Friday, February 27, 2015

Violence Challenges Our Prophetic Voice

The prophet Habakkuk wrote long ago: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble?  Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” (Habakkuk 1:2-3)

These words could have been written yesterday.  As we look around there is so much violence:
  •  sexual violence against women as seen in our media and in the lives of professional sports figures;
  • violence on the streets of Wilmington, Del., to the point where people are calling the city “Kill-mington”;
  • violence between Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists
  • brutal beheadings of Coptic Christians and many other innocent captives at the hands of ISIS;
  • the murder of three young Muslims in North Carolina;
  • violence against people of color and violence against the LGBT community.  
Violence seems to be the operating system in our world for solving our social problems and also obtaining wealth and power. We know violence does not produce the works of God and violence cannot be eliminated  by heaping more bombs on the heads of the perpetrators.

On the contrary, retaliatory violence creates an endless cycle of more and more destruction. Having more guns, more sophisticated weapons, more “stuff” to fight back with does not make us safer. 



Habakkuk speaks the word of the Lord to the people living in violent times.  He stresses that the violence of the proud and the evil will end and “the righteous will live by faith.” (2:4) He further promises that “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (2:14) And, he says, we should at all times acknowledge the presence of the Lord: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (2:20)

Habakkuk does not sugar-coat the suffering he experienced during his lifetime as a prophet. The crops had failed, there were no herds in the stalls, but still he exulted in the Lord: “God, the Lord, is my strength.” 

This is a word for us too.  But it is not enough to know that God will win in the end, that God will sustain those who have faith.  Those with the God-given strength of faith need to speak out, as Habakkuk did, and call people to a better way. 

At the closing of the “Pastors of Black Churches Convocation” recently in Atlanta, Ga., Iowa Area Bishop Julius Trimble invoked the "I can't breathe!" cry of New York police-choking victim  Eric Garner, which has been been repeated by scores of protesters since his death. Calling it "the collective cry of a people,” Trimble noted “I can’t breathe when churches are secret-societies instead of saving stations. I can’t breathe when we are tip-toeing around our prophetic call.”

Where is our prophetic voice?  Must the stones cry out in our stead while we remain silent?

I applaud the prophetic voice of Governor Tom Wolf, who recently called for a moratorium on Pennsylvania's Death Penalty.   He said in a news conference, “At a minimum, we must take a step back to examine the effectiveness of a system fraught with racial disparity and the infinite warehousing of prisoners who await a punishment.”  He is being a prophet by calling on the government to at least consider stopping the use of violence to end violence. 

May it never happen again that someone is executed, killed by mistake. And may everyone who does wrong have an opportunity for redemption and for restorative justice, not retributive vengeance.

I applaud the prophetic voice of U.S. Olympian Lolo Jones who went on record saying that the film Fifty Shades of Grey” glamorizes violence against women. On her Facebook page Jones wrote that every woman is “worth more than what this movie depicts” and that being a gentleman is not outdated.” May Lolo’s prophetic voice begin to stem the sweeping tide of violence against women that is increasing on our college campuses and in every sector of our society. 

I applaud the “non-discrimination” laws for the LGBT Community that are being discussed in the Pennsylvania Legislature.  May there soon be a day when no one in our state can be legally turned away from hotels and restaurants, housing and employment opportunities because of their sexual orientation; and may the incidence of hate-crimes against gay people become a thing of the past.

I applaud the United Methodist Church's Connectional Table members who at a recent meeting affirmed a proposal (but have not yet voted) to create a “third way” in which the church’s long debate over homosexuality can be resolved.”  They propose to remove the prohibitive language that makes it a chargeable offense under church law for clergy to be “self-avowed practicing homosexuals’ or to officiate at same-sex weddings.”

May this bring peace in our churches in the years to come and better understanding about human sexuality and gender orientation.  This debate has done serious damage to our witness, for we are often seen as a church at battle in the midst of a destructive theological war.

Where is your voice? What is breaking your heart, or the hearts of others, that needs your prophetic, healing words? Not just your words, but your witness through action! 

A recent United Methodist historical video, “Methodist History: Mother African Zoar’s Legacy” talks about the prophetic voice of this historic African American Church in Philadelphia that years ago was a first stop for many on the Underground Railroad  that assisted in the passage of slaves escaping to freedom.  That was dangerous! It was against the law to help slaves escape, but church members did it anyway because of their conviction that everyone should have God-given equality, and every law-abiding person deserves to be free. 

Let your voice be heard. Let your actions back up your voice, so that Christ's peace is realized in the lives of those who suffer from violence.  It will not be an easy journey as every prophet will attest.  There is surely push-back and suffering on this road but Habakkuk witnesses to the fact that God “makes my feet like the feet of a deer and makes me tread upon the heights.”  (3:19)  

Jesus was a prophetic voice for people on the margins of life. He spoke against violence, and he urged people to “turn the other cheek.” We can speak and live  that same message to touch the hearts of all who will hear and see. During this Holy Season of Lent, say something and do something to stop the violence!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Thou Art the Potter, I am the Clay

Many of us have sung the old hymn “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.”  It reminds us of the text from Jeremiah 18:1-4 that proclaims God as the grand potter of life and we are merely the clay in God’s hands.  The words to this famous hymn were written by Adelaide Pollard, a native of Bloomfield, Iowa.  According to “Women of Chrstianity.com” Ms. Pollard wrote this song as a response to a disappointment in her life.  She was trying to raise money for a mission trip to Africa and she was unable to find the needed funds.  During a prayer meeting one evening at her home church she overheard an elderly church member pray “It really doesn’t matter what you do with us, Lord, just have your own way with our lives.”  Touched by the faith of this saint Adelaide went home and wrote the entire hymn that night.

Ms. Pollard had an extensive ministry as a teacher at the Missionary Training School at Nyack-on-the Hudson and as an itinerant Bible teacher.  She worked with a number of evangelists who held revivals and healing services.  Interestingly enough, she finally had the opportunity to visit Africa later in her life fulfilling her greatest dream. 

All of us can identify with the experience of disappointment and unfulfilled wishes.  It helps to remember that God’s molding of us is always for our own good in order to “make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy (Romans 9:22).  God’s timing is never our timing and God’s ways are higher than our ways.  Ms. Pollard finally visited Africa but only after God used her for other purposes and in the end she was more prepared for her trip when the time came.

During this season of Lent pray aloud the words of Ms. Pollard’s hymn and renew your resolve to accept God’s will for your life, whatever that might look like.  Fear and disappointment can turn to trust and praise as we experience the good that God has planned for us.

                  “Have Thine Own way, Lord, have Thine own way!
                  Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
                  Mold me and make me after Thy will,
                  While I am waiting, yielded and still.

                  Have Thine own way Lord! Have Thine own way
                  Hold o’er my being absolute sway!
                  Fill with Thy Spirit ‘till all shall see
                  Christ only, always, living in me                  

Monday, February 2, 2015

First

The first African American Methodist churches in the early 1800s were controlled by white senior pastors and trustees.  Chafing under oppression, the churches sought but were denied the dignity of self-determination by four consecutive General Conferences.  But in 1864, as the end of America's Civil War and slavery was imminent, their petition was approved, and the Delaware Annual Conference became the first African American annual conference to be formed in Methodism. 
Delaware Annual Conference Cabinet, 1918

A century later the 1964 General Conference mandated that all racially segregated conferences in the United States be disbanded.  Four years later, the segregated Central Jurisdiction, to which they all belonged, was abolished as well.

The sprawling Delaware Conference was the first to take on the challenging task of merging with predominantly white conferences in the six geographical areas where their respective churches resided.  Those conferences included: the Philadelphia (now Eastern Pennsylvania) Conference, the Peninsula (now Peninsula-Delaware) Conference, the Virginia Conference, the New York Conference and the North and South New Jersey conferences. 

The last formal conference session of the Old Delaware Conference was held on April 27-28, 1965, with Bishop John Wesley Lord presiding.  The bishop said, according to the Rev. Edwin L. Ellis, a District Superintendent who wrote about this event later, “We are restoring that which is broken.  This is a return to the way the Methodist Church began.  It was our sin which brought division… Surely now, we have much to share with all of Christ’s Church and this great dream will be now pouring out into the life of the new conferences that are being organized.”  (Commemorative Booklet: Delaware Annual Conference, page 101)

The Delaware Conference has the distinction of being “first.” It was the first to form and first to merge. In this, the 150th and 50th anniversaries of its sunrise and sunset, and especially during Black History month, I ponder the word “first.” To be “first” has many connotations.  We often think of it as being the earliest, the best, and the most important.  That is true on many levels. 

But as we study the scriptures we see it a little differently.  In the Old Testament we read about the importance of the “first-born” child in the family being set apart and dedicated to God (Exodus 13:1-2).  The Jews were required to give the first fruits of their harvest in sacrifice to God (Exodus 23:16) 

In the New Testament we read about Christ being the first-born of all creation (Colossians 1:15), who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for our sins (Matthew 20:28).  Jesus turns the tables on the world’s pride in being first by reminding all that the “first shall be last” and “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35). 

Indeed the Old Delaware Conference was first in its sacrificial, life-changing service to the Lord Jesus Christ through its 100 years of ministry among us.  The servant leadership of its many pastors is evidenced by the fruit of their preaching and the way “scriptural holiness” was spread across the land in their day. 

Bishop Gregory Palmer
In the history of the Delaware Conference, written by the late Dr. William Jason (and soon to be published and available to all), we read story after story of the miracles and life-changing ministries of both lay and clergy who gave of their means to erect houses of worship and hold conferences and camp meetings. They did it so that more might know the saving love of Christ.  People mortgaged their houses to build their churches in many cases.  They were “first” in their self-giving love for their Lord and the church. 

In this day and age the call of being “first” is still coming from our Lord Jesus to all of us.   As Paul says, we should “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10), and not only to others but especially show love to the very people who despise and reject us and treat us with disrespect (Romans 12:20).  

Bishop Ernest Lyght
I invite you all to take part in our celebrations of the Old Delaware Conference which disbanded in order to model a new way of ministry for the church of Jesus Christ for all to see.  The Peninsula Delaware Conference celebration will be on Saturday, April 25, at 4 PM at the Whatcoat UMC in Dover.  Bishop Woodie W. White, a racial justice pioneer himself, will be the guest preacher of the day.  The Eastern PA Conference will hold its celebration at Tindley Temple UMC in Philadelphia on Saturday, May 30, with Bishop Ernest Lyght, Bishop Gregory Palmer and Dr. David Briddell featured among the speakers. 

I pray with profound gratitude that we are far beyond the widespread rejection and disrespect.  But our solemn call is still to “outdo one another in showing honor,” eager to be first to greet, embrace and extol one another as beloved sisters and brothers in the household of God.  Being first in this way transforms us, our enemies and the very world that is busily striving to “win” and have it all. 

There is simply no telling what God will yet do with us and among us, as we seek to be in ministry in the counter-cultural Spirit of Christ.   So let us join together in these vital celebrations of our shared Methodist history, and see what new firsts shall come to pass.

 
Tindley Temple UMC

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh: Bearing Gifts with Loving Hearts

During the season of Epiphany, of revelation, we ponder the story of the Magi who came from the East to visit the Christ child. There are so many levels in which this account recorded in the Gospel of Matthew captures our attention and reveals much practical truth for us:
  • “Wise men still seek Him.”
  • Christ came for all people, in all cultures and communities.
  • God guides us to Jesus.
  • Evil cannot overcome God’s plans, etc.

These are some of the sermons I have preached over the years from this text, found in Matthew’s second chapter. Also, we never tire of considering the gifts of the Wise Men: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  What Christmas pageant is complete without three children dressed in ornate bathrobes and tin foil crowns bearing three boxes of precious gifts? Surely once again, during this season of Epiphany, we are called to honor Christ with our gifts.

I witnessed virtual gifts of the Magi during my recent trip to India with youth on the Northeastern Jurisdiction (NEJ) Mission of Peace and with fellow bishops participating in a continuing education event led by Bishop Suda Devadhar of the New England Conference.  We began our journey just after Christmas, and it continued into the New Year and the season of Epiphany. 

India was well-decorated for the Christmas season, even though only about 2.5 percent of the population is professed Christian.  Everywhere our group of 35 participants traveled we saw crèches with figurines of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the shepherds and the Wise Men bearing symbolic precious gifts. I also saw real gifts of real value being offered to Christ by faithful—and yes, wise—men and women throughout India.

Gold: Generosity in mission

Gold could be seen there.  Not gold coins but instead shining evidence of the many monetary gifts offered for missions over the years in this incredibly diverse and enormous country with a population of 1.2 billion. 

During our trip we heard a lecture from Bishop Christopher Furtado of the Methodist Church of South India.  Although Christianity in India has a history that dates back to the evangelistic work of the disciple Thomas, he explained, in the past 500 years there has been a significant amount of Western Christian mission work. 

Much “gold” was given to support Christian missions in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Education, medical services, linguistics, social change and modernization were brought to India through faithful mission dollars. 

The predecessor body of the United Methodist Women sent their earliest missionary women doctors to India to provide health care for women who were not allowed by custom to be seen by a male doctor.  Sacrificial gifts of gold came from many Christians, both locally and from the west, to build and sustain schools, orphanages, hospitals, clinics and many lives.

According to the Rev. George Howard of United Methodist Global Ministries, who shared our Epiphany journey, even though the Methodist Church of India is now an autonomous body, The United Methodist Church continues its mission giving in the amount of $500,000 each year.  We no longer have missionaries serving on the ground in India, but many Volunteers in Mission teams still visit the country.  And there are numerous endowed gifts for mission that Global Ministries manages and sends to India.

When we honor Christ we must always bring Him our gold, our means.  Our hearts are directly connected to our wallets.  Gold is truly golden when it can be used to transform lives and communities through the power of God’s spirit working through these means.  How can you give more of your gold this year as your gift to the Christ child?

Frankincense: Worship in Spirit and Truth

I saw much frankincense in India—not just the incense sticks burning in ornate brass containers that we saw in many places.  Frankincense represents our worship of God. 

There are numerous religious sects and forms of worship in India.  There are more than 2,000 deities worshiped there, and even demons are worshiped in some remote places. The largest religious sect in India is Hindu, but other major faith communities include Muslims, Buddhists and Christians.

Our group visited the main headquarters of a religion known as the Jains.  The group we visited was founded 600 years ago, and it has a huge outreach ministry of feeding the hungry.  Their worship is inseparable from their teaching, ministry to the poor and giving justice (settling disputes). 

We saw worship in action as the staff of 300 workers fed 30,000 people a simple meal of vegetables and rice. On the weekends they give meals to as many as 60,000 people.  Their highest leader, Dr. D. Veerendra Heggade, graciously granted us an audience with him. He shared about his work and their fundamental belief in doing no harm and treating everyone as equals.

On New Year’s Eve we visited Methodist churches for worship and Holy Communion.  I was invited to preach at the Wilson Garden Methodist Church in Bangalore.  All of the churches are packed on New Year’s Eve, as Christians there wish to be in the house of the Lord when clocks strike midnight.  Amazingly, they all then return to church the next morning at 8 am on New Year’s Day so that worship can be the first thing they do on the first day of the new year. 

No one spoke English at the church where I preached, but thankfully, their bi-lingual pastor, the Rev. David Vijaykumar, kindly translated my sermon to the people.  It did not matter that I did not understand their language because I could feel the presence of Christ in their soulful singing and praying.  My time lingering at the altar rail during Holy Communion was also a high moment for me in fellowship with this congregation of about 200 people.

Worship could be seen at a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery that we visited on one of our bright sunny mornings in India.  In the 1960’s a group of Tibetan people came to India as refugees. President Nehru gave them a plot of land where they settled and created a huge colony that worships God as its central focus.  The Dali Lama, their supreme leader, has visited this colony, and his picture hangs on many walls.  Three gigantic golden statues of gods stood in the worship hall, where the monks spend much of their time in prayer and meditation. They graciously spoke with our Mission of Peace team and answered questions about their life of faith in this unique setting.

We honor Christ as we offer him our worship.  Worship should include time with the Lord in praise, prayer, meditation, Holy Communion and receiving the Word.  As we worship God we get our priorities refocused and are renewed spiritually for the work that God has called us to do.  Let your worship rise continually like incense to God in this New Year, 2015.

Myrrh: Sacrifice through service

Finally I saw a good bit of “myrrh” in India, not the oil used for centuries to anoint bodies for burial, but figurative myrrh that symbolizes sacrifice.  When one is in Christ they are a new creation.  They are dead to their old life and newly alive in the Spirit.  Jesus calls us, his followers, to daily take up our crosses, deny ourselves and live as if we were dead to the things of the world—the greed for gain, ambition for power and all the temporary, superficial attractions of worldly life. 

Many people have given their lives to Christ to benefit India through their years of service as missionaries. They taught people how to read, built hospitals, supported human rights causes and created industries, such as tile-making, where people could earn living wages.

The era of missionaries coming from the West has passed, replaced by indigenous peoples doing the work of Christ mostly on their own. They are challenging the caste system that relegates people to a particular status in society and breeds discrimination. They are keeping schools, seminaries, orphanages, churches and hospitals thriving, and improving the lives of their people every day.

We met an Indian government official, Mr. Abayachandra, who shared with us his work among the youth of his country.  He gathered a large group of his youth to meet with our visiting Mission of Peace team.  During that time together he gave us a glimpse of how his state program is offering Indian youth opportunities for education, job training, recreation and character development. 

We heard from a young Indian cardiologist at one of the mission hospitals, who explained how he is bringing modern equipment and advanced medical techniques to the people of India.  He shares his life and knowledge by working at his regular job and then serving a second shift as a consulting doctor for this hospital that serves the poor.  We also visited the “Opportunity School” for children with disabilities, where a staff of dedicated people strives tirelessly to educate, empower and employ those whom society often ignores.

When we give the gift of myrrh it means we are sacrificing our lives in service to others; and in so doing, we discover the true meaning of life.  As Jesus said, “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39b)  May each of you find new ways to give away your life sacrificially, out of your love for Christ.

I thank God for the opportunity to experience the mission and culture of India and to interact with the Mission of Peace young people again this year. (I was part of the Mission of Peace team to South Africa in 2014).  We had two youth from the Eastern PA Conference participating this year: Morgan Orlowski from Grove UMC and Emma Doupe from Grandview UMC.  They represented us well, and they return as two wise women bearing gifts of knowledge and understanding to share with their churches, their schools and communities, and their conference. 

The Rev. Ted Anderson, a District Superintendent in the Upper New York Conference, has led Mission of Peace journeys for a number of years and has inspired young people with a vision of global peace-making.  A special thanks goes to Bishop Suda Devadhar and his nephew, Dr. Mauben, who led the entourage of seven bishops—including Peter Weaver, Warner Brown, Sandra Steiner Ball, Jonathan Keaton, Violet Fisher, and myself—along with our spouses, some UMC agency staff and other interested parties and chaperones.  The hospitality and the love we received during our learning experience was overwhelmingly generous.

I hope you can sense from this report the profound love that I personally experienced there in India.  Even more, I pray you will remember and actively rehearse the many ways we can offer our gifts of love to Christ—our wealth (gold), our worship (frankincense) and our witness through service (myrrh).  For it is Christ whom God gave to live and die for us because he loved us so much.  When you offer your gifts to him generously you will be truly blessed. 

As Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the renowned former missionary to India, once said, “The loving heart cannot fall, cannot fail and cannot be fruitless.”  May it be so for you and your loving heart in 2015.