Thursday, May 6, 2021

Freeing ourselves from the prisons in our hearts

The most curious thing that belonged to my father was a cotton handkerchief that he mounted on a frame and hung on the wall in his little antique shop. On the handkerchief was a hand-painted picture of a beautiful Japanese woman, surrounded by a pink cherry blossom tree and some Japanese writing. 

At the bottom was the signature of the artist and the letters, “POW” for Prisoner of War.  My dad served in the Air Force in World War II and was stationed in Guam. He was part of the bomber crew that conducted raids against the Japanese Imperial Army. 

This handkerchief was original art from the hand of a “POW” who was incarcerated at the Air Force base in Guam at the time. This entrepreneur would make deals with American soldiers in order to secure cigarettes and other creature comforts. 

Anyone who would give him a clean handkerchief and a pack of cigarettes or a candy bar, would receive his handkerchief back with a lovely Japanese picture.  My father was one of the customers, and this curious treasure came back home with him after the war.

I used to stare at this picture in awe.  Japanese people were so foreign to me. I had never encountered anyone of Asian descent in my whole life growing up.  I heard about World War II and was glad that the Americans had defeated the Japanese; but I had no idea what had happened just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. 

Japanese incarceration in WW II concentration camps

President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced Executive Order 9066 that created a forced relocation and incarceration in concentration camps of more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, 62 percent of whom were American citizens.  These camps were located mostly in remote areas of Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Arizona, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arkansas, Wyoming, Colorado and California.

Personal property was seized, assets were frozen or stolen, and there was no recourse or defense for these Japanese Americans.  They were deemed guilty by the fact that they were at least 1/16th Japanese.  They were prisoners of war in their own country. 

At the camps, they were subjected to harsh conditions, forced labor and denial of basic human rights. Their crime was being who they were; and racism, fear and executive Presidential privilege painted the canvas.

After World War II these camps were all closed. The Supreme Court ruled that the practice of incarcerating citizens was unconstitutional, President Gerald Ford, officially repealed the President Roosevelt’s executive order in 1976. The United States Congress issued a formal apology in 1988 and passed the “Civil Liberties Act,” which awarded $20,000 to over 80,0000 Japanese Americans as reparations for these atrocities.

Fast-forward to now. There is a new kind of prison emerging in the rising tide of hate crimes and discrimination against Asian Americans, which has increased since the onset of the coronavirus. Claims by high profile voices that this pandemic was caused by the Chinese people has ignited much violence and suffering for people of not only Chinese but Asian heritage in general. 

Hate crimes against Asian Americans increase

The incidences of abuse and hate crimes has risen by 150 percent this year alone; acts of prejudice that aren’t crimes have also soared with 2,800 cases being reported since March. Asian women are 2.5 times more likely to be targeted than men, adding sexism to the racism.   

This environment creates a culture of fear and a “prison” of anxiety and worry for our Asian-heritage brothers and sisters.  I know of one Asian American woman whose family has encouraged her to purchase pepper spray as protection.

We as God’s people should be speaking out about this, naming it when we see it, and living in respectful, peaceful ways among people of all races, cultures and diverse conditions.  The truth is, when we harbor racist attitudes and practice discrimination, we too are in a prison of isolation, fear and anger that is just as constrictive and deadly to our souls.

Jesus engaged personally with Samaritan, Syrophoenician, Greek and persons of other outcast groups who many despised. He—like his apostles Peter and Paul—calls us today to close down our prisons of fear and open wide our hearts through love, acceptance and a vision of God’s marvelous, diverse creation. 

Through the power of the Holy Spirit in Christ Jesus, we can do this. Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:14a “For he himself is our peace, who has made us one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”

I encourage you to engage and seek conversations with people of Asian descent and hear their stories, learn about their families and cultures, and find new freedom of heart, as we tear down the prison walls of separation. Also, become an outspoken advocate against the national tide of hate and rejection of Asian-heritage people.

May is National Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.  What a great time to do all this and more!


Resources:

Monday, April 19, 2021

Mass murder every day

I am certain that all of us are grieved by the uptick of mass shootings that are happening all over the country at the moment.  This is of course not a new thing.  We have seen this pattern of clusters of mass shootings in the past in this country.

According to the Gun Violence Archive there have been 2,218 mass shootings since 2013 (in which at least four people are being shot at the same time and location), (www.gunviolencearchive.org).

Almost every day in the cities of Philadelphia and Wilmington there have been homicides and injuries in large numbers. I ponder why that does not get more national news coverage.  We should never take a single violent act for granted; and as Christians we have some responsibility to address this pandemic.

Automatic weapons make it so easy to gun down multiple people in seconds.  Contrast that with the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. During a meeting of the Senate in Rome.  It took the senators, led by Marcus Brutus, quite a long time to kill him.  They stabbed him 23 times. If they had an automatic weapon, this would have been quick work. 


Humans have found many efficient ways of killing each other throughout history, and I am sure God just shakes God’s head at us with dismay and grief.  I ponder the need for the proliferation of such weapons in our country.

Jesus addressed murder in the “Sermon on the Mount.” In just a few short words, he gets down to the heart of the matter.  Violence and murder are products of human anger.

“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.”  (Matthew 5:21-22)

If this is the case, all of us are guilty of murder when we harbor anger and speak evil against a brother or sister.  Mass murders of the heart are happening every day, and it includes us good church people. 


What do we do with this?  Surely, we are not as guilty as the gunmen that stormed the Fed-Ex office, the massage parlor or the grocery store. Or are we? 

Jesus also calls us to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)  It seems we can be “going on to perfection” a lot more when it comes to handling our anger.

Christians, let us study Jesus’ methods of anger management, take them to heart and practice them in the world. It is quite alright to get angry about things.  Jesus cleansed the temple (John 2: 13-16) when it was being desecrated. But no one was killed, the wrong was made right, and truth was embodied.  Here are some other lessons from Jesus:

  1. Jesus engaged people in an anger-provoking situation. When he was slapped on the face during his mock trial, he turned to the perpetrator and said, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Talking through a situation can often defuse escalating violence and call people to accountability in a peaceful way. Proverbs 15:1 reminds us, “A gentle answer turns away wrath; but a harsh word stirs up anger.” When you are in a difficult conversation keep calm and speak the truth.
  2. Jesus points out a wrong but does not take it personally. When asked if he believed in paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus named the question’s intent: “Why put me to the test?” (Mark 12:15). He was clear about the hypocrisy and the mean-spirited attempt to trap him; but he answered their question with integrity. He did not let this get “under his skin.” I think that is what Paul means when he writes, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” (Ephesians 4:26). If we are wise, we need to have “Teflon” (stick-resistant) hearts and let the anger-provoking thing slide off of our hearts and psyche.
  3. Jesus forgave the unworthy, the not-sorry, and gave them the benefit of the doubt. When being nailed to a cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness offered to those who anger us, hurt us, insult us and are not in any way sorry about it, is divine. Not only that, it is the key to peace in your heart that stems that internal rage. When you forgive, it doesn’t mean the person that hurt you is right. It just means that you are leaving it to God to handle. Paul reminded the Romans, “’Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) When you forgive, you can be free of the internal rage.

Let us vow to stop committing “mass murder” in our hearts. Live in peace with all people (the easy to love and the not-so-easy to love). Teach non-violence and practice civility.

As we prepare for sessions of Annual Conference, may we engage each other with gentleness and respect. Using Bible verses in the “chat” as weapons to vent anger does not accomplish the work of God.

Justice causes are an important part of our holiness as Methodists, but rage and hurtful rhetoric are not. The cause of justice, so well exemplified in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is always accomplished best through non-violence, love and grace. God’s Spirit can give us the strength to handle our anger and avert much violence and murder.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Creation-care: Working toward net-zero carbon emissions

Five General Agencies of the UMC are joining together this year to commit to Net-Zero Carbon Emissions* in their operations and as a resource for the whole denomination.  We look forward to their initiative and the harvest of responsible stewardship of the earth’s resources that it will produce in years to come. For more information, take a look at this YouTube resource from our denominational agencies:  https://youtu.be/2sZZI8V-Zpc

What a timely agenda as we approach Earth Day 2021, Tuesday, April 20. Though not a program of the UMC, “Earth Day” is an annual reminder that this planet urgently needs protection, care and respect. Founded in 1970, it now engages 190-plus countries around the world in that quest.  It is a clarion call for public consciousness and political action. (www.earthday.org)

From the creation of the world recorded in the Book of Genesis, God’s people are called to “work the garden and also to keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) “Keeping” it requires care and wise stewardship of the planet’s resources for all to enjoy. Our Earth is not to be exploited for monetary gain. 

Carbon emissions, greenhouse gases, climate change are a byproduct of industrialization and commercial enterprises of the wealthiest nations. We are reaping a baleful harvest of increasingly dire climate disasters as a result. The poor, disenfranchised and marginalized peoples of the world become the most harmed victims of these disasters, as they often live in the most undesirable and vulnerable places.

The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church call us to “recognize the responsibility of the Church and its members to place a high priority on changes in economic, political, social and technological lifestyles to support a more ecologically equitable and sustainable world, leading to a higher quality of life for all of God’s creation.” (2016 UM Book of Discipline, paragraph 160)

And from the 2016 Book of Resolutions (#1044 “Caring for Creation: Our Call to Stewardship and Justice”) we read “As United Methodists we therefore are called to participate in God’s healing of creation through acts of personal, social and civic righteousness.  Proclaiming and modeling a new lifestyle rooted in stewardship and justice, we work toward the day when all God’s children respect and share in the goodness of creation.”

So what does this mean for us personally and in our local churches? We can’t solve all the problems of the environment, but we can all do something to help make it better. Sometimes the enormity of the planet’s climate crisis causes us to overlook the power of the small but vitally important things we can do. 

According to the General Board of Church and Society’s “Faith and Facts: Environmental Justice,” we can all personally take action in the following ways:

  • Reduce: buy less stuff.
  • Reuse: pack a “no-waste” lunch using reusable containers instead of disposables; find innovative ways to repurpose old products.
  • Recycle: Paper, glass, aluminum and plastic.
  • Refuse: Do not use or accept plastic bags when you make purchases. Bring reusable bags with you.
  • Rethink: How much is enough? Once you decide you need an item make sure it was produced in a way that is both earth-friendly and worker-friendly.


We can all do these simple things.  Our churches are also places where numerous environmental protective practices can be employed and taught. In her book, Seven Simple Steps to Green Your Church, author Rebekah Simon-Peter invites churches to form a “Green Team” that analyzes the systems in the church building that can ultimately be adapted to lower its carbon footprint. 

Along with recycling practices, churches can install energy efficient forms of heating, cooling and lighting. They can create community gardens and encourage “green” practices in the kitchen and office—for example, the use of non-toxic cleaning products.

Most importantly, we can be teaching these principles and practices to our church members and our young people. That way, we can begin to create a culture of Creation-Care that can encourage Biblical principles of stewardship—stewardship of God’s Creation—far into the future.

I encourage you to do something new in your personal life and at your church that can demonstrate your commitment to “keeping the earth” and respecting God’s amazing gifts bestowed upon us. 

*Net zero means achieving a balance between the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere and those taken out. ... This state is also referred to as carbon neutral; although zero emissions and zero carbon are slightly different, as they usually mean that no emissions were produced in the first place.

Also see:

Friday, April 9, 2021

Celebrate and support Native American Ministries April 18

Every year on the third Sunday of Easter, The United Methodist Church observes Native American Ministries Sunday. It includes the opportunity to take a special offering for our many local and denominational ministries. 

Half of our total offering stays in our annual conference each year to carry on the work of our Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM). The rest is used connectionally to support seminary scholarships and mission efforts among Native Americans beyond our conference. 

This year the needs are greater due to the ongoing plight of the COVID-19 pandemic that has been especially harsh in Native American communities. Our special offering serves as a lifeline for numerous ministries such as training events, youth empowerment weekends, new church construction and participation in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on behalf of the UMC. 

Locally, the Northeastern Jurisdiction, which includes the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conferences, supports a very important social justice issue, “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women: Invisible, Unreported, Uncounted.”

Statistics show that 84% of Native women and girls experience violence in their families. In 86% of the cases of sexual assaults against Native women and girls, the perpetrators are non-Native men. Native women are murdered at a rate of 10 times the national average (hhpts://wwwnejnamc.org.) The advocacy work on behalf of Native American women and girls is another important mission that this offering supports.

(Indeed, it was recently cited as a grave personal concern to new U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deborah Haaland, who just made history by becaming the first Native American to serve as a U.S. cabinet secretary. She is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a 35th generation New Mexican.)

Pastors, please take a special offering on Native American Ministries Sunday, April 18, or on a more convenient occasion. There are wonderful resources and video clips available on the United Methodist website to share with your congregations. 

Learn about Marilyn Anderson, a Seneca and a devoted member of the Committee on Native American Ministries (CONAM) in the Upper New York Conference. “I live a stone’s throw from the Four Corners Methodist Church and have gone there my entire … 75 years,” said Anderson. Read “Being a Methodist as a Native American.”

As we pool together our resources, so much more good work can be accomplished!  It is the gift of our connectional system and it is our commitment to inclusivity and our embrace of all as part of “the beloved community.”

Look for more promotional information prepared by our own hard-working CONAM in our media next week. And please plan to attend their annual spring worship and educational event on Sunday, May 2, at 4 PM, via Zoom. More information is coming.

Meanwhile, learn more at “Native American Ministries Sunday Did You Know?”

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Spreading the aroma of Christ


An aroma is a curious thing. It can bring back a precious memory. It can remind us of a person or an event. It can be familiar or unmistakable, and it can even create a mood or enhance our energy level.

Tiny, dispersed molecules can produce powerful aromas with a big effect. In fact, aroma therapy is a multi-million dollar enterprise, so powerful are its scents to people.

One of the most devastating effects of the coronavirus has been the loss of the sense of smell for many who have contracted COVID-19. There are even support groups for those who have lost their sense of smell, because it is so debilitating.

The Old Testament speaks of the aroma of burnt sacrifices on altars giving an aroma “pleasing to the Lord” (Leviticus 9:1). Through the centuries faith communities have used the burning of fragrant incense to symbolize the prayers of the people filling the air. The smell of it wafting through the sanctuary can add to an experience of the “holy.”

One of the joys of the season of Easter are the fragrant lilies and other spring flowers blooming in great abundance and reminding us of the rebirth of nature after a long winter season.

The Apostle Paul connected an experience of God’s presence with the sense of smell when he said to the church in Corinth that God “uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.” (II Corinthians 2:14).

How do we do this? It is not the kind of thing one accomplishes with air freshener or even with a church filled with holy incense. Spreading the knowledge of Christ is also not solely about book learning or teaching information about our faith.

It is more about a way of being that demonstrates Christ by our acts of love, generosity, humility and reconciliation. Like an aroma from dispersed molecules, small signs of Christ’s love can have a large, pervasive effect in the world. “Not all of us can do great things,” said Mother Teresa. “But we can do small things with great love.”

As “Easter people,” we share the good news of the resurrection; but we also live it in subtle, grace-filled ways. Like a fragrance that lingers, an act of selfless compassion or kindness lives on like nothing else.

Mary of Bethany humbly anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, and “the house was filled with the fragrance of her perfume” (John 12:3). It was her sacrificial, extravagant gift that was the real fragrance in the room. And just as Jesus foretold, the memory of her tiny gift has spread like a fragrance across the earth wherever the gospel is preached. (Matthew 26:13).

There has long been a sweet smell in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. It is chocolate. Milton Hershey, an early 20th century businessman, made a fortune on his chocolate business, especially with the iconic foil-covered “Hershey Kisses.”


His generosity to the community was as pervasive as the scent of chocolate. Hershey built homes, parks, schools, public transportation and an orphanage, to name a few of his philanthropic gifts (www.hersheystory.org). The goodness lingers on even to this day.

Pope Francis’ recent visit to Iraq has left a pervasive effect on the peace process between rival faith communities in the Middle East. Peacemaking through simple acts of conversation and respect can spread a scent of hope and reconciliation like nothing else.

Be the aroma of the knowledge of Christ where you live and have influence. Be the one to give generously, the one who crosses lines of division to extend welcome and kindness. Be the one who is willing to humbly engage in small tasks out of great love for Christ.

When you emulate Christ, even in small, sacrificial ways, God notices and people will notice. The aroma will be unmistakable, and people will gain a knowledge of God like nothing else. Never underestimate the power of the aroma of Christ-like actions.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Ruth Fernandez: ‘El alma de Puerto Rico’ (‘The Soul of Puerto Rico’)

A Women’s History Month Tribute

One of the greatest gifts that I have received during my time serving as the bishop of the Philadelphia Area has been my exposure to the profound giftedness of our diversity.  My personal background never exposed me to African American, Latinx, Native American, Korean, Indian and African cultures.  It will be my life’s journey to continue to explore the cultures, languages and perspectives of my many sisters and brothers with humble appreciation.

While attending the “Dismantling Racism II” training on February 27, 2021, I learned a great deal about the world of peoples of the Latinx communities, both in this country and in other parts of Central and South America.  The name Ruth Fernandez was mentioned, and her fame as a singer and a politician caught my attention. 

It is my honor to lift up her life and legacy during “Women’s History Month.” I give thanks for “Gracias Mundo,” the world that she loved and beautified. I give thanks to God for her witness and her heart.  Her signature song was titled “Gracias Mundo,” and there is much to celebrate.

Ruth Noemi Fernandez Cortada was born in 1919 in the Belgica community of barrio Cuarto in Ponce, Puerto Rico. She and her four siblings were raised by her grandmother, after her mother died when Ruth was only 6 years old.  As a child, she had a strong interest in music, and at the age of 14 she was singing for local radio stations. 

It wasn’t long before popular bands were hiring her to perform in nightclubs, at dances and casinos.  From there she had a series of successes as a popular singer with a recording contract.  She was known as “El alma de Puerto Rico hecha cancion” which means, “The soul of Puerto Rico turned song.”  Her voice interpreted the longings and hearts of her people.

Ruth Fernandez was also known to be the “Rosa Parks” of Puerto Rico.  When preparing to enter the Vanderbilt Hotel in San Juan she was informed that Afro-Puerto Ricans needed to enter by the kitchen door.  Instead, she entered the front door, “dressed to the nines,” and after that event, the discriminatory practice was stopped. She was proud of her racial heritage and her home city. She called herself “La Negra de Ponce” (“The Black Woman from Ponce”).  How encouraging and life-giving was her witness and example.

The musical career of Ruth Fernandez continued for decades, and she performed all over the world. She was the first Latina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.  She sang for soldiers during World War II and the Korean War, especially to encourage troops of Hispanic descent.

She continued to break barriers and was the “first” to do many things as a woman and as a woman of color. Throughout her life, Ruth Fernandez received numerous awards and declarations, all befitting of her trailblazing persona.

It is important to note that she was not only known for her famous contralto voice. Ruth Fernandez also had a heart for justice.  From 1973 until 1980, she served in the Senate of Puerto Rico, representing the district of Ponce as a member of the Partido Popular Democratico de Puerto Rico.  During her tenure she worked for reforms for the poor, including those living in the United States. She advocated for better working conditions for the artist community and supported the development of young musicians and artists. 

One of her mottos for life was “Arriba, Corazones” (“Lift up your hearts”).  It is clear that her life was a beacon of light that gave inspiration, hope and justice to millions. Her trailblazing shoulders have been the encouraging elevation for many who have come after her.

The worth of one’s life surely depends on how one’s legacy continues through lives that are touched and that prosper as a result.  Thus is the life and legacy of Ruth Fernandez: singer, justice trailblazer, confident woman, and soul of Puerto Rico. 

Resources:



Friday, March 19, 2021

Anti-Asian Violence: A call to teaching, preaching, speaking out

NBC News 10 reported on March 18 that Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among the states with the highest number of Anti-Asian violent crimes. According to “Stop Asian Americans Pacific Islander Hate” (AAPI), 68% of anti-Asian attacks were directed against women. 

Over the past year, despite hate crimes being down for the most part, anti-Asian attacks have become much more prevalent.  Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic physical assaults, verbal harassment, civil rights violations and online harassment against Asian Americans had increased by 200%. Terms like “The China virus” or Kung-flu” to describe COVID have had much to do with the current hate violence.

What a terrible thing! What a tragic world! We mourn with the people of Atlanta who have experienced thd senseless, evil mass shooting of eight people, six of them Korean women, March 16.  As United Methodists, “we deplore acts of hate or violence against groups or person based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity or religious affiliation.” (Social Principles, Paragraph 162)

As a nation, we need to teach and speak to one another about tolerance and cultural respect, so that more people see our diversity as a source of giftedness and not division or threat. In our churches, we need to preach and model respect and inclusion at every level of congregational life. That includes creating diversity and inclusiveness in funding and leadership opportunities. 

A practical thing that we can do every day is to speak up when we hear racist remarks that denigrate any ethnic group or that characterize people in negative and stereotypical ways.  Words can hurt, but words of truth can heal and create justice.  Let us be creators of “justice and joy”* and make a better world and a better church.

*From “For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table” Worship and Song #3149)

Read “Conference members join outcry against anti-Asian American racism.” 

 

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.