By Bishop Peggy Johnson
The United Nations has declared that 2019 is the “International Year of Indigenous Languages.” (Check it out on www.en.iyil2019.org). Studies have shown the following statistics: There are 7,000 languages spoken worldwide (among 5,000 indigenous cultures), 370 million indigenous people in the world, 90 countries with indigenous communities, and a whopping 2,680 languages that are in danger of extinction.
Why is this important? According to the U.N.,“Languages play a crucial role in the daily lives of people, not only as a tool for communication, education, social integration and development, but also as a repository for each person’s unique identity, cultural history, traditions and memory. But despite their immense value, languages around the world continue to disappear at an alarming rate.”
Furthermore, the United Nations suggests that “awareness and respect for indigenous languages builds sustainable development, peace, reconciliation, and it is a fundamental human right.”
Christians surely need to take notice if we profess that we are called to “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before God.” (Micah 6:8)
As the former pastor of a congregation that used American Sign Language as its primary means of communication, I learned quickly the power of language for an individual’s ability to grow personally and professionally. The “majority” hearing world largely had the upper hand in decision-making settings. The sign-language-user was often forced to accommodate and take a lesser role in leadership and influence.
The same is true for indigenous people and their languages. There is an inequity issue whenever the majority culture uses its language power to control the minority when it comes to the distribution of benefits and opportunities. “English-only” initiatives are oppressive because they tilt power toward the majority and create a “them” and “us” dynamic. This minimizes the giftedness of all people and negates their unique and empowering languages.
The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles speaks loud and clear about social justice (Paragraph 162 2016 Book of Discipline “The Social Community”). “We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God…” it states. “We support the basic rights of all persons to equal access to housing, education, communication, employment, medical care, legal redress for grievances, and physical protection.”
As the people called Methodist, we should learn about these precious language issues that are a source of empowerment and equality for our sisters and brothers. Around the United States Native American tribes are teaching their indigenous languages with faithfulness. They yearn for support and affirmation.
Brett Jackson, a young adult Nanticoke Tribal leader writes: “Tribal language is important to me because it connects me to my ancestors, it teaches me their values and perception of the world, and continuing to use the language is essential to further teach my culture.”
Kesha Braunskill from the Lenape tribe added: “I feel that tribal language is our link to preserving our culture. It’s as important as the responsibility to pass on knowledge and traditions to each generation. Language is a part of it all.”
More information about this can be found on the “Indigenous Language Caucus” website: http://www.yuchilanguage.org.
Make it your aim to learn a new language this year, maybe an indigenous tribal language, and with it would come a whole new world of culture and community that you have never known before. Here are a few Native American words for starters:
From the Lenape Tribe of Delaware (permission given by tribal leader Theo Braunskill):
“A’ho” means “Hello”
“Wanishi” means “Thank you”
From the Nanticoke Tribe of Delaware (permission given by tribal leader Mike Harmon):
“Gichtishi Manito” means “God or Great Spirit”
“Eweenetu” means “Peace”
From “Eastern Cherokee Heritage” (permission given by RagghiRain Calentine, chair of the Peninsula Delaware Conference’s Committee on Native CONAM):
“Osiyo” means “Hello”
“Oginalli” means “My Friend”
“Ama” means “Water”
Listen to the beauty of the Cherokee language set to music by logging onto: https://youtu.be/Nf1SdNyB-Wc This is a translation of the hymn: “There’s Just Something About That Name.”
RagghiRain Calentine is hopeful. “The Cherokee words are passed on from generation to generation. Our Native tongue isn’t going to be forgotten or lost. Our ‘Mother Tongue’ is waiting for each one of us to speak our own unique language. This is a gift from the “One and Only.”
(From a sermon preached at a meeting of the UMC’s Northeastern Jurisdiction College of Bishops and Episcopacy Committee, January 30, 2019.)
During the May 2016 United Methodist General Conference, held in Portland, Oregon, the Council of Bishops was authorized to create a Special Commission on the Way Forward for our denomination. They were to wrestle with our Book of Discipline’s prohibitions against ordained ministry and marriage for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters—whether to keep, strengthen or remove those prohibitions.
On a Sunday there in Portland’s “City of Roses,” I was invited to preach at a local church and then treated to a tour of the city’s amazing rose gardens. I learned on that spring day that the city had an excellent environment for cultivating roses.
I am known to be the ultimate “black thumb” of plant growers. Plants just look at me and die. I am the only person who can kill a snake plant; and as a child, I would pay my sister to water my part of the family garden plot. That said, I am fond of lovely flowers that someone else cultivates and grows.
As in plants, the art of cultivating relationships, even in navigating deep and painful church conversations, is an important art to me and should be to you as well.
In the 1400’s there was a bloody, protracted civil war known as “The War of the Roses.” Two competing, English families—the Yorks, bearing the symbol of a white rose, and the Lancasters, symbolized by a red rose—fought bitterly for control of the British crown for 32 years. It seems that our denomination’s at times bitter controversy over homosexuality and ministry and has gone on even longer.
Our jurisdictional College of Bishops, our international Council of Bishops, and leaders and parishioners throughout our global church have been discussing and pondering, praying and fasting, and yes, even fretting, as we approach our February 23-26 special, Called Session of General Conference.
I pray we will cultivate, in our decorum and discourse, some sturdy, beautiful roses in St. Louis, even in the cold of winter. Unfamiliar with the art of cultivating roses, I researched it using Google and found some important, transferable lessons for us:
Roses need a proper balance of acid and alkaline in the soil. There are many kinds of fertilizers designed specifically for roses; and it all comes down to achieving balance. Since not all soils are the same, the right fertilizer works to enhance what the soil is lacking, so that roses can thrive.
As we lead into this era of the life of the church, we need a balanced respect for all people and their hearts around human sexuality. Polarization happens when we stop listening and learning from the voices of all. Bishops are called to be bishops to all. So, we must strive to respect all and honor all.
We also seek the balance provided for us by the four values of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. What a gift this has been for us in navigating other struggles with acceptance or rejection of leaders based on their gender, race and marital status. The quadrilateral gives us grace to grow spiritually in our understanding of diversity.
Balance is not easy. It calls us to patiently listen and respect others and to humbly realize that we need both acid and alkaline to be the church that Christ wants us to be. We need everyone, even those who interpret scripture in different ways from us.
Roses need water to thrive. Water is the most essential thing for life itself. It is why space explorers are so excited about finding water on Mars. One can live without food for a long time; but humans die quickly without water. When members of the General Board of Church and Society visited the southwest U.S. border last summer, the Border Patrol told us the first thing that people crossing the Rio Grande into Texas ask when they are picked up is, “Tienes agua?” “Have you water?”
Fundamental to the Christian faith is the water of our baptism. We all stand in need of the unmerited favor of God that washes away our sins and gives us new life in Christ. We not only find salvation through the cross of Christ; we also become one with our brothers and sisters: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We become one body with our many different gifts.
Our unity, no matter our stand on various social issues, is found in our baptism, our oneness in Christ, our shared salvation through the same Lord. Leading others effectively requires us to “keep the main thing, the main thing.” This is not easy, but it is by far the basic unifying factor for us to stress, teach and preach. The salvation of the world is our mandate.
When landscapers came to plant Rose of Sharon bushes in the front of the parsonage we moved into last year, I noticed there was a great deal of space between the plants. It looked a bit sparse, I thought. Maybe a cost-saving decision to plant less. Was I ever wrong!
Rose of Sharon bushes grow and spread quickly. Had there been more plants placed closer together, we would have been pulling out some bushes before long. Roses need space to grow and thrive.
In the original call to the Way Forward Commission we bishops asked for as much mission, unity, space, contextualization as possible. Space, air or gentleness with differences is another key thing our bishops strive to lead into. We are well aware of the differences among us as a global church. Space gives a chance for the Spirit, the breath of God, to move among us. Prayer and the means of grace make space come alive.
How lovely was the letter of the early church after their “General Conference” in Jerusalem, read in Acts 15. The Jewish Christian leaders said to the Gentile Christians that they did not have to be circumcised and follow every letter of the Jewish law. That space allowed the church to thrive and grow in the Gentile context. This is true wisdom for us today as we strive to maintain unity.
Obviously, a rose plant needs sun to thrive. The heat of the sun with its photosynthesis nourishment causes a plant to thrive.
In like manner, the church needs the fire of the Holy Spirit sending us into mission: mission among the poor, the neglected, the abused, the flooded, the burned up and burned out, the unemployed, the incarcerated, and the disenfranchised. Our leadership keeps the main thing the main thing as our faithful “why.” But it also calls the church into greater avenues of outreach, mercy and justice as the “how” and “what” of our faithful works.
My late father, who was a gardener, always said I was not part of his gene pool because of my lack of interest in plants. He used to work in a community garden in the retirement community where he lived. The wonderful thing about this garden was that everyone was in it for the mission of raising vegetables and those savory Maryland tomatoes.
Their methods varied, their backgrounds were diverse; but they would take care of each other’s plots when anyone was away for surgery or vacation or other reasons. Their common mission was the unifying thing.
Can’t the church of Jesus Christ find the grace to do mission together and work out our differences in other ways? Leadership can’t do enough of this kind of modeling.
May we cultivate roses in St. Louis: with a healthy balance of spiritual soil; with the living water of our unifying baptismal commitment to Christ; with the freeing air and space for grace that allows for various contexts to coexist; and with the consuming, cleansing fire of our passion for mission.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “invincible” means “incapable of being conquered, overcome or subdued.” When I ponder the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as we commemorate his birth this week, this word comes to mind.
His message, his mission, his life’s impact remain invincible. His death over 50 years ago has not silenced his work. In fact, the movement he led has strengthened and continued with each passing year.
This is because of some basic, important qualities of his life that are a lesson for us all. What makes a life invincible? Three things:
1) Prayer – Dr. King was a man of prayer. There is a powerful book titled Thou, Dear God: Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits (edited by Lewis V. Baldwin, Beacon Press, 2012). This is a collection of Dr. King’s prayers. According to a review by John Dear in the National Catholic Review (January 15, 2013) these prayers are characterized by a cry for strength to carry on the work of peace and justice. They ask for courage to be non-violent and blessings on the movement for civil rights. But they also petition for healing for oppressors and for the coming of God’s reign of peace.
Dr. King’s work was first and foremost centered in and fueled by the power of prayer. God most certainly answered his prayers on many levels and continues to do so in our day.
2) Singleness of purpose– If one attempts to walk a straight line in an open field, the only way to be successful is to focus one’s eye on a distant marker of some kind, and to walk toward it. Never take your eyes off that goal, or else you will unwittingly wander off-course. And you may only perceive that misdirection when you look back in retrospect.
This is an object lesson for the invincible work of this civil rights leader. He kept focused on the goal of achieving justice for all people. People tried to dissuade him and distract him from that work. Even his own colleagues early on questioned his timing and his methods; but he remained steadfast in his quest.
King sought justice for people of color in this country; but he also spoke out for justice and human rights for all people in all situations of injustice. He famously wrote:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).
To that end, he fought against poverty, war and discrimination as his single mission. His short life is a testimony to what someone can do when they are disciplined to hold onto a single mission and not be distracted.
3) Willing to die for the cause – Jesus calls believers to deny ourselves, to take up his cross, and follow him. (Matthew 16:24) This is powerful stuff. When one is willing to hold back nothing and give everything, and even to die for a cause, they can become invincible.
The early church’s fire of evangelism, to share the gospel of Christ, was fueled by those who were willing to die for the faith. The early church father Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Apologeticus,chapter 50). John Wesley wrote, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen. Such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven upon earth. (The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley: London 1871).
M. L. King Jr. was willing to die for the cause; and I believe he knew his death was imminent. The night before he died, he preached at a packed church in Memphis, Tenn. “I don’t know what will happen now,” he told them. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”
Still today, God is calling women and men to be invincible in this world. The church still has the potential to be God’s change agent for the planet; and each one of us is capable of this brave adventure.
Take a page out of the book of life of this great leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and aim to be invincible for God. Fuel your work with fervent prayer, have a singleness of purpose, and be willing to give your all, even your very life, for the cause of Christ. Then watch God work!
By Clarita Anderman Krall*
In February 2019 the General Conference (GC) of The United Methodist Church (UMC) will gather to conclude unfinished business of the 2016 GC. For over 45 years, since language about the practice of homosexuality was first adopted into The Book of Discipline (BOD), the denomination has, every four years, been repeatedly revisiting and rehashing the BOD’s paragraphs on this topic.
Through all these years, it has been obvious that the denomination has been at odds with itself. In 2016, GC delegates asked the Council of Bishops (COB) to lead the denomination on a “way forward” so that the denomination can continue its unified witness to the love of our Creator for all creation, to the redemption of our shortcomings in the name of our Savior and brother Jesus, and to the continuing revelations promised to us through the Holy Spirit.
The COB formed a Special Commission to consider this over four-decades-old impasse. Thirty-two UMs with differing points of view, both clergy and laity, representing both North Americans and others from around the globe, were invited to become members of the commission.
After meeting nine times over two years, the commission presented three plans to the COB. The COB voted by a nearly 2/3 majority to recommend the plan known as the One Church Plan. Of the three plans, this one maximizes the witness of the UMC in the world, providing for contextualization of differing beliefs and points of view about homosexuality, and keeping the UMC unified to continue its main mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
We are stronger together. Under this plan, there would be no structural changes made within the denomination. (Structural changes, as outlined in the Connectional Conference Plan, would require annual conferences to vote on proposed constitutional changes over the course of the next year.)
As presented, the One Church Plan calls for the removal of language stating that the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” It would further remove the prohibition against same-gender weddings being conducted on UMC properties or by UM clergy. And it would end our prohibition against ordination and appointment of homosexual clergy for ministry.
However, it would insert language protecting pastors who choose not to participate in same gender weddings and churches that decide to not allow same gender weddings on their premises. The plan would also make provision for each church to covenant with its bishop on whether or not the congregation will accept an LGBTQ pastor.
The One Church Plan acknowledges that, while all UMs are not of one mind on this issue, it is not something that should rise to the level of dividing our beloved church. The construct of this plan recognizes that UMs of good conscience and thoughtful study of Scripture have differing understandings of God’s intent for creation. It concedes that, depending on the cultural context within which churches live, UMs can have different points of view and interpret biblical passages with different insights and meanings.
While continuing with the mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” the One Church Plan would allow UM pastors, where civil law permits, to celebrate civil unions or to conduct same gender wedding services, though it would not force pastors to do so. It would end the trials of clergypersons who, in their ministries to gay and lesbian congregants, perform wedding ceremonies. It would end the trials of clergypersons who are living in marital communion with same-gender spouses.
The UM standard of sexual ethics, which calls for its clergy to be celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage, would be applied to straight and gay clergy equally. (The Traditional Plan, which intensifies current prohibitions, would most probably increase the number of trials.)
As a 21st-century, North American Christian, I believe that God is alive and interactive with the whole of creation through the Holy Spirit. It is important to me to remain prayerfully open to new understandings that God is revealing through the Comforter, the Counselor, the Divine, the Helper, the Friend, the Companion, the HOLY SPIRIT – the one Jesus promised would come once he went away (John 16:7).
There is much we do not know now. We have much yet to learn. I pray that we UMs can remain open to the visions and experiences that God continues to communicate. Even the apostles remained open to God’s leading, through the Holy Spirit, as they engaged in their ministries after Jesus was taken up into heaven.
I remember Peter’s vision regarding the foods he thought he could not eat because of Hebrew food restrictions. Acts 10 is the account of Peter’s new understanding, correcting his thinking and helping him to see God’s law in juxtaposition to the Hebrew law. In the vision, Peter realized that God offers what is needed; and he came to understand that he should never consider “unclean” what God has made pure.
The vision also helped Peter understand that Jesus offered himself not only for the religious, ritual-abiding Jews, but for all, even the gentiles. It is hard for Peter at first, because he was taught it was sinful for him to associate or visit with non-Jews. With his new understanding of his responsibility to share the gospel of Jesus Christ to Cornelius and Cornelius’ relatives and friends, Peter declares that God has taught him to never call a person impure or unclean.
The One Church Plan, endorsed by the Council of Bishops, is a way forward for our global UM denomination. Not one of the three plans would be easy. The One Church Plan, however difficult, is the way to keep us together. It is a way for us to recognize that, although we do not all agree on our understandings of sexuality, we remain committed to our main focus of “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” in the different cultural contexts in which we live within our global church.
*Clarita Anderman Krall, a lay delegate to General Conference, is member of First UMC of Germantown.
By the Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo*
With the 2019 session of General Conference just months away, many United Methodists are seeking information on the various plans and petitions to be considered in St. Louis.
Our bishops and other leaders have expressed support for the so-called “One Church Plan,” which would remove existing language in the Book of Discipline on sexuality and marriage. It would let every annual conference and local church choose their own paths. Supporters say that this is the best way to move us forward in ministry together, and treat fairly all parties and perspectives.
I disagree. Here is why the One Church Plan is a bad idea:
The thoughts above apply only to our North American context. How will our non-U.S. membership react, especially in Africa, when the headlines around the world proclaim the UMC has embraced gay marriage? If the experience of other religious bodies (like the Anglicans/Episcopalians) is any indication, they will not remain long in communion with a church that has embraced what they believe to be sin. And even within the United States, sibling denominations which have moved to a “local option” approach like the One Church Plan have been in membership freefall.
Wherever we stand on the question of marriage, it should be clear that the One Church Plan will not keep us as one church. It is a formula for chaos, conflict, and accelerated decline.
The Rev. Joseph F. DiPaolo is the lead pastor of First UMC Lancaster and a clergy delegate to General Conference. He serves on the UMC’s Commission on General Conference, which is planning the Feb. 23-26, 2019 special session.