Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Invisible Things

Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote a poem titled “Who has Seen the Wind?”* It goes like this:

Who has seen the wind?

Neither I nor you

But when the leaves hang trembling,

The wind is passing through

Who has seen the wind?

Neither you nor I

But when the trees bow down their heads,

The wind is passing by

During this week when we consider the wind and flame that came on the day of Pentecost, it is clear that a mighty wind can do great things, even though it is invisible. The Spirit of God is indeed the most powerful force in all of the universe and beyond, making a strong case that such invisible things are everlasting and are the source of creation.

II Corinthians 4:18 says “The things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Hebrews 11:3 notes, “The universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  When we see the beauty of creation and marvel at the power of Jesus’ resurrection and eternal life, we can truly affirm with the poet that though we cannot see it, “the wind is passing by.”

Yet we cannot ignore the other invisible spirits at work in this world.  Ephesians 6:12 reminds us “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Just as there is the Holy Spirit, there are invisible powers of evil that cause great sadness and destruction. There’s that kind of wind as well.

As I ponder the recent revelation of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young, black jogger in Atlanta, and the even more recent murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the evil spirit of racism is clearly alive and prevalent in this country. In recent years it seems to be increasing at an alarming rate, as we hear about these crimes. There is invisible evil in the hearts and souls of people that gets acted out in violent ways.

Film-maker and United Church of Christ pastor, Rev. Otis Moss III was featured in a recent issue of Religion News Service (May 20, 2019) speaking about this invisible enemy:

“As we are all sheltering in place to recognize the invisible enemy of COVID-19, there is also an invisible enemy that affects our behavior, being racism, privilege, the inability for the heart to be compassionate to people who are different but not deficient.”

Jesus spoke about this when he said, “Out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 11:19)

We are all “infected” with sin as we collaborate with the spiritual forces of evil.  It starts in the heart, and then it is lived out in behaviors that wreak havoc in the world.  We so quickly rush to excuse ourselves for our sins and find ways to blame someone else, or try to minimize its influence on our lives. Temptation and the resulting sin is real and is like “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (I Peter 5:8).

All sin needs to be opposed with the overcoming power of the Holy Spirit.  In memory of Ahmaud Arbery, whose death took months to uncover, and the recent death of George Floyd, I would like to shine a light on the sin of racism.

Racism, this invisible enemy, is something we need to address for the health and wholeness of all of humanity. It is right here in our hearts, our neighborhoods, and our annual conference. It must be addressed by people who have white privilege. Think about these questions:

Do you consider yourself better than people of color? 

When do you separate yourself from people who are different from you? 

Does your local church reflect the Acts 2 diversity of creation?

Do you support political views that favor the rich and the majority culture? 

Do you make friends only with white people?

Do you support only businesses that are owned by people who look like you?

Do you sit silently when they are making inappropriate racial remarks? 

These are important questions for white people to consider and then do something about.  It is not enough to just think about it if things are ever going to change.

Dismantling racism is a long journey and not something that is “once and done.”  We need to be committed to doing battle with this invisible enemy.  As we do, we build a church and a world where everyone is beloved and cherished, and no one of any race or ethnicity is seen as “less than” or deserving of harm, oppression or death because of the color of their skin.

(*In public domain)

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Everyone Counts

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

One of my favorite scripture verses is found in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” (I Corinthians 12:22)  It is a declaration of a fundamental spiritual truth that every person is important, necessary and worthy of inclusion and honor. 

This “seem to be weaker” qualifier is a human construct.  It is sinful humanity that puts a value judgement on peoples’ worth.  With our bent on pride and bigotry, people are constantly comparing themselves to others. We often size up a person’s importance based on the outward things that are transient or a part of God’s creative design. These things include a person’s gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic class, intelligence, physical ability, education, even personal appearance. 

The Apostle Paul is saying that no one is weaker here. Our “pecking order” of seeming worthiness is nonsense.  God gives to each the gifts, skills and personhood that God chooses. And everyone is necessary for the good of the whole. This is true in the church, and this is also true in our country today.

Where am I going with all of this?  It is time for the 2020 Census.  I hope that by now you have received your Census form and have filled it out and sent it in.  It is important for everyone to do this. 

The U.S. Census is not used to discriminate against people based on their ethnicity, finances, living situations or citizenship status.  But it does quantify the American people by their demographics and location, and it determines the overall “distribution of political power and money.” The government also uses that information to allocate public funds to healthcare, housing and education programs, in addition to government services.” (Philadelphia Tribune, “We Need to be Counted in the 2020 Census,” by Logan James)

Like the Body of Christ, everyone in our country is indispensable. When everyone is counted we all get what we need, and we become more useful participants in society. 

Historically, communities of color are undercounted.  Again, quoting Logan James, “Past surveys have shown that Latinos, African Americans, non-English speakers, non-traditional families, and those with informal living arrangements are the hardest to calculate.  For every community not counted, $100,000 to $200,000 that would have gone toward advancing their economic, political and society position is lost.”

None of us can afford for any of us to be without housing, education, employment, transportation, and a voice in decision-making.  We are all one family in this country; and when some suffer, everyone ultimately suffers.  A valid Census reveals where we can do a better job to help the whole of society.

We must also impress upon younger generations the importance of the Census. It comes only once every 10 years; and 10 years is a long time to wait for better statistics.  

Spelman College, in Atlanta, Georgia, is the oldest private historically black liberal arts college for women in America. In 2000 they began the Spelman College Census Information Center in cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of the Census and a large number of national, regional and local non-profits.

Their objectives are to get the word out about the importance of the Census, to encourage young people to participate, and to use their research to benefit the community and the world. They know that the future can be brighter for everyone when we have an accurate count of our country’s residents.

No one is weaker. Everyone is indispensable. Each one of us counts. So, be sure that you are counted! Take part in the 2020 Census, and encourage others to do so also.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Listen to Your Mother

Growing up I would hear these words: “listen to your mother.” Listen usually meant “obey,” and if things were going to go well for me that was usually the best plan of action.  For this Mother’s Day I would say that the “Mother of Methodism,” Susanna Wesley has a few words to say to us during our journey right now. May we listen to that mother as well and follow her good example.
Born in 1669 in London, England, Susanna was the youngest child of Rev. and Ms. Samuel Annesley, a devout Puritan couple who had no less than 25 children.  She grew up in a very religious family, but they also had the kind of religion that was open-minded.  They taught their girls how to read Greek, Latin and French and allowed them to decide what to believe about things.
Susanna compared the Puritan religion to the Church of England and decided to convert to the Church of England.  Religious freedom and equality for women!  Listen to your mother!  How we could benefit from a plurality of thought that allows people to follow their heart around matters of faith.
Susanna married a priest in the Church of England, Samuel Wesley, and they had a tumultuous life, to say the least.  They had 19 children in 20 years of marriage, but only 10 survived to adulthood.  At one point all of them had smallpox. Their parsonage home at Epworth was destroyed in a fire that some believe was intentionally set by a disgruntled church member. 
From left: John and Charles Wesley, Samuel and Susanna Wesley
Our founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was almost killed in that blaze but was miraculously delivered by a group of brave men who created a human ladder.  Samuel Wesley spent a good bit of time in debtors’ prison because he was a poor financial manager.  The family also claimed to have had a ghost in the house that was constantly banging things around.  The Wesleys lived through unimaginable hardship and trials.

Through it all Susanna had a strong faith in God that sustained her.  She wrote in her journal “Help me, Lord, to make a true use of all disappointments and calamities in this life, in such wise that they may unite my heart more closely with Thee.” 
Listen to your mother! The times we are living through now can use a bit of her advice. Offer our trials to God to be used of God and to strengthen our faith.
Susanna was a diligent teacher of her children.  She invented “home schooling,” and like her parents before her, she educated all of her children, both girls and boys.  She taught them reading, writing, history, and various languages but her greatest passion was teaching them about faith in God.
Susanna had a private “spiritual direction” meeting with each child every week.  They strictly read scripture, prayed, observed the Sabbath, fasted and took communion every day.  She taught her children the practice of tithing and helping the poor.  She even led worship in her kitchen when her husband was away to continue her Christian witness to family and congregants.
Susanna followed well the scripture in Deuteronomy 6:7, which says, “You shall teach them (the laws of the Lord) diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”  
Would that we would be more intentional about Christian instruction of our children in our homes, our neighborhoods and our churches.  Listen to your mother! Our future church depends on the work we do today.  How I appreciate the churches that are providing Sunday school on line right now. Everyone can be ministering to young people in some way.
Susanna aged graciously. After Samuel died she would visit with her children, but not staying too long in any one place. She helped John and Charles Wesley in the Methodist revival that was springing up in London.  Often John would come to her for advice and even words of challenge. 
She died at age 73 and requested that at the moment of her death, a psalm would be sung.  She died as she lived, in service and praise to God in all the seasons of her life.  May we who are seasoned follow her example of encouragement for our younger leaders in the church.  Listen to your mother!  Experienced voices can assist greatly in the work.
Happy Mother’s Day!  I celebrate this “mother of our faith” but also the many mothers of my faith who led me to the Lord, taught me the Words of Life, and journeyed with me on the way.  The best gift we can give them is to “pay it forward” in our witness and support.

For more quotes by Susanna Wesley, visit her page on our UMC General Commission on Archives & History’s website:  Susanna Wesley.
The One Year Women in Christian History Devotional by Randy Petersen and Robin Shreeves
Susanna Wesley by Eliza Clarke (1886)