Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Healing the reproach of women

During the Advent season we often study the life of John and Baptist and his godly parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. During her pregnancy with this holy child, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Thus, the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” (Luke 1:25).

What was her reproach? Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and no doubt, she was disdained for this by her society. The worth of a woman in her world and in many cultures depends on their ability to bear children. In some societies male children are the ones that count the most; so not even a female baby is good enough.

A woman who has no children is at fault for some reason, even though modern medicine has proven that the husband can also be the cause of the family’s infertility. In the Bible we read of a few other women who faced reproach and were desperate for a child: Sarah, Rebekah and Hannah, to name a few.

In our society women are not under the same depth of condemnation if they do not conceive. Women have careers and many kinds of other interests than motherhood. However there is still unhappiness and social pain when a couple who want children cannot conceive for some reason.

Reproach of women is not lost on our society. The practice of sexism is a form of reproach. Still today, women get paid less than men for the same work. Most corporations have men as their CEO’s; and sexual abuse and domestic violence mostly happens to women.

I have seen this in our church. At least once every year someone who knows that their pastor is leaving will call my office and say, “Don’t send us a woman pastor.” I have handled numerous complaints of sexual misconduct and harassment by clergy and lay people during my tenure in this area.

Many fine women pastors have had difficulties in ministry, not because of their lack of skills or calling, but because some in the church (men and women) cannot accept their authority or the unique gifts that they bring. Some even misuse the Bible to justify their discrimination against a woman pastor.

What do we do about our modern-day reproach and sexism? We talk about it!

Time Magazine announced last week that their “Person of the Year” was not a person but a group of women known as the “Silence Breakers.” This is a group of women who came forward and shared painful accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of men in positions of power. First one, then another, then others, emboldened by women who led the way and opened the prison gates of oppressive secrecy for them. As more and more brave women come forward to share their stories and speak their truth, things can get better.

I remember as a young adult I experienced sexual abuse two times. Once a co-worker at the school where I taught pushed me against a wall and kissed me. On another occasion the father of the groom at a family wedding found me in a quiet corner and accosted me with some inappropriate touching.

I never told anyone about these attacks, but that is how the practice of abuse continues. When molested and abused women (and sometimes men) keep silent, the offense is somehow condoned and considered safe and bearable. Sometimes when they do speak out, victims are demonized, not believed, and then ostracized, making them victims a second time.

Recent revelations of women cadets allegedly victimized and forced out in retribution for reporting sexual assaults at our nation’s Air Force Academy follow in a long line of disturbing reports at colleges and military installations in recent years. In so many places, we are losing talented, dedicated women who want to serve their nation, their professions, perhaps even their churches, because so many are traumatized by extreme gender bias, violence and sexual assault, and then punished for naming their perpetrators.

The church needs to have honest conversations about these issues and strive to live in more healthy ways, as we continue the work of ministry. First steps include talking, teaching and creating safe spaces for people to share their stories. As we come to know and confront the truth of how our sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, friends and colleagues are being assaulted, then revealing and reconciling that truth may one day set them free.

Then, the Lord may look upon them, as He looked upon Elizabeth, and take away the inhumane reproach of women—and others who are abused and rejected for who they are—among our people.


Monday, December 4, 2017

Purple or Blue: What color is your Advent?

When I go to various churches on Sundays during the season of Advent I always ask the pastors, “Do you wear purple or blue stoles?”

In recent years we have seen the color blue more and more, in addition to the traditional purple. According to www.umc.org “The Christian year has two cycles: the Christmas Cycle (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany) and the Easter Cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost).

“Within each cycle are a preparatory season symbolized by the color purple and a festival season symbolized by the color white. After each cycle there is an ordinary time of growth symbolized by the color green.

It goes on to say that the color purple represents both royalty and penitence, while blue symbolizes hope. Purple and blue are both acceptable colors to use during Advent.
(“Why are there different colored altar cloths?”)

Upon further examination, I found that the shade of blue for Advent is often a deep, dark blue. It is like the color of the predawn sky just before the sun rises. It brings with it the meaning of expectation and anticipation of the coming of the Messiah.

Other sources remind us that the color blue is associated with the Virgin Mary. She is depicted in the color blue in many of the icons and religious art images of the past. (www.stpaulsivy.org “Why Blue for Advent”)

The season of Advent is all of this and much more. We prepare for Christmas with times of self-reflection and repentance; but we anticipate the celebration with much preparation ,like we do when a special visitor comes to our home.

We revere the newborn Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Our humble Savior came to serve and give his life for our sins so that we might know the promise of life everlasting in heaven. With the dawn of his coming, all of creation will be filled with his glory.

May you have a purple-blue Advent and teach well the meaning of the season to those who may only be with you at your churches during this time of the year. The most important color to wear is love, which is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission for the world and “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Colossians 3:14)


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thanksgiving in all circumstances

Altar design by Karen Barkowski. John Coleman photo.

The hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” was written by a Lutheran minister, Martin Rinkart (1586-1649). We sing it often during this season of Thanksgiving in praise of our “bounteous God.” But the backdrop of this hymn writer’s life was filled with death, looking nothing like a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting. 

Rinkart penned the words of this hymn during the Thirty-Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics. He was one of four parish pastors serving at that time in Eilenburg, Saxony, located in East Germany. But when the war continued to rage on, one pastor left, two died and he alone was left to serve the people.

Eilenburg was a walled city. So, it became a place for refugees, and thus, there was a great shortage of food. Then the plague set in, and scores of people died from this dreaded disease.

Rinkart performed 40 to 50 funerals a day, including his wife’s funeral. It was estimated that he buried more than 4,480 people.

After the plague came an invading army of Swedes demanding that tribute be paid. The besieged pastor served as the negotiator with the Swedish army; and he paid them the tribute with his own money. When the army refused to leave the town, he gathered the people for intensive prayer. Miraculously, the Swedes departed in peace.

Through it all, Martin Rinkart faithfully gave thanks to God. Indeed, this hymn was an expression of his grateful trust in God despite the extreme hardship he and others were experiencing.

We, too, are called to faithfulness despite, and in the face of, life’s trials. I doubt many of us have ever experienced the depth of tragedies that happened during the time this beloved hymn was penned. But all of us face difficulties and suffering.

The Apostle Paul tells us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18) 

May God continue to help us recognize and give thanks for the unmistakable, abundant blessings in our lives, even those forged from the burdens life imposes on us. And when we look back later, may we reflect on God’s steadfast providence and goodness to us, through it all. 

History source: hymnary.org

Learn more about Martin Rinckart and this favorite hymn on the UMC Discipleship Ministries website article, History of Hymns: “Now Thank We All Our God.”


Friday, November 10, 2017

Strength for Service to God and Country

As we prepare for the annual observation of Veteran’s Day, November 11, I would like to call to your attention a wonderful resource produced by our United Methodist Men: Strength for Service to God and Country.

This inspirational book comes in two versions. One is for military service men and women. A second version is produced for local emergency service personnel, such as first-responders, police, fire fighters and medical professionals.

This resource can be purchased through our General Commission on United Methodist Men at www.StrengthforService.org.

Originally distributed during World War II and the Korean War, it was revisited by a Scout named Evan Hunsberger, whose advocacy for the book’s republishing was his Eagle Scout project in 2002.

How wonderful it would be if our churches could purchase copies of these devotionals and distribute them to our community servants as well as our men and women in the military. It would be a wonderful way to show honor and appreciation this year during and after our Veteran’s Day observance.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Bishop calls for action against PA gambling expansion

November 8, 2017
On October 26, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted 109-72 to approve a significant expansion of gambling in our state, House Bill 271. The bill was approved by the state Senate the previous day. Four days after the House action, Governor Tom Wolf signed the legislation into law. The legislation was quickly moved, taking only 18 hours between its introduction and its passage in the House. In fact, lawmakers had only two hours to read the massive 939-page bill. This stealthy rush through the General Assembly minimized scrutiny. Obviously, public input was thwarted.

This new law will create 10 mini-casinos in regions without a casino, allow some truck stops to operate video gaming terminals, regulate fantasy sports and online gambling, legalize online gambling portals at casinos and airports, permit the state lottery to sell tickets and offer games online, and legalize sports betting (if Congress allows it nationally). Proponents of this legislation hope to open gambling to new markets, especially younger players.

Only Nevada exceeds Pennsylvania in commercial casino revenues. This law marks the biggest expansion of gambling in the state, since it first legalized casinos more than a decade ago. Pennsylvania now becomes the fourth state with internet gambling and the first to allow both casino and lottery games online.

But, this is not the end, there is still a way that the public can respond. A provision in the new law allows municipalities to opt out of this gambling expansion. Local governments may pass a resolution prohibiting a "mini-casino" within the boundaries of their municipality. Such a resolution must be sent to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board by December 31, 2017. County governments have the same option regarding truck stop gambling. Many lawmakers, who voted against this legislation, are recommending such action. There is not much time.

The UM Social Principles state, "Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, [and] destructive of good government... As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the Practice... Organized and commercial gambling is a threat to business, breeds crime and poverty, and is destructive to the interests of good government. It encourages the belief that work is unimportant, that money can solve all our problems, and that greed is the norm for achievement. It serves as a "regressive tax" on those with lower income. In summary, gambling is bad economics; gambling is bad public policy and gambling does not improve the quality of life."

As bishop of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, I strongly urge members, clergy and conference agencies to act during this limited response period. Prayer followed by meaningful and effective action is an exercise of faith. We ask that you contact your local government councils, as soon as possible. Ask when the next meeting will be and ask to have this mini-casino prohibition put on their agenda. Plan for residents to attend these meetings and be ready to support this resolution.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Another tragedy, another reminder

Our country is still reeling from the recent incident in New York City where a terrorist brutally ran over and killed innocent people with a truck. Now we learn of another heinous, hateful act of unbelievable violence against innocent people. 

This time it is in the tiny town of Sutherland Springs, Texas. This time it strikes especially close to home. This time it is in a church, where unsuspecting members—children and adults—were gathered for worship.

Fifteen seconds of automatic weapon gunfire erupted in a horrific mass murder, the worst ever in an American place of worship and in Texas’ history, killing 26 people and wounding many others. This terrible act of violence has caused profound devastation and inconsolable grief. There are no words that can come close to healing such emotional and spiritual wounds.

The Baptist church’s pastor, the Rev. Frank Pomeroy, was out of town when these murders happened. But the words that he preached to his congregation the Sunday before may shed some light on the future. On a website known as www.heavy.com  (November 5, 2017) the pastor’s sermon was quoted: “God’s understanding is far greater, and there may be things that are taking place that you don’t understand. But you still need to do what God is calling you to do.” 

These prophetic words speak to us this day. As Christians, we are called to pray, to continue to speak out about how to live in this world in nonviolent ways, to examine our weapons laws for ways to be more protective, and to find ways to prepare our churches for the unthinkable. 

A final reminder is that mental health is often in the mix when people perform horrific acts of mass murder. Our country could and should be doing much more to provide for more mental health services. It is just as important as medical (physical) health care. 

Please remember that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not murderous or violent, and we as the church need to continually be about the business of ministering to this community with compassion and grace. 

NOTE: Church Mutual Insurance Company offers several risk control webinars and articles on its website that could be helpful to any church. Please check them out, use this valuable information and share it with other churches.
  • Armed Intruder
    Church Mutual has partnered with industry experts to keep your people safe before, during and after a violent attack. Firestorm, a nationally recognized leader in crisis management, helping clients minimize disaster exposure and plan for a crisis, and ALICE Training Institute, the number-one active shooter civilian response training organization in the nation, have come together to bring you this informative webinar series.
  • Protecting against catastrophic violence
    Although catastrophically violent events are not frequent, the consequences are tragic. With the recent rise in active shooter incidents, specifically, many organizations are asking questions about how to make sure they are prepared for such violent events.

    “There are several precautionary measures that can be taken,” said Ron Aguiar, director of safety and security at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky., and author of Keeping Your Church Safe. “It starts with getting a group together to develop a plan.”
  • Pastors become chaplains after church massacre
  • Churches and Gun Violence: 7 Practical Preparation Tips
    The Rev. Derrek Belase, a former certified police officer turned pastor, with two degrees in criminology, is the Oklahoma Annual Conference's Director of Discipleship. His current portfolio includes coordinating the Safe Sanctuary Training.Derrek believes that you can’t completely prevent gun violence from erupting. Even with the best laid plans or the best legislation. Then what? How can a church adequately protect itself? Here are seven practical tips that can help any church prepare for the unexpected.
Also, the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm offers this training opportunity to Eastern PA conference churches: Bishop Johnson is asking for each of us to set up Active Shooter Training Workshops (“What churches should do”) on each of our Districts. The Rev. Mark Beideman will lead a South District training this Sunday, November 12, at 3 PM, at Downingtown UMC. Any district is invited to send folks to our training for now. Mark may be able to come to other districts to offer trainings at other times.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. —Galatians 6:2

October is annually recognized as “Domestic Violence Awareness Month.”

Why? Because of some very shocking and disturbing statistics that more people should know and care about.

Every 9 seconds in the U.S. a woman is assaulted or beaten, according to www.domesticviolencestatistics.com, a website dedicated to educating the public about this terrible scourge.

It’s a worldwide problem. In the U.S., 1 in 4, but globally, at least 1 in 3 women is beaten, coerced or abused during her lifetime. And based on reports from 10 countries, from 55 to 95 percent of women who have been physically abused by their partners have never contacted police, safety shelters or non-governmental organizations for help.

Thus, this problem, this burden, is far more devastating—to women, to families, to communities, to our nation and world—than we know.

So, October is annually recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month to shine a light on a very serious, painful but often hidden crisis in our world. In fact, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) recommends this week as a “Week of Action” in the campaign to end domestic violence.

This problem is not limited to only women. Many men and children are also victims of domestic violence. Sadly, it also happens in clergy families and in the homes of countless lay people in our congregations.

When I served in a local church years ago I was made aware of a serious abuse situation in the home of a family that lived near the church. When I became involved in an intervention I was fearful for my life as well as the life of this young mother and her two small children.

Fortunately for this family there was a local shelter available to help. But I learned quickly that such resources to address this kind of crisis were very limited.

The Eastern PA Conference is forming a Domestic Violence Task Force that we hope will become an official conference committee in the future. The purpose of this task force is to educate our churches about this staggering, hidden reality and to refer people to organizations, services and law enforcement officials who can help.

This is a compelling burden for us all to bear. We encourage churches to have conversations about Domestic Violence and to ask hard questions when anyone suspects that someone is being or has been abused.

We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. So, we need to open the eyes and ears of our hearts and extend our hands and our voices to offer lifesaving relief.

Please search online for more information about domestic violence this month and learn what you and your church can do to shine the light of truth and healing on this widespread problem. And please let us know what your church is doing or plans to do. Thank you.

NOTE: Hopewell UMC (852 Hopewell Road, Downingtown, PA) will host Strengthening Families throughout the Faith Community, “an engaging conference for church ministers, staff and lay leaders,” on Saturday, Oct. 21, from 1:30 to 6:30 PM. This experience will educate concerned participants about ways churches can connect with community resources to support domestic violence survivors and their children.

The Domestic Violence Center of Chester County (DVCCC) will facilitate the seminar. The cost is $15, and participants will receive three useful resources:
  • DVCCC’s The Faith Community Response to Domestic Violence Toolkit
  • The FaithTrust Institute’s Community Resource Inventory Map
  • The Phoenixville Community Health Foundation’s Help Book 5
Please register online today. For information call Courtney, of DVCCC, at 610-431-3546, ext. 134. (0.4 CEU certificates are available.) Download the flyer.

Also, here are links to other recent articles and a video about challenging and helping the church, and men in particular, to offer a faithful response to domestic violence:
United Methodist Men take on domestic violence by Julie Dwyer (UMNS)
The leadership of the Commission on United Methodist Men recognizes that ending violence against women begins with men. The United Methodist general agency is partnering with AMEND Together, an initiative of the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee dedicated to ending violence against women and girls. The partnership features an eight-week group series aimed at United Methodist men (that)… aligns perfectly with United Methodist Men’s mission to support spiritual growth among menLearn more…
NBA Star Asks Men To End Domestic Violence  Former pro basketball player Shan Foster has seen acts of violence around the world. He now works to end domestic violence by creating safe spaces for men of all ages to learn about healthy manhood and to discuss their emotions. AMEND Together, a program of the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, and the United Methodist Men have a new partnership that is providing an 8-week group series that will teach men to recognize, respond to and prevent violence against women. Learn more…
Domestic Violence Awareness Month by Susan Greer Burton, UM Church and Society 
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. To understand domestic violence, we have to begin to look in — into our behaviors, into our families, into our churches, into our communities and into the policies that impact women and familiesLearn more…
Domestic violence: We want our churches to be talking about it by Joe Iovino (UMNS)Introducing a webinar slideshow presentation that church leaders can download for free and use with their congregations. “Articulating our Theology: Domestic Violence” explores ways United Methodist churches and individuals can work to eliminate domestic violence and minister to victims and survivors. Learn more…