Weekly Devotional: On World AIDS Day 2016, Let Us Recommit to Being Healers and Helpers

wad_logoJesus said to the messengers sent by John the Baptist, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard. Blind people are now able to see, and the lame can walk. People who have leprosy are being healed, and the deaf can now hear. The dead are raised to life, and the poor are hearing the good news. God will bless everyone who doesn’t reject me because of what I do.”                                                                     –  Luke 7:22-23 (CEV)

In July of 1999, I attended the 22nd General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) in Providence, Rhode Island. It was my first experience of attending the national gathering of the UCC and for me it was transformative. I remember the first time I walked into the conference hall. I was speechless as I looked around and realized that I was surrounded by some 3,000-plus people from all over the United States who shared my beliefs about faith, church and life. It was exhilarating.

However, my most moving experience was on the third day of the Synod. I arrived at the hall and people wearing rainbow ribbons were handing out signs and asking people to stand at the entry doors to the conference hall. I took a sign and found a place at a door. It read, “The body of Christ is still living with AIDS.” As people walked past the signs they nodded and thanked us. It was a sobering and humbling experience. And the truth is, the body of Christ is still living with AIDS, a disease that has killed approximately 35 million people since the pandemic began. While many advances have been made in medicine and in the treatment of those who are infected with HIV, the disease is still infecting people all over the world, and the infection rates of young gay men have been increasing in recent years.

In the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist asks his followers to go to Jesus, the Rabbi of Nazareth, to inquire if he is the one or if they are to wait for another. And Jesus responds saying that he is healing people and that “God will bless everyone who doesn’t reject me because of what I do.” It seems to me that the vision of God for creation is that we, who seek to be faithful followers of Jesus, are to do as he did. We are to help heal the sick. On this World AIDS Day, in the year of our Lord, 2016, let us never forget those who have died and those who are, even now, living with HIV. Let us further commit to being healers and helpers for all who suffer from this life-changing, life-taking disease until it is no more.

Holy One, bless our brothers and sisters who have died of AIDS and who now dwell with you eternally. Bless our sisters and brothers who are living with HIV today that they may find healing and health. And bless us as we seek to be part of the cure until it is no more. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: The Promise of Hope

adventhopecandlebackgroundFor to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.      –1 Timothy 4:10

I think that for many people in our country today, hope is in short supply. On both sides of the political aisle hope is or has faded and given way to frustration and anger. Those who voted for the president-elect were already feeling the pinch of hopelessness. Those who voted for the other candidate are now joining them with a sense of malaise as the reality of the election sets in.

Of course, by just focusing on the election we are likely to miss those for whom hope is a rare commodity. Those who live every day not knowing if they will have food to eat, those who wonder if they will be able to find a safe place to sleep, those who are living with addiction, and many more may find that hope is a pipe dream.

And yet, consider these words from the movie The Shawshank Redemption. In a letter written to his inmate friend, Red, played by Morgan Freeman, Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, writes these words, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Now, in my book, Andy was a pretty good theologian because his words sound so much like what we as Christians have come to believe about resurrection, “no good thing ever dies.”

The Apostle Paul writing to his protégé, Timothy, reminds him that we are able to face the challenges before us because of our hope in God who is Savior of all people. Do you hear that? God is the Savior of all people, not some people, but all people. And no matter how dark the day, no matter how heavy the heart, no matter how impossible things seems, the God of Hope, the Savior of all, is your Savior and my Savior and the Savior of all who despair.

This Sunday will mark the beginning of Advent, the first day of the Christian year and the day we light the Candle of Hope. For the next four Sundays we will prepare for the celebration of the remembrance of the birth of Jesus, that we call Christmas, or perhaps better rendered Christ-mas. We will light this first candle amidst the days that grow shorter and the nights that grow longer, in the hope that soon the earth will shift and the light will grow longer and the dark will diminish.

What a powerful metaphor for us who wait in the darkness of despair, disappointment, deep sorrow or distinct fear. You and I have a chance to lift up our hearts to meet the Living God, the Christ who is present with us, the Spirit alive within us so that we can continue to work tirelessly and meet our life’s struggles knowing that to do so will bring hope, not just to us, but to all for whom God is Savior. That’s a promise worth hoping for, right? And it is my hope for you that no matter where you are on life’s journey you will worship this Sunday and find the hope you need and seek.

Holy One, remind me once again that “hope is good thing, maybe the best thing, and that no good thing ever dies.” Amen.

Weekly Devotional: This Post-Election Season, Take Heart—And A Moment To Breathe

252_2_Jesus continued saying, “The time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going your own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because my Abba, who is God, is with me. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”                                       —  John 16. 32-33

If you’re like me, you’ve been feeling a little scattered this week, regardless of whom you voted for. For all our hope that Tuesday would bring some relief from the stresses of the contentious political battle, it seems to me that the struggle is far from over. All the election really did was hold a mirror up to us and show us how deeply divided our country is. Moreover, because of the destructive tenor of the campaign and the ease with which we can post on social media without having to take responsibility for the hurts we cause, we are left in emotional disarray. That’s the bad news.

The Good News is that God does God’s best work in the midst of chaos. Consider the creation story as told in a new and beautiful translation of our scriptures, The Voice: “Out of nowhere, time and space, all the living whirl forth as God speaks the universe into existence. With the utterance of God’s voice, creation takes form, chaos yields to order, light eclipses darkness, and emptiness fills with life.” This is something Jesus, the Rabbi of Nazareth, knew in his bones. As he taught his closest disciples on what he knew would be the last night of his earthly life, he trusted that God, the Creator of the Universe, the God of Many Names, the God who Was and Is and Will Be, would bring chaos to order.

Because Jesus trusted that truth he could say to his followers, “Even though you leave me alone, I am not alone because my Abba, who is God, is with me.” I wonder if, in the midst of all our emotional and spiritual chaos we can begin to grasp that truth. Jesus goes on to say that he offers us that truth so that we can have peace, peace with the fact that he has overcome the world. And as I read it, Jesus was telling his disciples and so telling us that he had learned to transcend the struggles of the world by trusting that God was with him, within him and at work in the world through him. And you know what, the same is true for you and me. God is with you and within you, giving you hope, transforming your internal chaos into peace so that you, in turn, can be the peace that the world needs right now.

My watch has a new feature. Every few hours it signals me reminding me to “breathe.” Maybe what we need to do right now is to breathe in the Spirit of our God. Then perhaps we can live in the peace that in Jesus we have seen what the love of God looks like in human form. And that in this Jesus, whom we call the Christ, we can “take heart,” trusting that God is also with us, we are not alone, thanks be to God.

Holy One of Heaven and Earth, remind me once again that You are mine and I am Yours, no matter what. Amen

Weekly Devotional: Elect the Truth – God’s Love

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”vote-for-love

–John 14:6

I don’t often change my sermon after I’ve set it to paper and after I arrive at church on Sunday morning, but last Sunday I simply couldn’t preach the sermon I had prepared. You see, last week I read the Still Speaking Devotional written by Rev. John A. Nelson, Pastor of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts, and I couldn’t get it out of my heart. As I showered and dressed for worship on Sunday morning his thoughts kept ringing in my head.

Rev. Nelson had begun his devotional by talking about the bruising presidential campaign that, I dare say, has left most of us in this country despairing over the outcome and what will follow. He then wrote, “John’s Gospel may be especially helpful. It begins by reminding us that our hope is cosmic, as in, [‘In the beginning was the Word’] . . . [and our hope is also] particular: as in an unplanned provision for a wedding party, an unexpected bounty of food; an unanticipated healing, in signs too numerous to name that declare: God has shown up. In other words, our hope is in the One who bridges earth and heaven, meeting the needs of body and soul.” Now, if you’re like me those words can cause your heart to swell with hope. They impacted me so much that as I stood to preach last Sunday I chose to depart from my prepared sermon notes and shared much of what Rev. Nelson had written. I just felt that our little faith community had to reclaim our essential inheritance as children of God and to approach this election in a more hopeful way.

It was, however, the following paragraph that moved me the most and challenged me to remind our congregation of why we can have hope in the face of such a bleak landscape. Nelson continued, “Which ideology wins an election will influence our lives: granted. But the work of the faithful remains the same, regardless: to answer meaninglessness with purposeful compassion; to respond to exceptionalism with universal forgiveness; to reply to fearful bigotry by taking on the perspective of those who have suffered persistent indignities; to mend the world. Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ Which means for us who follow not simply evoking the name above all names, but electing a narrative that is not on any ballot. We elect the way of love for God’s creatures and creation. We elect the truth of God’s love for the lost, the lonely, the last, the least, the let down, the left out. We elect the life that would rather give itself up than compromise love.”

I share Rev. Nelson’s words with you today because I want you to experience the hope that I felt when I read his words. I share this with you because I want you, and I to claim our true nature as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ, ever guided by the Holy Spirit. I share these words with you today because I want all of us to remember that our work and ministry remains the same whoever wins the election next week. This is our hope. This is our great calling. Thank you, Rev. John A. Nelson.

Holy One, remind me that claiming my heritage as Your child, that following in the way of Jesus, that being open to the Holy Spirit is my essential calling. Grant me the strength and courage to live into that truth and into that great hope. Amen. 

John A. Nelson’s devotional in its entirety.

 

 

Weekly Devotional: Calling All Upstanders

 

colorhandsYou shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.                                           Leviticus 19:18

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.     Deuteronomy 10:19

On Wednesday night of this week, I had the opportunity to attend the 2016 Hope for Humanity dinner, raising funds for the Dallas Holocaust Museum. It was a wonderful evening, and what I noticed immediately was that, though I was a stranger to many at the dinner, I was greeted by everyone I met with the most gracious and genuine welcome.

As the program began, I was deeply moved that many of the Dallas area Holocaust survivors were there in person. And there was the tangible feeling in the room of the deep commitment of everyone there to see that the injustices of the Holocaust are not repeated. What struck me was that the commitment is not just for the children of Israel, but for all people. The Dallas Holocaust Museum currently hosts more than 72,500 visitors annually, 35,500 of whom are students and, the mission of the Museum is to educate all visitors about the Holocaust and invite them to become “upstanders” in the work for justice, rather than “bystanders.” Education, as the core of the Museum’s mission, not only teaches the history of the Holocaust but also advances human rights by challenging participants to combat prejudice, hatred and indifference.

Throughout the evening, I realized that this deep commitment was born from the ancient teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures that tell us that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love the stranger among us. Of course, as a rabbi, Jesus echoed all of those teachings. Needless to say, this passion for education and justice was also born out of the deep pain wrought by the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. Even so, the evening was filled with hope, the hope that through the efforts of the people in that room, peace and justice can become a reality that the survivors of the Holocaust will live to see. Or, as Elie Weisel, a Holocaust survivor, may his memory be a blessing, once said, “Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.”

It seems to me that now, more than ever, we need “upstanders.” We need people who will commit to loving neighbor and loving the stranger in our midst, people who will combat hatred and indifference with hope. I’m ready to sign up. What about you?

Holy One, author of the universe and of our salvation, teach me today to stand up for those who have no hope. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: “Be Impeccable With Your Word”

our-words-matterA word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.                     –James 3. 5-6, The Message

If you’re like me, you are probably weary of all the words being spoken in this election season. There are just so many words spoken by our candidates, their surrogates, and the ads that run constantly. The words are too often laced with violence and vitriol. That word “vitriol” means, “something highly caustic or severe in effect.”

So is it any wonder that we have a collective sense of foreboding in our world? I had a friend who works in the medical profession tell me that they have seen an upswing in people coming in with medical concerns all related to stress. It would seem that our words and the words of others not only have a stinging emotional effect, they also impact our health. And the Letter of James goes a step further and tells us that our words can “ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke.”

Of course, the remedy is not an easy one. It seems to me that since we cannot change the words of others, our first step might be to start with our own words. So, let’s covenant to follow the advice of Don Miguel Ruiz in his book, The Four Agreements, to practice the first agreement, to “be impeccable with your word.” What would it cost us to think before we speak and consider the impact our word or words might have on others? It wouldn’t cost a dime. Secondly, why not try turning off the noise, the television, the radio, social media? Okay, if unable to do that then perhaps just limit the time spent listening to all the words of this election season. Third, why don’t we fill our minds and hearts with words that fill us with hope, love, joy and peace? After all, the Apostle Paul urged us to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.” (Romans. 12.2) Perhaps we could repeat a phrase or a sentence silently or out loud. One of my favorites is from the great mystic Julian of Norwich. In a vision she saw the earth as a whole and heard the words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, every manner of thing shall be well.” Or, if that doesn’t work, try reading a poem or devotional aloud and see if hearing those words doesn’t change your heart, mind and soul, and give you strength for the day.

I believe that if we even try to do those things or even one of those things we will find ourselves filled with more hope and joy, we will discover that we have more peace, and we will be able to offer love to others. And that, my friends, can change our world.

Holy One, remind me today that my words matter and help me use them for good and not for evil. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: This Election Season, Who Wins?

love_winsJesus continued saying, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”

–Mark 12: 30-31

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to turn on the news or read the headlines. The 24-hour news cycle is filled with people sitting on panels spewing hatred and vitriol at people who have opposing political views. Diatribes are posted on Facebook by people who seem to actually hate people who support one candidate or another. It is, at times, downright depressing.

I got a brief reprieve from the election season last weekend when I attended New Church – Chiesa Nuova, United Church of Christ, North Texas Journey #12. And my wife, Stephanie, got an even longer reprieve when her mom took her to one of our favorite cities, New Orleans, to celebrate her birthday. Stephanie has been going to New Orleans since she was 18 years old, and the two of us go there frequently. I often say that we like to go to New Orleans once a year. Then, if we’re lucky, we get to go twice a year, and if we’re blessed, three times a year. (We’ll only get to go together once this year, but I’m pretty sure we’re still quite blessed.)

New Orleans, in my opinion, is a city like no other. The people who live there are some of the friendliest I’ve ever encountered. And the resiliency of the people became known to the entire world in the years following Hurricane Katrina.

One of the many, many traditions of New Orleans is that on your birthday you pin a dollar bill to your shirt to let others know that it is your birthday. Some people will hand you a dollar bill when they see the bills pinned to your shirt. Others will wish you a happy birthday as you walk by. So, Stephanie got to experience that on Thursday as she and her mom walked around the city. Being wished a happy birthday by a hundred or so locals made her day so much fun. She told me that each time she walked into a restaurant or got on a bus, total strangers acknowledged her birthday.

Then she told me this. “At one point, as we were walking through Jackson Square, a man who appeared to be homeless greeted me and wished me a happy birthday. He then reached into his pocket and handed me a dollar bill. His gesture reminded me that there is so much good in the world, that the news cycle and headlines are merely a distraction from what matters – that we love each other. It was, perhaps, one of the best gifts I received. I pray that I will be able to carry with me throughout the year.”

What really matters is that we love one another. Right? As we grow closer to this election and all that seems to abound is hate, maybe we can remember what the truth is, that love wins, and then try to live it throughout the year.

Holy One, help me, . . . help me, . . . help me to love others as I want to be loved. Amen.