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.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

'Glorify God in your body'

Long ago the Apostle Paul asked the Corinthians: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” (I Corinthians 6:19) This is still a valid question for us today.

Do we see our bodies as the very temple of God’s Spirit?  If we do, then it behooves us to take a close look at how we care for our bodies.  If the temple is in disrepair the Spirit will not be able to function as well. 

With the dawn of 2015 there are lots of New Year’s resolutions that have something to do with dieting and exercise. But sadly, many of these intentions fall by the wayside before the first month ends.  Taking care of one’s temple needs to be a daily and lifetime commitment, as part of our stewardship of the precious gift of life that has been bestowed upon us.

Let’s all make a commitment to nurture our physical selves in ways that are life-affirming and life-sustaining.  Both the Eastern PA and Pen-Del conferences have “Virgin Pulse” exercise programs that encourage increased exercise and health monitoring. 

I am happy to say that in the most recent “Virgin Pulse” challenge both conferences ranked among the top 10 conferences participating in the program.  That means many of our pastors and spouses are taking exercise seriously. 

It is still possible and timely to sign up for this program and even to buy into it if you are not a part of the conference insurance program.

Taking care of our bodily temple also involves a proper diet, rest and regular health screenings.  We wouldn’t dream of driving a car and never changing the oil or getting gas or an occasional tune-up.  

The temple of the Living God deserves far more diligent care.  It is simply essential for we who are to be faithful stewards of God's gifts.  I hope that you will make a promise, a serious commitment to yourself to improve in at least one area of health maintenance in this New Year and also find ways of sharing your good news with someone else. 

As we keep each other accountable we can do a better job of staying the course.  As Paul says “Glorify God in your body.”  (I Corinthians 6:20b)

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.