Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Fasting unto the Lord


During the Season of Lent, the church is called to a time of holy introspection, fasting and prayer.  We are to contemplate the life and example of Jesus, hold our life up against his, and make some honest assessments.

Through that process, a time of repentance and change for the better is the hope, but none of this sounds particularly enjoyable. In our society self-abasement, guilt and personal accountability are increasingly counter-cultural.  “Have it your way!” “Just Do it!” “Ain’t nothing gonna break my stride!” are slogans of the world and of America’s sense of privilege.

Fasting has a long history of spiritual benefit, and the season of Lent is a good time to encourage it in your churches.  In the ordination vows of all Methodist pastors since our founding, John Wesley asks, “Will you practice fasting and abstinence, both by precept and example?”  The ordinands standing before me always say “yes.” 

During this season of Lent, let us all, clergy and laity, take this seriously, because it has great spiritual and temporal value. I can’t think of anything more important than our spiritual journey with the Lord, especially during these transitional times in the life of the church and of the world.

In his book Freedom of Simplicity Christian author Richard J. Foster writes:

Fasting helps to give us balance.  It makes us more keenly sensitive to the whole of life, so that we do not become obsessed with our consumer mentality.  It is something of an inner alarm to help us hold our priorities straight, to give us a sense of spiritual sensitivity. Fasting reveals the things that control us.

Fasting usually involves abstaining from food or drink for a period of time in order to focus on prayer and meditation. Fasting can also include abstaining from other things, such as the social media, shopping or any form of personal addiction.

Whatever the nature of the fast, it should always include a time of intentionally listening to God’s Spirit deeply speaking to you about the things you need to change, to give up, or to do. Sometimes God’s voice takes a long time to discern, and this involves patience, self-control and surrendering to God’s timing.

In addition, true fasting has “roller blades” on its sneakers.  The Old Testament prophets derided the temple religious rituals that had no temporal signs of behavioral improvement. It was often an empty show of piety in order to look holy and not grounded in true worship. Zechariah 7:5 prophesied, “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?’” Likewise Isaiah 58:3 said, “On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.”

Fasting and abstinence is not a piety show. True fasting is a call to social justice. Again from the prophet Zechariah, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner or the poor; and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.’” (7:9-10)  

The prophet Isaiah emphasizes loosening the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, setting the oppressed free, sharing food with the hungry, providing shelter for the poor wanderer, clothes for the naked, and taking care of one’s own family. (58:6-7).

Now you might be thinking, “I don’t oppress people, and I help out at the food bank at church, and I am not responsible for the refugee children at the border being separated from their mothers.”

True fasting involves mercy as well as justice. Injustice has complicated layers of political maneuvering. It is just plain difficult! That why most people would rather feed the hungry than tackle the root causes of poverty and suffering.  It is our Christian duty to take this on, and scripture backs it up.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” (Oxford Essential Quotations, 5th edition)

Fasting and praying can give you some “next steps.” And God will be with you on the journey.  I pray you are having a blessed Lenten Season, full of serious contemplation, as well as a response to injustice. The two are inseparable. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

500,000+ COVID-19 deaths in the United States





‘Strive to infuse life into this season of death
.’

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I remember sitting in a nursing home in Catonsville, Maryland, with my aged Aunt Inez years ago.  Born in 1894 she had seen a great deal in her many years of life, and I was just in my twenties at the time. She shared with me her many memories of years gone by, especially about the “Spanish Flu” of 1918. 

She was about my age at the time and there were no vaccines, no cure, just a call for people to stay in isolation and in prayer. She said that that virus affected in some way every family in the little town of Lansdowne, Maryland, where she taught school. In the spring of the following year they counted their losses and grieved a deep and long grief.

At the time, I thought this was an unbelievable tale of how things were in the “old days.” I never once imagined that one day I could be living during a devastating pandemic.

It has been a long year since we first got the news of this worldwide crisis and began to close down churches for in-person worship. Last March we could hardly have imagined that a year later we would be grieving 500,000 American lives lost to this deadly coronavirus.

Like my Aunt Inez, few if any of us have been spared the knowledge of someone in our lives—family member, friend, colleague, role model, church member—someone who lost a battle to this awful virus.  We share a common grief, and too many of us carry burdens of sorrow and helplessness.

Deep appreciation for ministry, compassion

At this milestone in our tragic tally of lives lost, I want to express my deep appreciation for pastors, laity and churches who have ministered and offered compassion and relief to countless numbers of people in their communities. The Apostle Paul describes well the strength God has given you for the task:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (II Corinthians 1:3-4)

I also call us to care for ourselves in these stressful times, regularly observing the Sabbath and engaging in spiritual, physical and emotional self-care. Rest in the promise that “God will go with you and will never leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) And also, “Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31).

Strive to infuse life into this season of death. The church is founded on the resurrection of Christ and the sure and certain promise of life abundant and life everlasting. We rely on resilient life that springs from the jaws of death, on joy that comes the morning after, and on hope that burns brightly, even in the midnight hour.

Be hope-givers through the gospel

We are uniquely positioned to be hope-givers in this world through the gospel that we proclaim in Word and deed at this crucial time. Be a “resurrection hope-giver” for someone who is bound by deep grief. Never forget the power of simple words of kindness and acts of compassion.  In addition, do not pass up any chance to give a witness to the hope that is in you and that can inspire others to faith in Christ. 

My Aunt Inez also told me of the revival of religious fervor that happened in her community after the long siege of the pandemic of 1918.  Instead of being buried in inconsolable grief, the community embraced faith that spurred on a wave of community development and prosperity. 

Likewise, our sobering milestone of death can be a springboard to new life as only God can give it. Be a part of the new life that rises from this unique and terrible time in the history of our nation and the world.

I close with a hymn by our contemporary “sweet psalmist,” Rev. Carolyn Gillette


We Grieve 500,000

By Rev. Carolyn Gillette   
(Sung to the tune of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Permission is given for use in our churches.)

We grieve five hundred thousand, yet we can’t understand
We cannot grasp how many have died throughout this land
We cannot see their faces or hear the stories told
Of all the ways they blessed us, the young ones and the old. 

O God, we grieve the struggle of those who died alone
So far from friends and neighbors, from all they’d ever known.
We grieve for precious people who could not say good-bye
We weep for those, now mourning, who sit along and cry 

O God, we grieve for millions who now are unemployed
Who cannot feed their families, whose hope has been destroyed
We grieve that needed workers must worry for their health
While some with lives of privilege stay home and build their wealth

God of love and mercy, we cry to you, “How long?”
In troubled times remind us: You love is ever strong
Now as we grieve the suffering, Lord, show us how to be
A healing, loving presence in each community.




Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Black History Month
Elijah Pierce: Telling the Story in Wood

Recently the Barnes Foundation of Philadelphia showcased the works of artist Elijah Pierce.  Born in 1892 in Mississippi, this son of freed slaves became a wood carver, barber and preacher. 

He migrated north to Columbus, Ohio, as a youth, where he set up a barber shop and had a woodworking room in the back of the store. There he designed hundreds of masterpieces using wood, cardboard, crepe paper, house paint, aluminum foil, glitter and rhinestones.

The topics of his many creations included Bible stories, nature, popular culture, politics and animals of all kinds.  Threaded through his work was his passion for justice. 

One of his wood pictures included the words “Your life is a book, and every day is a page.”  On the pages of his life, he created scenes of slavery in cotton fields, the horrors of slave auction blocks, and depictions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedy brothers who had been assassinated.   

Pierce created a work titled “Elijah Escapes the Mob.” It traces his personal experience of being accused of a crime he did not commit and being held in custody.  He gave a visual history of a country filled with injustice and inequality but also one of hope in God. 

Book of Wood depicts Jesus’ life

His most prized work in his extensive collection is the “Book of Wood” a huge wooden “book” with each 2 x 2 square-foot page depicting the life of Jesus (33 painted carvings in all).

Filmmaker Carolyn Allport produced a documentary about Pierce in 1974, 10 years before his death. “He was so genuine about everything he said about faith in God,” she wrote. “But social justice was the core of his message as an artist.” Indeed, the two should always be inseparable.

I honor the life of Elijah Pierce during Black History Month 2021. He used wood, paint and a carving knife to tell important stories.  How about you? Your faith in God should always be a message that is seen by the way you live, by the things you value and support, and by your creative outlets. 

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ and an advocate for social justice should go hand in hand.  Do people see that in you?  May “your life be a book and every day a page” that displays the goodness of God shared among all people. And may you commit to sharing that goodness in your corner of the world.

Sources:

·       Philadelphia Tribune, September 27, 2020 “Barnes Continues Inclusivity Mission with ‘Elijah Pierce’s America’ Exhibition” by J. Perry

·       www.enwikipedia.org “Elijah Pierce”  

·       www.npr.org “Aimed to do God’s Work in Wood”

·       www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/Sep/28/Elijah-pierce-woodcarver-amerian-art-racism

·       www.folkstreamsnet/film-detail.php?id=275 “Elijah Pierce: Woodcarver” (1974) Carolyn Allport producer

·       Also watch: “Get a Look at ‘Elijah Pierce's America' at Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation  NBC10 Philadelphia

Friday, January 15, 2021

Confluence on Inauguration Day

The word “inauguration” (New Oxford Dictionary) means, “The beginning or introduction of a system, policy or period; the formal admission of someone to office; a ceremony to mark the beginning of something.” 

Next week our country will hold its Presidential Inauguration.  It will be in the foreground briefly against a current backdrop of political turmoil, last week’s violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, and a worldwide health crisis. And more turmoil, more attacks are threatened.

It is my prayer that on that day we can begin to heal and find ways to mend our chasms of deep division. We all bring converging ways of thinking, believing and being. 

There is a tiny city (population 780) in Western Pennsylvania, in a borough of Somerset County, known as “Confluence.”  It is named as such because it is a place where three rivers come together: the Casselman, Laurel Hill Creek and Youghiogheny rivers. When these rivers meet, there is turbulence but also the benefit of becoming a bigger river, which makes this area a great place to do fishing and boating.

Great things can happen if we flow in the same direction

Divergent political thoughts (be they Republican, Democrat or Independent) often create turbulence. If we can somehow manage to flow in the same direction, like these rivers, some big—indeed, great—things can happen in the future.

Everyone thrives when we work together as a nation for the good of all. At the end of the day, rivers are all made of the same water; and we are all God’s children made in the same image and likeness of God. We are all different by the design of our Creator, so that we can accomplish all that is needed through our different gifts and passions.

On January 20, 2021, may we inaugurate not just a new President or his new policies, but a new period of respect and cooperation that will yield peace and prosperity for all. May that be especially true for those who are poor and oppressed, who live in the dim margins of our nation’s bright political and economic fortunes.

This can only be accomplished as we seek to do the will of God, acknowledging and using the resources of the Holy Spirit. Psalm 85:10 expresses my prayer for the future of our country: that “steadfast love and faithfulness meet and righteousness and peace kiss each other.” May it be so!



Monday, January 4, 2021

Thoughts on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Celebrate MLK’s birthday weekend, Jan. 15-18

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  You may have always wondered about his name. Was he or his father named for a famed, rebellious monk and professor who left the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s? 

MLK, Jr., much like his German namesake of long ago, also began a reformation—not of religion but of race, as he led a pivotal civil rights movement for racial equality in this country. It was truly a movement because it continues to ripple out in ever-expanding circles of justice-seeking social change.

The story behind his name comes from Dr. King’s father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. (1897-1984). He was named Michael King by his parents, and he named his son Michael King when the future civil rights leader was born in 1929.

From ‘Michael’ to ‘Martin’

In 1934, the elder King, who was at the time the senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., traveled to Berlin, Germany, for the World Baptist Alliance. During that trip abroad, he also visited France and the Holy Land.  Afterwards he changed his name to Martin Luther King.

When asked about it, he said he had an uncle named “Martin” and another uncle named “Luther.” But one can only surmise that his visit to the home of the Reformation and its leader also spurred his interest in the name he adopted.

Throughout his ministry in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Sr. was a brave and tireless reformer working for racial equality. His passion for justice burned even brighter after his visit to Europe.

“Daddy King,” as he would come to be known affectionately, was active in the NAACP. He led a huge voter registration drive in Atlanta, braved numerous personal threats, and worked for the equalization of salaries for African American teachers, to name just a few of his achievements.

‘I am a man.’

The elder King was once pulled over by a police officer for a minor traffic violation, and the officer called him “Boy.”  Martin Jr., who was in the car, observed as his father pointed to him and said boldly, “This is a boy. I am a man.”  The chastened officer quickly wrote the ticket and moved on. 

Ironically, those same self-affirming words, “I am a man,” were emblazoned on signs worn by Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., when they marched for fair treatment and racial equality in 1968. MLK Jr. went there to march with them and help lead their fight when he was tragically assassinated April 4.


One cannot over-emphasize the legacy of justice and reform that was instilled in both the heart and the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. From his father he learned and experienced first-hand the meaning of the Christian “social gospel” of liberation for the oppressed.

From his father he learned how to work through the system to bring about change. His father taught him to take risks for the greater good and to bravely speak “truth to power.”

Our decisions, actions proclaim who we are

Today our decisions and actions—or our indecision and inaction—whether to seek justice for all or to accept the status quo of inequality—make our lives visible billboards that proclaim who we are and what we believe. Whether we intend it or not, we are role models for younger generations and even for one another.

If we claim the name of Christ in our faith, then we should live up to that name, as MLK Jr. lived up to his. We should strive to be living examples of the one whom we claim to follow.

What do young people learn from you?  How does your life demonstrate a profound commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who came to set captives free and bring recovery of sight to the blind—the literally and spiritually blind of this world?  

I ponder these questions as I celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He set a fire of justice on a thousand hills that continues to blaze brightly.  He lived up to his name and to the principles of his faith. Let us all try harder to do the same.   

Resources:  

Also, read How Martin Luther influenced Martin Luther King Jr.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Believe


This time of year, the word “Believe” shows up in curious places. It’s printed on glossy department store shopping bags and sewn on wooly Christmas sweaters. 

It is a comfy word, kind of holy but not too holy, because, after all, the Christmas season has become more of a festival of commercialism, family gatherings, and feasting—but less about Jesus or his mission. 

Madison Avenue would still like to maintain an air of magic in its advertising by using the word “Believe.” It is something you can’t buy, something miraculous, even if that only means telling a little girl, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” to believe in.  Deep down inside we all want to believe in something beyond ourselves, something reassuring and eternal. Such things cannot be purchased at the mall and placed under the Christmas tree.

Bedrock of the Christian faith

Believing is the bedrock of the Christian faith.  It is the affirmation of what we know and profess about God’s mission to save the world.  Believing in Jesus means we are trusting in him for the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life.  But it doesn’t stop there. 

Christians are called to live in alignment with the essence of the teachings of Jesus, who is present with us in the Spirit once we believe.  We become his agents, so that when people see what we do in is name, they too may come to believe and follow Jesus. Believing is a lifetime of service, not just a one-time decision of the heart.

What does your witness look like? When people encounter you in the world, do they experience the love, acceptance, generosity and grace of Jesus in you?  Can people with heavy loads to bear believe that God really cares about them because of the generosity that you extend?  Do people from a different ethnic background experience the hospitality and kindness that you would give to Jesus himself? 

Leo Tolstoy’s classic Christmas story “Martin the Cobbler” features a poor cobbler who was told in a dream that Jesus would visit him on Christmas Day. Instead of Jesus at the door, there were three needy visitors, and he helped each one.  By the end of the day, Martin was sad that he did not receive a visit from Jesus as promised.

‘To one of the least of these…’

In a vision, the Lord explained that the three needy visitors Martin helped were indeed his visit in disguise. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”  (Matthew 25:40).

Still today, Jesus visits us in the anxious faces and outstretched hands of persons in need—the stranger, the alien and even those we don’t particularly like.  As we serve them with grace and generosity, we are proclaiming to the world what we believe and whom we serve. This is a profound way to inspire belief in our divided world. It is our very best tool of evangelism.

Believing is not just a wistful word, the lyric of a song or a shiny decoration on a Christmas tree.  It is a two-fold process of faith and works.  The two are inseparable, as we navigate through our Christian journey in the world and especially at Christmas. That is when the world is looking and listening a little more closely for signs of hope, for good news and for something to truly believe in.



Friday, November 20, 2020

“Rejoice!”

Deacon Jerome Kiel and his wife Marie

Deacon Jerome Kiel was the only Deaf Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Baltimore years ago when I was serving as the pastor of an all-Deaf United Methodist congregation.

It was significant that he achieved the office of Deacon because holy orders were rare for culturally Deaf people who used sign language exclusively.  This was true not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but also among United Methodist and other mainline denominations. 

Deacon Jerome was a faithful pastoral presence at the “Little Flower” Deaf congregation for many years. He was at the end of his ministry when I was beginning mine, and I appreciated so much his ministerial wisdom and gentle patience with my rookie mistakes.

Back then, the Roman Catholic, United Methodist and Lutheran Deaf congregations in Baltimore offered many shared. ecumenical events, especially during the seasons of Advent and Lent.  Our Wednesday night dinners and worship services gave us a chance to learn about each other’s beliefs and traditions. We had so much in common. 

During Advent one year, I learned from Deacon Jerome the meaning of the pink candle on the Advent Wreath.  I was mistakenly taught that it was the last candle to be lit during the four Sundays of Advent and it signified God’s love at Christmas. That was not the true story at all! 

Advent began in the 4th century when the church was getting more converts than it could handle because Emperor Constantine had declared that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire.  Prior to that time people preparing for baptism would do so exclusively during the season of Lent. Then they would be baptized and brought into church membership on Easter Sunday.


With so many new candidates for baptism, the church needed to offer a second option. That became the season of Advent (prior to Christmas); and baptism would happen on Epiphany Day, January 6..

Because of that, the Advent season was marked as a time of preparatory penance for sin, personal examination and prayer. The liturgical color for sorrow and repentance is purple, as it is during the season of Lent.

Pink (or rose), the color of “joy,” became a part of the Catholic Mass every year on the third Sunday of Advent. The opening missal (a book containing the texts used in the Catholic Mass throughout the year) included the Latin word “Gaudete,” which literally is a command to “rejoice.”  (There was also a designated “pink” Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as “Laetare,” which calls for Jerusalem to “rejoice”.)

The church taught that in the midst of this season of penitence and sorrow, there needed to be a reminder about the joy of the Lord.  It was a call to rejoice in the truth that Jesus has come, is with us, and will come again. Nothing can separate us from that relentless love of God. 

I thought this was a wonderful thing since pink has always been my favorite color. During the years of my pastoral ministry, I took full advantage of “Gaudete Sunday” with pink bulletins, pink flowers, pink offering envelopes, pink altar cloths, etc. The worship service on the third Sunday of Advent was always a time of rejoicing, second only to Christmas Eve. 

Deacon Jerome died one morning after a long illness during the season of Advent.  A box arrived at my church a few months later. In it was an amazing and deeply meaningful gift: Deacon Jerome’s pink Deacon stole. I have kept it as a cherished reminder of this saint who knew the meaning of the joy that comes from serving God with generosity, compassion and love.

This year’s Advent season comes at a time when our church struggles to keep preparations for the coming of Christ at the forefront of our minds. As usual, we seek spiritual introspection while the world is screaming for holiday festivities and non-stop commercialism.


But this Advent season is most unusual, burdened by the threat of more COVID infections, political unrest in our country and theological division in our church. It might be hard to “rejoice” on that third Sunday of Advent when you cannot hold regular Christmas services in the same way due to social distancing concerns. Our cherished gatherings of family and friends are also clouded with concerns and fears of becoming viral “super spreader” events.

“Gaudete” calls us, commands us, begs us to “Rejoice” nonetheless, because when we rejoice even in the midst sorrow, difficulty and uncertainty, it is an affirmation of faith that God is still God.  “Emmanuel” means God is with us. 

God will work all things together for good, even when we can’t see our way forward.  When we rejoice something deep within us feels the joy of the Lord that is not dependent on circumstances but rather on that “peace that passes understanding.”

We need Gaudete Sunday more this year than ever.  Light a pink candle in your heart and on your altar. Celebrate the joy of the Lord.  Also, remember to do something to bring joy to someone else whose journey is especially lonely and difficult this year.  Spread the “pink!”  Rejoice!


References:

www.umc.org “History of Advents for United Methodists”

The Catholic Herald, December 8, 2016

www.catholic.org  December 8, 2004