By Bishop Peggy Johnson
Jesus said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to gain eternal life.” (Matthew 19:24). Scholars have contemplated the meaning of this for ages.
Was he talking about a sewing needle, which is a hyperbole? A camel and a sewing needle are impossibly out of proportion. It is similar to the analogy that Jesus made about removing a speck from our neighbor’s eye with a plank (Matthew 7:3-5). This extreme is used to drive home an important spiritual lesson.
Or maybe there was a different explanation. The “needle gate” was an actual thing, supposedly in ancient Jerusalem, that was so small that a fully loaded camel could not get through unless the packages on its back were removed.
In her book How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, author Susan Beaumont suggests that “congregations must shed what is non-essential (in transitional times). After crossing the threshold, we are pulled forward and upward into a space of new possibility.” (p. 117).
What is the most essential thing we should be doing in 2020? Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed comes to mind. Jesus teaches us that we are to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33).
In this New Year, I suggest that we engage in an inventory of our personal lives and church ministries. What kinds of baggage needs to come off so that we can move into new possibilities?
Consider our consumer-driven obsessions that keep us bound to credit card bills and debt. What health issues need to be addressed that are slowing down our effectiveness and well-being? Are we holding on to the “baggage” of bad eating and exercise habits?
Have we considered our church’s use of funds and its carbon footprint? Are our church burdened with ways of doing things and decision-making traditions that have become a burden?
How about attitudes? Where are we holding on to attitudes of despair and un-forgiveness that need to be released? Despite the many troubling things we see in the world today, God is still working wonders.
The New York Times posted a list of “22 Things That Happened for the First Time in 2019” (Your Weekend Briefing, December 29, 2019) This year there have been significant discoveries that can cure HIV, a malaria vaccine has been developed and is being tested, and there is progress in solving the dilemma of peanut allergies. In addition NASA celebrated its first all-women’s space walk; and women imams led prayer services for the first time in France.
God continually pours out blessings on us, and we need to be evangelists for the positivity of God’s Spirit working mightily in this world, and not fixate on negativity. When we take off the baggage of despair and unresolved grudges we become free to enjoy the gifts of God.
Our churches too can take off the useless baggage of looking back on how things used to be. Instead they can look forward to the new opportunities that God is presenting in this day and age.
So, the possibilities are endless as we unburden ourselves of self-imposed weights of sin and attitude. Then we can more freely head straight through the “needle gate” to our God-ordained future in 2020.
Wishing you and yours a New Year full of God’s abundant blessings.
Por Obispo Peggy A. Johnson
La estación de Adviento está a la puerta y otra vez escuchamos la vieja historia del nacimiento de Jesús predicha por los profetas. Los profetas nos dieron instrucciones de cómo prepararnos para este Emanuel, Dios que viene a estar con nosotros.
Al comenzar esta estación me deleito en las palabras de Isaías quien nos llama “caminemos a la luz del Señor.” (Isaías 2:5) ¿Cómo hacemos esto? Los profetas nos proveyeron un mapa para nuestra jornada de Adviento.
Aprendamos del Señor
Primero, aprendemos del Señor. Isaías 2:3 nos llama a “Vengan, subamos al monte del Señor, al templo del Dios de Jacob, para que Él nos enseñe sus caminos, y podamos andar en sus senderos.” Estudiando la Palabra de Dios con intencionalidad, porque es lámpara que alumbra nuestra senda. (Salmo 119:105)
Envuélvase en un Estudio Bíblico de Adviento o devocional y separe tiempo durante esta estación para reflexionar qué significa personalmente la venida del Señor. Considere qué Dios quiere que usted haga al respecto.
Envuélvase en el plan de salvación de Dios para el mundo.
Segundo, considere como su fe es parte del plan maestro de Dios para el mundo. Isaías habla de que todas las naciones vendrán al santo monte del Señor. (Isaías 2:2) Dios quiere alcanzar a toda la humanidad, no solamente a los hijos de Israel. Su plan siempre ha sido la salvación de todo el mundo. Y su alcance inclusivo debe ser nuestro también.
¿Dónde usted y su iglesia se envuelve en misión? Estoy orgullosa de IMU por sus increíbles ministerios que alcanzan y abrazan vidas alrededor de E.U. y globalmente, incluyendo mas de 300 misioneros y misioneras sirviendo a 60 países, operando 300 hospitales y clínicas MU. También ayudamos a aliviar el sufrimiento humano a través del Comité de Alivio, UMCOR, en lugares donde hay necesidades y desastres naturales.
Tenemos instituciones educativas alrededor del mundo que para muchas personas es la única fuente formal de educación y desarrollo. Nuestra participación en desarrollo de iglesias y agricultura ha dado luz y vida a millones. Apoyamos estos esfuerzos en general a través de nuestra aportación monetaria a la conexión. También apoyamos proyectos específicos, misionales, y preocupaciones a través de dar a “Advance”.
Pero ¿Qué del alcance en su iglesia local? Al caminar en la luz, ¿Quién se queda en la sombra? ¿Está la diversidad de su comunidad reflejada en su congregación? ¿Están las personas que hablan otro lenguaje y otras culturas, y personas con discapacidades experimentando su hospitalidad y bienvenida? ¿Están viendo a todas las personas como resonancia a la pregunta de Ministerios Discipulares de la IMU?
No se enfoquen en personas que vienen a su iglesia. Vayan a la comunidad y sean un buen catalítico en las escuelas, negocios, en foros públicos, facilidades de salud, y en otros escenarios. Podemos caminar en la luz y ver los rostros de Cristo en aquellas personas que tienen necesidad cuando ministramos entre ellas en amor. Entonces descubriremos el verdadero significado de la Navidad.
Practiquemos el Plan de Paz de Dios
Finalmente, ¡practica el plan de paz de Dios! Isaías proclama que “El Señor juzgará entre las naciones y decidirá los pleitos de pueblos numerosos. Ellos convertirán sus espadas en arados y sus lanzas en hoces. Ningún pueblo volverá a tomar las armas contra otro ni a recibir instrucción para la guerra.” (Isaías 2:4)
Todos estamos de acuerdo en que el fin de la guerra y la lucha en el mundo seria algo maravilloso. Existe un numero catastrófico de muertes y destrucción en este planeta debido a la violencia. En el plan de paz de Dios es Dios quien resuelve toda contienda y no las personas con sus armas, sus herramientas letales de terror.
Las herramientas de paz de Dios son perdón y reconciliación. Cuando humildemente nos sometemos al plan de Dios, ¡la paz cambia! Comienza en nuestro interior. No culpamos a la guerra alrededor del mundo y no guardamos resentimiento ni enfado hacia las personas en nuestra vida.
La paz en el mundo comienza con nosotros. ¿Con quien necesitas reconciliarte? Esto conlleva arduo trabajo y la voluntad de tomar la responsabilidad de hacer las enmiendas necesarias, aun cuando no tenemos la culpa.
Finalmente, la paz viene a través de la justicia, los profetas del Antiguo Testamento nos amonestaron al gritar por justicia en cada página. Cuando los derechos humanos están disponibles para todas las personas, “Entonces el lobo y el cordero vivirán en paz, el tigre y el cabrito descansarán juntos, … En todo mi monte santo no habrá quien haga ningún daño.” (Isaías 11:6) En términos humanos, estamos llamados para advocar por los derechos humanos y la dignidad de todas las personas.
Persigamos Valientemente la Justicia
Recientemente vi la película “Harriet”, la historia verídica de Harriet Tubman, quien escapó de la esclavitud, y se convirtió en abolicionista y heroína de la Guerra Civil. Ella liberó a cientos de esclavos por su increíble valentía y pasión por la justica humana.
Me enfurecí con la actitud del cruel dueño de esclavos blanco en la película. Y admire las personas blancas, que con consciencia social se unieron a en la batalla de la abolición. Ellas caminaros en la luz; pero su senda no fue fácil.
Ellos estaban violando la ley al ayudar a los esclavos a escapar. Estaban poniendo sus vidas y la de sus familias en riesgo. Algunos fueron asesinados, otros perdieron todo. Mientras tanto, algunas iglesias que estaban mal guiadas predicaban que la esclavitud era voluntad de Dios, cuando citaban inciertamente las escrituras en el Nuevo Testamento. (Efesios 6:5, Colosenses 3:22, Tito 2:9, 1 Pedro 2:18)
Me pregunte: ¿Hubiera yo arriesgado mi vida y seguridad por los derechos humanos de los esclavos en aquel entonces? Quisiera pensar que sí, pero honestamente tendría que revisar mi corazón.
Aun hoy, es un negocio riesgoso el hablar por los oprimidos, sean ellos los inmigrantes indocumentados y refugiados, las personas que son victimas de traficantes y esclavos para sexo o trabajo en nuestras comunidades, personas que no pueden obtener seguros de salud, o las personas homosexuales en Pensilvania a quienes se les niegan sus derechos humanos en su totalidad.
La justicia es un negocio riesgoso. La paz llega a un alto precio. Reflexionemos y busquemos lo que Dios quiere que hagamos personalmente en el área de ser pacificadores.
Durante esta estación de Adviento, sean bendecidos y también sean de bendición. Caminen en la luz de Cristo y compartan la luz con otros. Solamente así experimentaremos el verdadero significado de la Navidad con todo el gozo, paz, amor y esperanza.
Spanish translation: Caminemos a la Luz
By Bishop Peggy Johnson
The season of Advent is at our doorstep, and once again we hear the ancient story of Jesus’ birth foretold by the prophets. The prophets give us instruction about preparing for this Immanuel, who is God coming to be with us.
As we begin this season I am savoring the words of Isaiah who calls us to “walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isaiah 2:5) How do we do this? The prophet gives us the roadmap for our Advent journey.
Learn from the Lord
First we learn from the Lord. Isaiah 2:3 calls us to “Go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob that he might teach us his ways.” Study the God’s Word with intentionality, for it is the lamp that lights our path. (Psalm 119:105)
Engage in an Advent Bible Study or devotion, and set aside time during this season to ponder what Christ’s coming means to your life personally. Consider also what God wants you to do about it.
Engage in God’s salvation plan for the world
Secondly, consider how your faith is a part of God’s master plan for the world. Isaiah speaks of all nations coming to the Lord’s holy mountain. (Isaiah 2:2) God wants to reach all of humanity, not just the children of Israel. His plan has always been for the salvation of the world. And his inclusive outreach should be ours as well.
Where are you and your church engaged in mission? I am proudest of the UMC for its incredible ministries that reach out and embrace lives across the U.S. and globally, including over 300 missionaries serving in 60 countries, operating 300 UM hospitals and clinics. We also alleviate human suffering through the UM Committee on Relief, UMCOR, wherever there are needs and natural disasters.
We have educational institutions around the globe that for many are the only source of formal education and development. Our participation in church development and agriculture has given light and life to millions. We support these efforts in general through our apportionment dollars. But we also support specific projects, missionaries and concerns through our giving to the Advance.
But what about your church’s local outreach? As you walk in the light, who is left in your shadow? Is the diversity of your church’s neighborhood reflected in your congregation? Are people of other languages and cultures and people with disabilities experiencing your hospitality and welcome? Are you seeing all the people, to echo UM Discipleship Ministries’ question?
Don’t focus only on people who come to your church. Go into the community and be a catalyst for good in schools, businesses, public forums, health care facilities and other settings. We can walk in the light and see the face of Christ among those in need when we minister among them in love. Then we can discover and share the true meaning of Christmas.
Practice God’s Peace Plan
Finally, practice God’s peace plan! Isaiah proclaims that “God shall judge between the nations and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)
We all agree that the end of war and strife on this earth would be a wonderful thing. There is a catastrophic amount of death and destruction on this planet now due to violence. In God’s peace plan it is God who settles disputes and not people with their weapons, their lethal tools of terror.
God’s peacemaking tools are forgiveness and reconciliation. When we humbly submit to God’s plan, peace has a chance! It starts with us. We cannot point fingers of blame at the wars around the world and still harbor grudges and anger toward people in our own lives.
Peace on earth begins with us. With whom do you need to reconcile? This takes hard work and a willingness to take the responsibility for making amends, even if you are not the one at fault.
Finally, peace comes through justice, the Old Testament prophets admonish us as they cry out for justice on every page. When human rights are available to all people then “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat…They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 11:6) In human terms, we are called to advocate for human rights and dignity for all people.
Courageously pursue justice
I watched the “Harriet” movie recently, the true story of Harriett Tubman, who fled slavery and then became an abolitionist and Civil War hero. She freed hundreds of slaves by her incredible bravery and passion for human justice.
I seethed with anger at the attitude of the cruel, white slave owners in the movie. And I admired the socially conscious white people who joined the battle for abolition. They walked in the light; but theirs was not an easy path.
They were breaking the law by helping slaves escape. They were putting their lives and their families at risk. Some were killed and some lost everything. Meanwhile, many misguided churches in that day were preaching that slavery was God’s will, as they dubiously cited New Testament scriptures. (Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9, I Peter 2:18.)
I ask myself: Would I have risked my life and security for the human rights of slaves back then? I want to think so, but I honestly have to search my heart.
Still today, it is risky business to speak up for the downtrodden, be they undocumented immigrants and refugees, people who are trafficked and enslaved for sex and labor in our own neighborhoods, people who can’t get health insurance, or gay people in Pennsylvania who still are denied their full civil rights.
Justice is risky business. Peace comes at a high price. May we ponder and then pursue what God wants us to do personally in the realm of peacemaking.
During this holy season of Advent be blessed, but also be a blessing. Walk in Christ’s light, and share that light with others. Only then can we experience the true meaning of Christmas in all its joy, peace, love and hope.
Spanish translation: Caminemos a la Luz
By Bishop Peggy Johnson
The parking lot was full when I arrived at the Nelsons UMC in Hebron, Maryland. The annual “Sweet Potato Roll Sale” was in full swing on that crisp fall day in late October. For many years the members of the church have worked for an entire week preparing for this fundraiser that garners over $30,000 annually for their many mission projects.
Some people actually take a week of vacation from their secular employment to help out. I came to visit the church on “pick up” day for a promised gift of two dozen of these highly-coveted homemade delights. I learned that some people who have moved out of the area drive long distances to the church each year to continue to make their purchases.
The pastor, the Rev. Dr. Becky Collison, explained that the whole church gets involved in this process. There are those who cook, peel, mix, roll-out, cut, butter, package, label, and sell. On the day I was there the fellowship hall was filled with church folks engaged in making rolls.
The room was buzzing with a spirit of joy and cooperation. Everyone was using their talents to accomplish this great work of making 4,900 dozen rolls—58,800 in total. All had been pre-ordered, and many requests had to be turned down.
People were arriving at their assigned pick-up time, and some were purchasing quite a few dozen. They said they would freeze them and bake them for Thanksgiving Dinner. These rolls were a popular family tradition during the holidays.
The curious thing about these rolls is that they are square and not round as one would expect. For years the church folks made round rolls, but at some point they realized that they could make them more efficiently if they were square, placed in a rectangular pan and scored.
The new shape took some getting used to, but when some ingenious member of the church made a contraption that actually scores the slab of sweet potato dough, the speed of the production took off. After all, a square roll tastes the same as a round roll. The benefits of the new shape outweighed the need for it to adhere to tradition.
In churches we have an old saying “We’ve never done it that way before.” Sadly, that attitude keeps us from doing something new and better that the Lord is calling us to do. Our ministries and missions are good but sometimes they need a creative new edge, perhaps using some new talent, new kinds of outreach, more diversity, a broader reach.
Nelson UMC uses some of its profits from the roll sale to fund an after-school program for children at risk in the community. The whole town is experiencing the benefits of this ministry. They have also paid for the installation of a wheelchair ramp and donated to a number of overseas mission projects.
What new thing can you be doing at your church? How can you “sing to the Lord a NEW song?” (Psalm 96:1) Who does God want you to reach for Jesus Christ that requires you to change the way you do things?
I know a church that does Vacation Bible School the whole day on the Saturdays before school starts, so that parents are free to go out shopping. They have doubled their attendance.
Many churches are beginning to use credit-card machines to accept donations because increasingly people do not carry cash or check books. A church in Texas has installed washers and dryers in its education building to help the homeless population have clean clothes. Some of our churches are studying their carbon footprint and are beginning to use china dishes and cloth tablecloths instead of disposable paper and plastic products.
The possibilities are endless. Our God is a God of new ideas, a God who longs for us to invent new ways for people to experience divine love.
“Behold I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19) May you follow the example of the square sweet potato roll-makers at Nelsons UMC. May you go out to start something new!
BY BISHOP PEGGY JOHNSON
In Jerusalem is the famous “Via Dolorosa,” the road where it is believed that Jesus walked on the way to Calvary. It literally means the “way of suffering.” Nothing can compare to our Savior’s suffering and sacrifice for us on Good Friday.
His willingness to give his life for the sins of the world is the bedrock of our faith. He came in person to give his life for the redemption of humanity out of love.
When I visited the Holy Land years ago it was important for me to walk those streets and experience first-hand that road of suffering. It reminds me of my responsibility to love and suffer like Christ.
The way of suffering is not an unfamiliar road for most of humanity on this planet. Globally there is untold pain because of wars, disease and natural disaster, and with it comes migration. A fraction of the world experiences the benefits of this nation’s freedom and wealth, and often we don’t see people on this difficult road face-to-face.
Last Wednesday I had the opportunity to meet a young Honduran woman who was walking the way of suffering. She came to this country out of love for her son. She knew that if the family did not leave the country he would be recruited into a murderous gang or be killed if he refused to join.
What mother would not sacrifice everything for her child’s safety? As I sat with this young woman and a translator, she told her story of her family’s travels to this country, the great physical suffering, her kidnapping, and her final arrival in Pennsylvania. She came out of love for her child.
She joined one of our churches and found a way to make a living, just barely enough to survive. Then her husband was deported, and it is likely he will never be able to come back to the United States.
They depended on the advice of an immigration lawyer who took their money but gave them no help. In fact, he gave them bad advice. As a result, the husband was picked up by immigration agents, detained for months and then sent back to Honduras.
This is another part of the “way of suffering”—those who exploit desperate, fearful immigrants without status, promise legal help but then leave their unwitting clients in worse shape. Using lies and false promises to entice their victims, they reap large sums of money from their human pain and benefit from their plight.
To see this young mother’s tears and hear of the difficult ordeal she faces, with two young children who miss their father, causes deep sorrow in me. I am well aware of our country’s immigration laws; but we must all acknowledge that this system is inadequate and less than humane. And with the draconian policy threats and decisions being made these past few weeks, it will get worse.
Our United Methodist Social Principles state: “We recognize, embrace and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin as members of the family of God. We affirm the rights of all person to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”
The Word of God says: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
It is hard to turn our backs on these mandates and allow continued suffering to occur. This young woman told me that she did not come to take things from America but to work hard, contribute her part and offer a better, safer life to her children.
Surely, we must find a better way. I am happy to report that her church and other churches are assisting her with humanitarian aid. More support would be appreciated for her and for our churches that have large numbers of immigrant sojourners traveling this road of suffering.
What else can we do to help? Our conference, along with two other neighbor conferences, are initiating a program known as Justice for Our Neighbors. JFON is an immigration legal assistance and hospitality ministry of The United Methodist Church, with 18 chapters across the country. For the past 20 years it has been a free/affordable legal service that is ethical, affordable and safe for immigrants to use.
To help us start up this vitally important service donations can be sent to “Delaware Valley JFON” and mailed to Historic St. George’s UMC, 235 N. 4th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106. For more information, contact: Rev. Mark Salvacion at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We can also advocate for more humane laws in our country with regards to the number and treatment of those seeking asylum and for the “Dreamers” (young people who are undocumented and who were brought to the U.S. as young children).
We can contact our elected officials and ask that the number of refugees allowed to resettle in this country not be limited to just 18,000 people. The average number of refugees allowed to come into this country over the last four decades had been 95,000. People are fleeing violence and religious persecution and need a place of refuge.
The road of suffering is real, and it is in our neighborhoods, and they are members of our churches. When you see their faces and hear their stories it becomes a call for us to do something, say something, and to offer our prayers.