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. 


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.