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.
By Bishop Peggy Johnson
As The United Methodist Church prepares for General Conference 2020, numerous legislative petitions flooded in by last week’s deadline for consideration. Certainly, we should always have as the backdrop of our discussions and deliberations the General Rules of John Wesley: “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.”
If we would be influenced by these basic three rules in everything we debate and vote on at General Conference—and even more so, in everything we do or say daily as Christians navigating our way through this complicated world—what a better world this would be!
Wesley was a man of many interests, and medicine and health was one of his priorities. “Do No Harm” is reminiscent of the ancient Hippocratic Oath that has for centuries guided the medical profession. One of the lines in the oath states, “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free.”
Sounds like “Do no harm” to me; and indeed, Wesley advocated for the things that make for healthy bodies and minds. He knew it was part of our spiritual responsibility as Christians. He even wrote a home remedy book titled “The Primitive Physic” to aid in the healing of many common ailments.
So it would behoove us as United Methodists to live by this important law as we consider addictive substances and their place in society. The practice of vaping is front and center in the news now, as serious, cases of lung disorders are happening across the country and leading to increasing, tragic deaths.
Publicity is growing with bans on the sale of all vaping products by mega-store chain Walmart and the state of Massachusetts, as others consider doing likewise. Lawmakers are studying advertisements and the offering of various flavors of vaping products because of their strong attraction to young people.
People are up in arms about vaping, it seems, and rightly so. Even though it is credited with helping some turn away from addictively smoking tobacco products, it is nonetheless killing people. We may possibly see this young industry put out of business altogether as the pressure against it seems to be rising.
So why are we not as concerned about the prevailing and pernicious legal drugs of tobacco and alcohol? The detrimental and horrific effects of these products have long been proven.
I don’t know a person who has not been affected by the tragedy of these two addictions in their families. My great-grand-father used to beat my grandmother with a buggy whip because of his alcohol addiction. My best friend lost her father to lung cancer from years of smoking.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day “29 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. That is one death every 50 minutes. The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $44 billion dollars.”
Think what we could do with $44 billion dollars? What a waste! What injustice, especially when you consider that many of the dead people were innocent victims of drivers under the influence.
According to the American Lung Association, an estimated 154,050 Americans died from lung cancer in 2018. Most of this was smoking-related. Why are we so pumped up about vaping while the legal stuff is killing people at epidemic rates?
The answer is simple: alcohol and tobacco are multi-billion-dollar industries with profits and lobbying efforts that speak loudly in our consumer-driven world of greed and gain.
What does The United Methodist Church say? According to our Social Principles:
“We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons. (Par. 162.L) “In light of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco are hazardous to the health of persons of all ages, we recommend total abstinence from the use of tobacco.” (Par. 162.M)
So, yes, do no harm. Join the bandwagon of people who are speaking up against vaping. But don’t stop there! The elephant in the room is the huge, high-profit industries in this country that are profiting from rampant addictions that lead to suffering, sorrow and death.
What a world we would have if personal pain and trauma issues were handled in spiritual and therapeutic ways, rather than masking and exacerbating them with addictive substances!
How can you, your family and church, your voices together be used to speak out against this massive harm? Silence is complicity. Lead by expression—your words—and by example—your active witness. Your voice can make a difference.
BY BISHOP PEGGY JOHNSON
I have always loved the praise song by Ken Medema titled “Lord, Listen to Your Children.” Its refrain goes like this:
Lord, listen to your children praying,
Lord, send your Spirit in this place;
Lord, listen to your children praying,
Send us love, send us pow’r, send us grace.
Love, power and grace are the things that God has for his children, children of all ages. In recent years our chronological children are speaking to this world about things that are happening that need the attention of all of us. Front and center are the issues of gun violence and climate change.
One does not have to wait very long for the next mass shooting. They occur now almost weekly, and one begins to wonder if it is safe to go shopping or to an open air concert, theater or country fair. Always there is the fear of being the next victim of these acts of horror.
Grandmothers are buying their grandchildren bullet-proof school backpacks. I raised my children in a more innocent time, and they never experienced “active shooter drills.” But children today are going to school with an undercurrent of fear.
Some of our children went to Washington DC after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting. They begged our legislators to do something about this crisis. I hope people will listen to our children. I pray that God’s love, power and grace from above will inspire our leaders to address this urgent, complicated issue honestly and effectively. Let’s be in prayer about this and add our voices to those of our impassioned young advocates!
Recently, a spunky Swedish 16-year old named Greta Thunberg journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean on a yacht and arrived in New York City to continue her crusade to help save our planet. She is calling for the world to address with more urgency the issues of climate change that are causing catastrophic weather systems on the planet.
Greta’s critics call her “crazy” and say she is an alarmist who has “no sense of humor.” There are even bumper stickers with expletives decrying her crusade for the world to wake up and do more to save itself. But she has created a groundswell of support among many, and her voice continues to be heartening.
She has Asperger’s Syndrome, but she calls it her “super power” for the work she is doing. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she has inspired many other young people with her courage and conviction. I pray for her relentless voice!
The alarming increase of category 4 and 5 hurricanes could be construed as a wake-up call. Some of our churches and their cemeteries on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are imperiled by rising sea levels. I hope people will listen to our children and to Greta’s message and take some personal steps to care for the environment. Let’s be in prayer and join their active, conscientious witness on this matter as well.
Our children want what we all want: love, power and grace for our world. Only God is the true source of these intangible but very real forces that can conquer our mammoth challenges.
God’s spiritual resources are the answer to our fear, violence and over-consumption. Could God be calling us to do more about the things that are killing our people and destroying our planet?
Are greed, apathy or lack of creativity taking center stage? Or are we unwilling to partner with those we consider “the other,” those who are different from us? What world are we leaving for the next generation if we sit by and do nothing? Do we care?
I urge us all to listen to the children and youth in our families, churches, schools and communities. God gives them messages that we need to hear. As we work together lovingly on these challenges, more good can be accomplished. As we call upon the love, power and grace of our Lord, there is no telling what good can happen and how we might be transformed.