Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Being April Fools

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NRSV) 

No one wants to be called a “fool.” In American Sign Language the sign for “fool” looks like a person (represented by a forefinger) being struck with a fist of the other hand. Indeed, fools might be considered fortunate if only their egos are bruised.

The word “fool” conjures up images of weakness, gullibility, and stupidity. But like many things about the counter-cultural, and at times counter-intuitive, faith that we practice, as true followers of Jesus Christ we can gladly—and wisely—proclaim that yes, we are fools.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We are fools for the sake of Christ….When reviled, we bless, when persecuted we endure, when slandered, we speak kindly.” (I Corinthians 4:10 a, 12 b)

Easter this year falls on April Fool’s Day (offering a second 2018 coincidence, after Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day February 14). The secular occasion’s origins are also religious. April Fool’s may go back to the time of Pope Gregory XIII, who changed the Christian calendar so that the first day of the year was January 1 and not April 1, as had been the case under the Julian calendar. Some people back then continued to follow the old calendar. Those who did were known as “April Fools” and were subject to tricks and ridicule.

We who follow Christ’s ways can be rightly called “fools” because we don’t follow the world’s way of dealing with adversity. Christians bless, endure and speak kindly when we face persecution and adversity.

That’s what Jesus did when he spoke seven times while hanging on Calvary’s cross, suffering and dying from a brutal crucifixion. He uttered humble words of love, forgiveness, care, assurance and faith. This kind of grace under pressure attitude is not foolish or weak but extremely powerful. It demonstrates an awesome power of mind and heart that transcends painful but superficial agonies to accomplish a greater purpose.

It can change the world. It always has, and it always will.

Linda Brown just recently passed away at the age of 76. Her legacy of counter-cultural determination will live on forever. Her father, an African Methodist Episcopal clergyman, sued the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, for refusing to admit his daughter into an all-white public school. That school was in walking distance, while the all-black school was several more miles away.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on May 17, 1954, ruled unconstitutional and thus, ended, the unfair “Jim Crow” segregation laws that forbade children of color from receiving an equal education in public schools attended by white children. Those laws were part of a racist, oppressive culture that had to be countered and overcome.

Linda and many other black students began attending formerly white schools. They were subjected to much racist abuse and rejection; yet, they remained steadfast, teaching the world that racism, hated and evil are no match for love.

A successful student, Linda never received a grade lower than a “B” in any of her classes. She later became an educator in a Head-Start program serving low-income, mostly black families. (Chicago Tribune).

Easter will fall again on April 1 in the year 2029. But we can be April Fools every day, all the time, as we move through the world with the counter-cultural attitude of our risen Lord.

Mere mortals may have mocked and mourned his demise on Good Friday. But He got the last laugh on Easter Sunday, as He turned death into life and through love overcame hate. And the foolishness of the cross (I Corinthians 1:18) became the greatest movement in human history.


Friday, March 23, 2018

Faceless Christ, Headless Disciples

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

In Berlin there is the Chapel of the Reconciliation. It was rebuilt after the reunification of Germany and the destruction of the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany from 1961 to 1989.

Originally, there was a much older church building located in that same space, which was built in 1894. It was destroyed in 1985 by the Communist government because this abandoned church blocked strategic security site lines on the Berlin Wall. The church was in the way.

During reconstruction of the chapel in recent years, excavation of the rubble from the original church miraculously revealed the entire chancel piece that use to hang over the original altar. It was still intact. Today it hangs in the center of the reconstructed chapel, giving the this sacred space a poignant connection between the past and present.

The altar piece had an elaborate carving of a scene from the Last Supper below the cross, which sadly had taken a beating during the church’s destruction of 1985. The face of Christ is missing, and several of the disciples have no heads. It was decided that the damaged parts of the chancel piece would not be repaired but left as is to remind congregants and visitors of the dark history of the Nazi regime and the Cold War.

A Christ with no face is a curious thing to see. There is no expression, no hint of personhood. Headless disciples too conjure up disturbing thoughts of decapitation and suffering. 

During this Holy Week I look at the picture of this altar piece, imperfect as it is, as a call for me to strive to be the face of Christ to a world that suffers from much painful alienation and division. We are the face Christ uses and shows to the world. And as his disciples, we can expect to enter into the fellowship of his sufferings as we take up our own crosses for the ministry of Christ.

But through it all, we know and are convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ. Nothing. “Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.” (Romans 8:38-39)

As the Apostle Paul reminds us of that timeless truth, let us also remember, during Holy Week and henceforth, that while inseparable from God’s great love, we should also remain inseparable from one another in Christ Jesus. May it always be so. Amen.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Grateful for the Congo Partnership

I returned in February from a 10-day mission trip with an eight-person team of clergy and laity from both the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware conferences.  Our Philadelphia Episcopal Area has been in partnership with the Central Congo Conference for over a decade, and there is much to celebrate.

This was my third trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and my second trip to the Central Congo Conference. Each time I continue to be amazed at the work of God that is happening among faithful people there. What did I see?
  1. I saw a deep respect for The United Methodist Church, its mission for souls and its appreciation for missionaries who began the work there over 100 years ago.
  2. I saw passionate worship in song, prayer and sermon. People of all ages gather to worship God in great numbers.  The material lives of these people are meager, but the Spirit of God in their souls is the sustaining fire for life.
  3. I saw people working very hard in schools, seminaries, hospitals, farms, clinics, trade schools and churches to improve and build up the lives of the people and the community. I saw them being witnesses for God’s love.
  4. I experienced radical hospitality in hospitable accommodations, bounteous meals, and gracious and generous gifts from those who honored us. Whole towns came to greet our plane singing, dancing and waving palm branches. People who had nothing gave us generous and sacrificial gifts of clothing, rice, goats, chickens, carved wooden crafts and jewelry. Bishop Daniel Lunge and his team went all out to show us the utmost respect and make us comfortable.
  5. I experienced their concept of mission as the work of starting new churches. They collected money for that purpose so more might know the love of Jesus. Many pastors start these new churches with no salary whatsoever. They do it out of their love and desire to serve Christ.
  6. I saw many improvements since my last visit. There were much needed hospital repairs, e-readers for seminary students, new churches erected, a new well dug, a children’s program that started with a few children now increased to 1,000 children and 43 teachers, a new pediatric clinic with modern equipment and solar power, a second refugee children’s feeding program, bed nets in every home to prevent the spread of malaria and improved maternal health.
  7. I experienced the amazing work of Rev. Jonathan and Donna Baker, our UM Global Missionaries, who have labored in the vineyard there for the past three years bringing untold resources and wisdom for the upbuilding of this partnership. They are responsible for promoting and executing many of the projects listed above.  In addition, they operate a cataract eye surgery clinic every year that literally gives sight and hope to the blind.  They will be retiring at the end of March as GBGM missionaries but not retiring from the work of the Partnership.

I am grateful for the Congo Partnership and to all who graciously supported this mission trip with prayers and financial support. There is still much work to be done, and even the smallest gift goes a very long way in the Congo.  I encourage every church to consider putting the Congo Partnership into their budget as a regular line item and watch God work!

This is a solid project with a long track record of faithfulness and productivity that all of us can be proud to support.  As God blesses us, let us continue to be a blessing to the people in the Congo.


Want to learn more about this powerful, eye-opening, uplifting mission adventure? Read “Mission tour reveals Congo Partnership’s lifesaving impact” and also Bishop Johnson’s and the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm’s “Notes from the Mission Field.” Also, view our 2018 Congo Partnership Visit Flickr album to see more photos!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Celebrating Women’s History Month

Malala Yousafzai: The power of one voice

Malala Yousafzai was born in 1997 and grew up in the northwest Swat Valley region of Pakistan. As a child she was fortunate to have access to education because her father, Ziauddin Yousfzai, operated a private girls school in her hometown. This part of Pakistan was under Taliban rule and they did not believe that girls should have an education. 

When she was 11 years old Malala wrote a blog essay for the BBC British television network describing what it was like living under Taliban occupation. This story appeared in a New York Times documentary, and it got a good bit of attention in print and on television. She was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Unfortunately, all this attention made her a target of the Taliban. On October 9, 2012, she was attacked and shot in her head by a masked Taliban gunman. Miraculously she survived the assassination attempt and was sent to England for treatment.

This horrific act of violence against a young girl created overnight a huge outpouring of support for her cause. After her recovery she became an international speaker for the rights of education for all children, especially girls.

In 2014 Malala became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  As a result of her advocacy, the United Nations passed a petition in her honor that led the country of Pakistan to ratify its first ever “Right to Education” bill. She has established a nonprofit organization that raises funds to provide education for girls, and she has written a number of books. In 2015 she opened a school in Lebanon for Syrian refugees.

Currently, this bright, dedicated, inspiring young woman is enrolled at the Lady Margaret Hall (College) in Oxford, studying for a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics. There is no telling what she may do and accomplish in the future, but we can guess that it will be beneficial to young people.

I give thanks for this courageous young voice and visionary in our world, who believes in the education of girls and the opportunities that come with freedom and justice for all people. Many of our United Methodist missions around the world focus on the education of girls; and our global society has reaped the benefits of these efforts ever since.

Only when everyone is respected as equal and equally able to access education, health care and the basic needs of life can the entire world begin to thrive and be at peace.

Malala is a shining example of a young person who is changing the world. Just as she tells us, we should never underestimate the power of one voice, especially of one who bravely speaks out for justice and human rights. Happy Women’s History Month!

Sources:Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World,  by Ann Shen, San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC, 2016  p. 209. Also, Wikipedia

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

‘Blowin’ in the Wind’

I remember buying a Peter, Paul and Mary album when I was in 7th grade. I sat in the basement with my friends that summer, and listened to every cut of this folk music record over and over again.  

It was during the time of the Civil Rights movement and the Viet Nam War. Songs about justice and peace were in the air. No song on that album struck my young heart more than Bob Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind.” It was asking all the right questions:

“How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banded?
“How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?”
“How many times must a man turn his head pretending he just doesn’t see?”
“How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”

With each verse, the wistful refrain in three-part harmony replied: “The answer, my friend is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

What did that mean?  I was never quite sure.  

Maybe the answer was as obvious as the summer wind blowing through the trees in the backyard. Or maybe it was something more mysterious and unattainable. It seemed to me at the time that the grown-ups could be doing more about the troubles in the world with all its unrest, violence, war and inequality. 

That was over 50 years ago, and this old world of ours continues to suffer from the same injustice and violence. Verses of this song still ring in my heart, as once again we hear about a troubled young man who charged into a high school with a semi-automatic weapon and took multiple lives in just minutes.

How many deaths will it take before we know that too many people have died in our country from these weapons of mass destruction that are so readily available?  When is it time to do something about this?  Will it take 50 more years to find the answer?

Ezekiel 12:1-2 gives a Biblical foundation to Dylan’s lyrics: “Oh mortal, you dwell among a rebellious breed. They have eyes to see but see not; ears to hear, but hear not.”  

It is my prayer that we will hear the voices and see the pain of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and all those other victims of senseless gun violence. It is my prayer that we will take action now to make this world a safer place. That can mean writing letters to law makers, having conversations with people who have various perspectives, teaching non-violence and gentle ways of being in this world, attending rallies against gun violence, and most importantly, prayer.

Prayer is always blowin’ in the wind, as God’s people evoke the power of the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, to do good in this world. I pray that more of us will catch that spirit, feel its power and be moved to action by it, inspired to see, to hear and to do the good works of peace and justice to which God calls each of us. Amen.