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Freedom

During this 4th of July weekend, when we celebrate our country’s independence and freedom, it is a good time to ponder what freedom really means. 

Freedom is a privilege as well as a responsibility, or it is not freedom at all.  One is free to speak but not necessarily to shout “fire” in a crowded room (unless of course, there is a fire).  Each of us have freedoms that are a gift from God to be used and not abused or hoarded. 

As Christians, we have been given freedom from sin and eternal death, the ultimate greatest freedom of all.  We need to use our freedom in Christ for good in this world.

In recent weeks we have been discussing racial reconciliation and the need for things to change in our country with regards to equality for people of color and white people.

Since the founding days of this country oppression and discrimination have been a way of securing wealth and power at the expense of black, brown and indigenous people. 

Some people are asking, “What can I do to make a difference?”  “How can I change things?”  The truth is, everyone can do something to make the principles of freedom a reality for all in this country.

If you have a freedom, share it with someone does not.  It is the responsibility of freedom to pass it on out of the abundance of God’s grace, and not out of a sense of scarcity.

Here are some freedoms you can share:

Your voice: Speak out for someone who is being discriminated against.

Your vote: Vote for policies and legislators that work for equality.

Your education: Teach someone who needs your knowledge and experience.

Your wealth: Share with people in poverty. (How much stuff do you need?)

Your heart: Say a word of apology to people you have hurt by exclusion.

The United Methodist Women have always been on the forefront of the fight for racial equity. For years they have promoted their groundbreaking “Charter for Racial Justice.” Their charter should be posted on the door of every church as our Declaration of Independence from the sin of racism.

There are many practical suggestions in this charter that we can take to heart and do with our hands.  May we be free from attitudes and actions that oppress people. The absolute truth is this: until everyone is free, no one is truly free.

At the July 1 Dismantling Racism: Pressing on to Freedom Town Hall meeting (UMC.org), the Rev. Alfred Day (left), an Elder in the Eastern PA Annual Conference and the General Secretary of Archives and History prayed this prayer:

“Set us free, God of all people, everywhere, from every bond of prejudice and fear. (We honor) the steadfast courage of your servants like Harry Hosier, Richard Allen, Jarena Lee, Absalom Jones, and James Varrick.  May we show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever and ever. Amen”*

May this be our prayer this week and always.

*From Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, Episcopal Church Publishing, 2010 (Adapted for United Methodist use by Rev. Fred Day.)


NOTE:  
If you missed this important Town Hall today, be sure to watch the recording of it. And also watch the recording of the hour-long “Service of Lament, Repentance, Communion and Commitment” recorded June 24, that puts The United Methodist Church on record as committed to a renewed push against racism.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Juneteenth

I confess that until I became a bishop I had never heard about Juneteenth! My knowledge of African American history was sorely lacking, and I certainly am not the only one.  Here is some background information found in an article from the PBS network’s local WHYY affiliate. (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

On June 19, 1865, the following declaration was made: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.  This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.  The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages…”

President Abraham Lincoln had issued The Emancipation Proclamation 2½ years before that on January 1, 1863. This ended slavery in the Confederacy, and in the interim nearly 200,000 Black men had enlisted to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War.

Many slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach and they took 150,000 slaves with them.

The June 19, 1865, announcement was read aloud that day to slaves in south Texas by a U.S. Army general. But it did not bring about an instant change for all of the state’s 250,000 former slaves. Many were forced to keep working until the harvest came, and some were not even told. Still others were lynched or shot for exercising their new freedom.

The nation’s Freedmen’s Aid Bureau was further delayed in coming to Texas to help new black citizens adjust to freedom until September of 1865. Yet, despite the confusion, delays, exploitation, violence and even murders they had to endure, the newly freed Black men and women of Texas finally had a date to rally around. Thus began in 1866 the annual celebration of “Juneteenth,” also known as Jubilee Day and Freedom Day.

It was a day to gather family together and teach younger generations about the values of self-sufficiency and pride.  At these events there were religious services, singing, food (always a barbecue pit), games, and rodeos.  Black people gathered near rivers and lakes at first, but eventually they raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites.

In 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized this as a state holiday or holiday observance. Pennsylvania just recognized it in 2019.

Juneteenth is an opportunity not only to celebrate freedom but also to speak out about injustice. Today more than ever we need to speak out against white privilege, racism, law enforcement brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression, poor educational and health care opportunities, and the continual segregation of our schools and churches.  We all need to stand together to make real changes happen, and we cannot let this moment pass. 

Please pause and celebrate Juneteenth this year. Also, take time to study Black History, and not just in February. There is much to learn that can inform us about what we need to do in the future. Take stock of the progress that has been made, and wisely craft the road ahead. 

I am grateful for all I have learned on my journey as a bishop, thanks to many patient people who have taught me along the way. I still have a long way to go. Please join me on that journey.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

‘The Signs of the Times’

A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I don’t often take to the streets and participate in peaceful protest marches. However, recently I joined with faithful people in a number of communities to physically show support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  In recent weeks this has captured the imagination of the entire world and is a powerful and Spirit-filled moment like none other.

As your episcopal leader, I wish to begin by echoing the important words of the Council of Bishops recent letter. I confess to the sin of racism and White privilege in my life and vow to renew my baptismal covenant to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

I also wish to challenge more of the people called Methodist in the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware annual conferences, the very cradle of Methodism, to take some action.

As I was marching last week in the streets there were various signs and protest cries shouted as we walked along.  Together they offer “signs of the times” that can give us some practical “next steps.”

  • Name the Name:

Again and again the marchers named the names of the black people who have most recently been murdered at the hands of law enforcement officers and other assailants: George Floyd, Almaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Individual lives are important and precious. “We all bleed red” as one protester said. 

All of us are part of the family of humanity under one God. God knows each one of us by name.  I challenge my sisters and brothers in the White community to build relationships with Black neighbors. That includes people in your neighboring churches, coworkers and community members. 

I did a survey of my close friends a few years ago, and I could see that they were all White.  In recent years I have worked on building personal relationships with people of color and it has opened my eyes to much of what our White supremacist society has inflicted on the families of Black people.  Build relationships, listen to hearts and hear the experiences of Black people who have had to endure a thousand pin pricks of discrimination and much, much abuse, grief and sorrow.

  • “Black Lives Matter”

Many of the posters, t-shirts and chants at the protest march included these familiar words.  Some well-meaning but misinformed White people sometimes try to correct this and say, “All lives matter.” But that is missing the point. To say, “Black lives matter” is a recognition of the fact that for centuries in this country Black lives have been treated as a commodity, as “less than,” as deserving of suspicion, discrimination and disregard by the dominant White culture. 

Studying the Word of God from the perspective of God’s favor upon all people is vitally important. Through it we learn what it means to respect the giftedness of the vast diversity of humanity.  I encourage churches to gather in intentional Bible studies and prayer meetings to study what God will say to us at this important time.  There are many good books that can be discussed on this topic as well.  Top on my list right now is How to be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Also, as the Council of Bishops requests, let us pray at 8:46 every morning and evening, praying for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time of the police officer fatally pressed his knee down on George Floyd’s neck.

  • “No Justice, No Peace”

This street chant is likely the most difficult but the most important.  This calls us to actively engage in dismantling the systems of oppression.  This includes, but is not limited to, holding law enforcement accountable, improving economic opportunities, changing the “mass incarceration” prison system, raising the quality of schools, insisting on equal opportunity in housing, working for fairness in health care systems, and decrying voter suppression.

Individually we cannot do everything but each of us can do something.  As a connectional United Methodist Church we can do all kinds of networking, programming, political advocacy and education. 

I promise in the months to come to work with conference leaders to engage us in these vitally important ministries of justice.  Without justice for everyone there is no peace. The truth that White people often fail to see is that justice for all means healing the wounded-ness of racism. Unless everyone is whole and a part of the beloved community, humanity continues to suffer collectively.

We can learn a great deal at a protest march on the streets. However, I urge White people to take to the streets of your hearts and build relationships, prayerfully study the Word of God and other timely resources, and become involved in advocacy. There just might come a day in the future when we will achieve peace with justice.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Invisible Things

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

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)

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

The Uncertain Devotion

David Piltz, CLM

By the Rev. David Piltz

Uncertainty is part of life. It can be the cause of our fears, worries and concerns.

It is a principle in science that challenges us to explain how the universe and our bodies work. It is a principle of economics that can create great wealth or incredible poverty. Uncertainty is also part of what it means to have faith.

In Hebrews 11:1 (NRSV) we read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is based on the uncertainty of not seeing but also on the certainty of who is God. God is in control, even in these trying times in which we mere mortals are trying to be in control and messing with things. We tend to always want to control and tell God to move aside. We tend to forget that our purpose in this world is to follow God.

But the best part of God is that God is always there with us as we stray and struggle. Right now, in this global pandemic God is here with us–all of us. Those who are suffering, those who are scared, those who are helping. In times like these we will never be able to fully understand the why; but what is certain is understanding our purpose: to follow God!

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