Blogs

Don’t forget to V.O.T.E

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I am happy to announce that I completed my mail-in ballot and have officially voted in the fall 2020 election.  Whatever your political affiliation, I urge you to be sure to vote.

The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens,” according to the United Methodist Social Principles (para. 164 in the 2016 Book of Discipline).I encourage you to participate in the following important ways:

V – stands for “volunteer.”  Volunteer to help a neighbor, friend or family member cast their vote by driving or accompanying them to the polling place or helping them to cast their ballot by mail.

O – stands for “open mind.”  Study the candidates’ positions and platforms to determine your choices.  Have open and civil conversations with people regarding some of the important issues that are a part of this election season.

T – stands for “teach.”  Teach people about the “strong ethical influence” (Social Principles) the church needs to exercise in order to insure a fair election process. Identify and challenge policies and practices used to limit or suppress voter participation—such as, closing and limiting the number of polling places, stoking confusion about voting by mail, locating unauthorized ballot drop-off boxes in communities, etc. In our country’s long history, there have been overt attempts to exclude people from voting, especially among people of color, women, college students and the poor. The “people called Methodists” believe that all are of sacred worth and have a right to a legitimate place in the election process in a free democracy.

E – stands for “engage in prayer.”  No matter the outcome of this election, there is much we as citizens of this country can do together to promote the welfare of all. Pray for God’s Spirit to move among us as a nation during this time to inspire with peace, transparency and civility. There should be no place for mud-slinging and mean-spirited rhetoric and actions. 

Many United Methodist bishops, including myself, signed onto a letter, titled A Crisis of Faith and Democracy,” which further describes our civic duties as followers of Jesus Christ. May God be with us as we journey toward Election Day 2020 and beyond.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Editor’s Notes:

  • If you want more encouragement about our privilege and duty to vote in this election, read “Young United Methodists call voting an act of faith published by the UMC’s General Board of Church & Society Oct. 7, during National Voter Education Week. Several young United Methodists reflect on why it’s important to vote–and how.
  • Also read “Moving voting rights ‘from ideal to reality.” U.S. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II (D. Mo.) spoke with Erin Hawkins, former head of the UMC’s General Commission on Religion & Race, during the UMC’s fifth online discussion about eradicating racial injustice. Their Oct. 7 talk is part of “Dismantling Racism,”a multi-agency effort that includes participation from five general church and the Council of Bishops. Cleaver, a United Methodist pastor and former mayor who represents Missouri’s 5th Congressional District, recalls witnessing voter suppression himself but said he is heartened by diverse crowds of young people coming together to march against racism.
  • UM News recently reported on efforts among UM churches across the nation to encourage and facilitate voting. Read “Want to have your say? Churches urge voting.”
  • NEWSpirit Communications wants to know if your church is likewise encouraging and helping its neighbors to participate in this important act of citizenship—never more important than right now. Please let us know what you are doing, so we can report it to our readers across the Conference. Write to us at communications@epaumc.org, or use our website’s Submit News page. Thanks!

Singing the Lord’s song in a foreign time

By the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
—Psalm 137:1-4

Over the past few days, I’ve spent time with pastors and laity talking about Christmas.  We’ve wrestled with questions:

How can Advent/Christmas be celebrated without carols?   How do we deal with visitors if building capacity is limited?  What do we do about blowing out candles on Christmas Eve?  A glow stick just doesn’t cut it for me.

Christmas breaks into the darkness that moment when we hold our candles high and we sing together “Silent Night, Holy Night.”  But what does Christmas look like when nearly all of our rituals are stripped away?  What does it look like when our temples are no longer the center of our worship? 

We are not the first to ask such questions.  For the Israelites taken into Babylonian captivity, everything had been stripped away.  Prior to Babylon, God was found in the Temple.  But what does it mean when the Temple is no more, when we are forced to worship in a strange land, in a foreign reality?  

What do we do when our songs cannot be sung in the way and form we have known for centuries? We know from Scripture that the Israelites believed the captivity would only be temporary; they waited and planned for a return to Jerusalem. But then days stretched into months.  Months into years. 

It is Jeremiah who tells the people: “Build houses; settle down; plant and eat.” (Jeremiah 29:5).  Plant in a foreign land.  Build lasting structures.  So, too, as we face this current pandemic, we must discern how to do ministry now. We cannot wait for a return to Jerusalem or a return to the church we knew before. 

God has called us in this time and in this space to plant roots, to build new communities, to settle here in this strange reality.  And so, together, pastors and laity, we began to envision new forms of outreach, new ways of celebrating Christmas that offer life to our communities. 

We talked about going house to house with bells; doing drive-through Nativities with camels; outdoor Hanging of the Greens; virtual, online cantatas; hand-packaged gifts of cookies, wreathes and candles for families to celebrate in new forms.  

I confess to you that I am still torn about Christmas Eve and what to do about blowing out a candle. What to do about the reality that we will not be in a packed church singing out “Silent Night, Holy Night.” 

But then I remember that such rituals, as lovely and sacred as they are to me, are not really what Christmas is about in the first place.  Christmas is God breaking into our darkness, refusing to leave us alone in this wilderness. And with the cry of a vulnerable baby, Christmas is God calling us to step out into our neighborhoods and to offer those around us love, hope and the reminder that we are not alone.  

Maybe this year, in the wilderness, stripped of some of our time-honored rituals, we will really understand what Christmas is all about.  O come, O come, Emmanuel.   


*Dawn Taylor-Storm is Director of Connectional Ministries for the Eastern PA Conference.

Bishop’s Blog: Say the Name

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

While marching in a peaceful protest this spring there were many people carrying signs bearing the names of African Americans who had died in fatal encounters with law enforcement officers. These names were chanted over and over again as we walked along the streets. 

The name that stuck out for me was Breonna Taylor, the only woman on the list. Her case, seeking justice for her killing in a botched police raid on her home in Louisville, Kentucky, reached a disappointing conclusion last week. It has taken a long time for many anxious people. 

Many people in Louisville are seeking more information from the Grand Jury. That body, in secret deliberations, ruled that no one would be charged in the death of this much-beloved emergency medical technician with a bright future ahead of her. Taylor’s tragic death happened back in March when police, using a “no knock” warrant for a drug investigation, shot and killed this innocent, unarmed, 26-year-old woman in her home. 

Since that time, “no knock” warrants have been outlawed by the state. And the city announced it would pay a $12 million settlement—but not admit official wrongdoing—in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Breonna Taylor’s grieving family. The city promised to make other policing changes also. But there are still calls for more justice; and there are still protests in the streets.

What do we, as people of God, do about this?  It is tempting to be silent and move on with our lives, and see this as “one more sad thing.”  There are shootings in our streets every night locally as well.  We are all weary of the pandemic, the catastrophic weather incidences, the out-of-control fires out west, and the unending political polarization in our country.

However, we must not be weary in well-doing. There is always something we can do, even when we are tired. My suggestion?  Continue to “say the name.”  

“Say the name” of Breonna Taylor and others who are victims of injustice in this world. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This controversy in Louisville affects all of us. 

So, we should have conversations about how we as a nation can do a better job at restorative justice—that is, justice that not only brings an end to conflict but also tries to help individuals and communities find healing.  Retributive justice is the easier, faster but more polarizing path. Restorative justice changes systems, and it can heal hurts and wounds. It brings everyone into the beloved community. 

Christianity is founded on a system of justice inaugurated by our Savior, Jesus Christ, whose suffering and death binds us together as one family of God which seeks to restore people on all sides of a debate.  There is still hurt in Louisville because there is not yet full restoration. “Say the name” so that conversations about justice continue to happen in your sphere of influence.

“Say the name” of Breonna Taylor because the names of women who have died at the hands of law enforcement are not as prominent as the names of men.  We might surmise that fewer women are involved in these cases in; but I believe there is a gender bias. Women of color have been largely marginalized in this society, and their tragic deaths often are less reported. 

Learn the stories and remember the names of Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, Shantel Davis, Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson, Ralkina Jones, Charleena Lyles, Alexis McGovern, Yvette Smith, Ayaina Staley-Jones, Raynetta Turner, Janisha Fonville, Natasha McKenna, Eleanor Bumpurs, Tyisha Miller, LaTanya Haggerty, Margaret Mitchell, India Kager, Mariam Carey, Kendra James, Sharmel Edwards, Adaisha Miller, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, Alexia Christian, Mya Hall, Kayla Moore and Tarika Wilson.  All of these women have died in recent years in violent law enforcement encounters.  

Courtney Bryan is an African American musician and composer who composed a work entitled “Yet Unheard” for symphony and chorus.  This masterpiece raises the name of Sandra Bland and continues the conversation about women who have experienced violence but their cases have not been resolved.  Say the names of women you know of in your context as well.

“Say the name” of Breonna Taylor (and all those in our country working for justice) in your prayers. Prayer is still the most powerful force on earth and the one largely ignored, even by God’s people.  Pray for individuals, families, police officers, state officials, courts of law and our churches.  

We usually pray asking God to act; but our prayers should also spur us into action, especially as we listen for God’s response. So, pray that we will work for peace, at God’s direction, and that we will listen to each other, especially those with whom we disagree. 

Listen, hear and heed the voice of God when it gives us direction as to what steps we should take to help to bind the wounds of this nation.  Pray all of this in the name of Jesus, who bids each of us to take up our cross of sacrificial commitment to true justice, peace and righteousness. 

Say Christ’s name, for there is real power in the name of Jesus. And as we do, let us echo the names of those forgotten victims—both living and dead—whom Christ calls us to remember. 

Conference to hold prayer walk in Louisville

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As pain and tensions continue about prosecutorial decisions in the killing of Breonna Taylor, the Kentucky Conference will hold a prayer walk for healing, concluding in a worship service in Louisville’s Jefferson Square Park. “Seeing Through Another’s Eyes: A Prayer Walk & Worship Service for Healing” is set for Sunday, Oct. 4, at 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time. The event will be livestreamed on the conference Facebook page. Read announcement. Prayer in the midst of sorrow. Commentary: Moving forward from here

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Ground-Breaker: In Memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I remember well my first Volunteers in Mission international trip. In 1993 a group of Deaf Senior Citizens and I went to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to help a fledgling Christian Deaf School.  I was in quite over my head, being the only hearing person on the team and doing all the interpreting.

The accommodations were somewhat rustic. The plumbing broke down the first day, and the dining hall served mostly rice and more rice. The most difficult part of the trip was the task we were assigned at this small, struggling school.  The principal asked us to take hand shovels and break ground for a vegetable garden. We were breaking hard, hard ground in the hot, hot sun; and if we had not had the chance to also teach Bible school to the Deaf children as well, I think the team would have packed up and left after two days. 

Breaking ground is necessary for any kind of vegetation to grow.  Nothing can grow in hard, packed, dry ground without such hard labor. But the benefits of it can yield the gift of crops and nourishment and life.  Teams that followed us in subsequent weeks were able to plant the garden. And later the children were able to harvest some food to add to their rice menu. 

It is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the work of ministry: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything; but only God who gives the growth.”  (I Corinthians 3:6-7)

I would agree with Paul’s analogy to a point, but I would give praise to social justice “ground breakers.”  These are people who till the hard soil of stubborn hearts, but who have the vision and creative imaginations to begin a work among us that can be liberating, life-changing and righteous. 

These words describe the life and witness of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  She was described as a “ground breaker” because of her pioneering, tireless work for gender equality and equal rights for all people.

This is bone-hard work.  Ground breakers get a lot of resistance; but they keep tilling the soil. Although she graduated first in her class at Columbia University Law School, no law firm would hire her; so she worked as a judge’s clerk and then taught law.  Throughout her distinguished career as a lawyer and judge she never gave up on a just cause. And she consistently advocated for equality and equity. 

Ginsburg left us last week, on September 18, after a long bout with cancer and after many victories. She died on the first night (Shabbat) of the Jewish holy observance of Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition a person who dies on the Sabbath “tsaddik” is a person of great righteousness. If someone dies on the Shabbat of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) they are “the ones God has held back until the last moment because they are needed the most and were the most righteous.” (USA Today 9/19/20, Joel Shannon, quoting Nina Totenberg of NPR.)

Ground breakers are indeed righteous, intent on doing the right thing, bearing the heat of the day, the hardness of the soil for the sake of others.  We honor the memory of the victorious RBG!

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.

Bishop’s Blog: The Four ‘W’s’

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Every day I watch a local newscast that gives COVID-19 updates and health reminders.  Yesterday they talked about the “Four “W’s.” They are as follows:

  1. “W” – Wear your mask
  2. “W” – Watch your distance (at least 6 feet)
  3. “W” – Wash your hands
  4. “W” – Open the Windows to keep fresh air circulating

These “Four W’s” caught my eye and my heart, not only because it is a catchy way to remember these important virus protection practices, but because it could also be a parable about personal holiness in the life of the Christian believer.

The most dangerous pandemic that we face as human beings is that of sin, and the temptation to sin.  It is why Jesus came to earth in the first place, to die for our sins (I Corinthians 15:3) and give us life abundant.  We do not become perfect on the day we ask Jesus into our hearts.  God forgives us; but our daily walk with Christ, which includes constantly striving to live in holiness, is our lifelong journey of faith.

We often don’t talk about sin as much as we should.  John Wesley, in his early days with the Holy Club at Oxford, emphasized confession and self-examination as a central practice during his daily prayer time.  His “22 Questions” inventory (found on umcdiscipleship.org) is a discipline that every believer needs to practice to root out pride, greed and evil.

What are the “Four W’s” for a Christian who is striving to “go on to perfection?”

  1. “W” – Watch your Words.  Jesus said, “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a person unclean.  For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander.” (Matthew 15:18-19) 

    We get into more trouble by the words we say than by just about any other means of evil.  The Book of James reminds us, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.” (3:6)  

    Put a “mask” over your lips when you are tempted to say hurtful, judgmental or hurtful words.  Speak truth, and as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6)
  2. “W” Be Wary of temptation. Jesus said to his disciples, “There will always be temptations to sin, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting!”  (Luke 17:1). 

    Temptation is always close at hand, both in the things that tempt us and in the ways we cause others to be tempted by our sin. Likely you know the “pet” sins of your life that “so easily entangle” you. (Hebrews 12:1).

    When you keep your distance from temptation by your constant communion with God, you are more able to resist it. As the Book of James reminds us, “Submit yourselves then to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (4:7).
  3. “W”“Wash” to cleanse yourself of sin by confession and restoration.  One of my favorite verses in the Bible is I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Just as hand-washing cleans off bacteria and germs, confession opens the door for God to forgive us and set us free from guilt and judgment.  True repentance also requires restoration for those we have harmed and a 180-degree directional shift away from that sin. Otherwise, it is not true repentance at all. 
  4. “W” – Follow the “Wind” of the Spirit. The word “Spirit” in scripture literally means “breath” or “wind,” and as saved, repentant and forgiven people of God we need to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). That means following the guidance that God gives, heeding the warnings about temptation, using the Spiritual gifts bestowed on us, and moving freely, like the wind, into new and often unexpected avenues of service. As difficult as these times are, we have many windows of opportunity for outreach, witness and justice ministry.  Let us catch the wind of the Spirit during this unique time, and take the church to a new height of service to our neighbors and devotion to God.

The “Four W’s” of pandemic precautionary practices are helpful and necessary for our health.  The “Four W’s” of the Christian faith can lead to abundant life and life everlasting.  Let us follow them both.

Republished from The Bishop’s Blog.