa



In Jerusalem is the famous “Via Dolorosa,” the road where it is believed that Jesus walked on the way to Calvary.  It literally means the “way of suffering.”  Nothing can compare to our Savior’s suffering and sacrifice for us on Good Friday.

His willingness to give his life for the sins of the world is the bedrock of our faith.  He came in person to give his life for the redemption of humanity out of love.

When I visited the Holy Land years ago it was important for me to walk those streets and experience first-hand that road of suffering.  It reminds me of my responsibility to love and suffer like Christ.

The way of suffering is not an unfamiliar road for most of humanity on this planet.  Globally there is untold pain because of wars, disease and natural disaster, and with it comes migration.  A fraction of the world experiences the benefits of this nation’s freedom and wealth, and often we don’t see people on this difficult road face-to-face.

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to meet a young Honduran woman who was walking the way of suffering.  She came to this country out of love for her son. She knew that if the family did not leave the country he would be recruited into a murderous gang or be killed if he refused to join.

What mother would not sacrifice everything for her child’s safety?  As I sat with this young woman and a translator, she told her story of her family’s travels to this country, the great physical suffering, her kidnapping, and her final arrival in Pennsylvania.  She came out of love for her child.

She joined one of our churches and found a way to make a living, just barely enough to survive.  Then her husband was deported, and it is likely he will never be able to come back to the United States.

They depended on the advice of an immigration lawyer who took their money but gave them no help. In fact, he gave them bad advice. As a result, the husband was picked up by immigration agents, detained for months and then sent back to Honduras.

This is another part of the “way of suffering”—those who exploit desperate, fearful immigrants without status, promise legal help but then leave their unwitting clients in worse shape. Using lies and false promises to entice their victims, they reap large sums of money from their human pain and benefit from their plight.

To see this young mother’s tears and hear of the difficult ordeal she faces, with two young children who miss their father, causes deep sorrow in me.  I am well aware of our country’s immigration laws; but we must all acknowledge that this system is inadequate and less than humane.  And with the draconian policy threats and decisions being made these past few weeks, it will get worse.

Our United Methodist Social Principles state: “We recognize, embrace and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin as members of the family of God.  We affirm the rights of all person to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education and freedom from social discrimination.  We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”

The Word of God says: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:33-34)

It is hard to turn our backs on these mandates and allow continued suffering to occur. This young woman told me that she did not come to take things from America but to work hard, contribute her part and offer a better, safer life to her children.

Surely, we must find a better way.  I am happy to report that her church and other churches are assisting her with humanitarian aid. More support would be appreciated for her and for our churches that have large numbers of immigrant sojourners traveling this road of suffering.

What else can we do to help? Our conference, along with two other neighbor conferences, are initiating a program known as Justice for Our Neighbors. JFON is an immigration legal assistance and hospitality ministry of The United Methodist Church, with 18 chapters across the country. For the past 20 years it has been a free/affordable legal service that is ethical, affordable and safe for immigrants to use.


To help us start up this vitally important service donations can be sent to “Delaware Valley JFON” and mailed to Historic St. George’s UMC, 235 N. 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106.  For more information, contact: Rev. Mark Salvacion at pastor@historicstgeorges.org.

We can also advocate for more humane laws in our country with regards to the number and treatment of those seeking asylum and for the “Dreamers” (young people who are undocumented and who were brought to the U.S. as young children).

We can contact our elected officials and ask that the number of refugees allowed to resettle in this country not be limited to just 18,000 people.  The average number of refugees allowed to come into this country over the last four decades had been 95,000.  People are fleeing violence and religious persecution and need a place of refuge.

The road of suffering is real, and it is in our neighborhoods, and they are members of our churches.  When you see their faces and hear their stories it becomes a call for us to do something, say something, and to offer our prayers.



Thursday, September 26, 2019

‘Do No Harm, Do Good’


As The United Methodist Church prepares for General Conference 2020, numerous legislative petitions flooded in by last week’s deadline for consideration. Certainly, we should always have as the backdrop of our discussions and deliberations the General Rules of John Wesley: “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.” 
If we would be influenced by these basic three rules in everything we debate and vote on at General Conference—and even more so, in everything we do or say daily as Christians navigating our way through this complicated world—what a better world this would be!
Wesley was a man of many interests, and medicine and health was one of his priorities.  “Do No Harm” is reminiscent of the ancient Hippocratic Oath that has for centuries guided the medical profession.  One of the lines in the oath states, “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.” 
Sounds like “Do no harm” to me; and indeed, Wesley advocated for the things that make for healthy bodies and minds. He knew it was part of our spiritual responsibility as Christians.  He even wrote a home remedy book titled “The Primitive Physic” to aid in the healing of many common ailments.
So it would behoove us as United Methodists to live by this important law as we consider addictive substances and their place in society.  The practice of vaping is front and center in the news now, as serious cases of lung disorders are happening across the country and leading to increasing, tragic deaths. 
Publicity is growing with bans on the sale of all vaping products by mega-store chain Walmart and the state of Massachusetts, as others consider doing likewise. Lawmakers are studying advertisements and the offering of various flavors of vaping products because of their strong attraction to young people. 
People are up in arms about vaping, it seems, and rightly so. Even though it is credited with helping some turn away from addictively smoking tobacco products, it is nonetheless killing people.  We may possibly see this young industry put out of business altogether as the pressure against it seems to be rising.
So why are we not as concerned about the prevailing and pernicious legal drugs of tobacco and alcohol?  The detrimental and horrific effects of these products have long been proven.
I don’t know a person who has not been affected by the tragedy of these two addictions in their families.  My great-grand-father used to beat my grandmother with a buggy whip because of his alcohol addiction.  My best friend lost her father to lung cancer from years of smoking. 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day “29 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.  That is one death every 50 minutes.  The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $44 billion dollars.”  
Think what we could do with $44 billion dollars?  What a waste! What injustice, especially when you consider that many of the dead people were innocent victims of drivers under the influence. 
According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 154,050 Americans died from lung cancer in 2018. Most of this was smoking-related.  Why are we so pumped up about vaping while the legal stuff is killing people at epidemic rates? 
The answer is simple: alcohol and tobacco are multi-billion-dollar industries with profits and lobbying efforts that speak loudly in our consumer-driven world of greed and gain.
What does The United Methodist Church say?  According to our Social Principles:
“We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons. (Par. 162.L)   “In light of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco are hazardous to the health of persons of all ages, we recommend total abstinence from the use of tobacco.”  (Par. 162.M)

So, yes, do no harm.  Join the bandwagon of people who are speaking up against vaping. But don’t stop there!  The elephant in the room is the huge, high-profit industries in this country that are profiting from rampant addictions that lead to suffering, sorrow and death. 
What a world we would have if personal pain and trauma issues were handled in spiritual and therapeutic ways, rather than masking and exacerbating them with addictive substances!
How can you, your family and church, your voices together be used to speak out against this massive harm?  Silence is complicity.  Lead by expression—your words—and by example—your active witness.  Your voice can make a difference.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Listen to your children


I have always loved the praise song by Ken Medema titled “Lord, Listen to Your Children.” Its refrain goes like this:

Lord, listen to your children praying,
Lord, send your Spirit in this place;
Lord, listen to your children praying,
Send us love, send us pow'r, send us grace.


Love, power and grace are the things that God has for his children, children of all ages. In recent years our chronological children are speaking to this world about things that are happening that need the attention of all of us. Front and center are the issues of gun violence and climate change.

One does not have to wait very long for the next mass shooting. They occur now almost weekly, and one begins to wonder if it is safe to go shopping or to an open air concert, theater or country fair. Always there is the fear of being the next victim of these acts of horror.

Grandmothers are buying their grandchildren bullet-proof school backpacks. I raised my children in a more innocent time, and they never experienced “active shooter drills.” But children today are going to school with an undercurrent of fear. 


Some of our children went to Washington DC after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. They begged our legislators to do something about this crisis. I hope people will listen to our children. I pray that God’s love, power and grace from above will inspire our leaders to address this urgent, complicated issue honestly and effectively. Let’s be in prayer about this and add our voices to those of our impassioned young advocates! 

Recently, a spunky Swedish 16-year old named Greta Thunberg journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean on a yacht and arrived in New York City to continue her crusade to help save our planet. She is calling for the world to address with more urgency the issues of climate change that are causing catastrophic weather systems on the planet. 

Greta’s critics call her “crazy” and say she is an alarmist who has “no sense of humor.” There are even bumper stickers with expletives decrying her crusade for the world to wake up and do more to save itself. But she has created a groundswell of support among many, and her voice continues to be heartening.

She has Asperger’s Syndrome, but she calls it her “super power” for the work she is doing. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she has inspired many other young people with her courage and conviction. I pray for her relentless voice!

The alarming increase of category 4 and 5 hurricanes could be construed as a wake-up call. Some of our churches and their cemeteries on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are imperiled by rising sea levels. I hope people will listen to our children and to Greta’s message and take some personal steps to care for the environment. Let’s be in prayer and join their active, conscientious witness on this matter as well. 


Our children want what we all want: love, power and grace for our world. Only God is the true source of these intangible but very real forces that can conquer our mammoth challenges.

God’s spiritual resources are the answer to our fear, violence and over-consumption. Could God be calling us to do more about the things that are killing our people and destroying our planet?

Are greed, apathy or lack of creativity taking center stage? Or are we unwilling to partner with those we consider “the other,” those who are different from us? What world are we leaving for the next generation if we sit by and do nothing? Do we care?

I urge us all to listen to the children and youth in our families, churches, schools and communities. God gives them messages that we need to hear. As we work together lovingly on these challenges, more good can be accomplished. As we call upon the love, power and grace of our Lord, there is no telling what good can happen and how we might be transformed.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Body of Christ at Work in Beverly, Kentucky


“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” I Corinthians 12:14

The week of August 11-17, 2019, was probably the most diverse week ever recorded at the United Methodist Red Bird Mission Work Camp, in Beverly, Kentucky. Onto that campus came a group of about 75 Christians from many places, representing many forms of diversity.

This included:
  • Ethnicity (African American, African, Korean, Latino, European-American);
  • Location (Delaware, Washington DC, South Dakota, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Texas);
  • Age (between age 8 to 80);
  • Denomination (United Methodists, ELCA Lutherans, Unity);
  • Denominational role (pastors, deacons, district superintendents, a bishop, certified lay ministers, lay people);
  • Ability (Deaf, Hard of Hearing, mobility-challenged, able-bodied); and
  • Gender and sexual orientation.
The groups were sent out each day to work on various projects: building wheelchair access ramps, repairing floors, upgrading bedrooms, and arranging donated clothing for distribution.

We included carpenters, electricians, painters, sign language interpreters, photographers, cleaners, dish washers and people who prayed and led worship. We also experienced the diversity of interacting with the homeowners where we worked and learned of their lives and culture in Appalachia. 

We experienced their warm hospitality and the hospitality of the Red Bird Mission staff, conference leaders, work crew leaders and local neighbors we met on our field trips out in the community. 

What made this mission trip especially unique was the large number of culturally Deaf* members on the team—20 of them! They were part of “Deaf ELM” (ELM stands for Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist).

This ecumenical organization of Deaf folks and their advocates work together on various common goals of inclusion and empowerment. History was made on this trip when for the first time members engaged in “hands-on mission work.”

Many of our own United Methodist Deaf members are active in ELM. Many were highly-skilled carpenters and craftsmen, and they worked side by side with hearing people who were not fluent in American Sign Language. 

 
The sign language interpreters on each team kept busy filling in the communication gaps; but slowly people began to figure out ways to communicate and work together. Humor and God’s Spirit broke down many of the walls of communication and difference.

We worked hard and came home tired and dirty each day. But we shared in worship each morning and evening and had lots of time on the porch to socialize, meet new friends and play with the resident cats.

On Wednesday night we were treated to a tour of the Red Bird School and an ice cream and cake party hosted by the Red Bird Conference District Superintendent. On Thursday night we had the “Talent-No-Talent” show starring hearing and Deaf people who shared their gifts of music, storytelling, humor and skits.

 
On Friday, our last night there was a closing communion service with the Deaf Community primarily taking the lead. A Deaf pastor preached, beautiful songs were signed and our young people served the Communion elements. 

I saw the Body of Christ in Beverly, Kentucky, this week. And none one of us will ever be the same.

Each of us brings a better understanding of the “other.” Each learned the age-old lesson of I Corinthians 12, that the giftedness of Christ’s Body calls us to join together to do the work of Christ, each one bringing their unique gift to benefit the whole. Everyone had an important gift!

We pray for a day for economic justice for the folks of Appalachia, made poor by the excesses of coal mining and the inability of the rich to share with the poor. These are issues we are struggling with the world over. 

Helping the poor on a mission trip is a commendable act of mercy. But justice would call us to bring attention to the inequities that create this poverty and to work for sustainability and empowerment for all. When there is justice there will be peace on earth.

* Deaf culture is the set of social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness and which use sign languages as the main means of communication. When used as a cultural label especially within the culture, the word deaf is often written with a capital D and referred to as "big D Deaf" in speech and sign. When used as a label for the audiological condition, it is written with a lower case d. (Wikipedia)

Download the Bishop's PPT presentation about the Red Bird Mission trip and see more of her great photos!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Remembering August 25, 1619

“On August 25, 1619, the White Lion (pirate and slave ship) entered from the Chesapeake Bay and arrived at Point Comfort, an English settlement…at the mouth of the harbor, 20 nautical miles downstream from Jamestown (Va.).” (www.Project1619.org) Thus began the scourge of slavery in this country that has continued on for 400 years. 
According to an article in the Sunday Tribune by Michael Coard, 12.5 million stolen Africans were brought to this country. By the time of the Civil War there were 4 million enslaved people and 1.32 million of them were children. 
They were sold on slave blocks, treated inhumanely, and whole families were separated: “…mother from daughter, father from son, brother from sister, husband from wife. Following these forced separations, they were scattered across the country. And they would never touch or even see one another again.” (Sunday Tribune, July 28, 2019, p 2-A)
It can well be said that the wealth and success of this country came on the backs of enslaved people. Again citing Coard’s research: Of the 56 signers of the American colonies’ Declaration of Independence, 41 had slaves. Of the 55 signers of the U.S. Constitution, 25 owned slaves. One in six households had slaves in Philadelphia in the 1760’s, and even William Penn himself had three. George Washington had 316 slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did little to improve the lot of enslaved people. And through the years the scourge of slavery has continued to wound and scar us through Jim Crow laws, stubborn racism and racial inequities, white privilege, white Nationalism and mass incarceration. 
August 25 is a date to acknowledge the grievous sins of this nation against not only slaves but also first-nation peoples. It is a time to also recognize the ongoing attacks on immigrants and migrants in this country. 
It is a time to remember and reflect on how the hunger for gain and material wealth has caused people to subjugate and enslave their fellow human beings. It is said well in one of our rarely sung hymns: “O shame to us who rest content while lust and greed for gain in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain.” (UM Book of Hymns, No. 726)
It is a time to commit the church—our church—to name racism when we see it, to work harder to achieve equality and shared leadership and wealth for all, to carefully monitor our elected officials and vote for those who have hearts of justice, and to promote laws that encourage reparations, affirmative action and fair voting rights, policies and alignment of districts. 
The road is long and the battle lines are deeply entrenched in this country presently. But each of us can do our part and together the Church of Jesus Christ can make a difference. Start by praying this prayer at church on August 25.
Gracious God of all people, we acknowledge and repent of the grievous acts of inhumanity against people of African descent in our long history. We know that much generational wealth in this country has been in the hands of European-American people at the expense of people of color. 
Forgive us we pray and on this anniversary of 400 years of American slavery. We commit ourselves anew to work for justice, peace and equity. Give us the strength to step out in faith to do our part. And give us the courage to face the persecution that comes with justice ministry. This we pray in the name of the lover of our souls and of all: Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Learn more about this poignant anniversary of a momentous event in American history. Read “Slavery anniversary leads to new discussions,” by Jim Patterson of UM News Service (July 8, 2019)