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 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!