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Dwelling in Unity

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity. It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!  For there the Lord has commanded the blessing: life forevermore.”  Psalm 133

I have always found this tiny psalm to be curious.  The image of sacred oil poured on God’s priest in such volume that is runs down his beard and onto the collar of his holy vestments does not exactly sync with my idea of unity. Get the Kleenexes! Dew on Mt. Hermon also is a puzzling analogy, this gentle water that covers an entire mountain!  What they both have in common is a sense of pervasiveness.  The oil and the dew are in abundance and they both are symbols of the Spirit which hovers consistently over the face of the earth and among all people.

Unity is like that. When people are living in harmony with one another it covers everything that has been divisive, it gets into the crevices of partisan debate and intellectual and ecclesiastical pride. The result of unity is abundance and provision for all.  Psalm 133 says it is a blessing and it leads ultimately to everlasting life.

Unity is the oil and the water that is the fuel and sustenance that best drives the church into mission and ministry. Only as we are in unity can we get the job done with all of our varied gifts and graces working together for the good of the whole.  Unity is often mistaken for uniformity of thought and heart but it is much deeper than that. It is a passionate commitment to stay in communion with one another despite even huge differences.  It is born of the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.”  (I Corinthians 13:7)

Dwelling in unity is my prayer for the United Methodist Church. For years we have been a church divided over many social issues but in particular the practice, ordination and marriage of people who are lesbian and gay has taken center stage at every General Conference. Since 1972 there have been paragraphs in our UM Book of Discipline that forbid homosexual people from being ordained and our churches and pastors cannot perform holy unions or same gender marriages.

At the 2016 General Conference the bishops were charged with the task of leading the way in finding a solution to this impasse once and for all.  What resulted was the creation of a 32-member “Commission for the Way Forward” (a group of highly diverse United Methodists from all over the world) who studied and prayed and worked on a plan for the bishops to consider for presentation at a specially called session of General Conference. The work has been done with grace and faithfulness for almost two years.

At the spring (April 29 – May 4, 2018) meeting of the Council of Bishops we voted to recommend the following:

Having received and considered the extensive work of the Commision on a Way Forward, the Council of Bishops will submit a report to the special session of the GC in 2019 that includes:

All three plans for a way forward considered by the Commission and the Council. (“The Traditionalist Plan,” “The One Church Plan” and “The Connectional Conference Plan.”)

The Council’s recommendation is “The One Church Plan.”

An historical narrative of the Council’s discernment process regarding all three plans.

According to the bishops the rationale for this response is to invite the church to go deeper into the journey of the Council and Commission. The Council makes all the information considered by the Commission and the COB available to the delegates of the General Conference and acknowledges that there is support for each of the three plans within the Council.  The values of our global church are reflected in all three plans.  The majority of the COB recommends the One Church Plan as the best way forward for the UMC.

We will have conversations about this proposal at our sessions of annual conference this year.  In addition all of the documents will be available for further reading and study after July 8th.  This will give our interpreters time to translate the documents into our ten international languages.  In the fall we will be holding town hall meetings on each district to discuss these plans further.  Members of our delegations will also be available for additional meetings and conversation in order to receive feedback and answer questions.

The General Conference will ultimately vote on this recommendation at the special session that will be held February 23 – 26, 2019 in St. Louis, MO.  There are 12 delegates from the Philadelphia Area (8 from Eastern PA and 4 from Peninsula-Delaware) who will be among the 864 delegates from this world-wide church.  What comes out of this General Conference will be the final decision of the church.  We will have more conversations and meetings after General Conference to interpret the decisions and to plan further into our future together.

We are still on a journey and as we travel together we will pray, we will have respectful conversation, we will study and seek the Word of God. We will continue to be in ministry and mission to a world that Christ loved and died for. We will engage in justice ministries and works of compassion and healing.  We will preach good news of salvation to all.

Through it all my prayer is for the unity of the church; unity that is pervasive and life-giving.  Ultimately when we dwell together in unity we will be blessed and it will best enable us to be a blessing to the world out of love for Christ.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

United Methodist Women touched my life

In the fall of 1978 I was an M.Div student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.  But I wondered some days if I had heard God right about this call to ministry.

My District Committee of Ordained Ministry had put my ordination interview on hold, so I could be interviewed again. I had no role models at the seminary for women in ministry leadership. Only the librarian was a woman. All the other leaders else were men, white men, except for an Asian professor who taught Greek and New Testament.

Then came word of the Consultation for United Methodist Clergywomen in Dallas, Texas, in January 1979. I wanted to go so badly, but money was an issue. So going to Dallas was a clearly a pipe dream. That was until the United Methodist Women of my home church (Lansdowne UMC in Baltimore) stepped up to the plate and sent me the money to attend the consultation.

It was life-changing and inspirational. It gave me the courage to keep following my call, as I saw capable, bodacious clergywomen preaching and leading with grace and skill.  Those faithful women of Lansdowne will never know just how much it changed the course of my ministry.

Bishop Joaquina Nhanala

Other bishops have been similarly blessed by women and women’s groups. Bishop Joaquina Nhanala, episcopal leader of Mozambique and South Africa, received support from the Women’s Fellowship of the Mozambique Annual Conference for Theological Studies.  She became the first woman elected to the episcopacy from the continent of Africa. But first, scholarships from United Methodist Women helped her follow her call to ordained ministry and prepare for the leadership she is now providing to the church.

“I am a product of United Methodist Women,” Bishop Nhanala has said, adding that she’s not alone. “A lot of women are now in a position to have a say because of the efforts of United Methodist Women.”

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, recently retired from leading the UMC in Germany, was the only female UM pastor in her country when she considered going into ministry. She became the first women outside the U.S. elected to the episcopacy in 2005. Women inspired and supported her along her path of ministry as well.

United Methodist Women continued to change my own life. Later when I served Christ UMC of the Deaf, a deaf congregation in Baltimore, Md., the UM Women’s Division sent our entire UMW unit to the Women’s Assembly. The women were inspired by the vision for mission with women and children and youth that they had never experienced before.

They were asked to sign a song on stage in front of 10,000 women, and the song was “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale.” I remember one of the lyrics was “God of the ages, God near at hand, God of the loving heart.” I felt the “loving heart” of God through the generous gift of mission from the UMW to this humble unit of women at that amazing Assembly gathering in Kansas City, Mo.

Christ Church of the Deaf in Baltimore, Md.

In 2012, as a fairly new bishop, I was able to give back to the UMW by writing the book study for their Mission u topic, The Church and People with Disabilities.  It gave me a chance to write from my passion for ministry among people with disabilities. I hoped to teach the church how to provide access to and empower such people, and thus learn that disability does not mean inability.

As I plan to attend the May 17-20, 2018 UMW Assembly in Columbus, Ohio I can only wonder who will be inspired next to be a bishop, or a pastor, or a missionary, or a servant who will lead the church into the future?  We celebrate our own Barbara Drake, who will be consecrated a Deaconess at this event.

No doubt, others will follow in her footsteps in the years to come because of her servant leadership model. Mission inspires mission; and constantly, women lead women into higher forms of mission and ministry around the world.

As they celebrate 150 years of ministry, the UMW has a bright future of empowerment through mission and loving hearts. These women continue to inspire me with their relentless call for justice for women and children and youth everywhere. They are touching lives each day and making a difference in our world and in our church.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Rejoice in our United Methodist heritage

Bishop Peggy JohnsonUnited Methodist Heritage Sunday this year falls on May 20. That is also Pentecost Sunday, giving the day a double-heritage significance, since that is when we celebrate the birth of Christ’s church.

Speaking of births, however, I invite us all to begin our United Methodist heritage celebration a month early, on Sunday, April 22, in order to commemorate the birth of our denomination from merger and reorganization 50 years ago. That labor-intensive birth happened on April 23, 1968. But it came after nearly a decade of prayerful negotiations, General Conference legislation and prevenient mergers of racially segregated annual conferences—like ours—until the glorious day of delivery when we finally became The United Methodist Church.

The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church—both denominations being offspring of earlier mergers themselves. The new denomination abolished Methodism’s Central Jurisdiction, created in 1939 to unify and segregate annual conferences with predominantly black churches and members across the nation, like our former Delaware Annual Conference.

So, in 1968 and in the years that followed, after a history of divisions and dubious mergers, we finally got it right, for the most part. Getting it right meant reorganizing churchwide agencies and creating legislation and special commissions to monitor our still-unfinished journey toward racial and gender equity and denominational inclusiveness. For that same journey and others, it also meant creating special programs and funds, Special Sunday offerings and eventually, missional priorities.

It meant—and it still means—living into our divine call to manifest integrity, generosity, grace and other bedrock Christian values, as we strive to become what our own annual conference approved as its vision statement in 2017: United in Christ, Committed to Transformation.

We are 50 years old as a denomination this year, and we have made much progress. But there is much more to be done. I pray that our life expectancy, our arc in history, is long, with no end in sight, and that it will forever bend toward justice, in James Russell Lowell’s famous words.

The year 1968 was one of emergent change, not only in our church, but across our nation and throughout society. There was turbulent racial conflict, violence in our streets, war, protests and questions about the relevancy of the church.

The Rev. Dr. Albert C. Outler, a prominent theologian at the time, cast a vision for the Uniting Conference in his address on the morning of our merger ceremony.  He called for the new church to be steadfast in unity and committed to ecumenism and evangelism in word and deed. He also stressed the need for the church to reform itself from being an insulated institution to actively demonstrating the presence of the living Christ.

In order to reform, he said, we needed to be “…a church united in order to be uniting, a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive, a church ‘cruciform’ in order to manifest God’s triumphant agony for mankind (sic).” When he finished, the 10,000 people at Dallas Memorial Auditorium gave him a prolonged standing ovation.

Dr. Outler’s call is still with us today as we celebrate 50 years of United Methodism.  If each one of us would take to heart these principles of unity, ecumenism, evangelism and reform, we could become the church that our founders envisioned many years ago, as they sought to spread “scriptural holiness” across the land.

“This is the day the Lord has made,” said Outler. “Let us really rejoice and be glad in it—glad for the new chance God now gives us.”

Indeed, for the next month, from April 22 through May 20, and for months and years to come, let us really rejoice and be glad in this faithful, if not faultless, heritage we share as United Methodists. Let us clothe ourselves in love, seeking always to be transformed as those redeemed through grace.  And let us be glad for our unity in a Christ who “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). Yes, glad “for the new chance God now gives us.”


Please read and share these recent accounts, resources and ideas to help celebrate our United Methodist history, as we celebrate 50 years together. Also, be sure to view the compelling, 11-minute historical video that shares diverse views on the in 1968 merger of the EUB and Methodist denominations and related concerns.

Also, UM News Service will publish a story at www.umc.org this week on the end of the segregated Central Jurisdiction in 1968, and later a story on the creation of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR). They will finish their UMC 50th anniversary series on Monday, April 23, with a story about people who were at the 1968 Uniting Conference. 

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Being April Fools

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.   1 Corinthians 1:18 (NRSV)

No one wants to be called a “fool.”  In American Sign Language the sign for “fool” looks like a person (represented by a forefinger) being struck with a fist of the other hand.  Indeed, fools might be considered fortunate if only their egos are bruised.

The word “fool” conjures up images of weakness, gullibility, and stupidity.  But like many things about the counter-cultural, and at times counter-intuitive, faith that we practice, as true followers of Jesus Christ we can gladly—and wisely—proclaim that yes, we are fools.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “We are fools for the sake of Christ… When reviled, we bless, when persecuted we endure, when slandered, we speak kindly.”  (I Corinthians 4:10 a, 12 b)

Easter this year falls on April Fool’s Day (offering a second 2018 coincidence, after Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day February 14). The secular occasion’s origins are also religious. April Fool’s may go back to the time of Pope Gregory XIII, who changed the Christian calendar so that the first day of the year was January 1 and not April 1, as had been the case under the Julian calendar.  Some people back then continued to follow the old calendar. Those who did were known as “April Fools” and were subject to tricks and ridicule.

We who follow Christ’s ways can be rightly called “fools” because we don’t follow the world’s way of dealing with adversity.  Christians bless, endure and speak kindly when we face persecution and adversity.

That’s what Jesus did when he spoke seven times while hanging on Calvary’s cross, suffering and dying from a brutal crucifixion. He uttered humble words of love, forgiveness, care, assurance and faith.  This kind of grace under pressure attitude is not foolish or weak but extremely powerful.  It demonstrates an awesome power of mind and heart that transcends painful but superficial agonies to accomplish a greater purpose.

It can change the world.  It always has, and it always will.

Linda Brown just recently passed away at the age of 76.  Her legacy of counter-cultural determination will live on forever.  Her father, an African Methodist Episcopal clergyman, sued the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, for refusing to admit his daughter into an all-white public school.  That school was in walking distance, while the all-black school was several more miles away.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on May 17, 1954, ruled unconstitutional and thus, ended, the unfair “Jim Crow” segregation laws that forbade children of color from receiving an equal education in public schools attended by white children.  Those laws were part of a racist, oppressive culture that had to be countered and overcome.

Linda and many other black students began attending formerly white schools. They were subjected to much racist abuse and rejection; yet, they remained steadfast, teaching the world that racism, hated and evil are no match for love.

A successful student, Linda never received a grade lower than a “B” in any of her classes.  She later became an educator in a Head-Start program serving low-income, mostly black families. (Chicago Tribune).

Easter will fall again on April 1 in the year 2029.  But we can be April Fools every day, all the time, as we move through the world with the counter-cultural attitude of our risen Lord.

Mere mortals may have mocked and mourned his demise on Good Friday.  But He got the last laugh on Easter Sunday, as He turned death into life and through love overcame hate.  And the foolishness of the cross (I Corinthians 1:18) became the greatest movement in human history.


Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Faceless Christ, Headless Disciples

In Berlin there is the Chapel of the Reconciliation. It was rebuilt after the reunification of Germany and the destruction of the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany from 1961 to 1989.

Originally, there was a much older church building located in that same space, which was built in 1894. It was destroyed in 1985 by the Communist government because this abandoned church blocked strategic security site lines on the Berlin Wall. The church was in the way.

During reconstruction of the chapel in recent years, excavation of the rubble from the original church miraculously revealed the entire chancel piece that use to hang over the original altar. It was still intact. Today it hangs in the center of the reconstructed chapel, giving the this sacred space a poignant connection between the past and present.

The altar piece had an elaborate carving of a scene from the Last Supper below the cross, which sadly had taken a beating during the church’s destruction of 1985. The face of Christ is missing, and several of the disciples have no heads. It was decided that the damaged parts of the chancel piece would not be repaired but left as is to remind congregants and visitors of the dark history of the Nazi regime and the Cold War.

A Christ with no face is a curious thing to see. There is no expression, no hint of personhood. Headless disciples too conjure up disturbing thoughts of decapitation and suffering.

During this Holy Week I look at the picture of this altar piece, imperfect as it is, as a call for me to strive to be the face of Christ to a world that suffers from much painful alienation and division. We are the face Christ uses and shows to the world. And as his disciples, we can expect to enter into the fellowship of his sufferings as we take up our own crosses for the ministry of Christ.

But through it all, we know and are convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ. Nothing. “Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.” (Romans 8:38-39)

As the Apostle Paul reminds us of that timeless truth, let us also remember, during Holy Week and henceforth, that while inseparable from God’s great love, we should also remain inseparable from one another in Christ Jesus. May it always be so. Amen.