Weekly Devotional: Live In The Light!

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Abba God in heaven.  -Matthew 5. 16

I have been thinking a lot about light lately.  We are, after all, in the Season of Light, the Season of Epiphany.  This year we have eight Sundays after the Epiphany, which is a longer than usual Epiphany Season.  Often times, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent come upon us in a sudden way in early or mid-February.  But this year we spend some time in the light, contemplating what it means to live in the light, to expect everyday epiphanies, the in-breaking of God in real and not-so-real ways. 

For some of us, the beginning of this year has been a difficult one, especially those who live in the mid-West and Eastern seaboard.  Our United Church of Christ national offices in Cleveland have had to close down for as many as seven days since the first of the year.  I know some among us who have struggled with health issues while others find themselves without meaningful work.  We have prayed for family and friends and for our churches.  It is sometimes hard to remember that we are children of the light in the midst of storm clouds and frigid weather. 

Still, the verse above, one of my favorites since childhood, reminds us that we are to let our light shine.  So, I invite you to do that.  Think about what our world might be if we all made a decision to be a light in the world, to be someone who commits to work for justice and peace, to be someone who shines light where it is most needed, whether that is a caring smile for a child or confronting a wrong such as bullying.  Maybe today, you will “like” a Facebook post, “tweet” a message, or sign a virtual petition that could change things for those who are marginalized or minimized.  You see, Jesus believed that we are children of the light and said, in his Sermon on the Mount that we have the capacity to change the world for some who are the least, the lost and the lonely.  So, shine your light today and give glory to your Abba God in heaven.

Holy One, use me, choose me today.  Show me where my light is most needed.  Amen.

Weekly Devotional: This Epiphany, May Your World be Illuminated

I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.                                 Isaiah 45.3, NRSV

This week, we begin the first full week of the Season of Epiphany, which lasts until Ash Wednesday.  During the Season of Epiphany, a word from the Greek, epiphaneia, which means a sudden and striking realization or manifestation of God’s presence, we hear the stories of the visitation of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus, the call of the disciples and the transfiguration of Jesus.  These stories are often associated with light, the light of the star that guided the Magi, the light of the heavens opening and the dove descending on Jesus, the enlightenment of the disciples who followed Jesus, the light on the Mountain of Transfiguration that transformed Jesus’ cloths to dazzling white.

We are people who love the light and seek the light.  I think that is why we put our Christmas lights up so early, to ward off the encroaching darkness as, in the Western hemisphere, our days become shorter and our nights become longer.  In fact, we are so intent on filling our world with light that we have covered our buildings with light, we have streetlights that light up our neighborhoods, and our homes are filled with electronic devices that keep our homes lit up evening in the darkest hours of the night.  Yes, we love the light, and well we should since light is a symbol of God’s presence.

But just this week I was reminded that as Westerners we often try to separate things into right and wrong, good and bad.  Such is the case with light and dark.  We often think of light as good and darkness as bad.  But I want us to consider a little considered passage of scripture that may well be an Epiphany for each of us.  The prophet Isaiah speaking on behalf of God to the people says, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.  Do you hear that?  I will give you the treasures of darkness.

It seems to me that God is saying to us that light is good and darkness is good.  As we well know, it is impossible to see the stars of night in the midst of a brilliantly-lit city.  Only when we travel out into the darkness can we see the stars.  I wonder what that means for each of us in our life and faith journeys.  Could it be that we need the darkness, with all its pain and heartache, sorrow and disappointment to truly have an awakening, an Epiphany, an in-breaking of God into our lives and world?  Could it mean that we are called into both the light and the darkness in order to see God?  Might that mean that we then re-interpret our lives and life experiences as not good and bad, but as seasons, much like the seasons of the earth?  After all, as a good friends pointed out to me, we need the winter and the fallow times for the earth to heal so that it may then spring forth with life.  Maybe the same is true for each of us.

I pray that this Season of Epiphany will be filled with light for you, but I also hope that you will not turn and run from the darkness, because it may well be that in times of darkness you may well find yourself drawing nearer to God and see will then be able to see the stars.

Holy One, in this Season of Epiphany, remind me that you are always with me:  In the daytime and the night, in the light and the darkness, in sorrow and in hope.  Amen.

Christmas Eve 2013: Christ Was Born for This!

Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice;
 now you hear of endless bliss: News, news! Jesus Christ was born for this!
God has opened the heaven’s door,and you are blest forevermore.
 Christ was born for this, Christ was born for this!

On this Christmas Eve, in the Year of our Lord, 2013, I find myself thinking about all of the struggles of this life.  I can’t help but think about those who, this Christmas, will find themselves without food, shelter, warm clothes, necessary resources.  I think about those who are ill and suffering, and those whose hearts are breaking because they live through this Christmas and into the New Year without a loved one.  My mind turns to those who are struggling to overcome addictions, living in darkness and depression, and the families impacted by their addictions.  I wonder about the Christians and people in of other faiths in countries like Afghanistan and Syria and other war-torn places.  How is it that they know the peace of the birth of the Christ Child?

These stand in stark contrast to those who are streaming through the malls buying the “perfect” gift, partying through the night, and waking to countless gifts under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree in a warm home surrounded by loved ones.  Of course, I find it a rare thing, as I talk to people about their Christmas family gatherings to find any family that is without some kind of crisis.

This all raises questions in the deep places of my heart about Christmas and the birth of Christ and what it all means more than 2000 years later.  I’ve decided it comes down to the old hymn that is cited above, and is one of my favorites, that states boldly, Christ was born for this!

Your heartache?  Christ was born for this!

Your fears?  Christ was born for this!

Your sorrows?  Christ was born for this!

The poor, the outcast, the hungry?  Christ was born for this!

Those at war and those at peace?  Christ was born for this!

Now you hear of endless bliss:  News! News!

Jesus Christ was born for this, to be Emmanuel, God With Us, in life in death in life beyond death, in all of life, in all of life.

May you know the power and the presence of Emmanuel this holy night and all the nights to come.

–Jo

Reflections from Thanksgiving Weekend: Year-Round Gratitude

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.          

                                                        1 Thessalonians 5. 16-18 (NRSV)

I believe that there is a reason why Thanksgiving Day is so special to so many people, and, in some cases, revered even more highly than Christmas.  When polled, many people say that they like Thanksgiving Day because it is a day without all the hype of commercialism.  It is, after all, a day set-aside for all of us to gather and remember and give thanks for all the blessings of our lives.

That, of course, is what Jesus asked us to do every time we gathered in his name, to remember and give thanks. That is why we call the sacred meal, the Eucharist, a Greek word that means “thanksgiving.” The word itself, “thanksgiving,” contains a powerful message for us.  If we divide the word we see in it the very action of the Eucharist that Jesus gave thanks to God and then “gave himself in love” for the world.

There is power in being people of thanks and giving.  In fact, I believe the Apostle Paul invited us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances” because he knew that being people of gratitude could transform our lives.

As we come to the end of another year, many people will assess their year by saying, “2013 was a particularly good year,” or “2013 was a particularly bad year.”  Often we make that assessment by the events of the year.  Perhaps you fell in love or the stock market was favorable for your investments, so you count the year as good.  Or perhaps you lost your job or lost a loved one to death making it a particularly bad year.

All I know is that at the end of the day, or the year, for that matter, if you actually use today and everyday to count your blessings and give thanks you will, without doubt, count 2013 as a good year.  Why? Because living a life of gratitude has the power to transform your life.  How do I know?  Because I have watched my 91-year-old dad live that kind of life, and I don’t know a happier, healthier, more joy-filled person.  Being a person of gratitude can transform your heartache to joy and can serve as a motivation to be a person who lives from a heart of gratitude, not only being grateful but being transformed into a person who gives of yourself to make a difference in the world.

After returning home I found a “Thanksgiving” card from a dear friend waiting for me.  It included a quote by John F. Kennedy that read, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Jesus knew that truth.  Paul knew it, too.  May each of us this Thanksgiving weekend, in the year of our Lord, 2013, come to know that truth as well. Blessings all around!

Thanksgiving Reflections: ENDA, DOMA and Gratitude for Changing Times

If you’re like me, you are already feeling the push and pull of the coming holiday season.  Yet, when Thanksgiving Day arrives, we get to take a brief, much-needed break and have a chance to reflect in deep gratitude on our blessings.

One aspect of our life and times for which I am truly grateful is the evolution of rights for the LGBTQ community in our nation.

The latest example was last week’s bi-partisan vote by the U.S. Senate to approve a bill banning workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals. It was a historic victory four decades in the making.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed its final vote in the full Senate 64-32.Ten Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two Independents in voting “yes,” signaling how far the gay rights movement has come in recent years.

Before the bill passed, Democrats stood to remember former Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the man who brought ENDA to the floor 17 years ago in 1996. Back then, the bill did not include protections for transgender Americans and failed by just one vote.

ENDA still has obstacles to overcome before it becomes law. Following the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., tweeted at House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, “to do the right thing” and take up the bill.

Boehner, however, is refusing to bring ENDA on the floor of the GOP-controlled House and has already issued a statement against the bill.

Boehner argues that the legislation would burden businesses with “frivolous litigation” and “cost American jobs” though a Government Accountability Study released in July countered that claim. The report showed that in the 22 states where LGBT people are protected by some form of anti-discrimination laws, “the administrative complaint data reported by states at that time showed relatively few employment discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

And, of course, there’s negative media coverage to battle. Fox News virtually ignored the historic ENDA Senate vote, spending just four minutes on the subject, according to Media Matters, compared to CNN’s 10 minutes and MSNBC’s 47 minutes on the day the bill passed. Fully two minutes of Fox’s whopping four minutes of coverage was devoted to asking if the ENDA vote was a distraction from the Affordable Care Act coverage.

When I think back to just a year ago, the Supreme Court hadn’t even begun hearing formal arguments on ending DOMA or its case on Prop 8. On Wednesday, June 26, the world as we know it changed with the court’s historic ruling.

On Aug. 1, Minnesota and Rhode Island became the 12th and 13th states to allow same gender loving marriage, along with the District of Columbia. New Jersey followed suit on Oct. 21, after a judge overturned the state’s ban and Governor Chris Christie dropped his appeal of the ruling. On Wednesday of this week, Hawaii became the 15th state, and Illinois is set to become the 16th state in early December.

Yes, we have much to be thankful for!  For now, blessings all around!