Monday, November 28, 2016

World AIDS Day 2016

It’s been a few decades now since the AIDS epidemic got the full attention of the world.  Though many advances have been made in medical science to improve treatment for people with HIV/AIDS it is still a huge health crisis globally and in the United States. 

According to www.aids2016.org about 5,600 people contract HIV every day.  That is more than 230 people every hour. Over one million people die every year from complications that stem from this immune deficiency; and since 1981 it is estimated that 25 million people have died from it. 

This is a social justice issue because many who continue to contract this virus lack the educational resources to help them with prevention and the means to get treatment.

When World AIDS Day, Dec. 1,­ comes around each year it gives us a moment to think about this disease, including those who have died from it and those who are suffering from it. This reminder also calls us to try to do something more about a terrible local and global affliction that still threatens and takes too many precious lives.

One of the chief causes of HIV/AIDS is intravenous drug use.  The National Institute of Drug Abuse states that the two are “inextricably linked,” as HIV is transmitted by contact with blood or body fluids.  This can occur through the sharing of drug-use equipment like needles. 

In this country, there is a huge heroin epidemic in our communities right now.  According to the New York Times (Oct. 30, 2015) there has been a 39 percent rise in heroin-related deaths, and huge numbers of people are being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS as a result.  This is happening in every neighborhood, in every city; and yet, little is being said or done about this epidemic in our churches.

It is likely that every church has people in its pews who have addiction issues personally or in their families. Yet, we typically keep silent about it. What can we do? 

On and certainly after World AIDS Day 2016 we can discuss and pray for people who have the disease and those living without loved ones who succumbed to the effects of AIDS. We can become informed and prayerful for medical researchers, clinicians and funders who are working hard to develop treatments, and for all those involved in the work of prevention and treatment. 

We can have presentations and conversations about HIV/AIDS in our churches, and share with people that two of the important ways to stop the spread of HIV is to try to prevent and reduce addiction to drugs and the sharing of needles by those who use drugs. Abstinence needs to be taught to people, even though this can be a difficult conversation.

Addiction is costly in lives as well as dollars.  Families, communities and our prisons are extensively affected. Encourage your congregation to welcome Narcotic Anonymous meetings in your church buildings. And donate to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund (Advance Project #982345).  This fund supports ministries that promote awareness and prevention and that create resources to help local churches with education and improving the lives of people living with AIDS.

World AIDS Day comes yearly around the beginning of the Christian season of Advent. This is a time of anticipating the coming of Christ. But that time of preparation should inspire us to examine our lives and our Christian responsibility to love and help our neighbors. Like Good Samaritans, we should help most especially those whom others might ignore or neglect.

This year look for ways to be personally supportive and involved—locally, nationally or globally—in education, prevention and treatment efforts that address our stubborn HIV/AIDS crisis and the growing drug addiction crisis that fuels it.  As Christ’s beloved, called disciples, help our world prepare the way of the Lord by sharing the Savior’s love in tangible, healthy, transformative ways.  


"A Look at HIV and AIDS"

Note: Watch "A Look at HIV and AIDS," a series of videos created by UM Global Ministries in observance of World AIDS Day. It offers a variety of perspectives on AIDS-related stigma. The series invites communities of faith to address the bias attached to those living with HIV and to become more educated and informed.

Friday, November 18, 2016

An inconvenient Christmas



Soon we will be singing Advent hymns in our churches and wondering where this passing year has gone.  

December 25th falls on a Sunday this year, and I am already hearing questions about having worship services on Christmas Day.  I’ve fielded such comments as: 

“It is so inconvenient when Christmas is on a Sunday.” 

“No one comes, and people are tired from the Christmas Eve services the night before.”  

I have been asked if it would be alright to cancel church services on Christmas Day and perhaps even on New Year’s Day a week later, since the same kind of holiday issues exist.  Few churches observe a Watch Night service, however; so the New Year’s Day concern is more about late-night celebrations than holy exhaustion.  

It is true that attendance is typically low on a Christmas Sunday.  Some churches have opted to have one short service with coffee and cinnamon rolls. And I’ve heard of at least one church inviting people to attend services in their pajamas. 

All of this says that Christmas, when it falls on a Sunday, is inconvenient to many, and we are trying to find ways to make it work for us.  Family gatherings and a million other holiday festivities compete with worship on that day. 

But I call on all of our churches to persevere and continue to hold services in some fashion on Sunday, December 25. It is, after all, the celebration of Christ’s birth.

The truth is, Christmas, the real Christmas, has never been convenient.  The birth of Christ came amid a time of political unrest. The Jews were an oppressed people under the cruel domination of Rome.  The religious leaders were for the most part self-seeking, wealthy intellectuals who were more interested in maintaining the status quo than taking any prophetic stands on justice.  

Jesus’ birth was inconvenient


The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were certainly less than convenient. This Galilean couple made a hundred-mile trek across rough, unpaved roads, as the new mother-to-be rode perched on a donkey in her third trimester of pregnancy. 

The birth event itself ends up happening in a rustic stable for animals, not exactly the cleanest or most comfortable environment.  A murderous, unbalanced king seeks the child’s life and kills a swath of innocent babies in his foiled attempt at eliminating the competition.  

There was nothing about the realities of this Jesus’ birth that was glamourous or even convenient.  A fancy Hallmark card depicting the nativity with golden insert envelopes simply doesn’t tell the real story.  

Christmas is still inconvenient, and it always will be. The coming of Christ ushered in a whole new paradigm whose purpose was to turn the world upside down, and not just a little.  

Mother Mary, in the “Magnificat” describes the plan: “He (God) has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”  (Luke 1:51-53)  

Simeon, the aged prophet in the temple, said similar things about Jesus at the time of his dedication: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35).

Show up for Christ on Christmas


The best way to celebrate this newborn king is not just to show up for church services on Christmas Sunday. We should feel compelled—indeed, honored—to do the inconvenient and difficult work of justice ministries: sharing our wealth with those who are hungry for bread and for equality; speaking out when we see inequities and sharing power with people who usually don’t have a place around the table. 

This is year-round ministry-in-action that celebrates the birth and life of Christ every day!

I challenge you to call your churches to a time of prayer and study during Advent.  At my Days on the Districts meetings with clergy this fall I gave to everyone copies of a 40-Day Prayer Challenge book, titled Draw the Circle, by the Rev. Mark Batterson. You and your congregation could read this book, or one like it, as you prepare together for the celebration of Christ’s birth.  

Through prayer and searching the scriptures the Lord will surely lay on your hearts what you need to be doing to “let justice roll down like water and righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24) And what the Lord asks you to do won’t likely be convenient or easy; but the real work of Christmas means walking the difficult, dusty roads that Jesus walked, while bearing a cross on your shoulder.

So, before you sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on that first Sunday of Advent, consider how you will observe an “inconvenient Christmas.” May your goal be to turn the world—your world—upside down with the love of Jesus all year long. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I Voted, I Vote

On Election Day I stood in line for an hour and a half to vote. I don’t think the good people of Upper Providence Township expected such a large crowd. There were only four voting machines and two people at the desk checking us all in. 

The American system of democracy was in full force like I had never seen before. There was a sense of urgency and determination in the people in line with me. It felt like the day after a snowstorm when everyone is outside shoveling and talking to each other like they don’t do any other time. 

As I left the polling place I received a little sticker that read, “I voted.”  I wore it for several days because yes, I voted, but that is not the end of the story.

For many, the results of this election have been a source of celebration; for others, a cause for profound grief and fear. Many of the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church will be up for discussion in the near future, as issues around health care, immigration, gun control and climate justice come before us as a nation in the halls of Congress and in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

That is why I say, “I voted” but also “I vote.” Election Day is over but we still get to vote every day of our lives by the stands we take, the letters we write, the money we donate, the evils we decry, the good we promote. 

St. Therese of Lisieux, a 19th century French Carmelite nun, wrote in her journal, “When we yield to discouragement it is usually because we give too much thought to the past and to the future.”

There is nothing that can be done about the results of the election. It is in the past. There is also no telling what will happen in the future, no matter what was promised on the campaign trail.  We only have today to live. And we can “vote” with our hands, feet and voices through daily acts of justice, mercy and peacemaking where we live right now.

We can decry the violence of mobs attacking people in the streets, the rise of racially motivated hate crimes and incidences of cyber-threats. We can teach peace and tolerance to our children and grandchildren. We can speak out for our Muslim neighbors and immigrant neighbors. 

We can vote in these important ways every day of our lives. And thus, we can change the future through one act of justice or word of kindness at a time. Never underestimate the power of the one voice you have.

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, a modern-day Charles Wesley, who writes prolific and prophetic hymns for the church, wrote the following hymn (which can be sung to the tune of “For the Beauty of the Earth”).  Rev. Gillette has given permission for this to be widely distributed:

By the streams of Babylon we sit weeping bitter tears.Here so many hopes are gone; now we’re filled with countless fears.Yet, O God, you tell us “Rise! See the world through faith-filled eyes!” 
We will rise and seek your way, knowing love will one day winWe won’t let fear rule the day; we will welcome strangers inEvery day, we’ll seek and find countless ways to be more kind. 
By your grace, we’ll rise above even in this troubled hour.Where there’s hate we’ll chose to love; we will speak your truth to power.With the poor and refugee we will build community. 
We will pray for those who lead, even as we take a stand.We will rise with those in need, seeking justice in the land.We will learn and listen well from the truth that others tell. 
We will rise and work for peace; we will treasure your good earth.We will march that wars may cease; we’ll see every person’s worth.God, now give us faith-filled eyes as we heed your call and rise.

Psalm 146:7-8 reminds us that God “executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down.”

So, “Rise! See the world through faith-filled eyes!” And vote for peace and justice every day with your life, never forgetting that God is the ruler yet!

Friday, November 4, 2016

For healing and justice, much work is needed!

As we begin Native American Heritage Month it is clear that there is much work needed in this nation of ours with regards to justice and healing with our Native American citizens.

Against the backdrop of the Standing Rock stand-off with federal officials over an oil pipeline, we ponder once again the sad discrimination that is happening there. Native American people deserve to have the assurance that they have access to clean water and respect for their tribal burial grounds.

These issues and many more broken treaties and injustices have created a lingering historical trauma in the lives of our First Nation people.

This is part of the reason that the teen suicide rate among Native Americans between the ages of 15
and 24 is more than double the national average. The Christian Science Monitor in April 2015 reported a prevailing hopelessness among Native young people because of alcohol and drug abuse, bullying, violence, high unemployment and poverty. The deep-seated issues that cause this include this history of trauma and genocide of Native peoples, chronic government underfunding and the lack of equal access to opportunities for advancement.

Part of our Act of Repentance that we engaged in during our annual conference sessions included the acknowledgement of the inequities and the discrimination. But its main purpose was to call us to more work as the People Called Methodists. We are called to help especially the 1.2 million American Indian and Alaska Native young people in our country.

There is hope! Native American youth are resilient in many ways. They especially find support through the study and celebration of their traditions and cultural identities. Many such programs are springing up around the country and some include the learning of almost extinct tribal languages. We can be supportive of these efforts.

I encourage you all to study these complex issues locally in your churches, donate to the UMC’s Native American Ministries Sunday special offering, visit a reservation, find out where Native Americans live in your area, and hear their heart through their stories.

Each one of us can do at least one thing. It is my hope and prayer that someday the UMC will have its first Native American bishop. Until then there is much work that is needed!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Saints


We arrived at my cousin’s grand-daughter’s wedding about an hour early last Saturday.  We drove from our house in Phoenixville to Pittsburgh early in the morning and did not know exactly how long it would take to get there. When we finally found the enormous St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church in downtown Pittsburgh we had plenty of time to explore the grand cathedral. It was ornate in many ways: a high arched ceiling, marble pillars and numerous statues. 

The real glory of the building, however, was in the stained-glass windows. Each displayed a picture of the Holy Family, an apostle or some Catholic saint. It has been said that saints have the light of Christ shining through them. Indeed, capturing the afternoon sun, these windows, with their gleaming bold colors, were a luminous feast for the eye. 

But as I looked at them closely, I felt all that glory was a bit “unreal.”  The lives of these saints depicted in the windows, at least the ones I knew, were not so glamourous and victorious in real life. Their ministries were plagued by struggles, persecution, sacrificial deprivation and martyrdom. 

But there they all were in this church sanctuary looking very perfect, bright and cleaned up. Even the statue of Jesus on the cross did not look too terribly gruesome. I’m not being critical really, because for all of this, I am grateful. In this stylized beauty of “life on the other side,” after all the suffering and death, we find the redemptive lesson of the Christian walk.
I Peter 4:12 states “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”  The Christian life is one of struggle. God’s people are in direct opposition to the powers and principalities of this world; and there will be personal suffering and persecution. It is one of the “givens” in our faith journey.

Joan D. Chittiste is a Roman Catholic nun and writer. In her book Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, she describes a huge disappointment in her young life, when she was denied by her order the opportunity to study for a Master’s Degree in writing.  Instead she was sent to work at a camp. 

She writes, “Struggle is a fact of life. What we struggle against, what we struggle for, what we with struggle with, all test and hone us. It is the resistance itself that seasons us.” She goes on to even describe suffering as an “unsparing lesson but a necessary gift.” (page 34)
The saints of old knew mighty struggles, and so will we.  The light in the stained-glass windows remind us of the enduring presence of Christ in our lives, even in the midst of struggle. He offers us the radiant light that darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5). And that light reminds us of the final victory we will surely achieve in the next life. 

As we prepare for and celebrate All Saints Day, let us keep in mind the worthy saints, that great “cloud of witnesses,” who cheer us on from the resplendent windows of heaven’s balcony, as we struggle down here in the dim shadows below.


View images of the windows and other sacred items of St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church in downtown Pittsburgh on their Flickr page.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Praying for our Presidential Election

It seems that I can’t remember a time when we as a nation were not talking about the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.  Almost the minute the 2012 election ended, the speculation about the next President began.  One by one, people came forward announcing their candidacy.

Then there were the endless debates, rallies, primaries, conventions, and now more debates. The relentless stream of repetitive news, survey polls and opinions about our major nominees crowd the full media spectrum. And there’s more than enough scandal, mud-slinging and speculation, much of it fueled by leaked, once-secret e-mail messages and videos. 

Campaign fatigue set in for me a long time ago. But I have not given up my concern for our nation, nor my hopes for the best and my prayers for God’s grace as we choose our next POTUS and Commander in Chief.

Called to be the salt and light of the world


As followers of Jesus Christ we are called to be the salt and light of the world, not just the church. The next President of our country can cast a vision and offer an agenda for the future of this nation like few people on earth.

We are called to work for good in this world, along with our governmental leaders, and to call our nation to seek righteousness and pursue justice for all. I ask you to pray every day for this election.  

I Timothy 2:1-2 says “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers and intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”  Please pray for the next president every Sunday at worship and also in your personal times of prayer. 

Also I remind you that United Methodist pastors and leaders should not advocate for any particular candidate, publically or privately.  Everyone should vote as they feel led to vote. Our constitution’s principle of “separation of church and state” forbids us from promoting one party or candidate over another. 

That said, responsible Christians are called to study carefully the platforms and policies of the candidates, so they can prayerfully make careful decisions on Election Day.  

Finally, be sure that you do cast a vote. Voting is an incredible right that our form of government affords us. Many people on this globe have no such option. Find no excuse to stay home on November 8; and if you cannot physically be present, cast an absent-tee ballot now. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

A new museum brings a needed message for our world

Members of the  General Board of Church and Society joined other visitors to the new African American Museum of History and Culture a day before its grand opening.
Last week I attended our new quadrennium’s first meeting of the General Board of Church and Society.  I am proud to serve for another four years on this agency that speaks for the concerns of faith, justice and peace in and on behalf of our denomination.

At the end of our three days of conversation, presentations, worship and organizing, a group of us walked down to the Washington DC National Mall, to the site of the new African American Museum of History and Culture, which was to open on Saturday, Sept. 24.

People had already gathered, even a day before. Excitement and joy was in the air.  We paused to pray outside the huge bronze-colored building. Several other African American visitors joined us, saying “We are with you.”

I invite everyone to make the journey to the nation’s capital to see this museum.  At the dedication on Saturday President Barack Obama stated, “The African American story perhaps needs to be told now more than ever.” This is unquestionably true in the wake of more police shootings of African Americans in Tulsa and Charlotte.  We need to hear the real stories of the lives of real people.

In a recent podcast from Ministry Matters, titled “Terence Crutcher, Police Violence and Racism in America (Sept.  23, 2016) Shane Raynor, the editor of “News and Religion,” interviewed several church leaders about what the church needs to be doing. Listen to the podcast here.

The Rev. Hannah Bonner, an Eastern PA Conference elder on extension ministry, works at a faith community in Houston, Texas, known as “The Shout.” She shared her experience of working with the community after the death of Sandra Bland, who reportedly committed suicide in prison after being rudely arrested for a traffic violation.

Focus on lives, not just deaths of African Americans


Bonner said that one very important thing we can do is to focus on the lives of the African American victims of police violence people, and not just on their deaths.  Despite the endless media attention on their deaths, we should take time to learn about and honor their lives and legacies, not just focus on how they died.

An important, life-affirming response to the horrors of this continual plague of death and violence is for white people to look, listen, learn and understand with open minds and hearts. This new museum celebrates an essential part of American history and culture. And it gives people an important opportunity to learn and understand more fully that part of our nation's richly diverse, complex story.

Visitors will experience the journey from slavery to civil rights to Black Lives Matter and hear both famous and obscure stories of triumph and tragedy.  It appears there is a war being waged in our society by those who wish to maintain oppressive systems of inequality.

But may this welcome museum experience prepare our church to offer what it uniquely brings to the world: the message that all people are divinely and equally created as children of God, and that everyone is blessed and deserving of life, liberty, respect and justice.  This the church’s prophetic word for the world today.