Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Home for Christmas

The Christmas of 1977 was one of those years that Christmas Day happened to fall on a Sunday.

I was in my first year at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.  In order to earn additional money for tuition I accepted the position as church organist in September at a large church in Lexington, KY, and when I was hired, it was agreed that I would play throughout the Christmas season. That meant I would not be home for Christmas in Baltimore that year. 

I had begun dating a young man from Texas named Michael Johnson, but when the fall semester final exams were over he went home and I stayed in Kentucky to fulfill my obligations to the church. When the dorms closed I ended up staying at an apartment that a fellow seminarian had rented.  He went home for Christmas but was thrilled to let me use his apartment so that I could take care of his Siamese cat named Butch.  Butch was a strange cat. He insisted on sleeping with his head on the pillow with me every night, and he even snored in my ear, which made the whole lonely Christmas scene yet a little more bizarre.

I was determined to be brave about being alone for Christmas in a strange town, with a strange cat, being employed by church people that I barely knew. As each student finished exams and left for home, my bravery began to slip away into full-blown home-sickness. After all, aren’t we all supposed to be home for Christmas? Wasn’t there some song about it that Bing Crosby sang during World War II? 

What is home anyway? Surely not a mere house in a particular location, but a place of loving support of family and friends. Yet, it also has something to do with faith in Jesus, who is our abiding home.

On Christmas Eve that year, after I played for the third candlelight service at Tate’s Creek Christian Church, a silver-haired lady in the choir approached me. She invited me to her home for Christmas dinner, to join her and her sisters and their families in an old Kentucky mansion. I gladly accepted, although I wondered greatly how it would feel to be this stranger in the midst of a family holiday gathering. 

It turned out to be one of the best Christmases of my life, with a sumptuous banquet of turkey and ham, alongside Southern specialties of oyster stew, cheese grits casserole and pecan pie. The best part was the warmth of Christian love they extended toward me. 

We shared in casual conversation and opened gifts. (Yes, Santa had left gifts for me too, under their tree.) But we also witnessed to one another about our faith and the love of Jesus Christ, who was, and is, the real meaning of Christmas.

Jesus, our Lord Jesus, was not home for Christmas either. He had left his home in Glory to come and be with us sinful people, who would (for the most part) neither receive him nor believe in him (John 1:11). He came anyway, because he knew it was the only way we could ultimately be “home for Christmas” when this earthly world passes away and God establishes a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). 

Mary and Joseph were also not home for that first Christmas.  They traveled 80 miles from the familiar safely of Nazareth to the ancestral home of King David so they could provide census information required by the ruling king.  They too sacrificed in obedience to the secular law, but also in obedience to God’s call.

Their heavenly father bid them to travel to Bethlehem for the birth of his star-child, to a place that was ordained for this purpose centuries before (Micah 5:2). Being away from home gave them an opportunity to minister to shepherds and townspeople who rejoiced in God’s salvation.

Will you be home for Christmas this year?  For a moment, ponder the meaning of Christmas as it relates not to your earthly home but to our abiding and eternal home. Where is your heart’s home? 

In his tiny book My Heart-Christ’s Home, Robert Boyd Munger reminds us that a deep peace settles into our hearts and our lives when we each totally turn over to the Lord the “deed” to our home, our heart. Each day we need to allow God to go through the many rooms of our heart-homes to clean up and fix up the places that need to be purified and restored.

We need God to get rid of the sins that hold us back from living fully in relationship with our Creator and with other people. In those vital relationships with God and our neighbors we can find our rootedness, our strength and our true home.

Do you know of someone who is not going to be able to be home for Christmas this year?  If you search you can find someone. Maybe there is a struggling international student or worker, or  someone who is experiencing divorce, separation or abandonment; or someone who, for whatever reason, is far from home? 

Perhaps there is a senior adult who is home for Christmas, but their friends and loved ones are not.  Those with whom they once spent Christmas may have moved or passed away, and now there is loneliness and stillness in a home that used to sing for joy. Maybe there is a nursing home or a hospice that needs the presence of your heart, your “home” for Christmas this year.  I highly recommend it. It could turn out surprisingly to be one of the best Christmases of your life.

The last time Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, in 2011, I spent Christmas Eve at historic Barratt's Chapel in Fredericka, Del., and then I enjoyed the hospitality of Barb Duffin, the museum's curator, at her lovely home. We then celebrated the birth of Christ at Felton UMC. 

The next morning I spent Christmas Day at Delaware Hospice, perhaps an unlikely place to find joy, but it was there. Chaplain Larry Ganster gently ministered to families, residents and staff; and we had an uplifting Christmas service celebrating light and life. 

A deepening faith in our Lord Jesus Christ is where we can find home when we are not at home. It is where we can find peace that surpasses all understanding and calms our every distress. And in the midst of all kinds of sadness, we can find the simple joy and lasting hope of our dreams in heaven, as long as our hearts are home with Christ for Christmas.

Bishop Peggy Johnson

Monday, November 24, 2014

World AIDS Day: Educate, Donate to Help Us Find a Cure

As I reflect back on the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980’s it was a time of intense fear in the church I was serving in Baltimore.  A number of the church members had contracted the disease and as the word spread people were afraid to even stand near the infected ones. 

I remember a board meeting where folks were calling for the end of “passing the peace” during the service, and for intinction during Holy Communion to be replaced with individual cups of grape juice.  There was a lot of unfounded fear and ignorance; and sadly there were also many deaths because medications and treatment had not been developed. 

Fast forward to 2014, and it is a different story.  Dr. Christoph Benn, Director of External Relations for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, addressed the Council of Bishops at the November meeting in Oklahoma City.  He was very hopeful and he commended The United Methodist Church for partnering with The Global Fund in combating these killer diseases.  

In terms of HIV/AIDS, he reported that there are 33 percent fewer people in the world with the disease since 2005.  In terms of deaths, there are 1.5 million people dying from AIDS complications now, as opposed to 3 million in 2005. There were 400,000 babies born with HIV back then, and now that number has been cut in half.  While AIDS is still a major heath concern on this planet, we are making progress in eliminating it due to medical advances in fighting this disease and the large amount of money that has been raised.

Dr. Benn stressed that medication as well as education is the winning combination. The more people learn about the disease the better they can take preventative measures.  Education also helps eliminate the stigma that comes with this disease. 

While I was touring the East Congo Conference this summer our team visited an AIDS clinic. The social worker there was explaining to parents with a baby born with HIV that they should not reject their child.  Some parents were actually hiding their babies under the bed because of the stigma of AIDS. 

The UMC has more than 200 HIV/AIDS clinics like this one in over 35 countries working hard to both treat the disease and teach people about prevention.

The UMC is challenging the world to eliminate this disease by the year 2020.  December 1st is World AIDS Day and it would be a great opportunity to teach your church about HIV/AIDS and to collect funds for the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund (UMGAF). 

The monies collected helps efforts in developing countries, but 25 percent of all donations through the UMC remain in the donor annual conferences for AIDS ministries.  For more information and promotional materials check out the UMCOR website at: www.umcor.org/umcor/programs/globalhealth/HIV/AIDS.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Honoring our Veterans; caring for those with disabilities

November 11th is Veterans Day.  It is an official United States holiday in which we honor the men and woman who have served in the Armed Forces. 

Veterans Day honors all who have served, while Memorial Day remembers those who lost their lives in service of their country. There are more than 21.5 million veterans in our country today.

We have veterans from numerous wars living in our country; and although the conflicts and the issues surrounding each of our wars is different, they have one thing in common: they all have persons in their ranks who have suffered disabilities.

There are 3.5 million veterans with service-connected disabilities, and an estimated 800,000 of them have severe disabilities.  These include loss of limbs, hearing loss, vision loss, disfigurement and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few.  In addition, there is a high rate of suicide and attempted suicide and many who have suffered from sexual trauma while in the military. 

Veterans Day can be observed every day of the year.  It needs to be a constant concern for us as we show our appreciation for those who have sacrificed much for our country.

Many of these veterans live in our communities and some are members and constituents of our churches.  Their disabilities not only affect the veterans but also their spouses and children and extended families.

There are numerous opportunities for us to be in ministry with our veterans.  I commend the churches in our area whose members visit veterans hospitals, or offer volunteer hospitality at military installations, or surround local families with love and support.  I hope more will be inspired to follow their good example.

The United Methodist Endorsing Agency of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the agency responsible for chaplaincy, offers some practical suggestions:
  1. Educate churches about typical issues and about available resources.
  2. Keep service members and their families in prayer.
  3. Support family members by offering practical assistance with indoor and outdoor household tasks, including child care and meals.
  4. Refer veterans and family members to professional counseling services.
  5. Offer support groups and Bible studies (with child care).
  6. Create a “Circle of Care” that provides consistent, ongoing support to families.
  7. Remember veterans during our worship services.
  8. Send “thank you” cards and letters of encouragement. 

Remember to support our chaplains who work in the military as well.  Our area has several United Methodist chaplains who regularly support those on the front lines of service.  They too need our prayers and remembrance as they minister to veterans, providing healing and help.  

As the holidays are approaching along with the season of Thanksgiving, think of ways that your church can learn more about the veterans in your area, particularly those with disabilities, and how best to assist them.  If every church did something there would be so much more encouragement and hope for our veterans and their families. 
Source: The Church and People with Disabilities: Awareness, Accessibility, and Advocacy,  by Peggy A. Johnson (United Methodist Women’s “Mission U” Study, 2014) 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Church’s One Foundation

Rev. Samuel J. Stone

Anglican priest, the Rev. Samuel J. Stone penned the words to the beloved hymn: “The Church’s One Foundation” in 1866. (Book of Hymns #545)  According to Warren Shiver, author of Stories behind the Hymns, it was written as a call to unity in the church during a time of controversy. 

South African Bishop John William Colenso (first Church of England Bishop of Natal, mathematician, theologian, Biblical scholar and social activist) had contended that the Bible was a myth.  He was deposed for heresy, then later reinstated. But all the while there was deep division in the South African Church about these issues. 

Rev. Stone writes: “Though with a scornful wonder we see her (the church) sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” 

This humble parish priest was passionate about the church remaining unified as a body here on earth even in the midst of controversy.  In his hymn he connected the church of the living with the church triumphant.  

The saints in heaven are depicted as those who are encouraging the church by keeping watch and praying as the divisions raged on below.  This imagery can be helpful for us today as we struggle with disagreements over Disciplinary paragraphs.  

Another of Stone’s passions was to teach the church the meaning of the Apostle’s Creed.  According to Warren Shiver, he wrote a series of twelve hymns that explain the theology of the creed. “The Church’s One Foundation” was the ninth in the series that taught about the holy, catholic (universal) church and the communion of the saints.

My favorite line in the hymn speaks of that “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”  As I reflect on the passing of my parents this past year and I anticipate “All Saints Day” this week it is comforting to remember that sweet communion, that unexplainable fellowship with the “great cloud of witnesses” above (Hebrews 12:1) who, even in glory, are cheering us on. 
We should remember that the saints who lived before us faced theological controversy and suffered persecution and even death for the cause of Christ. It is our turn to take up the mantle and continue the ministry of Jesus in this present age.

When our way forward is not clear, the sound and fury of contention can be deafening, and our ministry can get stalled at times. As Christians debate each other, what a comfort it is to know that “the great church victorious shall be the church at rest” someday.  

We will one day enjoy reunion with those saints who pray for our reunion here and now. And best of all, we will have “union with God, the Three in One,” our one true foundation who supplies our every need. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Repentance as Decolonization

During this quadrennium United Methodists are studying the acts of inhumanity that people have committed against indigenous peoples around the earth. Each annual conference is slated to have an “Act of Repentance” during a regular annual session.

Our Philadelphia Episcopal Area will join in this observance during both of its 2016 annual conferences (Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware). This gives us time to learn and reflect upon what has happened in the past, to repent and ultimately move toward reconciliation. 

At a recent conference at the United Nations Church Center in May 2014  the plight of indigenous peoples and the concept of “repentance as decolonization” was discussed. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uR7i5iWXBvA) As Native American people in the United States were “colonized” onto reservations and robbed of their land and ways of life, the act of decolonization would be the true fruit of repentance. 

Giving back the benefits of that land would be a worthy sign that majority-culture people understand the wrong that was done to those who were the First Nations in this country.  We can make progress toward this goal by respecting the culture and property of Native peoples and finding ways for the U.S. government to assist them in getting higher education, employment, property ownership, health care and social services. This requires advocacy, and advocacy only comes through awareness, the awareness that Native American communities have been denied the very fundamental rights afforded to other people in this country. 

At this United Nations Church Conference on Indigenous Peoples Dr. Heather Elkins, a professor at Drew University Theology School, participated in a video project in which she showed  a piece of art that was painted by Native American contemporary artist Leslie Gates. It is a figure of a Native American who was on the “Trail of Tears,” the brutal forced exodus of Native people from their lands that was part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The United States government implemented it under the presidency of Andrew Jackson. 

This artwork showed a solemn figure covered with a blanket. The blanket, when seen up close, comprises hundreds of canceled U.S. postage stamps. These stamps are the ones we see frequently with U.S. flags on them and the words “Liberty,” “Justice” and “Freedom” inscribed on them. 

The stamps shown as “canceled” remind us that for the Native American people their liberty, freedom and justice have been canceled because of racism,  greed, oppression and evil.  During the Trail of Tears thousands of Native people were marched along a perilous route from their homes in the East to barren reservations in Oklahoma, often during the bitter cold winter. There were many deaths due to exposure, disease and starvation.

As some prepare to celebrate Columbus Day on October 13, others will decry the sordid history of exploitation and genocide it represents. Indeed, it is important for us to remember indigenous peoples who suffered at the hands of Europeans who came to America and treated its Native occupants cruelly for the most part. 

If we are truly repenting for the misdeeds of our forebears we need to “un-cancel” the stamps of liberty, freedom and justice. We need to decolonize our hearts, amend our ways and write a new, living chapter of redemption in our history together. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Time to Love

"Time is
Too slow for those who Wait,
Too swift for those who Fear,
Too long for those who Grieve,
Too short for those who Rejoice.
But for those who Love,
Time is eternal."

Those verses penned in 1904 by poet, professor and statesman Henry van Dyke, a native of Germantown, Pa., are timely for us who remember "9/11," our national day of tragedy 13 years ago when brutal terrorists took over our skies, plunging hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. A small legion of American heroes prevented the hijackers of a third airliner, United Flight 93, from reaching their dreaded goal, mostly likely the U.S. Capitol, and instead forced them to crash into an empty field near Shanksville, Pa., killing all onboard.

Today on 9/11/14 there are memorials again being held at each crash site, remembering and mourning the thousands of fallen victims and our many heroes who responded at great risk to these attacks, including those who sacrificed their lives in Shanksville.

We wait desperately for an end to our war on terror, an end that may never come. We fear the rise of a new force of Islamic extremists, ISIS, now wreaking havoc, brutally murdering thousands, inflicting destruction across Iraq and Syria, and threatening to infiltrate Europe and America in their horrific campaign. The only question about this "existential threat," as some describe it, is not if but when.

We grieve for those we have lost in this terrible war on terror-from the first victims of 9/11 ripped from the embrace of loving families, to the courageous, often youthful soldiers we have lost in battle, to non-military victims, including two American journalists recently executed in grisly fashion just to send a message of hate and vengeance. We grieve for them and for their families.

We rejoice all too briefly when gallant soldiers return home from war to rejoin their families and surprise their children, when those who have lost limbs, eyes and other parts of once-healthy bodies rise above their losses to gain new hope and new lives through healing, support and their own determination to survive and live on.

And finally, we love, as we must, as Christ teaches and shows us how to love: by rejecting hate, casting out fear, and growing through our grief and pain to find hope and healing on the other side. We learn to no longer wait for an end to hate, fear, suffering and war, but instead to work for a new beginning, a new chance to experience for ourselves and express to others a perfect love gained through courage, forgiveness and faith in our own promised resurrection.

With wars behind us and rumors of war upon us, let us not wait, or fear, or grieve endlessly. But let us instead strive to love-ourselves and others-as deeply and as completely as we can, and then strive to love even deeper.
Then our rejoicing will rise in the morning, take flight in the noonday and last to comfort us through the darkest, dreariest nights. And then time-not the awful curse for those who fear or grieve without ceasing, but the blessed, grace-filled gift for those who love and rejoice persistently-that time will be eternal, if not in this life, then in the life to come.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Thankful for the Ministry of Bishop Martin McLee

My e-mail box and telephone have been filled with messages about the recent passing of Bishop Martin McLee, bishop of the New York Annual Conference.  He entered the church triumphant on Saturday, September 6, while on a leave of absence. 

We as a denomination and as individuals are filled with grief and disbelief as we process the news.  We reflect on the brevity of life but also the amazing impact one life can have and the awesome work that this bishop was able to accomplish in two short years. 

Bishop McLee was an advocate for justice in his conference and around the United Methodist Connection.  He brought new vision and leadership to the Northeastern Jurisdiction Multi-Ethnic Center for Ministry.  He handled a complaint around the issue of same-gender weddings with faithfulness and grace.  He preached with power in speech and song, often bursting into the chorus of a well-known hymn to accentuate his message.

Bishop McLee was a communicator.  Early on I figured out that he was great with text messages.  He always answered.  I would text “I am praying for you,” and he would respond, “It is getting better” or “God is with me.”  He was always filled with hope and positive energy that encouraged us all. 

Even during his illness and rehabilitation he looked upward and trusted in a God who provided for every need.  He would frequently address the body as “beloved” knowing that everyone is a precious child of God, no matter who they are; and in God’s love he embraced all.

I texted Bishop Martin on Saturday morning.  I thought it was strange that he did not answer me.  He always answered.  Seems that he answered the call from God to rise up to new life and a higher call in the kingdom of light. 

There is no telling what he is doing now, gifted with renewed strength and eternal life in heaven. We will join him someday. But on this day we pray for all who mourn across our Connection and especially for the New York Annual Conference, even as we celebrate the living legacy of his leadership in ministry there.