Tuesday, November 12, 2019

'Tear Down this Wall'*: A Pastoral Letter

This week is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. This wall was erected after the second World War and it divided East and West Berlin.

During The United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops fall meeting our bishops from Germany testified about the jubilation and amazement felt when the wall came down. People were able to move about freely from one side to the other. Not a single shot was fired.

Humanity is well-acquainted with walls, not only physical walls but the walls of difference that are found in hearts and minds. We are quick to erect attitudinal walls around our differences and our beliefs.

Walls create alienation, separation, fear, distrust and violence. Such a wall stops ministry dead in its tracks, and it is never the will of God. God sent Jesus to deal with walls. Ephesians 2:14 says "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility."

A wall of separation in the UMC

United Methodists are well-acquainted with a wall of separation about the marriage and ordination of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Our Book of Discipline states that all people are of sacred worth, but it includes a wall concerning the practice of homosexuality being "contrary to Christian teaching."

At the 2019 General Conference the traditional prohibition against the practice of homosexuality was maintained, same gender marriages continued to be banned, and it was expanded to include more enforcement and a broader scope of what defines homosexuality. There were also more additions to the process of filing complaints against people who engage in practices found in the list of "chargeable offenses." Being a self-avowed and practicing homosexual and performing a same-gender wedding are on that list. The added measures will be effective on January 1, 2020.

I write this pastoral letter to the flock of God in the Eastern Pennsylvania and the Peninsula-Delaware conferences, my beloved Philadelphia Area. It is a passionate plea that you do not engage in filing complaints around the issue of homosexuality. It simply exacerbates the painful, formidable wall that stands between people of good will who have different hearts.

Homosexuality complaints and trials do harm


Complaints and trials do an enormous amount of harm to everyone. Our baptism vows call us to "resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." Nothing good can come from this battering. We can never legislate a heart.

As your bishop I am bound to receive and process complaints, but I do not believe it is helpful to engage in church trials. So, I will not refer any such complaints for a church trial. I say this not out of a sense of rebellion against the rules in our Book of Discipline but out of my pastor's heart that wishes to defend the people of our conferences against this destructive, divisive and expensive process.

The complaint paragraphs in the UM Book of Discipline call for a resolution that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities and that can bring healing to all parties. Instead of filing a complaint, I suggest that those who have experienced harm begin with a conversation.

Engage people with whom you disagree. Hear their hearts and engage in humble inquiry about a person's life story and perspective. Explain where the harm is and craft a peace plan. And most importantly, pray with each other!



Power of prayer to tear down walls, build a just peace

When I visited Germany last year and toured the former site of the Berlin Wall, our guide said that the Communist government was "no match for prayer and our candlelight vigils." The power of the risen Lord is available for us to tear down our walls, but we need to have the humble will to work at it and pray for it.

Is this not what Paul meant in Romans 12:18 when he said, "As far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all"? I humbly suggest that you engage in these steps before sending a complaint to my office.

We are living in a "liminal" (transitional) time as we prepare for the May 5-15, 2020, General Conference. At that conference delegates will consider how we as a denomination can maximize our witness and craft a form of unity that brings a new wind of hope for all people.

Catch sight of God's vision of a church that is busy making disciples of Jesus Christ, a church that is engaging in ministry and mission, a church striving for equality and equity for all people.

We can only get there as we employ with grace all of the giftedness of the Body of Christ, not just one "side" or the other. Dividing our church would cut off some of our needed giftedness. We can only accomplish this vibrant ministry as we take down the walls in our hearts and "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God." (Micah 6:8)

I close this letter with two verses of a hymn that was sung in Germany during the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. It spread like wildfire around the churches, both East and West, as people yearned for freedom and unity. May it be a song in all of our hearts as well:
          
          Have faith is God's new pathways, walk on in this new day.
          God hopes you'll be a blessing for all upon the way.
          The one who in the days gone by breathed life in us and hope,
          Will lead us to the place where God wants and needs us most.

          Have faith in God who shows us new paths that lead to life.
          It's God who comes to meet us, the future is in God's hand.
          Who follows God is full of hope, now and forevermore.
          The door for us is open, the land is bright and free.

*"Tear down this wall" was the appeal U.S. President Ronald Reagan made in his Berlin Wall speech in West Berlin, Germany, on June 12, 1987.


Humbly submitted,



Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Thursday, October 24, 2019

All Saints Day



The Church calendar includes “All Saints Day” on November 1 each year to remember truly faithful Christians who have gone before us and to contemplate and perhaps even emulate their heroic lives. One of the benefits of my time serving on the Roman Catholic-United Methodist dialogue team has been a new appreciation for the saints and martyrs and their many feast days. 

At the very first meeting I attended in 2016 at the St. John’s Abbey (a Community of Benedictine Monks) in Collegeville, Minnesota, I saw the actual remains of Saint Peregrine, who refused to worship the Roman emperor and was martyred in the year 192. His body is covered with jewels and a white cloth as it lay in a glass coffin.


Recently I learned about Saint Lucy when I observed a picture of a young girl holding a tray with two eye balls.  The priest on the dialogue team explained that this saint was also a martyr who lived in Syracuse, Sicily.  She died during the Diocletianic Persecution in 304 AD because she refused to marry, due to a vow of purity she made to God.
Lucy came from a family with much wealth, but as part of her Christian virtue, she distributed much of her gold and jewels to help the poor. The man to whom she was pledged in marriage was none too pleased about this “squandering” of her wealth that he expected to receive. So he turned her into the governor for punishment. The governor in turn demanded that Lucy burn sacrifices to the emperor. This she refused to do and was condemned to death. 
According to legend, the soldiers who were instructed to execute her could not move her, even with a team of oxen. Then they tried to burn her, but the flames would not consume her body. Finally they gouged out her eyes and thrust a sword down her throat, and she died.
St. Lucy is often represented in Scandinavian Advent festivals as a young girl dressed in white and wearing a crown of evergreen with burning candles. She is always carrying a basket of bread. This is reminiscent of Lucy’s distribution of food to the poor and to those hiding in the catacombs.  The candles on her head are there to light her way in the darkness and leave her hands free to hold as much bread as possible.
This charming account of St. Lucy is still worth pondering today as we approach our observance of “All Saints Day.”  Lucy made a promise to God and kept it!  Like Peregrine, she refused to worship the emperor. For that, she was willing to sacrifice her life through death by torture.
Lucy also had a heart for the poor and those who were being persecuted. She gave generously to them, which also led to her persecution and death.

Still today, the light of Lucy’s wreath of candles shines for us saints who yet walk the earth seeking to serve others and to worship only God. Each day we proclaim our faith and devotion to God by our words and our actions. Each day we have the opportunity to give generously and sacrificially to those in need. 
Living the Christian life has never been easy. But as we remember the lives of devoted saints that have gone before us, we are grateful and encouraged that their holy example cheers us on for higher levels of service and sacrifice.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Via Dolorosa



In Jerusalem is the famous “Via Dolorosa,” the road where it is believed that Jesus walked on the way to Calvary.  It literally means the “way of suffering.”  Nothing can compare to our Savior’s suffering and sacrifice for us on Good Friday.

His willingness to give his life for the sins of the world is the bedrock of our faith.  He came in person to give his life for the redemption of humanity out of love.

When I visited the Holy Land years ago it was important for me to walk those streets and experience first-hand that road of suffering.  It reminds me of my responsibility to love and suffer like Christ.

The way of suffering is not an unfamiliar road for most of humanity on this planet.  Globally there is untold pain because of wars, disease and natural disaster, and with it comes migration.  A fraction of the world experiences the benefits of this nation’s freedom and wealth, and often we don’t see people on this difficult road face-to-face.

Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to meet a young Honduran woman who was walking the way of suffering.  She came to this country out of love for her son. She knew that if the family did not leave the country he would be recruited into a murderous gang or be killed if he refused to join.

What mother would not sacrifice everything for her child’s safety?  As I sat with this young woman and a translator, she told her story of her family’s travels to this country, the great physical suffering, her kidnapping, and her final arrival in Pennsylvania.  She came out of love for her child.

She joined one of our churches and found a way to make a living, just barely enough to survive.  Then her husband was deported, and it is likely he will never be able to come back to the United States.

They depended on the advice of an immigration lawyer who took their money but gave them no help. In fact, he gave them bad advice. As a result, the husband was picked up by immigration agents, detained for months and then sent back to Honduras.

This is another part of the “way of suffering”—those who exploit desperate, fearful immigrants without status, promise legal help but then leave their unwitting clients in worse shape. Using lies and false promises to entice their victims, they reap large sums of money from their human pain and benefit from their plight.

To see this young mother’s tears and hear of the difficult ordeal she faces, with two young children who miss their father, causes deep sorrow in me.  I am well aware of our country’s immigration laws; but we must all acknowledge that this system is inadequate and less than humane.  And with the draconian policy threats and decisions being made these past few weeks, it will get worse.

Our United Methodist Social Principles state: “We recognize, embrace and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin as members of the family of God.  We affirm the rights of all person to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education and freedom from social discrimination.  We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”

The Word of God says: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.  The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.  Love them as yourself for you were foreigners in Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”  (Leviticus 19:33-34)

It is hard to turn our backs on these mandates and allow continued suffering to occur. This young woman told me that she did not come to take things from America but to work hard, contribute her part and offer a better, safer life to her children.

Surely, we must find a better way.  I am happy to report that her church and other churches are assisting her with humanitarian aid. More support would be appreciated for her and for our churches that have large numbers of immigrant sojourners traveling this road of suffering.

What else can we do to help? Our conference, along with two other neighbor conferences, are initiating a program known as Justice for Our Neighbors. JFON is an immigration legal assistance and hospitality ministry of The United Methodist Church, with 18 chapters across the country. For the past 20 years it has been a free/affordable legal service that is ethical, affordable and safe for immigrants to use.


To help us start up this vitally important service donations can be sent to “Delaware Valley JFON” and mailed to Historic St. George’s UMC, 235 N. 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106.  For more information, contact: Rev. Mark Salvacion at pastor@historicstgeorges.org.

We can also advocate for more humane laws in our country with regards to the number and treatment of those seeking asylum and for the “Dreamers” (young people who are undocumented and who were brought to the U.S. as young children).

We can contact our elected officials and ask that the number of refugees allowed to resettle in this country not be limited to just 18,000 people.  The average number of refugees allowed to come into this country over the last four decades had been 95,000.  People are fleeing violence and religious persecution and need a place of refuge.

The road of suffering is real, and it is in our neighborhoods, and they are members of our churches.  When you see their faces and hear their stories it becomes a call for us to do something, say something, and to offer our prayers.



Thursday, September 26, 2019

‘Do No Harm, Do Good’


As The United Methodist Church prepares for General Conference 2020, numerous legislative petitions flooded in by last week’s deadline for consideration. Certainly, we should always have as the backdrop of our discussions and deliberations the General Rules of John Wesley: “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.” 
If we would be influenced by these basic three rules in everything we debate and vote on at General Conference—and even more so, in everything we do or say daily as Christians navigating our way through this complicated world—what a better world this would be!
Wesley was a man of many interests, and medicine and health was one of his priorities.  “Do No Harm” is reminiscent of the ancient Hippocratic Oath that has for centuries guided the medical profession.  One of the lines in the oath states, “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.” 
Sounds like “Do no harm” to me; and indeed, Wesley advocated for the things that make for healthy bodies and minds. He knew it was part of our spiritual responsibility as Christians.  He even wrote a home remedy book titled “The Primitive Physic” to aid in the healing of many common ailments.
So it would behoove us as United Methodists to live by this important law as we consider addictive substances and their place in society.  The practice of vaping is front and center in the news now, as serious cases of lung disorders are happening across the country and leading to increasing, tragic deaths. 
Publicity is growing with bans on the sale of all vaping products by mega-store chain Walmart and the state of Massachusetts, as others consider doing likewise. Lawmakers are studying advertisements and the offering of various flavors of vaping products because of their strong attraction to young people. 
People are up in arms about vaping, it seems, and rightly so. Even though it is credited with helping some turn away from addictively smoking tobacco products, it is nonetheless killing people.  We may possibly see this young industry put out of business altogether as the pressure against it seems to be rising.
So why are we not as concerned about the prevailing and pernicious legal drugs of tobacco and alcohol?  The detrimental and horrific effects of these products have long been proven.
I don’t know a person who has not been affected by the tragedy of these two addictions in their families.  My great-grand-father used to beat my grandmother with a buggy whip because of his alcohol addiction.  My best friend lost her father to lung cancer from years of smoking. 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day “29 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.  That is one death every 50 minutes.  The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $44 billion dollars.”  
Think what we could do with $44 billion dollars?  What a waste! What injustice, especially when you consider that many of the dead people were innocent victims of drivers under the influence. 
According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 154,050 Americans died from lung cancer in 2018. Most of this was smoking-related.  Why are we so pumped up about vaping while the legal stuff is killing people at epidemic rates? 
The answer is simple: alcohol and tobacco are multi-billion-dollar industries with profits and lobbying efforts that speak loudly in our consumer-driven world of greed and gain.
What does The United Methodist Church say?  According to our Social Principles:
“We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons. (Par. 162.L)   “In light of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco are hazardous to the health of persons of all ages, we recommend total abstinence from the use of tobacco.”  (Par. 162.M)

So, yes, do no harm.  Join the bandwagon of people who are speaking up against vaping. But don’t stop there!  The elephant in the room is the huge, high-profit industries in this country that are profiting from rampant addictions that lead to suffering, sorrow and death. 
What a world we would have if personal pain and trauma issues were handled in spiritual and therapeutic ways, rather than masking and exacerbating them with addictive substances!
How can you, your family and church, your voices together be used to speak out against this massive harm?  Silence is complicity.  Lead by expression—your words—and by example—your active witness.  Your voice can make a difference.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Listen to your children


I have always loved the praise song by Ken Medema titled “Lord, Listen to Your Children.” Its refrain goes like this:

Lord, listen to your children praying,
Lord, send your Spirit in this place;
Lord, listen to your children praying,
Send us love, send us pow'r, send us grace.


Love, power and grace are the things that God has for his children, children of all ages. In recent years our chronological children are speaking to this world about things that are happening that need the attention of all of us. Front and center are the issues of gun violence and climate change.

One does not have to wait very long for the next mass shooting. They occur now almost weekly, and one begins to wonder if it is safe to go shopping or to an open air concert, theater or country fair. Always there is the fear of being the next victim of these acts of horror.

Grandmothers are buying their grandchildren bullet-proof school backpacks. I raised my children in a more innocent time, and they never experienced “active shooter drills.” But children today are going to school with an undercurrent of fear. 


Some of our children went to Washington DC after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. They begged our legislators to do something about this crisis. I hope people will listen to our children. I pray that God’s love, power and grace from above will inspire our leaders to address this urgent, complicated issue honestly and effectively. Let’s be in prayer about this and add our voices to those of our impassioned young advocates! 

Recently, a spunky Swedish 16-year old named Greta Thunberg journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean on a yacht and arrived in New York City to continue her crusade to help save our planet. She is calling for the world to address with more urgency the issues of climate change that are causing catastrophic weather systems on the planet. 

Greta’s critics call her “crazy” and say she is an alarmist who has “no sense of humor.” There are even bumper stickers with expletives decrying her crusade for the world to wake up and do more to save itself. But she has created a groundswell of support among many, and her voice continues to be heartening.

She has Asperger’s Syndrome, but she calls it her “super power” for the work she is doing. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she has inspired many other young people with her courage and conviction. I pray for her relentless voice!

The alarming increase of category 4 and 5 hurricanes could be construed as a wake-up call. Some of our churches and their cemeteries on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are imperiled by rising sea levels. I hope people will listen to our children and to Greta’s message and take some personal steps to care for the environment. Let’s be in prayer and join their active, conscientious witness on this matter as well. 


Our children want what we all want: love, power and grace for our world. Only God is the true source of these intangible but very real forces that can conquer our mammoth challenges.

God’s spiritual resources are the answer to our fear, violence and over-consumption. Could God be calling us to do more about the things that are killing our people and destroying our planet?

Are greed, apathy or lack of creativity taking center stage? Or are we unwilling to partner with those we consider “the other,” those who are different from us? What world are we leaving for the next generation if we sit by and do nothing? Do we care?

I urge us all to listen to the children and youth in our families, churches, schools and communities. God gives them messages that we need to hear. As we work together lovingly on these challenges, more good can be accomplished. As we call upon the love, power and grace of our Lord, there is no telling what good can happen and how we might be transformed.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Body of Christ at Work in Beverly, Kentucky


“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” I Corinthians 12:14

The week of August 11-17, 2019, was probably the most diverse week ever recorded at the United Methodist Red Bird Mission Work Camp, in Beverly, Kentucky. Onto that campus came a group of about 75 Christians from many places, representing many forms of diversity.

This included:
  • Ethnicity (African American, African, Korean, Latino, European-American);
  • Location (Delaware, Washington DC, South Dakota, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Texas);
  • Age (between age 8 to 80);
  • Denomination (United Methodists, ELCA Lutherans, Unity);
  • Denominational role (pastors, deacons, district superintendents, a bishop, certified lay ministers, lay people);
  • Ability (Deaf, Hard of Hearing, mobility-challenged, able-bodied); and
  • Gender and sexual orientation.
The groups were sent out each day to work on various projects: building wheelchair access ramps, repairing floors, upgrading bedrooms, and arranging donated clothing for distribution.

We included carpenters, electricians, painters, sign language interpreters, photographers, cleaners, dish washers and people who prayed and led worship. We also experienced the diversity of interacting with the homeowners where we worked and learned of their lives and culture in Appalachia. 

We experienced their warm hospitality and the hospitality of the Red Bird Mission staff, conference leaders, work crew leaders and local neighbors we met on our field trips out in the community. 

What made this mission trip especially unique was the large number of culturally Deaf* members on the team—20 of them! They were part of “Deaf ELM” (ELM stands for Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist).

This ecumenical organization of Deaf folks and their advocates work together on various common goals of inclusion and empowerment. History was made on this trip when for the first time members engaged in “hands-on mission work.”

Many of our own United Methodist Deaf members are active in ELM. Many were highly-skilled carpenters and craftsmen, and they worked side by side with hearing people who were not fluent in American Sign Language. 

 
The sign language interpreters on each team kept busy filling in the communication gaps; but slowly people began to figure out ways to communicate and work together. Humor and God’s Spirit broke down many of the walls of communication and difference.

We worked hard and came home tired and dirty each day. But we shared in worship each morning and evening and had lots of time on the porch to socialize, meet new friends and play with the resident cats.

On Wednesday night we were treated to a tour of the Red Bird School and an ice cream and cake party hosted by the Red Bird Conference District Superintendent. On Thursday night we had the “Talent-No-Talent” show starring hearing and Deaf people who shared their gifts of music, storytelling, humor and skits.

 
On Friday, our last night there was a closing communion service with the Deaf Community primarily taking the lead. A Deaf pastor preached, beautiful songs were signed and our young people served the Communion elements. 

I saw the Body of Christ in Beverly, Kentucky, this week. And none one of us will ever be the same.

Each of us brings a better understanding of the “other.” Each learned the age-old lesson of I Corinthians 12, that the giftedness of Christ’s Body calls us to join together to do the work of Christ, each one bringing their unique gift to benefit the whole. Everyone had an important gift!

We pray for a day for economic justice for the folks of Appalachia, made poor by the excesses of coal mining and the inability of the rich to share with the poor. These are issues we are struggling with the world over. 

Helping the poor on a mission trip is a commendable act of mercy. But justice would call us to bring attention to the inequities that create this poverty and to work for sustainability and empowerment for all. When there is justice there will be peace on earth.

* Deaf culture is the set of social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness and which use sign languages as the main means of communication. When used as a cultural label especially within the culture, the word deaf is often written with a capital D and referred to as "big D Deaf" in speech and sign. When used as a label for the audiological condition, it is written with a lower case d. (Wikipedia)

Download the Bishop's PPT presentation about the Red Bird Mission trip and see more of her great photos!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Remembering August 25, 1619

“On August 25, 1619, the White Lion (pirate and slave ship) entered from the Chesapeake Bay and arrived at Point Comfort, an English settlement…at the mouth of the harbor, 20 nautical miles downstream from Jamestown (Va.).” (www.Project1619.org) Thus began the scourge of slavery in this country that has continued on for 400 years. 
According to an article in the Sunday Tribune by Michael Coard, 12.5 million stolen Africans were brought to this country. By the time of the Civil War there were 4 million enslaved people and 1.32 million of them were children. 
They were sold on slave blocks, treated inhumanely, and whole families were separated: “…mother from daughter, father from son, brother from sister, husband from wife. Following these forced separations, they were scattered across the country. And they would never touch or even see one another again.” (Sunday Tribune, July 28, 2019, p 2-A)
It can well be said that the wealth and success of this country came on the backs of enslaved people. Again citing Coard’s research: Of the 56 signers of the American colonies’ Declaration of Independence, 41 had slaves. Of the 55 signers of the U.S. Constitution, 25 owned slaves. One in six households had slaves in Philadelphia in the 1760’s, and even William Penn himself had three. George Washington had 316 slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 did little to improve the lot of enslaved people. And through the years the scourge of slavery has continued to wound and scar us through Jim Crow laws, stubborn racism and racial inequities, white privilege, white Nationalism and mass incarceration. 
August 25 is a date to acknowledge the grievous sins of this nation against not only slaves but also first-nation peoples. It is a time to also recognize the ongoing attacks on immigrants and migrants in this country. 
It is a time to remember and reflect on how the hunger for gain and material wealth has caused people to subjugate and enslave their fellow human beings. It is said well in one of our rarely sung hymns: “O shame to us who rest content while lust and greed for gain in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain.” (UM Book of Hymns, No. 726)
It is a time to commit the church—our church—to name racism when we see it, to work harder to achieve equality and shared leadership and wealth for all, to carefully monitor our elected officials and vote for those who have hearts of justice, and to promote laws that encourage reparations, affirmative action and fair voting rights, policies and alignment of districts. 
The road is long and the battle lines are deeply entrenched in this country presently. But each of us can do our part and together the Church of Jesus Christ can make a difference. Start by praying this prayer at church on August 25.
Gracious God of all people, we acknowledge and repent of the grievous acts of inhumanity against people of African descent in our long history. We know that much generational wealth in this country has been in the hands of European-American people at the expense of people of color. 
Forgive us we pray and on this anniversary of 400 years of American slavery. We commit ourselves anew to work for justice, peace and equity. Give us the strength to step out in faith to do our part. And give us the courage to face the persecution that comes with justice ministry. This we pray in the name of the lover of our souls and of all: Jesus, the Christ. Amen.

Learn more about this poignant anniversary of a momentous event in American history. Read “Slavery anniversary leads to new discussions,” by Jim Patterson of UM News Service (July 8, 2019)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

What’s in Your Heart?

Doctors have perfected many kinds of tests that diagnose heart disease. From coronary artery  blockages to arrhythmia, to heart valve disease—with modern testing equipment, we can know what is in a person’s physical heart.

However, when our Scriptures speak of the heart, it is far more than a body organ. The “heart” is found 762 times in the KJV Bible, and it tends to mean what it is the central core of a person’s desires, wonderment and passion. It is our true best self.  One cannot test this kind of heart with a stethoscope, but it is easily discerned by a person’s words.

Jesus taught his disciples that eating food with unwashed hands does not defile a person: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?”

He goes on to assert the true test of a person’s heart: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.” (Matthew 15:17-19)

What is in our heart is evidenced by the way we talk. Just listen to what a person says. Listen to yourself talk. No special equipment necessary; just listen with your ears… and your heart.

This is no little thing. The Book of James reminds us, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire.  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness… it is a restless evil… full of deadly poison.”  (James 2:5-6, 8b)

In our current political climate, we are experiencing countless inflammatory words whose name is legion. Many of them come from a heart of racial bigotry, sexism and classism. Calls for congresswomen to be “sent home” and unkind words about Baltimore being an unlivable “rat and rodent infested mess” are disappointing and hurtful. It stirs up more and more strife between people as the cycle of harsh criticism and insults goes on and on.

However, we are not sitting above it all in holiness and purity. In the life of the church, mean-spirited words are spoken against one another as well. James says, “Every kind of beast and bird or reptile and sea creature can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.” (2:7). 

Sadly, it is part of the human condition to speak unkindly. So, do we just take it as a “given” and keep on hurting one another with insults and slander? I think not! We have a God who can understand our weakness and will help us.

Paul teaches, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. And God is faithful; and he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, God will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (I Corinthians 10:13)


May we use God’s preventive medicine for the heart disease of slander and evil words spoken against each another. Indeed, may we use that same medicine to also cure the callous, heinous and even murderous actions that too often are prompted by our words. Should we be surprised that hurtful public policies and personal threats and attacks often seem to follow hateful public discourse?

May we continue to pray and work unceasingly for a world in which everyone is given respect in our thoughts, words and deeds, and where the better angels of our nature lead us to promote inclusion and equality for all. If each of us takes responsibility for what we think, say and do in this world, our church can still become part of the beloved community that God intended.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Summer of Love

This season I have been pondering “love.” According to the Apostle Paul, it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:7).

In a sense, it has been the theme of both of our annual conferences. Eastern PA (June 13-15) emphasized the importance of passing down the generational love of God through evangelism. Peninsula Delaware’s annual conference (May 30-June 1) called us to be out in the world engaging in acts of sacrificial love.

Love knows no bounds, is accessible to all, is contagious and, like blood type O- negative, it is the universal donor. Love continues on and on in an unending stream of goodness and life.

The last week of June I traveled to the Northeastern Jurisdictional College of Bishops meeting in Pittsburgh, Pa., where I encountered a bridge adorned with “locks of love.” This phenomena can be found all around the world. Countless people attach padlocks to chain-link fences on bridges as symbols of their love commitment to significant others. 


So popular is this kind of padlocking that from time to time municipal officials have to remove locks because the sheer weight of them can compromise the integrity of popular bridges. The locks symbolize permanence and faithfulness to a promise, another characteristic of love. The sheer weight of love can conquer anything, even the structure of a mammoth bridge.

Last week I flew to Kansas City for Youth 2019, the denomination’s quadrennial gathering to celebrate and enhance youth ministry. The theme was “Love-Well.”

There I encountered the faces of over 3,000 young people seeking to be the loving presence of Christ in this world. They were concerned about immigration, the environment, the place of LGBTQIA+ members in our church, and the hard, hard task of loving enemies. 

I taught a class there along with a few other leaders from the UM Association of Ministers with Disabilities. We taught about accessibility for youth who have physical and emotional challenges.

The theme of love appeared again and again in our conversations, including: how to be in ministry with those on the margins; how to create spaces and accessibility for equality of participation; and how to explore the giftedness of the disability community.

At the end of the day, it is all about love. It is that simple, it is that hard. It means waking up every morning and praying that one can be an agent of love in the world. It means doing the challenging work of getting yourself out of the way and putting Christ and others first. 

The Holy Club of Oxford University that John and Charles Wesley led in 1729 required its members to undergo a rigorous self-examination each day with 22 questions. Each one boils down to holiness of life and focus so that love can shine through.

This Holy Club changed the world. Most of the 25 members of this club eventually became legendary leaders of the Great Awakening, a widespread religious revival of that era that changed the world forever with love.

This still works today, especially during these polarizing times. As we make love our focus, all the other things of life fall into place. As Paul reminds us love never fails (I Corinthians 13:8).

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Abortion: Navigating a complicated problem through a path of grace

Quite a few states have passed new restrictions on abortion this year, and more are making similar plans. These restrictions include things like a ban on abortion after just six weeks, even if the woman is a victim of rape or incest. There will be court challenges and even the possibility of this issue going to the Supreme Court.

Many would like to see the landmark “Roe v Wade” case of 1973 over-turned. That law states that abortion is legal until a fetus would be viable outside the womb. Many others strongly oppose any law that would restrict abortion rights.

What does The United Methodist Church’s “Social Principles” say about this? It is found in the 2016 Book of Discipline, in paragraph 161.K:

“The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve of abortion.


Respect sacredness of life and well-being for mother and child


But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child. We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We support parental, guardian or other responsible adult notification and consent before abortions can be performed on girls who have not yet reached the age of legal adulthood. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection or eugenics.

We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life. This procedure shall be performed only by certified medical providers. Before providing their services, abortion providers should be required to offer women the option of anesthesia.

We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may cause them to consider abortion. We entrust God to provide guidance, wisdom and discernment to those facing an unintended pregnancy.

The Church shall offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth.


Is The United Methodist Church pro-life or pro-choice? Yes and yes!


We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates. The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe.

Young adult women disproportionately face situations in which they feel that they have no choice due to financial, educational, relational, or other circumstances beyond their control. The Church and its local congregations and campus ministries should be in the forefront of supporting existing ministries and developing new ministries that help such women in their communities. They should also support those crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women explore all options related to an unplanned pregnancy. We particularly encourage the Church, the government, and social service agencies to support and facilitate the option of adoption. We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.

Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral and other appropriate counsel.”



Instead of legal wrangling, forge connections with real people


So is The United Methodist Church pro-life or pro-choice? Yes and yes! What is written above is a fairly balanced and nuanced statement. United Methodists of goodwill have strong convictions about abortion, and we as a pluralistic church have the freedom to teach what the church teaches and yet have our own opinions.

What I like about our abortion statement is that it is high on relationship building. The best answer to difficult questions is not to write a law or hire a lobbyist or even march in a protest (on either side). The best approach is always deep connections with real people that cuts through all the judgments and “one-size-fits-all” mentality and deals with each situation relationally, prayerfully and in community.

Years ago my husband’s church happened to be next to the office of an abortion clinic. Very often it was the scene of protest marches with people holding signs and giant pictures of bloody aborted fetuses and even someone dressed in a hooded black robe and holding a sickle.

When I would take mail out to the mailbox they would shout at me that I was like a Nazi who watched the Jews being taken to the death camps and ignored the plight of the innocent. I walked over to them one day and engaged in conversation. These were people of deep conviction and a passion for life. I understood their position, and I respect our First Amendment rights to free speech and heart.

I told them that I had been working with a pregnant, single deaf woman in the inner city, who was expecting her 9th child. She was considering an abortion because there was barely enough money to feed the ones left at home, and three of her older children were serving time in prison. I went with her to the doctor’s office and she decided to go ahead with the pregnancy.


Women with crisis pregnancies need spiritual, relational, financial support


I shared with the marchers that she needed financial resources. They promised to help but no one ever called me back. I am sure that many people in the movement do help and this was just an isolated case.

But my point is: supporting women spiritually, relationally and financially with crisis pregnancies and abortion decisions is the important key to this huge, complicated picture. Our faith calls us to “get in the weeds” with the nuances of peoples’ lives and try to weave a path of grace, hope and life for people, one situation at a time.

Pray for our country as we navigate these legal battles over abortion in the months to come. Engage in conversations at church and in the community around these issues. Most importantly, if you really care about this, become relationally involved with real women who are facing crisis pregnancies. Be the hands and feet, the mind and loving heart of Christ, who came to give hope and abundant life.

Friday, May 24, 2019

“It Only Takes a Moment”

“God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of God, who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which God has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them, you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness and godliness with brotherly affection and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."           
2 Peter 1:3-8

Aldersgate Sunday

The Broadway musical “Hello Dolly” is back in New York City, starring Bette Midler as the leading lady. I can actually boast that I saw Carol Channing perform this role in 1968 when I was in high school on a field trip to the United Nations building. Now to see it again 40 years later does make me feel a bit old.

But the signature love song in this musical is “It Only Takes a Moment.” It speaks of romantic love: “It only takes a moment for your eyes to meet, and then your heart knows in a moment you will never be alone again.” The leading lady and man croon together, “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.”

United Methodists believe in moments too: moments of experiencing for the first time God’s wooing grace, moments of conviction of sin and repentance, moments of conversion to faith in Jesus Christ, and one special moment that happened to our founder, John Wesley, at a Bible study on London’s Aldersgate Street nearly three centuries ago. 


 
John Wesley was raised in the Anglican Church and was a priest and the son of an Anglican priest. But when he was 35 years old he was struggling with his faith.

As the story goes on May 24, 1738, he went reluctantly to a Bible study and prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. Someone read from Martin Luther’s “Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.”

John writes in his diary “About 8:45 PM, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

This was Wesley’s defining moment of assurance of salvation and freedom from sin and death. What he experienced was what St. Peter describes as “the precious and great promises of God.”

In this moment he felt the power of the Holy Spirit to preach salvation. From that day on he dedicated his life to proclaiming that good news around England to anyone who would listen. They say he preached as if he were “out of breath in pursuit of souls.”

Eventually, he inspired a movement that found its way to America when Wesley sent his preachers to “spread Scriptural Holiness” across the continent.

United Methodists observe Aldersgate Sunday every year around the 24th day of May. We do this to remind people of the love of God for everyone and that all can be heirs of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ and be blessedly assured of the same.

It is also a time for us to rededicate our lives to not only spreading the gospel but being the loving presence of Jesus Christ out in the world. This is another important thing to know about John Wesley:

He preached conversion but also sanctification: that is the Holy Spirit working on one’s soul to improve one’s character and obedience to God through prayer, study of the scripture, accountability groups, the sacraments, and fasting. He called this personal holiness.


The passage above, from 2 Peter 1:3-8 describes it well. We are to supplement our faith with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly and sisterly affection, and love. This personal holiness is vitally important because it gives us strength and direction for the works of Christ out in the world.

Wesley calls that “social holiness.” It means being a “sermon in shoes” through sacrificial giving of ourselves to the poor, to minister to those in prisons, to visit the sick, and to speak out on social justice issues for those without a voice.

There are many ways to give yourself away for the love of God’s children. This is the heart of mission. And as we engage in mission, God’s witness increases and we decrease. Mission is the fire and we are merely the candle.

When I was in seminary back in the late 1970’s, there was an early, heavy snow storm. Some seminary students—being seminary students—went out to throw snowballs and make snowmen, rather than study in the library. One of the students, an amazing artist, crafted a snowman that looked exactly like John Wesley. We all commented on this incredible work of art.

A few days later, when the autumn sun returned, the snowman had melted some, and there appeared a sign on the sculpture: “My heart was strangely warmed.” (quoting of course John Wesley’s experience of assurance of salvation at Aldersgate).

We all had a good laugh. But truly, as we engage in heart-warming mission, we give ourselves away—or melt away, as it were—so that we are not important any more. It is the work of ministry that is most important. We give ourselves away out of love for Christ.

Aldersgate Day can be everyday as we remember the love of God poured out for all of us in abundance. It only takes a moment to realize that we are loved a whole life long.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Hurricane relief donation to Puerto Rico surpasses goal



By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Clergy of the Philadelphia Episcopal Area (Peninsula-Delaware and Eastern Pennsylvania conferences) held their annual “Lenten Day Apart” with me at the Aldersgate UMC in Wilmington, Del., on March 4, 2019. There was a major presentation by Bishop Hector Ortiz, head of the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico.

Bishop Ortiz described the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017 and the subsequent recovery work. Volunteers in Mission (VIM) teams from all over the world, including our area, have come to the island and given thousands of hours of service and many dollars toward this effort.

The Philadelphia Area has also participated in the recovery by donating through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). UMCOR’S funds primarily aid in relief projects among the affected communities but not in the repair of church buildings. Yet, some have donated to help restore and rebuild the many damaged Methodist churches as well.

As we prepared for the “Lenten Day Apart,” the Mid-Atlantic United Methodist Foundation (MAUMF) generously offered a challenge grant of $10,000 toward the recovery work in Puerto Rico. Pastors were asked to take a special offering and bring their donations to the March 4 event. They responded faithfully.

Peninsula Delaware clergy and churches contributed $11,613.50; and Eastern PA clergy and churches gave $10,417. The Mid-Atlantic Foundation added $10,000, bringing our total giving to a generous $32,030.50.

When Bishop Ortiz heard the news, he wrote to us the following response:

“Grace and peace to you and the brothers and sisters of the Eastern PA and the Peninsula-Delaware Conferences. Your commitment to being with us by means of VIM groups, offerings and prayers are proof of God’s greatness and the sensitive hearts of our brothers and sisters in your conferences. Receive our thanks in the name of the people of our island and the Methodist Church of Puerto Rico. We are looking forward to receiving the next team this coming June.”

The Eastern PA Conference will send its third VIM team to Puerto Rico June 15. They will be led by the Rev. Nicholas Camacho, an elder in our conference and a native of Puerto Rico. He led our first VIM team there in November 2018 and delivered to church leaders there a second gift from our many relief offerings, a total of $96,105. (Read about that team’s gifts and labors in “First Conference VIM team brings hope to Puerto Rico.”)

A second Eastern PA Conference VIM team, also composed of clergy and laity from various churches, traveled there to work in March. (Read “More Eastern PA VIM teams headed to Puerto Rico in 2019.”)

In June, Camacho will personally deliver to the bishop a check for these new funds from our two conferences, and those funds will be used to continue the work of reconstructing a badly damaged home. Because of FEMA restrictions, the owners of this home, and many others, did not qualify for federal assistance. They are very grateful for our help.

Thanks to all who have prayed and worked so hard to raise this much-needed money. And thanks to the Mid-Atlantic Foundation for its generous donation of the challenge grant. We are doing the work of God and being Christ’s hands and feet in mission where we are needed most.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Murder in the Heart

By Bishop Peggy Johnson
It seems that the world has gone crazy with a series of hate-related mass murders recently.  In New Zealand, Muslims were killed while worshiping. Then there were bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, where many Christians were murdered and wounded.  And now we grieve a shooting in a Jewish synagogue near San Diego, Calif.  These senseless atrocities have become a constant, tragic reality in our troubled world.
Christians need to acknowledge the persecution of the church that is a part of that sobering reality. There are more Christian martyrs and people incarcerated for their Christian beliefs than ever before in the history of our world.  According to some researchers, one in 12 Christians live where their faith is “illegal, forbidden or punished” (2018 World Watch List from Open Doors). That comes to about 215 million Christians facing persecution.
It is not limited to Christians of course: Muslims, Jews, and religious sects of all kinds face persecution and death, depending on where they happen to live, including people in the United States. Humans are killing and harming each other for sectarian religious reasons, for racial bigotry reasons, for reasons of fear, for reasons of ignorance in an endless wave of malice and misery.


Response after response after response

We decry this!  We are jarred into responsive action with every horrible news account and the details that emerge.  Sometimes, some of us even become numb because it is so overwhelming.
We engage in sending help for the victim’s families, rebuilding damaged houses of worship, launching street protests, going to Congress to testify, and calling for more restrictive gun laws. We organize talks about racism and building healthy relationships with the “other.”  We teach and preach about inclusivity and tolerance.
We have candlelight vigils and calls to prayers and calls to action. We encourage people to speak out and write to lawmakers. We do, do, do all of this, at least for a while; and sometimes it all gets too hard and overwhelming, and the passion dissipates. Then there is the next explosion, the next shooting, the next suicide bomber; and it starts all over again.  What can stop this endless cycle of evil and violent inhumanity?


Anger in our hearts is tantamount to murder

An important answer is right here in The Book, the Word of God, found in the “Sermon on the Mount,” what I lovingly refer to as “Jesus’ Greatest Hits.”  The Gospel says in Matthew 5:21-24,
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment: whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.  So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus is meddling here, getting personal. That is why he is so hard to hear. It is not the mass murderers “out there” that he is admonishing. He is talking about us, with all of our interpersonal rubs and “sides” and strife and jealousies and bigotries and impatience and selfishness!
Jesus is saying that anger in our hearts against our brothers and sisters is the same as committing murder. The seeds of anger bloom into murder. It all begins in the heart, in our hearts. Every one of us has been guilty of anger against our fellow humans. Every one of us has at some time spoken disparagingly about someone with whom we disagree.”

If we really want to do something about the violence and evil in the world, if we really believe in doing what the Word of God says, we need to work on ourselves first. Go to the lawmaker of your soul and ask God to ferret out the places where you are holding hatred. Go write a letter to yourself about why you don’t like this person or that group.  Hold a candlelight vigil in your prayer closet and ask God to help you devise a plan to build bridges of understanding and respect instead of erecting walls of schism and hatred.  Confront your personal demons with confession and repentance.
Then go out and make peace with the people with whom you are in disagreement.  There is a lot of demonizing going on in this world and in The United Methodist Church.  Take personal responsibility to understand, respect and speak kindly to your opponents. As the familiar hymn admonishes us: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!”
If you do these things, the words of Isaiah 58:8 and 12b will come to pass “Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your real guard….You shall be called the repairers of the breach.”