Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Praying for our Presidential Election

It seems that I can’t remember a time when we as a nation were not talking about the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.  Almost the minute the 2012 election ended, the speculation about the next President began.  One by one, people came forward announcing their candidacy.

Then there were the endless debates, rallies, primaries, conventions, and now more debates. The relentless stream of repetitive news, survey polls and opinions about our major nominees crowd the full media spectrum. And there’s more than enough scandal, mud-slinging and speculation, much of it fueled by leaked, once-secret e-mail messages and videos. 

Campaign fatigue set in for me a long time ago. But I have not given up my concern for our nation, nor my hopes for the best and my prayers for God’s grace as we choose our next POTUS and Commander in Chief.

Called to be the salt and light of the world

As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to be the salt and light of the world, not just the church. The next President of our country can cast a vision and offer an agenda for the future of this nation like few people on earth.

We are called to work for good in this world, along with our governmental leaders, and to call our nation to seek righteousness and pursue justice for all. I ask you to pray every day for this election.  

I Timothy 2:1-2 says “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers and intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”  Please pray for the next president every Sunday at worship and also in your personal times of prayer. 

Also I remind you that United Methodist pastors and leaders should not advocate for any particular candidate, publically or privately.  Everyone should vote as they feel led to vote. Our constitution’s principle of “separation of church and state” forbids us from promoting one party or candidate over another. 

That said, responsible Christians are called to study carefully the platforms and policies of the candidates, so they can prayerfully make careful decisions on Election Day.  

Finally, be sure that you do cast a vote. Voting is an incredible right that our form of government affords us. Many people on this globe have no such option. Find no excuse to stay home on November 8; and if you cannot physically be present, cast an absent-tee ballot now. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

A new museum brings a needed message for our world

Members of the  General Board of Church and Society joined other visitors to the new African American Museum of History and Culture a day before its grand opening.
Last week I attended our new quadrennium’s first meeting of the General Board of Church and Society.  I am proud to serve for another four years on this agency that speaks for the concerns of faith, justice and peace in and on behalf of our denomination.

At the end of our three days of conversation, presentations, worship and organizing, a group of us walked down to the Washington DC National Mall, to the site of the new African American Museum of History and Culture, which was to open on Saturday, Sept. 24.

People had already gathered, even a day before. Excitement and joy was in the air.  We paused to pray outside the huge bronze-colored building. Several other African American visitors joined us, saying “We are with you.”

I invite everyone to make the journey to the nation’s capital to see this museum.  At the dedication on Saturday President Barack Obama stated, “The African American story perhaps needs to be told now more than ever.” This is unquestionably true in the wake of more police shootings of African Americans in Tulsa and Charlotte.  We need to hear the real stories of the lives of real people.

In a recent podcast from Ministry Matters, titled “Terence Crutcher, Police Violence and Racism in America (Sept.  23, 2016) Shane Raynor, the editor of “News and Religion,” interviewed several church leaders about what the church needs to be doing. Listen to the podcast here.

The Rev. Hannah Bonner, an Eastern PA Conference elder on extension ministry, works at a faith community in Houston, Texas, known as “The Shout.” She shared her experience of working with the community after the death of Sandra Bland, who reportedly committed suicide in prison after being rudely arrested for a traffic violation.

Focus on lives, not just deaths of African Americans

Bonner said that one very important thing we can do is to focus on the lives of the African American victims of police violence people, and not just on their deaths.  Despite the endless media attention on their deaths, we should take time to learn about and honor their lives and legacies, not just focus on how they died.

An important, life-affirming response to the horrors of this continual plague of death and violence is for white people to look, listen, learn and understand with open minds and hearts. This new museum celebrates an essential part of American history and culture. And it gives people an important opportunity to learn and understand more fully that part of our nation's richly diverse, complex story.

Visitors will experience the journey from slavery to civil rights to Black Lives Matter and hear both famous and obscure stories of triumph and tragedy.  It appears there is a war being waged in our society by those who wish to maintain oppressive systems of inequality.

But may this welcome museum experience prepare our church to offer what it uniquely brings to the world: the message that all people are divinely and equally created as children of God, and that everyone is blessed and deserving of life, liberty, respect and justice.  This the church’s prophetic word for the world today.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

'Open wide your hearts'

Some years ago The United Methodist Church had a welcoming slogan that was all about opening wide our hearts, to quote the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:13. The denomination paid for a number of TV spots with interesting, heart-warming vignettes of people being welcomed into the church. At the end, each TV ad would say: “The United Methodist Church: Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

During this advertising campaign someone called me from UM Communications asking for information on closed-captioning for the ads. They knew I worked with a deaf- membership church (Christ UM Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, Md.), and they were looking for information about how to caption these TV ads so that people who could not hear could still see what was being said from English text appearing on screen.

I am a fan of captioning because it is so helpful for everyone, not just people with hearing loss. But in this case I told the shocked UMCom caller that this would be “false advertising.”

I explained that if they captioned the advertisement, then people who could not hear would likely think that United Methodist churches widely offer worship that is accessible to them when they come to visit. But the vast majority of our churches are not accessible to people with hearing loss. Less than 100 of our 33,000 churches in the USA have sign-language interpreters.

Some have listening devices, but they are not always effective when a person’s hearing loss is profound. Captioning is the absolute best answer for people who are deaf and don’t use sign language. But I can count on my hand the number of churches that provide that on a Sunday morning. This is unfortunate because there are approximately 35 million people with hearing loss in this country.

I advised UMCom to not caption the ads. Why welcome deaf people to visit our churches, only for most of them to find out there is no accessibility for them?

Do we welcome everyone in our churches?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline declares in many ways, in many paragraphs, that all people are to be welcomed into our churches.  Is that false advertising, too?  Do we welcome everyone in our churches in the Eastern PA Conference?

Everyone includes all races, ethnicities, genders or gender identities, sexual orientations, marital statuses, abilities, ages, theological perspectives and socio-economic classes.  That is a tall order, of course.

Among our many diverse churches, we have some that specialize in certain areas. For example, one of our churches has a ministry with deaf people who have intellectual challenges, which requires some specialized kinds of interpreting and worship adjustments. I know of another church that has a welcoming ministry with refugees.

With each step of widening the circle, the love of God gets out there to more and more people. Everyone should be welcomed in every church, and we should strive to be as inclusive and loving as possible. That is what people are hungering for, and it is what we should be planning and reaching for.

According to an article in the August 23, 2016, edition of Religion and Public Life (pewforum.org), 79 percent of people looking for a new church or house of worship seek a place where they will feel welcome.

At our annual conference’s last session, in June, we passed amended Resolution 2016-17, which states: “Therefore be it resolved that the Eastern PA Annual Conference encourages all churches to practice radical welcome to LGBTQ persons in specific and tangible ways.” Furthermore, the conference invites our churches to participate as a welcoming presence at the Philadelphia OutFest 2016 events, part of National Coming Out Day, which will be held on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.  (For more information on OutFest contact Ariel Gonzalez of St. Luke UMC at 973-985-7694 or arcanum32@gmail.com)

In its “whereas” section this resolution lifts up the fact that 43 percent of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ. Because that identification and its consequences can often be painful, between 30 and 40 percent of all LGBTQ youth have attempted suicide.

Welcome LGBTQ persons intentionally, fearlessly

What would it be like if your church’s youth group would intentionally, lovingly and fearlessly—because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:19)—welcome young persons in its community who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or gender non-conforming?

Sharing supportive community, friendship, opportunities to participate in activities and to serve as leaders could be some possibilities.  Other ideas include: speaking words of welcome to LGBTQ persons during your service, extending an invitation to your local LGBTQ community to worship with you and to attend a special welcoming breakfast or luncheon, or offering intentional words of prayer for LGBTQ persons—especially youth—during worship. Let us know if you have other ideas to share.

Our churches represent a wide spectrum of theological perspectives about sexual orientation and gender identity. But there is no law or Disciplinary paragraph that forbids us from showing love and hospitality. That is something we should all be doing, and especially among those who too often face rejection and hostility.

We are called to witness to our faith and to model ourselves after the example of Jesus. He sought out persons on the margins of life and offered them unconditional, fearless, healing love.

How could your church be more intentionally welcoming?  Many do not have a single attendee who identifies as LGBTQ currently in their midst. Sadly, the conservative and liberal “divide” in our conference and elsewhere creates an atmosphere of anxiety that sometimes keeps us preoccupied and causes timidity. Meanwhile, the hospitality and extravagant love we are called to offer is lacking in all that it can be.

I ask you, do the people of your church really have open hearts, open minds and open doors to welcome everyone? Or is this denominational slogan of which we are so fond actually “false advertising”?

Here is a recommended reading list from Dave Krueger of Arch Street UMC. It may offer valuable insights on the cross-section between our religious beliefs and human sexuality, as it relates to our amended and approved Annual Conference Resolution #2016-17: Resolution on Radical Welcome.
  • Brownson, James. Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2013.
  • Corvino, John. What’s Wrong with Homosexuality?Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Lee, Justin. Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate. Jericho Books, 2013.
  • Vines, Matthew. God and the Gay Christian. New York: Convergent Books, 2014.
  • Williams, Craig. Roman Homosexuality. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Marin, Andrew. Love is an Orientation. IVP Books 2009.
  • Recommended website with information about the high rate of suicides among LGBTQ youth: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/ or http://www.thetrevorproject.org/pages/facts-about-suicide

Editor’s Note:  There will be a Webinar on “Becoming a Barrier-Free Congregation” offered online Tuesday. Oct. 25, from 7 to 8 p.m. EDT. Many people with disabilities do not come to church. Can people with mobility differences get into your church? Are people with cognitive disabilities comfortable in Bible study and Sunday school? Sharon McCart, chair of the UMC’s DisAbility Ministries Committee, will offer advice for welcoming people with disabilities into the life of the church. Details

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Loving the Stranger

Deuteronomy 10:19 reminds us, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Have you ever been a stranger and found welcome? I remember the overwhelming welcome I received when I arrived in Congo a few years ago on a mission trip. The people there greeted me with singing and smiles and food and a place to stay. I will long remember the gratitude I felt in my heart at this wave of hospitality. 

Sometimes loving the stranger is not so easy. Some strangers seem…well, strange. We teach our children to be careful and not approach or talk to them. It’s part of exercising safe, common sense. But there’s an uncommon sense—indeed, a spirit—of fearless grace, of welcoming ministry that moves those who do daily acts of simple kindness and friendliness for strangers.

Our Christian call to hospitality, to loving the stranger in our midst, comes to a difficult place when we deal with the issue of immigration in the United States. Some feel that strangers need to be welcomed only if they come to our borders through the proper channels of immigration. There are many, many people living in our country without legal documentation; and some of them are in the care of our immigration services.

Such is the case with the undocumented Central Americans in the Berks County Residential Center near Reading, located in the Eastern PA Conference. Last week there was a candlelight vigil held by the community to shine a light on this situation, in which a number of undocumented immigrant women and children have been detained there for almost a year. 
This is one of three family detention centers in the U.S. where people await court dates or asylum hearings. News coming from this center tells us about mothers who are on a hunger strike, children having thoughts of suicide, and an alleged rape in the facility by one of the employees. According to TheGuardian.com psychologists and pediatricians who visited Berks report symptoms of depression, behavioral regression and anxiety.

To love the stranger means perhaps writing a letter to the Berks County Commissioners or to President Obama to ask that the process be streamlined. It might mean visiting these families to show support for them. It can also mean praying for our country as it sorts out the enormously complicated immigration process so that we can move forward in healthy and productive ways. 

Deuteronomy reminds us to love the stranger BECAUSE we were strangers at one time. It is indeed the Golden Rule to do unto others as we would have people do unto us. Out of gratefulness for the freedom and comforts we have, should we not reach out in care and concern to love the stranger?

PS: Here is one benevolent act of care and concern you can show to love a stranger, simply by sending birthday greetings to one of the Berks Madres. Read on:

Immigrant Mother and Son Both Celebrate Birthdays in Deportation Jail

Via immigration lawyer Carol Anne Mauer Donohoe:

SEND A BIRTHDAY MESSAGE: Today an unbelievably courageous and strong young mother turns 23 years old in detention. She and her 6 year old son have been held in detention now for 380 days and counting. Her son already had a birthday in detention. With no party, no piƱata, no photos to commemorate entering into his 6th year. Only a birthday cake that could only be bought through the county for which they charged Karen $70.00.

Because she is vocal, the government labeled Karen 'disruptive' and took the unprecedented step of trying to transfer her and her son to yet another detention center in Karnes, TX in order to isolate them. Thankfully, the judge denied that request.

I have set up an email account for those who want to send Karen Happy Birthday messages. It is felizcumpleanosberks@gmail.com. Oh and it can be in English or Spanish because she has learned English too.

Please let her know you are thinking of her and that you will be vocal in demanding that she, her son, and all of the other Madres Berks get released and no one has to spend another birthday in prison!

Photo courtesy of Forward Together.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Be a Saint

One my favorite hymns of the church declares:

Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days!
A world without saints forgets how to praise. 
Their faith in acquiring the habit of prayer,
their depth of adoring, Lord help us to share.” 

Rejoice in those saints, unpraised and unknown,
Who bear someone’s cross or shoulder their own.
They shame our complaining, our comforts, our cares.
What patience in caring, what courage is theirs!

Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days!
A world without saints forgets how to praise.
In loving, in living they prove it is true.
The way of self-giving, Lord, leads us to you.” 

(by Rev. Fred Pratt Green, Book of Hymns, #708)

This week Pope Francis formally canonized Mother Teresa at St. Peter’s Square. She was the tireless worker from the Sisters of Charity, who worked with the dying poor of Kolkata. Her ministry, which began in 1950 with 12 sisters, now runs 758 homes and hospices in 139 countries around the world.  (theguardian.com, Harriet Sherwood, Sept. 4, 2016)

The contemporary world has known this fearless voice for justice and Nobel Peace Prize recipient for many decades.  At her passing in 1997 we looked to her witness and ministry as a model of true Christianity.

The office of “saint” that was conferred upon her this week is the result of a particular process that is a part of Roman Catholicism. However, in a more generic sense all who are in Christ Jesus can be called “saints.” 

The Greek word for “saint” is “hagios,” and it denotes one who is holy, sacred and set apart by God and for God. (Strong’s Concordance).  In many of his epistles Paul refers to the church members as “saints.”  Ephesians 1:1 states, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”

You don’t need to be formally canonized to be a living saint today. Saints are set apart to be humble servants of Christ.  There is plenty of room in the servants’ quarters. 

Most of the time we would rather be seated at the table and have someone serve us. Sometimes we erringly think that we have to do some great work for God, but as Mother Teresa was quoted to say, we simply need to do “small things with great love.” 

Small things are the humble acts of service that often mean the unpleasant work, the unlovely and sacrificial things of life.  We are set apart for that and if more of us who claim to be followers of Christ would embrace this “downward mobility” stance there is no telling what our churches and our lives would become. We might even be the embodiment of the “good news for the poor” that Jesus came to bring (Luke 4:18).

When we do these small things with great love God gets the glory and praise, and we have amazing joy.  So, be a saint!  Teach the world how to praise, pray and serve, all for God.             

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

‘If You See Something, Say Something’

It is written all over train stations and airports: “If you see something, say something.”  This slogan is an important safety mantra that reminds us that suspicious behavior of strangers out in public needs to be reported to the authorities.  It can save lives and a million heartaches. 

However, we don’t have to use this slogan only to mean the reporting of nefarious activity.  If we see something good, we can say that too!  How often our hearts have been encouraged by a kind word or an unsolicited “Thank you.” 

Sadly, we are too quick to say something negative or speak up about things that are not going our way. But we neglect to appreciate the carefully prepared communion table, the flowers in the front yard, the faithful clerk at the post office holding your mail while you have been on vacation.

I carefully follow bills that pass through the halls of our state governments that have implications for children, the poor, health, and social justice. Again and again, those who work to lobby for human rights remind us to thank the lawmakers after they fight for a bill that brings a voice to those without power. Often lawmakers and public servants hear more complaints than commendations.  Everyone needs encouragement from top to bottom.

If you see something, say something.  Be like the Apostle Paul who reminds us, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) And then “say something.”  Give a good word today!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

To those who have been given much

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are an amazing event, full of wonderful stories of people overcoming adversities and adversaries with sacrifice, determination and love. 

One story I heard recently was about Brenda Martinez, an athlete from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who is competing in a number of track events. She comes from a working-class family.

She explained in an NPR interview how hard her parents worked to find the money for her training. Her mother sold homemade tamales, and her father took on additional home improvement side jobs to raise the necessary funds. 

Through their sacrifice and hard work, and Brenda’s hard work, too, she was able to compete and make her way onto the U.S. Olympic team. She told the interviewer that she believes in giving back. She is raising money to send low-income young people to camps where they can prepare to compete in sports. 

Every one of us, on some level, has been gifted by God with talent, means, strength, and insight. But it has not been given to us to keep to ourselves. Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b) 

Too many people receive gifts from God but don’t willingly share them, turning a deaf ear to what God asks of them. They help create or sustain abject need in the midst of abundance.
In God’s economy the world is supposed to operate through human beings sharing with one another. The crisis of world hunger and other shortages that too many people experience on this globe are simply the result of a shortage of heart.

There is enough food to feed the world six times over, but the humans will not share.  The delivery system in God’ economy starts with people realizing that sharing is God’s plan and that we are blessed to be a blessing. It starts with each of us determining daily what it is God has gifted us with that can be shared with another. In so doing we inspire others to do the same, and the cycle of blessing goes on and on and on. 

The greatest joy on earth comes to our hearts when, like Brenda Martinez, we see the good we can do by giving ourselves away.