Monday, May 9, 2016

Fire, Wind and Stones

Pentecost in 2016 happens during the United Methodist Church's General Conference, on May 15.   It is the birthday of the church, a commemoration of the day when the power of the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in that Upper Room with a mighty wind and tongues of fire. 

The disciples spoke in many different languages that day and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ to people from a variety of cultures and lands.  The Spirit gave the power for this proclamation to all people.  That’s the fire and the wind part.

The Book of First Peter talks about stones.  “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (2:4-5)

We are born again by the power of the Spirit and we are called to work together as the church to be a collective spiritual powerhouse.  Each of us is a stone with Christ as its cornerstone. 

Many years ago I was involved in a renovation project of an old stone church building that had been built in 1846 and was abandoned in 1922.  The roof has been burned off in subsequent years and many of the stones that formed the walls of this church had fallen out of place and were scattered on the nearby ground. 

The stone mason we hired had a huge task of reassembling the walls.  Each stone had a particular place.  Some were large, some small, some had angles and sharp edges but all were needed for the structure to be recreated.  We are like these stones, each unique, each important, all a part of the church. 

How true of our United Methodist Church today!   All are needed to do the work of ministry that began on the day of Pentecost.  May we be a household of faith that offers “spiritual sacrifices” of praise and ministry in the world in the 21st century. 

Only as we keep Jesus as our cornerstone will we stay together and stay strong as a church.  We need to lean on the Holy Spirit for the power to overcome our differences so that all will know the saving love of the living Christ. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Conquering death and fear

In a recent interview on National Public Radio Gene Kopf talked about his 14-year-old daughter Abigail who was nearly killed in a recent mass shooting in Kalamazoo, Mich. In the March 12 interview he also discussed the question he posed to the two Democratic candidates for U.S. President.  He said he did not want the standard answer of more criminal background checks. 

The interviewer pressed Mr. Kopf further about what should be the answer to the increasing amount of random mass violence.  The Kalamazoo shooter was legally able to purchase the firearms he used; so tighter laws would not have prevented his purchase. 

The father of this 14-year-old victim, who is still being treated for the gunshot wounds to her head, said we have to do something about fear in this country.  It’s the culture of fear that is driving up the violence. 

There are few ultimate answers to world's fears to be found in the halls of Congress, or in our schools, or in our military or law enforcement agencies.  We can write laws.  We can teach non-violence.  We can teach tactics about what to do if a mass-shooter attacks.  We can arm ourselves with the greatest military and personal arsenals in the world.  But it can’t ultimately take away fear. 

Fear and anxiety are a huge part of life in our world today.  We fear the extreme terrorism of ISIS, strange and violent weather patterns, the increasing number of mass shootings, the Zika virus and other diseases, the outcome of this year's Presidential election for some, the numerical decline of our churches and memberships.  Fear naturally creates a desire to protect and defend.  However nothing can fully protect us from suffering from earthly tragedies. 

But we as Christians have the ultimate answer.  As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “We should not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” (I Thessalonians 4:13-14). 

Belief in the Lord Jesus Christ for life everlasting is the ultimate answer to our fears.  We are not immune from the suffering and fearful events of this world.  We may indeed suffer but our ultimate hope in Christ's resurrection gives us the strength to live in fearful circumstances with peace.

Methodism's founder, John Wesley, as a young man, was in a vessel sailing to the North American continent when a storm arose at sea.  The violent storm could have easily swept away this tiny ship, and everyone could have died. 

John Wesley came upon a group of Moravians on the ship who were singing praises to God.  He wrote in his journal, “Storm greater: afraid. But the Moravians were trusting God so simply and so completely that they evidenced no signs of fear, and they even persevered in their plans for worship service.  In the middle of the singing a gigantic wave rose over the side of the vessel, splitting the main sail covering the ship.” 

We can sing when we know that even if the worst happens, we are caught up into the loving arms of God forever.  This is what Easter is all about. 

Jesus arose so that we can be free from the fear of death and free from fear of the perils of this life.  This promise is the sure anchor of our faith in any storm.  We as Easter people should model this kind of faith and endeavor to teach it to the world.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

“Lord, Teach Us to Pray”

Somebody prayed for me,
had me on their mind,
they took the time and prayed for me.
I'm so glad they prayed
I'm so glad they prayed
I'm so glad they prayed for me.

Dorothy Norwood, Alvin Darling. Kosciusko Music, Savgos Music Inc., Peertunes Ltd

One of the more important requests that Jesus’ disciples ever made was to ask the Lord to teach them how to pray. They noticed that John the Baptist was teaching his disciples how to pray and they wanted the same instruction (Luke 11:1).

In response Jesus gives them the model prayer of all time: “The Lord’s Prayer.” In its simplicity is its profundity. It includes adoration, praise, petition, repentance and even a strong teaching embedded in it about the reciprocity of forgiveness and being forgiven.

But Jesus does not stop there. He tells a parable about the inopportune visitor at night begging his neighbor for bread. The persistent beggar gets the results he wants from his sleepy neighbor because he would not give up asking. It has been said that “We have not because we ask not.” I think Jesus is saying here, “We have not because we give up too soon.” Persistence in prayer is probably the most important teaching that Jesus had to offer his disciples on that day long ago.

These words are still important for us as contemporary disciples. We need to pray continually and not give up when we have a pressing need.

Every week I pray for a different district in my two conferences. There are 10 districts in all. The district resource assistants send out an e-blast to the clergy and lay persons on their district rosters; and people e-mail me their joys and concerns.

What a blessing it has been to hear about some of the answered prayers. Some of these prayers have been the fruit of years of faithful prayer for a health concern, for a young person who has strayed from the faith, for a long-standing conflict in the church, or a building project in an international country that has been completed.

The faithful Christians of the Eastern PA Conference and the Peninsula-Delaware Conference know the power of persistent prayer, and their lives give testimony to God’s gracious providing.

Keep praying! Nothing happens in this world apart from prayer.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Black History Month: Honoring Seeds of Sacrifice

Ms. Chandi Lowry, photo by Bishop Peggy JohnsonRecently I attended an interfaith prayer breakfast celebrating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Dubbs Memorial Community Center in Allentown, Pa. The Lehigh Conference of Churches hosted the gathering.

The Rev. Dr. Larry Pickens, a United Methodist clergyman from the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, is executive director of the Conference of Churches. The Mistress of Ceremonies for this event was Ms. Chandi Lowry. As a TV news anchor of the Weekend Edition program for WFMZ, she reports regularly during the week at the Allentown-based station.

Ms. Lowry grew up in New Castle, Pa., and received a degree in communication from the University of Pittsburgh. She began her career in news at WTAE-TV. She later moved to Youngstown, Ohio, to become a reporter. Over the years, she has worked at news stations in Ohio, South Carolina and Georgia and won the Best TV Personality Award from the Georgia Association of Broadcasters.

Ms. Lowry is quoted as saying that the best part of being a journalist is “affecting others in a positive way and being able to find out valuable information, and give that knowledge to those who would otherwise not have the chance to learn from it.” One of her activities outside of the newsroom is helping young girls shape their futures in the Junior Miss Program.

I spoke with her during the breakfast and asked her about her opportunities and the future for African Americans in this country. She did not skip a beat in affirming the importance of giving credit where credit is due. She said “without him (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) and the other pioneers, I would not be here today.”

Sometimes we forget that. Although society has made some progress in the area of human rights and equality, we have a long way to go. In order to do that we must not lose sight of those in the past who were trailblazers. They paved the way for the next generation.

People who are wise with humility and perspective give credit to those who made huge sacrifices in the past, and they never take that progress for granted. Black History Month is a time to celebrate the famous and nameless African Americans who planted the seeds that are large oaks of justice and progress today.

This special month is also a time to do what Ms. Lowry is doing: to mentor and encourage the younger generation so they can continue on the march toward full empowerment and into a future that is yet to be born. Everyone should learn all they can during Black History month and then use the lessons of the past in practical ways today.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Big Picture

On our recent family vacation to Austin, Texas, we drove 23 hours southwest to the home of my mother-in-law.  This was our first long road trip in a very long time and in the past we have used paper maps.  This time we used computer-generated technology that was far more efficient. 

The best part about it was that you could zoom in on an area and see particular street corners, restaurants and gas stations.  Then this same technology enabled us to zoom outward and see the entire map of the United States and that pencil-thin blue line that went from PA to TX in the space of 3 inches.  Seeing the big picture was helpful to get an idea of how far we had come and how far we had left to go. 

When I think of “big picture” I think of the civil rights movement and its most famous leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King lived in a time and a place in history that was specific to the cause of civil rights in the United States and the elimination of Jim Crow laws that had long created an unjust disparity between people of color and Caucasian people.  However, King also saw the big picture that is as big as all of humanity. 

In his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

That takes in a lot of landscape!  It includes racial justice, socio-economic justice,  gender parity, disability rights, civil rights for people in the LGBT community,  equal rights for people of various religious beliefs, and humanitarian rights for people who are migrants.  The big picture pulls everyone into the equation, and it puts a huge responsibility on those who have the world’s privileges to see the necessity to work toward leveling the playing ground for everyone’s best interest.

In Parker Palmer’s New Year’s Eve blog “5 New Year’s Revolutions” (, December 30, 2015) he calls for a “revolution” against “the fantasy that a few of us can live secure, private lives while ignoring our complicity in conditions that put many others at mortal risk.”  According to Palmer, fifty percent of the world is malnourished and 68 percent lives on only $2 per day.  Seeing the big picture of poverty and injustice calls us to zoom in on local, practical justice work. 

To honor Dr. King’s vision of justice for all on his birthday, and in the spirit of our denomination's observance of Human Relations Day on Jan. 17, ponder what you can do to help create equity in this world, through your words and deeds.  Be like the big-picture-thinker John Wesley who saw the entire world as his parish. Take a look at how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go to see that everyone has the same freedom and rights in this world.

Then step into that big picture yourself. Find places where you, your gifts and your Christian faith and values might fit. See what's there, what's not there, and how you can help close some gaps, build some bridges and make crooked places straight.

Remember, just as maps change over time, the big picture in which we all live, love and learn as children of God is not yet finished taking shape.  And as 1 John 3:2 tells us, "it doth not yet appear what we shall be."

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2016: The Year of Epaphroditis

As I ponder the events of 2015 and look forward to 2016 I give thanks to God for each one of you.  Thank you for your faithful service to the Lord Jesus and the many ways you sacrificially give of yourselves so that people might experience the love of God.  Thank you also for the many Advent, birthday and Christmas greetings I have received and for your prayers and support.

As we anticipate another year of life and service to God I call you to consider making 2016 the “Year of Epaphroditis.”  During December I have been studying the letter of Paul to the Philippians, and no matter how many times I have read it there is always something new and fresh in the Word that informs our present time. 

Epaphroditis was sent by the Christians in Philippi to visit Paul, who was in prison for preaching the Gospel.  In those days a person in prison was not afforded daily rations of food.  The only sustenance came if someone from the outside brought in food and money. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

From Horror to Hope

Photo by Beats Advisor
There is a horror movie out this Christmas known as “Krampus.”  According to Wikipedia “Krampus has its roots in Austro-Bavarian, German-speaking alpine folklore.”  It is a horned, anthropomorphic figure who, during the Christmas season, brutally punishes children who have misbehaved. 

This movie is not on my holiday must-see list, as I don’t have the stomach for horror movies in general, nor one about an evil side to Christmas in particular. 

Christmas is about love from God that came down to earth with the intent to not punish but save us from our misbehaving.  I prefer a depiction of the baby Jesus in a manger surrounded by adoring shepherds and mysterious international visitors from the East. That's a must-see story.

However, if you study both the Matthew and Luke Gospels Christmas does have a very unpleasant side, one that is as current as today's morning news.  The true facts of Christmas call us to respond to the Christ’s nativity in ways that go beyond seasonal giving to the poor, special worship in our churches and festive gatherings with friends and family.

Jesus was born into an oppressed people.  The Jews were under the occupation of the Romans. His birth in Bethlehem (and not back home in Nazareth) had a lot to do with the Roman government wanting to ascertain just how much the Jews could be taxed through a mandatory census.  Still today, many of the world’s wealthy use their power and influence to oppress the poor and the powerless.  As I reflect on the Global Climate Summit in France, I am concerned about the many vulnerable tiny islands that stand to lose everything if global warming continues to rise.  It is clear that rich nations are oppressing poor ones by abusing the earth’s natural resources and by valuing profits over human existence.