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Because AIDS Isn’t Over Yet

By Deacon Bob Shaw

Come! Let us walk in the light of God!

In this way the prophet Isaiah encouraged the Jewish nation thousands of years ago to find the light of God’s love and to claim it and to walk in it.

Today we mark two occasions that require us, too, to walk in the light of God.

First, we commemorate World AIDS Day -– where we remember those who have died during this modern-day holocaust before it was their time. I call it a holocaust because we have lost some of the best, most talented, most intellectual, and most loving people that the world would ever know… to the AIDS holocaust.

Yet the one thing to remember is that ALL communities have suffered from this holocaust. Imagine the possibilities if the people who died were still alive. Let’s not forget the voices, dances, songs, talents, skills and love that have been consumed from our community due to this devastation. Today we remember the love they shared, the friendships they formed and the marks they left on society. Today we lift up those who continue to live with HIV or AIDS, as they continue the battle of their lives. Today we honor the friends, families and volunteers who work so hard to assist us through this trying time. Today we praise God for the scientists and researchers who work so many hours to win this fight. God’s love and compassion shines a light into the gloom and the darkness, the shame and the stigma, which many have tried to associate with this disease.

Let’s not forget the work ahead of us. We are in the midst of a long journey. I want to particularly recognize those brothers and sisters (including transgender people) out there who are living with HIV or AIDS and are doing so publicly. Their courage, grace and stamina fuels some of us to do what we sometimes get worn down from doing – the work to save our community. Thank you for all that you do and the lessons you continue to teach the many of us.

Second, we celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the season in our church year which prepares us to receive God’s ultimate light — the Christ child on Christmas morning, the One who grew up to say, “I am the light of the world.”

“Advent” is the four-week period leading up to Christmas. It is similar to “Lent,” the six-week period prior to Easter. Both seasons are seasons of hope, seasons of waiting, seasons of preparing ourselves inwardly and outwardly to experience God in a new way.

During Advent we prepare for God’s getting closer to humanity which occurred through Jesus, who became Christ for our world. In looking toward the birth of Jesus, we look toward a time when all that Jesus represents can be reborn in our world — elements of hope, of peace, of love, and of joy. These are what the four candles in the Advent wreath represent.

The scriptures of Old Testament, particularly the Book of Isaiah, are often used during Advent because the earliest Christians believed that in Jesus they had met the Hebrew Messiah — God’s Anointed One, who would bring righteousness to the earth and create a fresh start for everyone. Many of the Old Testament scriptures are seen as prophecies that some Christians believe by faith were fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Our Old Testament reading today from Isaiah is one of those scriptures that has been associated with Jesus for generations.

By faith, Christians have believed the start of the Christian Church was being prophesized when Isaiah talked about the mountain of God’s house being established as the highest of the mountains, with all people streaming to it. Christians have prayed that God’s grace and God’s light would lead them to be a house for ALL people. They have believed that Jesus, who welcomed all people to himself, was the beacon of that light of God — a lighthouse, if you will, which attracts those who wander or lose their way. One of the most famous quotes of Jesus is when he clears the temple and says, “Don’t you know that my house shall be a house of prayer for ALL people?”

What a shame that the mainline churches have not put its actions where its words are. What a shame that, even though these words are read in thousands of churches around the world today, many of these churches are STILL NOT houses for ALL people. What a shame that many types of people are not welcome in those houses of God. What a shame that they try to prevent God’s light from shining on people with AIDS, people who are gay or lesbian, differently-abled people, poor people, transgender people, and, frequently, women who wish to be a part of the church rather than keeping silent. Funny how it’s more like a private club than the all-inclusive place that God speaks about.

As we ponder these words today, I hope that we will meditate on whether WE, Gentle Spirit Christian Church, are really being Christ’s lighthouse. Are we a house of God for ALL people, or just those who look or act or believe a certain way? Can we really “walk our talk?”

I hope that we will use today as a day of introspection, not just to think about AIDS and our reaction to it, but as a day to renew our vision as a place where all people might find the light of God’s love. I urge us all to think what kind of place we want to be. And I hope that our thinking will result in our wanting to use this advent season — this season of preparation — as a time to prepare this house of God to be a house for all people.

The early Christians believed that in the figure of Jesus Christ they had met the One who could make Isaiah’s vision come true. There was something so dynamic and loving and compassionate about this Jesus that they were convinced that in him they had met God. They called him Messiah, God’s Anointed One, because they believed that by modeling his example they could make all of these things come true.

If we really regard the example of Jesus as instructive of how God wants us to behave and to live our lives, then we HAVE met the Christ. Remember, if you’ve done something to the least, you’ve done it to me” We can meet the Christ in our daily actions with the world around us. Christmas is not just a time for shopping and giving gifts and eating festive meals. Christmas is about welcoming the Christ Spirit into our lives.

If, when Advent and Christmas are over, our lives are no different — if they do not reflect in a tangible way the coming of Christ, the love, hope, peace, joy, and compassion that Christ emulated for us — then Christmas has not really happened at all. We have just gone through the motions. We have been just like the hypocrites that Jesus criticized and condemned over and over again during his earthly life.

Today I want to tell you about one of the incredible losses that we, as a community, have lost to AIDS. His name was Brandon Ross Abernathy. I met him during one of the lowest points in my life after I was diagnosed as being HIV-positive. The first few months for me was very rough. The only person I told was the guy I was dating. My roommate at the time, who was a good friend, didn’t find out until years later. It was a very tough time for me. For at least six months I did nothing out of fear. This was pre-internet days at the time. Those of us who were computer geeks communicated through bulletin boards. I was a member of an Atlanta based gay bulletin board called Graffiti and I put a message in an area for discussing HIV. It was my way to anonymously reach for help. My screen name would not be placed with the message so I felt safe in not revealing my dirty little secret. Many, many people added their comments to my posting.

All of them were encouraging, and full of love and hope. More than one recommended me to go Operation Survive! It was a program that AIDS Survival Project hosted for those people that are newly diagnosed with HIV, or are affected in any other way (whether they have a partner with it or are in the health care field, etc.) I got my courage up and signed up for this weekend long program.

It was there that I met Brandon Abernathy. Early on in the weekend they broke down the 50 some odd people that were attending the workshop into sub-groups. There was one stipulation. You couldn’t know anyone else in the group. As it turns out I ended up in the group that Brandon led. This group would end up meeting several times during the weekend. It was a place for each person inside the group to share how HIV had affected their lives and how the weekend was affecting them. In order to break the ice some Brandon told us his story. He was bisexual. Kicked out of his house at 15 years old and living on the streets. There he got heavily involved in drugs and prostitution. Later, when his life started coming together he met an incredible woman who he married. It was during this marriage that he found out he was HIV-positive. She couldn’t handle it and left him. The year was 1985. Back then very little was known about HIV. Doctors just watched their patients die and had no way of treating them. Within two years Brandon was diagnosed with full blown AIDS. It was sometime around then that he met his life partner, Cleve, who survives him today.

Over the years Brandon had several brushes with death (three to be exact; the fourth time death finally got him). Each time new drugs and a great deal of faith got him through. At the end of his life Brandon said “I can’t explain why I’m here medically. I do have a positive attitude and I’m also searching for a higher spiritual health.”

Brandon’s story was incredible. Here was someone that despite the odds being against him, had made it so far. I went through Operation Survive! almost six years ago. Brandon changed my life with his story. He showed me that despite having a disease that will ultimately kill you, you can live your life full of hope, of peace, of love, and of joy. It literally changed my life.

I started volunteering at AIDS Survival Project. There I got to work with Brandon during Operation Survive! (which changed its name to Thrive!). Brandon lived his life as Jesus wants us, as a people, to live ours. Love your neighbor. Love your God. These are the two greatest commandments. Brandon, both through his friends and his activism, showed his love for everyone around him. Brandon’s strong desire to find his spiritual higher being and his encouragement of others to do the same followed Jesus’ command also.

Are we ready to do the same? It sounds so easy, but it’s not always that way. In the end the rewards are great though! One way to find to live this life is through the prayer of Jabez. Those of us who went on the church retreat this year found out how. We take the time each day to say this prayer (or the Lord’s prayer or ACTS) and focus on the words and let them deeply infiltrate our being. We then go throughout the day living these words. The rewards that each of us has been receiving is incredible.

There is so much hypocrisy in the world today; even in our community.

I know many gay folks who refuse to acknowledge that AIDS exists, and certainly not in THEIR world! AIDS only happens to sluts, or drug users… not to “nice,” normal gay people like them! So when that turns out to be untrue it’s a big shock to their worlds. It certainly was to mine.

Both the gay and straight community end up being hypocritical when they write the obituary that says that Deacon Bob died of a “long illness” or “cancer.” How many people have gone to their graves without allowing the word AIDS to be uttered in their presence?!

One of the saddest things about the AIDS crisis is that many have used it as a means of further victimizing and ghettoizing and demonizing gay people. We hear ads for charitable organizations that say they are raising money for babies with AIDS — the “innocent victims” of this disease. Let’s think this through to a logical conclusion. They are implicitly stating that those who are not babies who have this disease are non-innocent, willing, active victims who brought on their trouble. Who in their right mind wants a disease with so much stigma attached to it? Let alone ANY disease that would kill them?

Or what about when folks say, “AIDS is not a gay disease”? Well, no, it isn’t. But let’s carry that thought to its logical conclusion. If it were a gay disease, then what? Would that segment of the world population be somehow expendable? What if we said that we shouldn’t treat or research sickle-cell anemia because it’s a black disease or ovarian cancer because it’s a woman’s disease? Why is one group more expendable or redeemable than another?

I say these things because as I look toward the day of the year when we tangibly say Christ is born. I wish that people will begin to see that we are ALL in this together.

No person, church or organization is better than another. God does not hear one person’s or one church’s prayer more than another’s.

God says “The day is coming when my mountain will be greater than all the other mountains. Every one will stream to it because it will be a place of prayer for ALL people.”

No more human made separations. No more fighting. No more war.

That is what will happen when we finally allow Christ to be born.

My sisters and brothers, this Advent season, meditate in your hearts and souls as to how YOU can help Christ to be born this year. How can YOU empower and embody the gifts of Hope, Love, Peace, and Joy that surround the coming of Christ, the coming of Compassion?

Part of it means getting our priorities in order.

How can we bicker or name-call or ignore one another when people out there are DYING without knowing of the love, peace, joy, hope, and compassion which our loving God shows on this earth every day that Christ is born in our gestures and our words and our activities?

As we commemorate World AIDS Day and the First Sunday of Advent, let us try to figure out how we in our individual lives can help Christ to be born so that others really know that this birth has happened, that this Christ really lives.

As we prepare outwardly for Christmas, let us also prepare inwardly the homes of our hearts — because that is where Christmas will really take place. THAT is where Christ will really be born.

AMEN!

Sowing the Seeds of Love

By Deacon Bob Shaw

There was a business consultant who decided to landscape his grounds. He hired a woman with a doctorate in horticulture who was extremely knowledgeable. Because the business consultant was very busy and traveled a lot, he kept emphasizing to her the need to create his garden in a way that would require little or no maintenance on his part. He insisted on automatic sprinklers and other labor-saving devices.

Finally she stopped and said, “There’s one thing you need to deal with before we go any further. If there’s no gardener, then there is no garden!”

There are no labor-saving devices for growing a garden of spiritual virtue. Becoming a person of spiritual fruitfulness requires time, attention and care. How many of us are like that business consultant? We’re very busy during the week and get caught up in work and social activities and don’t spend the time we need to work on our spiritual growth? Then we come into church on Sunday for a re-charge, feeding off the energy of those around us. How many times during the week are you running really low on your spiritual food by Wednesday or Thursday and do nothing about it?

One thing that is needed in all of these situations is God. Whether God is providing the rain from Heaven to water the earth making it bud and flourish. Whether God is placing people together to form relationships that lead to life-long commitments. Whether God is giving us the words to speak to our fellow people that allow the Holy Spirit to plant seeds in the lives of those we encounter. Whatever the seed we’re talking about, God has full control of it.

And just what are those Seeds? They are the Word of God.

In the Gospel lesson, we hear the parable of the sower and the different soils that the seeds have been scattered upon. Within our lives, we encounter each of these soils daily. Ideally, the only soil that should be in our lives is the good soil that produces abundantly what was sown. Life isn’t that easy. It is only when we take the soil that is given us, cultivate it, fertilize it, and properly nourish it that the soil produces a good harvest. That doesn’t always happen in our lives because we allow ot her things to come in and control our lives.

Take the soil next to the road and the birds that came along and ate the seeds. We sometimes associate with people that don’t live their lives according to God’s Will. Perhaps these are people that take God’s Word away from our heart. Perhaps these people are involved in bad things and they get you to join or follow them. You know what they’re doing is wrong, but you associate with them anyway. Whatever it is, these people cause you to doubt what God has planted in your life. How many times are we these people? Running around doing things that snatch away seeds from others?

As for the seeds that fell on rocky soil and grew up and withered away. It seems more and more we rely on ourselves to get the job done right instead of trusting God to provide for us. Do we help our fellow neighbor with whatever their need is? Or do we run around bragging to others about the help we provided? Do we take these things that we need to get done and lift them to God in prayer? God’s Word does not sink in deeply for these people and when the time of testing their faith comes, they fall short.

Finally, the thorny soil. This would represent our daily worries. People we care about, our finances, the weather, health, travel, you name it and we worry about it…. we’re human after all! It doesn’t matter how much we worry about these things because we’re not going to be able to change the outcome. Remember Y2K? God must be laughing at us about that one. We worried a lot, spent gobs and gobs of money, and worried some more on top of it all. And in the end it all was for naught. January 1, 2000 came and went with barely a whimper. God provided in our time of need. When we worry so much and place our trust in things other than God, we allow the things of this world to choke the seeds within us instead of allowing our faith to grow.

“Still other seeds fall on good soil where they produced an abundant crop.” What a comfort to know that in the midst of everything around us there still in good soil within us. That good soil continues to be nourished when we hear God’s Word, when we pray and when we turn our worries and cares over to God.

Jesus admonishes us to take our time and sow everywhere. But why do that? Why waste our time and energy sowing in places where you don’t know whether or not it will bear fruit? Why not just sow the soil that you know will get you the best harvest? Jesus throughout the gospel encourages his followers, telling them that much of their work will be wasted effort and promising them that God will bring forth results far exceeding their expectations. You’ve seen how our ministry has grown over the last few years. And Whosoever, who would’ve dreamed it would become as big as it has? Put your faith in God. Sow those seeds everywhere! You’ll be surprised where those seeds start popping up and taking root.

This is why Christ came to this earth. He knew that there was no way we could ever make the soil within us good enough to produce any crop, so Christ lived the perfect life that we couldn’t. He took upon Himself all of the sin that is around us daily. On the Cross, He shed His blood in order to purify the soil within us to make it good. Not only for that time, but also for all times to come. Christ rose from the dead in order to continue to cultivate, to plow, and fertilize our lives in the manner that is best for us.

So what can you do to “sow those seeds?” One thing is to Pray in the morning folks! When you first get up….you’ve heard Pastor Paul talk about it before and I am again now because I’ve seen the results. I no longer feel spiritually drained by mid-week. Try to say your prayer when you first get up while your mind is still very open and the world hasn’t come crashing in yet. For some, like me, it might not be the very first thing out of your head. Some are thinking of using the bathroom, taking a shower, getting that first cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette or walking the dog. The earlier in the day you say this prayer, the better. Don’t let life catch up with you and take your focus off of God.

Face it; everyday you face hundreds of choices. Every morning when we wake up, our whole day is a myriad of challenges, and we become the sum total of the choices that we make. Sometimes it’s hard to make the right choices, and if you don’t, you suffer the consequences. So every morning when you get up say, “God, help me to make the right choices today.” I feel the difference saying that prayer makes.

Another way to “sow your seeds” is to follow Christ’s example of love. Matthew writes in Chapter 22 “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.” And “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” Jesus stresses that these are the two greatest commandments of them all. Go out and be kind to your neighbor, your co-worker, your friends and strangers you come into contact with. Treat others the way you want them to treat you.

Take the time in your everyday life to do your sowing. Whether it’s saying a prayer in the morning, praying during the day for those around you and for your fellow churchgoers, committing a random act of kindness to a stranger or just biting your tongue and not lashing out at someone who has committed a wrong against you.

Whatever the situation is, go and sow the seeds of love everywhere. God will take those seeds and multiply them in such a way that your life will be richly blessed.

Questing Parson Video Interview with Rev. Paul M. Turner

The Questing Parson, named in 2008 as one of the Top 50 Methodist Theological Blogs, has posted a video interview with Rev. Paul M. Turner, founding pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church.

The Questing Parson – who in real life is the Rev. Guy Kent, former pastor of the Epworth United Methodist Church in Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood and now serving as a retired supply pastor at a rural church in Northwest Georgia – is adding video interviews to his popular blog, the first of which is the interview with the Rev. Turner.

The 41-minute interview, which is available in its entirety on the Questing Parson blog and on Vimeo, is posted below for the viewer’s convenience – first in its entirety, and then in four segments.

The interview with Rev. Turner was conducted earlier in the year and chronicles his struggle with being called to the Christian ministry while being gay. At moments emotional, sometimes inspiring, and throughout informative, the interview presents a deeper understanding of the struggle of gay Christians as well as appreciation for the marvelous ministry to the homeless, the marginalized, and the LGBTQ community conducted by Gentle Spirit Christian Church.