Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Trailblazers

As we celebrate Black History Month it should be noted that trailblazers were a significant part of the Civil Rights movement in this country.

Had there not been courageous people who took a stand and moved forward in the face of discrimination and hostility, we as a nation would never have made any progress. It is true of every social justice movement in all of history. Such was the case of a 14-year-old girl named Carlotta Walls.

 
In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in “Brown v. The Board of Education” that there must be integrated public schools. Carlotta was the youngest member of the “Little Rock Nine,” a cadre of brave, black students who volunteered to be the first to enter Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas’s capital city, in 1957. 


In her book Worn on This Day, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell explains that Carlotta’s great-uncle gave her money to buy new clothes for her first day of school. She went to a downtown department store and found a matching blouse and skirt with an alphabet print, to signify her love for learning. That outfit was likely one of the only bright spots amid the shadows of hatred that Carlotta and the others would face in the days to come. 

On the first day of school a mob of segregationist protestors accosted the nine students. The National Guard had to escort them to class. They were not allowed to participate in extra-curricular activities and were constantly harassed in lunch lines and in the hallways. 

Officials actually closed the school for a year, trying to circumvent the court order. However the following year Carlotta and her brave companions continued to attend Central High School. She finally graduated in February of 1960, but her family’s home was bombed a few months later. 

So acrimonious were the protests against these trailblazing young scholars that Carlotta’s father was unable to find employment, and the family had to move out of state.

How sad, how mean, how painful was this dark chapter in our nation’s history! And sadly, discrimination and segregation is still a harsh reality in our society today. But progress has been made. It happens through the courage of trailblazers, who are armed with determination and reliance on God’s Holy Spirit.

In the history of the church we know of similar egregious stories of discrimination and persecution against those striving for basic human equality and also equity. Victory comes when people of faith are willing to face with integrity the rejection and pushback they face and the stubborn resistance to doing what is right.

They continue on with their mission without giving up. And they depend on God to guide and care for them in the storm. 


I salute Carlotta Walls during Black History Month in February. She was one of many trailblazers for civil rights and equality. Behind her came many others who had an easier way because she pushed open the door.

Where can you be a trailblazer for justice for those who need you now and for those will come behind you?




Want to know more?
Learn more about Carlotta Walls Lanier and the Little Rock Nine school desegregation experience from this video, Carlotta Walls Lanier Tribute, produced by Justice High School, and from Lanier’s own account in A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School by Carlotta Walls Lanier and Lisa Frazier Page.


United Methodist Black History Quiz

Test your knowledge of black history in the UMC with the United Methodist Black History QuizToo often, the accomplishments of African Americans have not received adequate notice in U.S. history books and classrooms. That is why historian Carter Woodson first proposed a weeklong focus on black history in 1926. The first U.S. celebration of Black History Month happened decades later. 

UMCom invites us to take a short quiz about African American history in the U.S. and in The United Methodist Church and to also share the link with others and compare scores! After you take the quiz, review the complete answers and learn more. Download, print and share this Black History Quiz with your church, family and friends!
  

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Beware the Sin of Anti-Semitism

World leaders gathered for a ceremony at the former concentration camp and human extermination center Auschwitz on Monday, Jan. 27. They came to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of this Nazi German death camp in Poland in 1945, five years after it opened.

More than 1 million people were killed in gas chambers and by other means at Auschwitz, the vast majority of them Jews. It was the largest of more than a thousand such camps in Nazi-held areas of Europe.

In total, the Nazi campaign to eradicate Jews from Europe claimed more than 6 million Jewish lives before and during World War II.

The hatred of Jews was a passion of German leader Adolph Hitler, who blamed them for the economic depression in Germany at the time. He persecuted them for being different than other German in culture, heritage, faith and appearance. And he held them responsible for the death of Jesus.

Anti-Semitism was around long before Hitler, however, and streams of it continue today. The recent stabbing attack on a group of Jewish people gathered in a home in New York, and the many shootings in synagogues in recent years reminds us that violent anti-Semitism is still rampant and sadly increasing at an alarming rate. The New York Times cites that in New York alone hate crimes against Jewish people are up by 23 percent in the past year.




As Christians we need to speak out against this terrorist trend and be quick to challenge racial slurs and all forms of discrimination and violence. Christians need to be careful not to blame Jews for the death of Jesus during Lent and Holy Week. 

Be vigilant in your preaching and teaching as you work on the passages where Jesus is in conflict with the Pharisees of his day. The context is different back then, but it can create current ripples of distrust and hated if we don’t make the distinction.

Long ago I ran a deaf camp for children at a United Methodist Camp in Annapolis, Md. This camp continued for the 20 years I served that community, and attendance increased every year as families appreciated the programming.

I made it clear that we did have Bible studies but that children of other faith communities were not forced to attend our classes. They would be provided other activities if they chose not to participate.

One Jewish family sent their bright, capable deaf daughter to my camp and she insisted on coming to the Bible classes. I was teaching the parables of Jesus and thought these would be safe topics. The parable of the Good Samaritan was particularly fun to teach because we used drama and costumes to act out the story. All the children wanted to be the robbers and the donkey. I thought it went well.

I was surprised and horrified when the Jewish girl ran up to her father when parents were picking up their campers and exclaimed in very clear signs “Peggy is Anti-Semitic.” I rushed over and inquired further. I could not believe what I was seeing.

The child explained that when I taught the Good Samaritan parable I signed “The Jewish priest and temple helper (scribe) would not help the hurt man.” According to her that made the Jewish people look bad. I was totally clueless and had never looked at things that way before. I apologized profusely to the family but we never saw them again or their friends.

All this is to say: watch how you talk about people. Casting Jewish people in a negative light, especially as a part of our Biblical narrative, can help spread contemporary hatred, bias and discrimination against them and sadly, dangerous consequences, too. Use your words instead to speak out against the sin of anti-Semitism and racism. Our words have power to hurt and to heal, to cast dispersions or to create community and grace.

Colossians 4:8 reminds us “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” Speak with the salt of zest, preservation and healing.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Courage

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
As we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. over the past week, I have pondered his life and witness, and the word “courage” comes to mind. 
Dr. King had incredible courage to lead the Civil Rights movement that ultimately brought much good and justice to the United States and the world.  His and his family’s lives were constantly in danger from death threats because of his justice work.
The majority of white Americans in power did not want to see equality in this country, and the pushback was swift and severe. However, I believe that one of the most difficult places to have courage is in the presence of one’s own peers.
When Dr. King was invited and came to Birmingham for a campaign he landed in jail for a time. There he penned his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”  This profound and poignant letter was addressed to clergy who had criticized the timing of the nonviolent protest plans he had for the city. 

King writes to them, “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well-timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.  For years now I have heard the word ‘wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’  We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed, is justice denied.’ We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.”
Criticism that comes from one’s fellow peers can be even more painful than the critiques of one’s usual dissenters.  To do what is right anyway can mean that one often stands alone, or sits in jail, or ultimately loses one’s life.   
King has taught the world that to do what is right is to not delay action in the face of injustice and oppression. It means going against the advice of well-meaning colleagues at times and being willing to go it alone. 

It is so very tempting to put off or ignore the call to speak truth to power or to allow pushback to silence our voices.  The stakes are high. Suffering is assured.  What would the world look like today if King had backed down? 
During this month, and especially during these times, I give thanks for all people of courage who do not wait but are willing to go forward and do what’s right, even without the support of their peers.
Where in your life can you show this kind of courage?

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Eye of the Needle: A Case for Unburdening in 2020

Jesus said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain eternal life.” (Matthew 19:24). Scholars have contemplated the meaning of this for ages. 
Was he talking about a sewing needle, which is a hyperbole?  A camel and a sewing needle are impossibly out of proportion. It is similar to the analogy that Jesus made about removing a speck from our neighbor’s eye with a plank (Matthew 7:3-5). This extreme is used to drive home an important spiritual lesson.

Or maybe there was a different explanation.  The “needle gate” was an actual thing, supposedly in ancient Jerusalem, that was so small that a fully loaded camel could not get through unless the packages on its back were removed. 
In her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, author Susan Beaumont suggests that “congregations must shed what is non-essential (in transitional times). After crossing the threshold, we are pulled forward and upward into a space of new possibility.” (p. 117). 
What is the most essential thing we should be doing in 2020?  Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed comes to mind.  Jesus teaches us that we are to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33). 
In this New Year, I suggest that we engage in an inventory of our personal lives and church ministries.  What kinds of baggage needs to come off so that we can move into new possibilities?  
Consider our consumer-driven obsessions that keep us bound to credit card bills and debt. What health issues need to be addressed that are slowing down our effectiveness and well-being? Are we holding on to the “baggage” of bad eating and exercise habits? 
Have we considered our church’s use of funds and its carbon footprint?  Are our church burdened with ways of doing things and decision-making traditions that have become a burden?
How about attitudes? Where are we holding on to attitudes of despair and un-forgiveness that need to be released?  Despite the many troubling things we see in the world today, God is still working wonders. 

The New York Times posted a list of “22 Things That Happened for the First Time in 2019” (Your Weekend Briefing, December 29, 2019)  This year there have been significant discoveries that can cure HIV, a malaria vaccine has been developed and is being tested, and there is progress in solving the dilemma of peanut allergies. In addition NASA celebrated its first all-women’s space walk; and women imams led prayer services for the first time in France.
God continually pours out blessings on us, and we need to be evangelists for the positivity of God’s Spirit working mightily in this world, and not fixate on negativity.  When we take off the baggage of despair and unresolved grudges we become free to enjoy the gifts of God.
Our churches too can take off the useless baggage of looking back on how things used to be. Instead they can look forward to the new opportunities that God is presenting in this day and age.
So, the possibilities are endless as we unburden ourselves of self-imposed weights of sin and attitude. Then we can more freely head straight through the “needle gate” to our God-ordained future in 2020.
Wishing you and yours a New Year full of God’s abundant blessings. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

Walk in the Light


The season of Advent is at our doorstep, and once again we hear the ancient story of Jesus’ birth foretold by the prophets. The prophets give us instruction about preparing for this Immanuel, who is God coming to be with us.
As we begin this season I am savoring the words of Isaiah who calls us to “walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:5) How do we do this? The prophet gives us the roadmap for our Advent journey.
Learn from the Lord
First we learn from the Lord. Isaiah 2:3 calls us to “Go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob that he might teach us his ways.” Study the God’s Word with intentionality, for it is the lamp that lights our path. (Psalm 119:105)
Engage in an Advent Bible Study or devotion, and set aside time during this season to ponder what Christ’s coming means to your life personally. Consider also what God wants you to do about it.
Engage in God’s salvation plan for the world
Secondly, consider how your faith is a part of God’s master plan for the world. Isaiah speaks of all nations coming to the Lord’s holy mountain. (Isaiah 2:2) God wants to reach all of humanity, not just the children of Israel. His plan has always been for the salvation of the world. And his inclusive outreach should be ours as well.
Where are you and your church engaged in mission? I am proudest of the UMC for its incredible ministries that reach out and embrace lives across the U.S. and globally, including over 300 missionaries serving in 60 countries, operating 300 UM hospitals and clinics. We also alleviate human suffering through the UM Committee on Relief, UMCOR, wherever there are needs and natural disasters.
We have educational institutions around the globe that for many are the only source of formal education and development. Our participation in church development and agriculture has given light and life to millions. We support these efforts in general through our apportionment dollars. But we also support specific projects, missionaries and concerns through our giving to the Advance.
But what about your church’s local outreach? As you walk in the light, who is left in your shadow? Is the diversity of your church’s neighborhood reflected in your congregation? Are people of other languages and cultures and people with disabilities experiencing your hospitality and welcome? Are you seeing all the people, to echo UM Discipleship Ministries’ question?
Don’t focus only on people who come to your church. Go into the community and be a catalyst for good in schools, businesses, public forums, health care facilities and other settings. We can walk in the light and see the face of Christ among those in need when we minister among them in love. Then we can discover and share the true meaning of Christmas.
Practice God’s Peace Plan
Finally, practice God’s peace plan! Isaiah proclaims that “God shall judge between the nations and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)
We all agree that the end of war and strife on this earth would be a wonderful thing. There is a catastrophic amount of death and destruction on this planet now due to violence. In God’s peace plan it is God who settles disputes and not people with their weapons, their lethal tools of terror.
God’s peacemaking tools are forgiveness and reconciliation. When we humbly submit to God’s plan, peace has a chance! It starts with us. We cannot point fingers of blame at the wars around the world and still harbor grudges and anger toward people in our own lives.
Peace on earth begins with us. With whom do you need to reconcile? This takes hard work and a willingness to take the responsibility for making amends, even if you are not the one at fault.
Finally, peace comes through justice, the Old Testament prophets admonish us as they cry out for justice on every page. When human rights are available to all people then “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat…They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6) In human terms, we are called to advocate for human rights and dignity for all people.
Courageously pursue justice
I watched the “Harriet” movie recently, the true story of Harriett Tubman, who fled slavery and then became an abolitionist and Civil War hero. She freed hundreds of slaves by her incredible bravery and passion for human justice.
I seethed with anger at the attitude of the cruel, white slave owners in the movie. And I admired the socially conscious white people who joined the battle for abolition. They walked in the light; but theirs was not an easy path.
They were breaking the law by helping slaves escape. They were putting their lives and their families at risk. Some were killed and some lost everything. Meanwhile, many misguided churches in that day were preaching that slavery was God’s will, as they dubiously cited New Testament scriptures. (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9, I Peter 2:18.)
I ask myself: Would I have risked my life and security for the human rights of slaves back then? I want to think so, but I honestly have to search my heart.
Still today, it is risky business to speak up for the downtrodden, be they undocumented immigrants and refugees, people who are trafficked and enslaved for sex and labor in our own neighborhoods, people who can’t get health insurance, or gay people in Pennsylvania who still are denied their full civil rights.
Justice is risky business. Peace comes at a high price. May we ponder and then pursue what God wants us to do personally in the realm of peacemaking.
During this holy season of Advent be blessed, but also be a blessing. Walk in Christ’s light, and share that light with others. Only then can we experience the true meaning of Christmas in all its joy, peace, love and hope.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Sweet Potato Rolls


The parking lot was full when I arrived at the Nelsons UMC in Hebron, Maryland.  The annual “Sweet Potato Roll Sale” was in full swing on that crisp fall day in late October. For many years the members of the church have worked for an entire week preparing for this fundraiser that garners over $30,000 annually for their many mission projects.

Some people actually take a week of vacation from their secular employment to help out. I came to visit the church on “pick up” day for a promised gift of two dozen of these highly-coveted homemade delights.  I learned that some people who have moved out of the area drive long distances to the church each year to continue to make their purchases.

The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Becky Collison, explained that the whole church gets involved in this process.  There are those who cook, peel, mix, roll-out, cut, butter, package, label, and sell. On the day I was there the fellowship hall was filled with church folks engaged in making rolls.


The room was buzzing with a spirit of joy and cooperation.  Everyone was using their talents to accomplish this great work of making 4,900 dozen rolls—58,800 in total. All had been pre-ordered, and many requests had to be turned down.

People were arriving at their assigned pick-up time, and some were purchasing quite a few dozen. They said they would freeze them and bake them for Thanksgiving Dinner. These rolls were a popular family tradition during the holidays.

The curious thing about these rolls is that they are square and not round as one would expect.  For years the church folks made round rolls, but at some point they realized that they could make them more efficiently if they were square, placed in a rectangular pan and scored.

The new shape took some getting used to, but when some ingenious member of the church made a contraption that actually scores the slab of sweet potato dough, the speed of the production took off.  After all, a square roll tastes the same as a round roll.  The benefits of the new shape outweighed the need for it to adhere to tradition.

In churches we have an old saying “We’ve never done it that way before.” Sadly, that attitude keeps us from doing something new and better that the Lord is calling us to do. Our ministries and missions are good but sometimes they need a creative new edge, perhaps using some new talent, new kinds of outreach, more diversity, a broader reach. 

Nelson UMC uses some of its profits from the roll sale to fund an after-school program for children at risk in the community. The whole town is experiencing the benefits of this ministry.  They have also paid for the installation of a wheelchair ramp and donated to a number of overseas mission projects.

What new thing can you be doing at your church?  How can you “sing to the Lord a NEW song?” (Psalm 96:1)  Who does God want you to reach for Jesus Christ that requires you to change the way you do things? 

I know a church that does Vacation Bible School the whole day on the Saturdays before school starts, so that parents are free to go out shopping. They have doubled their attendance.

Many churches are beginning to use credit-card machines to accept donations because increasingly people do not carry cash or check books. A church in Texas has installed washers and dryers in its education building to help the homeless population have clean clothes. Some of our churches are studying their carbon footprint and are beginning to use china dishes and cloth tablecloths instead of disposable paper and plastic products. 

The possibilities are endless. Our God is a God of new ideas, a God who longs for us to invent  new ways for people to experience divine love.

“Behold I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19)  May you follow the example of the square sweet potato roll-makers at Nelsons UMC. May you go out to start something new!

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