Friday, April 3, 2020

Doing the Next Right Thing

I watched the movie “Frozen 2” over the weekend because I ran out of things to do as everything has been closed and canceled. The advice that came up frequently in this Disney film were the words, “When you don’t know what to do, do the next right thing.” 

I like this quote because it is practical and doable. Life is full of times when we don’t know what to do as we face an overwhelming problem or fear-inducing situation. Doing the “right” thing speaks of moral integrity during hardships and suffering. The “next” thing speaks of taking it slow, one step at a time, and seeing the good in every small effort. That step often leads to the knowledge of what to do next. 

This is good advice for us, as we respond to the coronavirus pandemic. We may not know what to do to solve this challenge globally, but we can do the “next right thing” locally.

The “next right thing” in practical terms includes the following:
  • Wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Sanitize high volume surfaces.
  • Observe protocols about social distancing.
  • Keep informed about state and governmental directives.
  • Get tested if you are feeling sick, and observe a quarantine if you believe you have been exposed to the virus.
The “next right thing” pastorally brings a new window of opportunity like never before. I have been observing our churches responding to this pandemic in many creative and effective ways. It is an exciting time for the church! 


Some are reaching online unchurched people that have not been physically attending church services. People are seeking God at this time. Here are some things that are happening around our connection: 
  • Worship services webcast using livestreaming video, or Zoom videoconferencing or recorded and posted on Facebook, church websites and YouTube.
  • Print versions of sermons e-mailed or posted on church websites.
  • Daily morning devotions livestreamed.
  • Churches providing sign language interpreters in the screen box during live-streamed services, so that Deaf people, who use American Sign Language can see the sermon/devotions.
  • Starting or continuing Bible Studies, prayer meetings and congregational care groups on conference calls and videoconference calls. I even observed one church using YouTube to offer sewing directions for making protective face masks.
  • Drive-thru food pick-ups and drop offs at food banks for distribution.
  • Drive-thru donations and Communion elements.
  • Pastoral Care Window Visits, where a visiting team comes to the home of a person who has been sick and holds signs outside read “Praying for you.”
In these times of uncertainty many are concerned about the potential drop in funding for church support and ministry. Some churches are handling this concern through electronic giving, and some are mailing stamped envelopes to church members to encourage ongoing giving. 

We should be about the business of giving sacrificially and not hoarding. It seems counter-intuitive but giving when you feel vulnerable is the basis of Christian stewardship. 

Generosity proclaims your faith in God like nothing else. Jesus said, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:38)

Give in faith at this time, and trust that God will supply all of your needs. One of our greatest tools for ministry is our concern for the poor during times of need.

Do “the next right thing” each day, and may God continue to direct your paths and use you to bless many people.

Monday, March 30, 2020

A rock in a weary land


Mick Dubose photo, UM News

The gospel song lyrics “Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a weary land, a weary land. Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in the time of storm” is singing in my head as I ponder the life of Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, who passed away March 27 at the age of 98 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Abingdon Press photo
Like our Lord, Dr. Lowery was a rock.  He was a rock in the weary land of racism and discrimination for decades in this country.  Among his many rock-hard accomplishments was heading up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during a time of deep financial stress. He helped birth and lead that pioneering civil rights organization with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and later led it again, back from the brink.

Moreover, when The United Methodist Church was formed from merger and racial desegregation in 1968, Dr. Lowery served as a board member of the newly created General Commission on Religion and Race (1968-1972). He played a pivotal role in working with annual conference merger committees to establish new, racially inclusive conferences. I’m told he was a relentless, effective negotiator, tough as a rock perhaps. But for him, I suspect it always amounted to a labor of love—Christ’s love—for this new church and for all its people.

Anti-racism work—the work we are all called to do in Christ’s name—is difficult and unglamorous work. But Dr. Lowery succeeded because of his conviction about the importance of the mission. 

Kathy L. Gilbert photo, UM News
He never wavered on his commitment to racial justice, be it in his church or in his country or worldwide, as he took even stands for those suffering under South Africa’s racist apartheid regime.  He put himself in the path of criticism and harm for years, speaking out against bigotry, discrimination and racism. That is how rocks are!  They are firm, and they stay the course.

As rock-solid were his convictions, Dr. Lowery had a down-to-earth humility that drew people to his message.  Back in 2009, Tindley Temple UMC in Philadelphia hosted the first “Charles Albert Tindley Awards,” and Dr. Lowery was one of the honorees. Though unable to come in person, he received the honor by live-streamed video. 

His gracious, approachable spirit was evident to all.  That is the “secret sauce” for those who are “rocks in a weary land.” As we remember this giant of the civil rights era, may we commit ourselves to that same mixture of strength, endurance, and compassion.

May we be the fulfillment of Dr. Lowery’s benediction at President Obama’s inauguration, so that, in his colorful words, “Black will not be asked to get in the back, brown can stick around, yellow will be mellow, the red man can get ahead, man, and white will embrace what is right.”


Also, be sure to read Bishops mourn Rev. Lowery, beloved pastor and Dean of Civil Rights Movement, Bishop Woodie White’s fond remembrance of his “mentor, confidant and friend.” He particularly emphasizes Rev. Lowery’s first love: being a United Methodist church pastor.

Monday, March 23, 2020

'God’s Microphone’
In Remembrance of Bishop Oscar Romero

I have always bristled when a preacher or a workshop leader, who has access to a microphone, says something like “You can hear me, can’t you?  I don’t like using microphones.” 

No one seems to object, and they proceed to put aside the sound system to the detriment of someone out there in the audience who cannot hear well.  The non-hearing folks rarely speak up, but they sit in silence, missing much of what is being said by the speaker.

Providing amplification for physical hearing is vitally important, but not as important as amplifying the voice of people suffering on the margins of life.  Often we are “deaf” to the cries of the victims of injustice, and thus, we need to hear the voice of “God’s microphone” for justice. 

The most shining example of one who spoke loudly for justice in our time was Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero (y Galdámez).  We remember the 40th anniversary of his March 24, 1980, assassination this month.


He was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, in El Salvador, during a time of widespread violence and oppression of the poor there because of an evil dictatorship.  When he first became the fourth bishop of San Salvador he shunned the work of justice in favor of maintaining church order and sacramental ministry. 

However, in 1977 a Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, Romero’s personal friend, was assassinated for speaking out for the poor.  This profoundly affected him, and he prophetically wrote at the time, “If they have killed him (Grande) for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”  From then on, he became a bold proponent for social justice, speaking out against poverty, injustice, disappearances and torture.

According to Catholic Relief Services (www.crs.org) “Bishop Romero publically denounced violence and injustice and urged people to live out Christ’s Gospel message of love for one’s neighbor.” 

As his “microphone” continued to amplify the message, he encouraged others to join in his justice ministry, and there was a groundswell of support.  As a result, the church began to experience a swift push-back of persecution from the government that legitimized terror and murder.  This included threats, intimidation, community raids and bombings.

There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.
Bishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)
Romero continued his ministry despite it all. But he was assassinated by gunshot in the church while celebrating Mass on a Sunday morning. No one was ever convicted of his murder.  

Romero was canonized as a saint on October 14, 2018, by Pope Francis.  The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 24 as the “International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims,” which recognizes the important work and values of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. (December 2010). 

His voice was not silenced on the day of his death. Indeed, his words are still an inspiration to many. These words, for example:

A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish. I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.

God’s microphone never stops proclaiming justice!  Because of his martyrdom, many have been inspired by his work, and countless Christians across the globe continue to be voices for the poor and mistreated to this day.

You too can join this vital Christian ministry of outspoken justice.  As microphones enhance physical hearing, God’s microphones speak a loud word of justice and relief for a world that is bruised and broken. Every day you have a chance to do something or say something that will make a difference.

In the good bishop’s own words:

Here there is a challenge from Christ to the goodness of humankind. It is not enough to be good. It is not enough to not do evil. My Christianity is something more positive; it is not a negative. There are many who say, “But I don’t kill, I don’t steal, I don’t do anything bad to anyone.” That’s not enough. You are still lacking a great deal. It is not enough to be good.


Dr. Edgardo A. Colon-Emeric (Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Duke University Divinity School and author of Oscar Romero’s Theological Vision) quoted Romero as saying, “In this hour, when one feels like trashing everything, leaving the country and abandoning everything, remember this about Christ: ‘A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.’  Let us keep stirring.  Let us keep building.”

Look around you for the bruised and discouraged people and do what you can to call attention to the systems that create and maintain their suffering. Commit yourself to engaging in ministry to alleviate their pain. 

“They who have a voice,” said Bishop Romero, “must speak for those who are voiceless.”



Thursday, March 5, 2020

‘Thursdays in Black’


March is Women’s History Month, and many women have changed the course of history by their excellence in science, social justice, religion, medicine, environmental concerns and just about every field of endeavor. I could name many stellar women, many well-known “she-roes.”

But this year I would like to lift up the countless, unnamed women who have spoken out against sexual and gender-based violence. They can inspire us to continue speaking out for justice and mercy for women around the world.

These unnamed voices of social justice inspired the “Thursdays in Black” campaign of the World Council of Churches.  According to the WCC “it grew out of the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998), in which stories of rape as a weapon of war, gender injustice, abuse, violence and many tragedies that grow outward from such violence became all the more visible.  But what also became visible was women’s resilience, agency and personal efforts to resist such violations.”

Some of the women who inspired this campaign included:

Mothers of the Disappeared” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who on Thursdays protested at the Plaza de Mayo, against the disappearance of their children during the violent dictatorship of their government;

Women in Black” in Israel and Palestine, who protest against war and violence in their land, women in Rwanda and Bosnia who protested against the use of rape as a weapon of war; and

Women of South Africa’s “Black Sash” movement who protested against apartheid and violence committed against black people.

These brave sisters all are calling for “resistance and resilience.”  This is a serious global issue according to the WCC.  One in three women today experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner.  Globally, more than eight out of ten girls experience street harassment before they are 17 years old. Women and girls represent 70 percent of exploited human trafficking victims.

Everyone can play a part in drawing attention to these issues and doing something about them.  The campaign calls upon us to:
  • Wear black on Thursdays.
  • Learn more about this movement and share what you learn.
  • Order, wear and share Thursdays in Black pins and other resources to declare you are part of the global movement resisting attitudes and practices that permit rape and violence.
  • Show your respect for women who are resilient in the face of injustice and violence.
  • Protest against systems and societies that encourage violence in any form and work for legislative and social solutions.
  • Become knowledgeable about the challenges of sexual and gender-based violence.
  • Encourage others to join the movement.

The 348-member churches of the World Council of Churches, including a number of inter-religious partners, have adopted this campaign.  All of us can “be ambassadors in our words and actions for respect, security and justice for women, men, girls and boys.”

At our UMC’s 2020 Session of General Conference in Minneapolis there will be a “Thursdays in Black” reminder.  We don’t have to wait until then. Let’s make our churches into places of peace, justice and learning about these issues during Women’s History Month and beyond. Let’s honor those brave women who have resisted cruel exploitation, violence and injustice and who remain resilient in their efforts.

Hymn writer Rev. Carolyn Gillette reminds us in her hymn: “God of Love, We’ve Heard the Teaching”:

By your Spirit may we witness to your peaceful, loving way
May we share your love and justice every moment, every day
May the people hurt by violence know they’re valued by your grace
And may all who are in crisis find a refuge in this place.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Hyacinth: Thoughts about Lent

As soon as the “Produce Junction” greenhouse put the hyacinths on their flower table, I had to have one.  It is still winter but seeing the spring bulb plants spoke to me of the coming of Lent.

Lent is the season of the church year in which we ponder the suffering and death of Jesus, strive to repent of our sinful ways, engage in acts of holiness in spirit and truth, and look forward to the celebration of Easter.  Hyacinths are always an object lesson for me.

I paid my $2 and came home with this little plant.  I picked one that had not yet bloomed so I could watch it slowly blossom. Prior to its sprouting, it had been a dead-looking brown bulb. The power of the resurrection gave it life and it began to grow in the winter soil.

Death and life, sin and repentance, despair and hope stand side by side.  During the season of Lent, we must ponder this reality that “we are dust and to dust we must return.”  But we are also called to new life in Christ, both here and in the eternal home to come.

The name of this plant “hyacinth” comes from Greek mythology. The young prince Hyacinthus was killed by a discus thrown to the back of his head. As the story goes, wherever his blood drops flowed there grew a hyacinth flower. He was ultimately resurrected by the Greek god Zeus, and he obtained immortality.

This resonates with the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, in Christ we receive the forgiveness of our sins through confession and belief, and all may obtain the resurrection through him.  Jesus’ blood was shed for the world that God loved so much.  “Sorrow and love flow mingled down” in this eternal truth of salvation.

However, the main reason I had to have a hyacinth was for its fragrance. Nothing speaks “spring is here” to me like the pleasant smell of those curly pedals of a hyacinth.  It is better than any perfume money can buy, in my opinion.  The Apostle Paul speaks of spiritual fragrance as he writes to the Philippians who sent a generous monetary gift to him: “They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” (Philippians 4:18)



During Lent we often engage in some kinds of personal sacrifice: giving up chocolate, giving up coffee, giving up whining, etc.  A better way to observe a holy Lent would be to sacrifice our time, talent and treasure to perform or support good works in the world.

Instead of “giving up,” we should “give out.”  “Give out” assistance to those in need. “Give out” of our abundance to others in sacrificial ways. “Give out” of our hearts because of our deep love and gratitude for Christ.

My hyacinth is finished blooming now; and yet the promise of another flower next spring is hidden in its little bulb.  Life is tenacious, as it is the very Spirit of God. Life and love are stronger than death and hate. No matter the present darkness or death around us, ultimately there will be life and it goes on and on forever.

Observe a holy and sacrificial Lenten season!

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.