Friday, May 8, 2015

The Wall

American poet Robert Frost once wrote:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast...
(“Mending Wall” excerpt)

Recently I visited Germany for the meeting of the Council of Bishops. The words of that poem were ringing in my head, along with the many cathedral bells we heard clamoring on every corner. 

We gathered in the city of Berlin, where we visited many of the historical sites of this diverse city during our break times.  Most notable to me was viewing the remains of the Berlin Wall, built in 1961 and torn down in 1989.  It separated the east (communist) and west (democratic) people of the same country.  The governmental control that was established in the aftermath of World War II gave Russia control of East Berlin and the United States, England and France control of the West.

During the era of the Berlin Wall there was much sadness and separation.  Whole families were unable to be together.  Many attempted to climb over the wall but were felled by fatal gunfire.  Tragically, even children were killed.  Hearing stories of daring escapes and the digging of ingenious tunnel systems were part of the tour of the Berlin Wall that we experienced. 

As the German tour guide led us past the many memorial sites of the wall on that sunny spring day I was struck by two contrasting sensations.  There was the stark horror of this wall’s dark history, but also the pleasant idyllic scene of the grassy lawn where we witnessed children playing and vendors selling souvenirs.  The wall made all the difference.  When there was a wall life was bitter with alienation and death.  When the wall came down life and community sprang forth. But not totally so.

During a potluck lunch at the German-speaking church where I preached I sat around the table with Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences, located in the former East Berlin area.  She said there is a “wall in our heads” that still exists even though the physical wall has been removed.  The towering wall that remains now is one of economic disparity, prejudice, and distrust.  Those who lived under the communist regime are less able to get good jobs and affordable housing. 

The professor hopes for a day when the two sides could actually work together more for the benefit of all.  The church in West Germany is engaged in this ministry of wall-removal from heads and hearts, and I thank God for their witness. 

One such ministry is happening at a UM church that has an outreach to Muslim children in an area of East Germany.  The church provides food, activities, homework help and recreation for low-income families.  This ministry is a way of breaking down interfaith walls as well as providing economic support.  The director of the program quoted a young Muslin child who said, “If I am ever in trouble I know that the church will help me.” 

Another UM Church that is dismantling inner “walls” is building a ministry with refugees. Members welcome people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, while offering them food, housing and friendship. When asked about their ability to speak other languages at the church, the faithful Berlin Methodists say they speak the “language of love” and everyone understands.

Still another church has a ministry with people who are recovering alcoholics.  They are helping restore these often homeless people to sobriety and also restoring them to a sense of community through support groups and AA meetings.

Jesus came to break down the walls of separation between people and God.  To paraphrase Robert Frost, there is someone who does not love a wall.  And that someone is God.

God desires to be in communion with us, and for us to be in communion with one another.   As Christians we are called to share the Good News of salvation so that people can be restored to God and can then work toward knocking down the social and economic walls of separation between people.

Here in the United States we live within many walls.  We have walls of race and ethnicity, gender, economic disparity, theological stand-offs around our social issues, and interpersonal strife.  Walls create nothing but pain.  Walls create unhealthy havens where we can hold on to our prejudices and preferences and not learn from the “other,” nor grow mutually from the interaction and sharing that wall-removal can bring. 

Think about walls that you, with God's help, can separate, weaken, pull apart and maybe even knock down.  How can God use you to “spill the upper boulders in the sun and make gaps even two can pass abreast.” 

This is the wall-removal work that Christ did for us through his sacrifice for grace, "for he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us." (Ephesians 2:14, NRSV). And it is the work he calls and equips us to continue doing in his name, both at home and around the world.

Photo: Bishops Elias Galvan, Joel Martinez, Violet Fisher, Mark Webb, Rosemary Wenner, William Morris and Peggy Johnson.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Five Most Hopeful Words in the Bible

I once read that the five most hopeful words in the Bible are this: “And it came to pass.”  What does that mean?  It means that “It came” (whatever it is in life that comes your way) and it “passes” (or goes away).

This winter was full of many snowy and frigid cold days.  The rhododendron plants  in the front of my house were shriveled in the cold.  They looked like brown frozen sticks for weeks on end, and sometimes they were coated with ice and snow.  But it “came to pass!”  This morning in the springtime sun they have perked up and there even are buds of those beautiful pink flowers that will be blooming in a month or two.  Winter has passed, and new life has returned.
During this Holy Week when we journey along with Christ on the road to the cross we already know that death was not the last word.  After Good Friday comes Easter! The sorrow of the cross “came to pass” and death became resurrection.  
You may be experiencing difficulty or problems that seem to drag on like those cold weeks of winter. But look up: “It came to pass.”  Bad times will ultimately pass.  God will see you through!  
Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And Jesus is with you always whatever life may bring.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Maria Solares

During our evening prayers each night my husband and I have been studying the lives of women saints. We use a resource that tells the story of a female saint for every day of the year (Women Saints: 365 Daily Readings, by Madonna Sophia Compton).  This book includes the lives of famous and not so famous women in history who have made a difference in this world. 

Recently we read about Maria Solares, who was born in 1842 in southern California.  Both of her parents were Native Americans from different tribes.  She was raised in a Catholic mission school but always cherished the language and culture of her people. 

Maria assisted an anthropologist, John P. Harrington, in recording much of the language and customs of the Samala Chumash people.   She was able to get training in the field of medicine, and she spent her life working tirelessly for her people, who were pushed off of their land and suffered from great poverty. 

When she died in 1923 she was remembered as “Maria of the Refugees.”   Thanks to the early language work she did with Dr. Harrington and other scholars, the language of the Chumash people is being taught once again to the descendants of this tribe.  Maria’s legacy lives on linguistically and her language of love will endure forever.

I celebrate this un-sung hero during Women’s History Month. What women of history do you celebrate, especially during this month of tribute?

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” 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