Inspired by the writings of Lloyd John Ogilvie, this sermon series examines some of the best-known sayings of Jesus, discusses what often confuses people about them, and offers insights into how they can be related to modern living.
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November 11, 2018
All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford — she gave her all.
October 28, 2018
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.
October 21, 2018
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Creator except through me.”
October 14, 2018
This is once again the Great Reversal: Many who are first will end up last, and the last first.
October 7, 2018
You find it easy enough to forecast the weather — why can’t you read the signs of the times? An evil and wanton generation is always wanting signs and wonders.
September 23, 2018
That’s what I mean when I say, “Many get invited; only a few make it.”
September 16, 2018
Count on it — there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.
September 9, 2018
Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.
August 19, 2018
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
August 5, 2018
And no one having drunk old wine immediately desires new, for he says, “The old is better.”
July 29, 2018
I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.
July 22, 2018
They replied, “Are you serious? You want us to go spend a fortune on food for their supper?”
July 15, 2018
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Six years ago I made what felt at the time like a strong statement about inclusivity. I railed against the splintered, inward-focused nature of the institutional Christian church, and about the irony of that fact given that the people in that ossified, bickering church profess to follow one of history’s most radically inclusive figures, Jesus Christ.
In that statement I was focused mostly on behaviors – by the things done and left undone by the average churchgoer, and also by the institutional church. I put the onus on each of us as individuals to own the nature of Christian inclusivity and to take proactive steps to ensure it.
But recent events have got me thinking that inclusivity – with all its trappings of open doors, welcoming congregations and affirming practices – still may not be enough.
Let me give you an example. At my church we practice an open communion. We believe the Lord’s Table constitutes an invitation that comes from none other than God, and that it’s not our job to come between the Table and anyone (and I truly mean anyone) who may feel that invitation.
But in the same church that doesn’t bat an eye when I say that during the communion prayer, I also have congregants who instinctively refer to God as Father and to God’s realm as a kingdom – and who no doubt would shift uncomfortably in their seats if I challenged them to pause and really imagine God as Mother rather than Father. Not that I’m saying their worldview is abnormal; most Christians have this construct embedded quite deeply in their spiritual formation.
So I don’t go there, at least not directly – partly because I see God as beyond gender. Like, way beyond. So beyond that it’s almost laughable to me that anyone would argue for a second about whether God is masculine or feminine. Because if there’s anything the bible literalist and the liberation theologian can agree on about God, it’s that the nature of God’s being is mind-blowingly beyond our maximum comprehension.
What that means for me is that I use God’s name as the pronoun for God. God does God’s work in our lives. No one but God can know Godself the way God does. That sort of thing. Once you get the hang of it, the alternative feels jarring.
And for some people it’s not just jarring, it’s a trigger. Consider, for instance, the person whose father sexually abused her. Even if you add the word “heavenly” in front of “father” in referring to God, that doesn’t take away the lightning-strike of reactions that happen within her every time she hears God referred to as paternal.
Speaking of paternal, there’s another word that needs to come into this conversation, and that’s patriarchy. Because when we talk about the historical pronouns for God, we’re talking about so much more than a mere grammatical habit here. The accepted practice of referring to God in the masculine isn’t just the chance result of a binary coin toss two centuries ago; nor is it really the result of some foundational theological insight into the true nature of God.
Rather, our casting of God’s image in the mold of a benevolent space-daddy is a direct, centuries-old hangover from a different time when power was masculine and our relationship to God needed to be portrayed in terms of patriarchal dominance and submission so the church could enforce our obedience.
Yes, we’ve inherited a narrative about Jesus where God is referred to in the masculine. But we also know it’s part of a greater narrative that was subject to heavy editing – we just don’t always know the degree to which that editing was applied to which parts of the narrative. And even if Jesus did refer to God in the masculine, I submit for your consideration that the theological message from Jesus in this instance was more about us feeling God as a loving parent than seeing God strictly as a father figure. The parable of the prodigal proves that. Jesus was, after all, incredibly feminist for his time; it was just another aspect of his radical ministry.
Which makes for a fun conversation at a Saturday morning staff meeting, where I’m dealing the full spectrum of belief: From those on one end who grew up bathed in King James-flavored biblical literalism and patriarchy, all the way to someone on the other end who came our way via a detour through Unitarian Universalism and has been assumed on at least one occasion to be more Buddhist than Christian.
They all fit under the tent, but it means we’ve got some work to do if we’re going to go beyond being inclusive to practicing true inclusion:
- Inclusivity says “come as you are”. Inclusion means we’re going to meet you where you are.
- Inclusivity says “our doors are open”. Inclusion means our minds are too.
- Inclusivity says “we welcome you”. Inclusion means we make you feel as if our house is your house – that in fact, it’s been yours all along.
- Inclusivity says “we affirm you”. Inclusion means we recognize that we’re not here to save your soul, we’re here to protect it.
See the difference? Inclusivity has become a decoration, and it was a great first step. But it’s a dated notion. Inclusion, on the other hand, is an act, a series of actions, a constellation of activities, where we meet the stranger more than halfway across the table.
If it feels uncomfortable, that’s your human side talking. But when it becomes so ingrained in you that you can’t go back, I dare say you’re actually enjoying a direct relationship with God. Because to God these things are second nature. It’s how you draw the whole world to you. It’s how you live the example set forth by Jesus.
So what I’ve told my staff is, we’re all on our individual journeys. You can refer to God however you like in your private life – in your mind, in your prayers, in your living room. But in church, be inclusive. Be radically welcoming. Make inclusion a verb.
I’ve told them that if they need an example, they can listen to how my husband sings a hymn – or better yet, how he recites the Lord’s Prayer. In his version of it, God goes from being “Our Father” to “Our Creator”, and God’s kingdom becomes a realm. See how easy that is?
And in the process, our understanding of God grows. Our understanding of how God views the souls in our midst grows. And God is able to do God’s best work while we politely get out of our own way.
One of my pet peeves has always been the improper lane change — you know, that everyday driving move where you slide into the next lane without hitting your turn signal — which is a total moving violation and completely worthy of a traffic ticket. Or worse, hogging two lanes by making that sliding move (probably still not using your turn signal) nice and slow, almost as though you’re not fully committing to the new lane or abandoning the old one — perhaps while texting — which is another illegal move.
So I find it almost poetic that the admonishment to “stay in your lane” has entered today’s pithy social-media-powered vernacular as a way of signaling that someone is publicly engaging on a topic where they may not have credibility to speak. The corollary being that when you’re solidly “in your lane”, you’re speaking on something where you have enough credibility not to embarrass yourself.
Some examples of being out of one’s lane: When a white person, no matter how well-meaning, tries to sound off on the experiences of minorities in America. Or when a man, perhaps not so well-meaning, tries to make a pronouncement about women’s lives. Or when cisgender people vocalize their inability to understand how a person can spend every moment of their existence feeling as though their own body is alien to them.
In other words, the motive for the lane-change doesn’t matter; what matters is the credibility gap between the speaker and their chosen topic.
For me, that might look something like walking into Congress, taking the podium and pontificating about what laws our elected politicians should be passing. If I did that I’d be way out of my lane, and widely so — maybe even embarrassingly so. Which is why I’m not in Washington right now. Instead I’m in Georgia, having a day of study and prayer, getting ready for the day we’re about to have in our little church. Today, as with most days, I have plenty going on in my lane as a pastor to keep me more than busy.
Which is why I find it confusing and maybe even a little maddening when our nation’s leaders suddenly start swinging into my lane at critical moments when they seem to have plenty going on in their own lanes. Like when they suddenly believe their role is to act as prayer leaders, not political leaders. They did it again this week, in response to the slaying of 17 people in Parkland, Fla., at the hands of a teenager wielding an assault rifle he’d purchased under his own name.
When something like that happens, I expect to turn on my TV and see our political leaders standing at podiums in front of microphones and cameras, telling us what they’re going to do in their lane of policy and legislation to prevent another tragedy like this. I expect to hear a belief in our nation’s ability to protect its citizens from harm.
But instead I hear a suddenly profound belief in prayer instead of policy, prayer instead of laws. And this confuses me. It confuses me because I expect to hear a call to prayer from an actual prayer leader — you know, like the intercessory prayer leader who just joined our church and is currently leading a Lenten study on the nature of prayer. What she’s doing makes perfect sense to me; she’s in her lane as a churchgoer and a prayer leader.
But as I saw one politician after another express the fervent need for prayer in the aftermath of the Parkland tragedy, I noticed something: The day after it happened, President Trump managed to speak for seven minutes about the tragedy, without mentioning guns. Not once. Bit of an oversight, right? Until it hit me that maybe he couldn’t see his way to addressing the role of an AR-15 assault rifle in the Parkland shooting because the National Rifle Association’s $30.3 million contribution to his election campaign was blocking his view.
And the president wasn’t alone: According to The Independent, the roster of politicians whose view was similarly blocked includes:
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (who received $3.3 million from the NRA and likes to pepper his Twitter feed with Bible verses), who tweeted in the moment:
Just spoke to Broward School Superintendent. Today is that terrible day you pray never comes.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 14, 2018
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner ($3.8 million from the NRA), who said:
I am heartbroken for the students & family of those involved in this horrible tragedy & I’m praying for our first responders as they act swiftly to contain the situation. https://t.co/rCn5lFYhHP
— Cory Gardner (@SenCoryGardner) February 14, 2018
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman ($3 million), who said:
Heartbreaking news out of Florida. Jane and I send our prayers to the school, the community, and the victims of this tragedy.
— Rob Portman (@senrobportman) February 14, 2018
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy ($2.8 million), who said:
Praying for the students, teachers and first responders affected by the tragic shooting in Florida. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
— Bill Cassidy (@BillCassidy) February 14, 2018
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis ($4.4 million), who said:
Tragic news out of Florida. Please keep the victims, their families, first responders and the community in your thoughts and prayers.
— Senator Thom Tillis (@SenThomTillis) February 14, 2018
Colorado Rep. Ken Buck ($800,544), who said:
I’m devastated to hear about the tragedy in Florida. Praying today for the students and all those impacted.
— Congressman Ken Buck (@RepKenBuck) February 14, 2018
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying politicians must be 100 percent secular or deny their own personal feelings in their response to tragedy. The correct response to tragedy is always sympathy and compassion — and if that includes a notation that the person speaking is holding the victims in their thoughts and prayers, that’s part of the natural human response.
But would you like to guess how many of the Twitter feeds of the politicians above have mentioned our national fetishization of guns in the days since the Parkland tragedy apparently compelled them to become self-anointed national prayer leaders via social media? Go look for yourself. (Spoiler alert: The number of those tweets currently shares the same shape as a goose egg.) Yet many of them have found plenty of time since their prayer-tweets to be vocal on an array of other issues they apparently found more pressing. Seriously, take a look for yourself; it speaks volumes.
And here’s why: The just-add-water cyber-call for prayer is a distraction tactic, and one they’ve all mastered: Hide behind Twitter, with one’s head digitally bowed in prayer. It buys time, because they know how the news cycle works. They know that if they can buy themselves 24 hours, the heat is effectively off at the end of it. So they do it with prayer-shaming. They say the equivalent of “Now’s not the time to talk about gun legislation; people are mourning.” But then the right time never seems to come.
And while the politicians may be smart enough not to overtly name this as the game, their fandom isn’t always; here’s a tweet from conservative Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren that makes it plain:
Can the Left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda? My goodness. This isn’t about a gun it’s about another lunatic. #FloridaShooting
— Tomi Lahren (@TomiLahren) February 15, 2018
Alternatively, here’s a list of policy areas where our fearless leaders in Washington apparently didn’t need the help of prayer warriors. Instead, they stayed in their lane and acted:
- Slashing the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent
- Repealing the individual mandate on Obamacare
- Cutting 22 regulations in 2017 for every new one enacted
- Enacting a ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries
- Declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel
- Withdrawing from the Paris climate accord
- Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership
- Rolling back some of President Obama’s Cuba policies
- Moving to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules
I mean, when was the last time you heard a politician call for us to pray over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear saber rattling? Or over the problem of illegal immigration? (I’ll save you some time: Never.) Instead, the condemnation and the subsequent prescription for action come swiftly: We’ll unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea. We’ll build a wall between us and Mexico. No need to let a moment of prayer slow us down.
Or how about this: When was the last time you heard of someone calling to report a burglary in progress, or a house on fire, or a massive car accident, only to be told by the government we all pay taxes to: “We’re praying for you, and we ask that your neighbors do the same.”
But wait, why is a pastor appearing to get pretty darn political while admonishing politicians for over-invoking religion? Well in a nutshell, it’s because those very same politicians have forced us into the Upside Down: Because they’re using prayer as a shield, they’re forcing pastors like me to call foul. Once they stop throwing prayer-grenades at a constituency that is sincerely waiting for answers, we can go back to our regularly scheduled programming — and I for one can return to being a street pastor focused every day on what’s in my lane: Helping to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned. Because trust me, that’s really how I’d rather spend a day. I don’t need my turn signal to do that.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that day will ever come. And the way I think I know that is because the idea of pastors veering into the political is nothing new: My idol and inspiration for pursuing ministry, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was preaching five decades ago something called a “social gospel” — a venerated church tradition made necessary by the fact that the political powers-that-be of the time shirked their responsibility to avert the grinding oppression and stark brutality that were regularly visited upon the flock sitting in the pews.
Yet here we are, a half-century later, finding that our political leaders still fall well short, and people still suffer — and all too often, they still needlessly die.
And why is that? Because our political leadership, while professing to be beholden to God, are actually too beholden to the almighty dollar — in this case, millions of them — to do what is right. To stay in their lane and use the tools we elected them to use — policy and law — to make our lives better. And if not better, at least safer. And if not safer, at least not outright dangerous.
So yes, I’m out of my lane. It’s not where I’d like to be. But until our politicians realize that we elected them to enact laws and policies — not to be prayer leaders acting naive about their role in making tomorrow different from today, the answers will continue to “blow in the wind” — which is to say they’ll stay right in front of us, tantalizingly in plain sight, but also tragically just outside our collective grasp.
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
But I can see what’s in the wind. As a sworn protector of souls, I’m issuing a pastoral admonishment, a clarion call to all the mealy-mouthed, disingenuous dollar-worshipping politicians who would cloak themselves in religion to distract us while they vacuum up cash from the protectors of those who heartily profit while the blood of innocents is spilled. Stop pretending you can’t see what we all see.
Stay in your lane. Use the tools we reserved for you. Do the job you were sent to do. Protect the people who elected you.
I’m praying mightily for it to be so.
As we travel in our Lenten journey this year, our church once again encourages and will engage in an annual period of fasting and prayer from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. We started this practice 15 years ago, and for the past six years we have emphasized making this special time be about becoming more attuned than ever to the work God would have us do as individuals and as a church.
Throughout these last six years we have focused our prayers on our church and its direction — on how to better do the work God has laid out for us. We have had significant growth in outreach to the community and to God’s people. The miracle stories seem to happen at a dizzying pace. As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, we celebrate our past and present — and we prayerfully look to our future.
It is only with your support that we have become a church that is affirming, inclusive and progressive in our ministry, and it is only with your help and prayer that it can continue.
Now that this church is beginning its 21th year of ministry, the pastoral staff and I have been moved by God’s spirit to again call for this time of fasting and prayer. I hope that you will consider joining with Vicar Alyce, Rev. Vivian, Rev. LaTaña and me in this spiritual practice — and in particular, to join me in Candler Park, near picnic pavilion 2, on Holy Saturday, March 31st between 10am and 2:30pm, to pray together and also to pray for those who are joining us in person or in spirit.
Here are the details of our time of fasting and prayer:
- Our fast begins on Good Friday at the conclusion of the 7pm service at the foot of the Cross on the lawn of First Christian Church of Decatur.
- Our theme this year is “Prayer as a conversation with God”.
- On Holy Saturday in Candler Park, I will lead us through a day of prayer. If you have a signed covenant with our church, I appeal to you especially to participate in this sacred and holy time of reflection and of seeking God’s direction for this fellowship. (If you have small children, don’t let that stop you from participating; let us know you intend to be there and we can discuss arrangements for child care.)
This year’s meditation: “How do I pray; how do I talk to God?” For example:
- How does this translate for you in the life of Gentle Spirit Christian Church? What kinds of prayers have you experienced?
- What can each of us do to support a dedicated prayer life through our vision and mission?
- What do we need to do as individuals to continue to live in a dedicated prayer life?
- What does a dedicated prayer life look like?
Easter is a special opportunity for us to set ourselves aside and focus on God, to allow God to speak to each of us individually and to all of us as a church. I hope you’ll join us in this spiritual practice beginning at 7pm on Good Friday and concluding with our Easter (Resurrection Sunday) Sunrise Service on April 1st at 7:25am in Candler Park, picnic Pavilion 2.
You’ve probably heard some variation of the joke about how different news media outlets would handle the news of the end of the world. I read some examples during a recent sermon; here are some favorites:
- USA Today: We’re Dead.
- The Wall Street Journal: Dow Jones Plummets As World Ends.
- Sports Illustrated: Game Over.
- Readers Digest: ‘Bye.
- Ladies Home Journal: Lose 10 Pounds by Judgment Day!
- The New York Post: The End.
- The New York Times: Armageddon Likely Tomorrow; Third World Hit Hardest.
My congregation howled at all of them except the last one — mainly because it wasn’t on the list I read that day in church. I’m adding it here because I was reminded of it by a recent column by the Times’ own Nicholas Kristof, who is arguably a poster child for that organization’s unabashedly global point of view.
That column was an end-of-year piece where Kristof noted that his least-read columns had attracted only 3 percent of the audience of his best-read* ones. And what were those columns (and one video) about? “Overseas news”, as he calls it. Sample topics:
- China’s inexcusable treatment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo during his dying days.
- A 14-year-old Honduran refugee girl who had been forced into a relationship with a gang member at age 11.
- An easy (as in, inexpensive and effective) treatment for clubfoot in Liberia.
- The security threat posed by Ebola.
Conversely, with a couple of exceptions, Kristof’s best-read columns were generally about President Trump.
The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. The most powerful human being on the planet gets more than 30 times the attention of intelligent humans than do the most powerless, voiceless and oppressed who share our planet — or as Jesus referred to them, “the least of these”.
I say “intelligent humans” because it’s hard to argue that people who willfully consume (mostly) written news by one of the most serious columnists at the flagship American arbiter of stodgy eat-your-spinach mass journalism are exactly the dilettantes of the content-consumption economy.
I’m underscoring this because I can’t even imagine what it says about the rest of us. After all, a New York Times reader doesn’t exactly represent middle America. I don’t need to see a Times media kit to know that one of their headlines generally goes straight onto the radar of the 1 percent, the business and opinion leaders, the captains of industry, the political elite, the global elite, the oligarchs, the intellectuals, the universities, the heads of foundations, royalty, the independently wealthy, the charitable elite — and a great deal of the upper middle class. It’s a bankable, almost mathematical certainty.
So if the most educated / moneyed / powerful people on the planet can’t be bothered to even read about the powerless, the forgotten, the poor, the ignored (again, “the least of these”) — how could we even hope to find a single entity focused on them? Much less a powerful entity. One that spends every day with them. And whose reach extends into every corner of the globe.
Actually, there is just such an entity. And it’s thriving at a rate that any single private or public organization could envy. It rolls around this big blue marble we call home without regard for national borders, race, color, religion, creed, national origin, ancestry, gender, age, ability, ethnicity, education, citizenship or socioeconomic status.
That entity, brothers and sisters, is the human immunodeficiency virus.
It’s straight out of science fiction, if you really think about it. And apparently it’s a narrative we just can’t get enough of — as long as it’s make-believe. We read books and watch movies all the time that are variations on a theme that could have been ripped from the HIV/AIDS headlines of the last 40 years. We can’t get enough apocalypse/pandemic/zombie fiction in our lives right now. But let a New York Times columnist write about actual human devastation and, well… yawn.
So here’s some current global nonfiction about the 36.7 million people that HIV/AIDS has wrapped itself around in my lifetime:
- 2.1 million children (<15 years old) are living with HIV and were mostly infected by their HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
- It’s estimated that 1.8 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2016 — about 5,000 new infections per day. This includes 160,000 children. Most of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa, the most affected region, where there were an estimated 25.6 million people living with HIV in 2015 — and where about two-thirds of new HIV infections occurred in that same year.
- Only 60 percent of people with HIV know their status.
- 1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2016.
Having said that, the picture in the United States is a bit different. From 2010 to 2014, the annual number of new HIV infections in the U.S. actually declined by 10 percent. And yes, gay and bisexual men still account for more than two-thirds of new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. — but here are some new HIV facts that might not be on your radar:
- The majority of men who contracted HIV via homosexual contact are black or Hispanic/Latino. The next-largest group after gay/bisexual men are black heterosexual women.
- Almost a quarter of newly diagnosed HIV-positive Americans is heterosexual.
- Youth age 13-24 accounted for 22 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2015.
- People 55 and older now account for 23 percent of HIV infections in the U.S.
- At least 1 in 8, if not 1 in 7, Americans with HIV don’t know they have the virus.
Unfortunately, the picture in the South is decidedly bleaker:
- The CDC estimates that the South, which is home to about a third of the U.S. population, is also home to 44 percent of all Americans living with an HIV diagnosis.
- People in the South are three times as likely as other Americans to die of HIV — and of course, they’re less likely to know their HIV status.
- African Americans represented more than half of new HIV diagnoses in the South in 2014 — more than a third of them heterosexual.
And you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to guess what the frontline professionals are naming as some contributing factors: Stigma, poverty, inaccessible healthcare. HIV may need a single living host in order to survive — but in order to really thrive, the virus needs an environment of fear, poverty and neglect.
What makes this even sadder is that, while there’s no known cure yet for HIV, the advances that have been made are so significant that living with HIV can be as non-threatening as living with any other chronic and manageable illness (diabetes is a good example) — so much so that there are HIV-positive people whose viral load is literally undetectable. Combine that with proper medical care, and a person with undetectable HIV is essentially incapable of transmitting the virus to another person.
Not only that, but allow me to add these two terms to your vocabulary:
- Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP): As a way of reducing their own risk of contracting the virus, a person can take the same type of medicine that HIV-positive people take.
- Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP): As a way of preventing HIV infection after a recent possible exposure to the virus, a person can take the same type of medicine that HIV-positive people take.
Sound too good to be true? It’s not. It’s science fact, not science fiction. It’s the world we live in today. Well actually, it’s the world that some of us live in today — the critical ingredients being a First World-worthy combination of education, empowerment and access to healthcare.
So in summary, the reason HIV is still with us isn’t because governments, science, medicine or nonprofits haven’t provided the tools. The tools are there. They exist. They work. They’re working. They’re just not everywhere they need to be. Not by a long shot.
That’s because HIV’s most powerful adversary on the planet still hasn’t been unleashed. And that adversary is the single individual. It’s us. It’s me. It’s you.
The recipe is this:
- Know your HIV status. If you’re sexually active, get tested at least once a year. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of knowledge.
- The next time you see something about HIV/AIDS, read it. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of education.
- Pray for those affected by HIV/AIDS. I promise it will change your life. This is the role of prayer.
And while you’re praying for those affected by HIV/AIDS, be realistic about who you’re praying for: People of color, youth, the elderly, women, the under-educated, the mis-educated, closeted LGBT people, out LGBT people, the poor… and the people of the Two-Thirds World. And be realistic about why: Stigma, poverty, inaccessible healthcare.
If you do this, I promise that before you know it, the scope of your focus on your brothers and sisters around the world will go far beyond HIV — because HIV’s hegemony is just a symptom of what’s really going on. It’s just a symptom of what’s really broken about the world. It’s just a symptom of all the human woes we allow to persist in the face of the greatest expansion and accumulation of wealth in our collective history.
And who knows? Maybe your prayers will help change the progress of HIV/AIDS as well. Let’s meet here a year from now and compare notes. But if you’re the only one who is changed by this prayer, that’s good enough for me. That’s the job of prayer. That’s the role of God in your life.
Rather than “putting Christ back in Christmas”, I’d settle for putting Christ back in Christians.
The above is a variation on a statement I saw on Facebook that really spoke to me — and apparently to more than a few of my Facebook friends, because my reposting of it went “viral” — at least as much as you could use that term to describe the reaction to something I’ve posted there.
This is in comparison to what I normally post on Facebook, which generally doesn’t raise eyebrows because it’s either “For The Day’s Journey”, my daily posting of a thought-provoking or at least inspirational quote from someone more eloquent (and renowned) than me, or “Welcome to the New Week”, my weekly Bible verse — or maybe just a rundown of the night’s dinner menu courtesy of my husband, who rules our kitchen and swears to me that it’s more than just where the coffee pot lives.
But back to that Paul-viral Facebook post. Had I struck a nerve? Had I tapped into a vein of social sentiment? Had I accessed the zeitgeist? I think so. I think a lot of people — not just my Facebook friends — are tired of the hypocrisy of “traditional”, conservative, “evangelical” Christianity.
I think people are tired of opening their Facebook feed to see what their friends are up to and instead slipping on the social media equivalent of a floor smeared with equine fecal matter in the form of such heartwarming fare as proclamations by none other than Roy Moore, Alabama’s self-proclaimed defender of the 10 Commandments, who pompously claims to have God’s ear when it comes to what is wrong with America — and who, despite losing his Senate race, still got 48 percent of the vote despite being generally a horse’s ass and specifically accused of (basically) pedophilia.
I think people are tired of seeing evidence all around them that their fellow man continues to act in such a short-sighted and self-absorbed fashion when confronted with situations where our instruction from God is actually, I believe, rather clear: Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.
Here in Atlanta, just in time for Christmas, we’re ignoring that instruction as it concerns our homeless brothers and sisters. Here in Atlanta, we live in a city where the establishment fought shamelessly for the better part of a decade to shut down the city’s largest homeless shelter — which just happened to be situated on some seriously prime real estate.
Here in Atlanta, there was apparently no plan being made during that decade-long fight to account for how the 700-800 people the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter was serving daily might survive with some semblance of human dignity.
Did I mention that every other shelter in town is already full?
But instead of focusing on how to get homeless people off the streets as winter approaches, your local government has determined that the best thing they can do for the homeless right now is to keep you from offering them food.
There’s apparently a local ordinance that prohibits the distribution of food in an organized way to, basically, strangers. And your local law enforcement is now hellbent on enforcing it.
Here’s what it says, according to a pamphlet that’s been proffered to yours truly on the streets of Atlanta by well-meaning law enforcement personnel (prefaced by a mealy-mouthed preamble in said pamphlet):
We sincerely thank you for your interest in serving Atlanta’s people in need. As providers of services to these groups 24/7, year-round, we are committed to helping them in ways that lead to changed lives and lasting self-sufficiency.
In our experience, the best way to assist people in need is through places with sanitary kitchens, safe shelter, and services that help them address their problems and move forward in their lives. By contrast, feeding and donating to people on our streets is not a long-term solution.
… Public Safety’s goal is to increase police visibility and improve the quality of life within the City of Atlanta’s Government District. This will be accomplished through the Enforcement of City Ordinances and State laws and Partners for Home and Atlanta Continuum of Care to address the homelessness…
Did you know a Permit is required?
(Fulton County) Sec. 34-152. – Permit requirements
(a) Permit required. A valid permit issued by the board of health shall be required prior to operation of a food service establishment. Such permit shall be obtained in compliance with the rules and regulations of the State of Georgia governing food service, GA. Comp. R. & Regs. 290-5-14
(b) Rule 511-6-1-.08 Special Food Service Operations
Rather than feeding or donating to individuals on Atlanta’s streets, please consider directing your generosity to one of the great organizations working tirelessly to improve the lives of people in need in our communities
The arrogance continues with a list of 10 organizations that the pamphlet recommends should be the real focus of our energy, we who so inadequately seek to serve the homeless. And let me be clear: I am not disparaging the groups themselves — which are for the most part reputable, worthy and doing good in the community. Rather, I’m pointing up the city’s sleight of hand in making it seem that these 10 points of light are adequately filling the gap in homeless services left wide open by the closing of Peachtree-Pine.
But that isn’t even remotely true, and here’s why:
- Most of these organizations close by 5pm. There are a couple that are open until 8:45pm and one that is 24 hours — but this last one serves homeless youth only.
- There are no purely family shelters.
- None of them provides ongoing meals.
- These organizations are spread out all over the city… making it extremely difficult for their clientele to access the services they do provide.
- Many organizations have a cutoff as to how many clients they can service at a time. People can find themselves waiting in long lines for hours or more and still not making the cut.
- None of these organizations is willing to work with transgender folks.
- Many of these organizations require a tuberculosis test before one can get housing or services.
So please tell me how, in all that is holy, are these people who are without resources or transportation, who are hungry, who can also be dealing with addiction or mental illness or disability — how are they supposed to access what the mealy-mouthed pamphlet blithely refers to as a continuum of care? How long should they wait? How far should they walk? And let’s be honest: Whose way should they stay out of?
And I’m so not done here. Because on top of all of this is the criminalization of homelessness. Here’s how it starts: In the state of Georgia, you cannot get a driver’s license or state ID without a birth certificate, Social Security card and two pieces of mail sent to your residence.
Yes, you read that correctly: Two pieces of mail to your residence. Good luck, homeless people!
Plus it doesn’t take longer than a couple of weeks for a newly homeless person to have lost whatever they might have been carrying all this documentation in to a beat cop who confiscated it, a fellow traveler who stole it — or simply to “the shuffle” of constantly being on the move and eventually losing track of almost anything.
The last time I went to renew my driver’s license, I had to mail $50 to New Jersey to get my birth certificate. How many homeless people can manage that?
Anyway, the next step in the criminalization of homelessness is that once you’ve pretty much lost the ability to prove who you are, you’re eventually going to find yourself arrested for loitering, trespassing, shoplifting, vagrancy, public urination, public intoxication, indecent exposure or any number of other petty crimes that happen along the way when you’re just trying to survive on the streets.
The result being that the city’s jails double as unofficial homeless shelters. So one of the badges that goes along with being homeless is the Unemployability badge, because you now have a criminal record thanks to your inability to find a place to live, stay out of the way, prove who you are or pay a bond or a fine.
And of course, the only thing the average homeless person is actually guilty of is generally addiction, mental health issues, or a disability of some kind. They end up on the streets because they can’t get the help they need.
Or they can’t find work that pays a living wage — a situation that’s happening in my own household, where my 62-year-old husband, a proud Army veteran who has worked in the computing field for the better part of four decades suddenly finds himself laid off and interviewing for a job at Wal-Mart that pays $9 an hour with no benefits. Which adds up to $360 a week, with no health insurance, before the Federal government takes their pound of flesh.
So let’s just say that when I contemplate what it must be like for someone to slide into homelessness, I can empathize from a very real place right now.
In conclusion, this Christmas, could we try to take seriously what our faith teaches?
Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. (James 3:17-18)
But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love. And don’t take yourself too seriously — take God seriously. (Micah 6:8)
When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Humanity will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my God! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:31-40)
To solve this challenge, we as a people of faith need to start practicing what we say we believe. We need to get to the root of what causes homelessness and do as scripture teaches us. These folks are not numbers or statistics… they are God’s children, and we will answer for what we do for and with these precious creations of God. So tonight, tomorrow morning and in the days ahead let us set aside the soundbite-friendly distractions of sideshows such as “putting Christ back in Christmas” and instead fight for something that has the potential for lasting impact.
Let’s put Christ back into what it means to be Christian.
The first Sunday of Advent is December 3rd. Here’s everything you need to know about celebrating the season with Gentle Spirit Christian Church.
Tree & Wreath Sale
Every year starting the day after Thanksgiving, there are quality trees and homemade wreaths for sale on the First Christian Church of Decatur lawn until they’re sold out. Proceeds benefit church and community missions in the City of Decatur, including the Toy Park and shared ministries with Gentle Spirit Christian Church. Last year’s trees sold out early, so get there soon for best selection!
- Christmas Eve 6pm Service: We will join First Christian Church of Decatur in their main sanctuary to celebrate the eve of Christ’s birth. All are welcome.
- Christmas Eve 11pm Service: We will lead the second Christmas Eve service at First Christian Church of Decatur in their main sanctuary to celebrate the eve of Christ’s birth. All are welcome.
- Christmas Day: No service. The Gentle Spirit office will be closed.
The Live Tithe
If you’re cleaning out your attic, closets or storage after Christmas, you can put unused items that are in good condition to work supporting the ministry of Gentle Spirit Christian Church via our Live Tithe, which allows you to convert gently used (or never-used) items into support for GSCC’s ministry and claim a tax deduction. Click here for details.
The Gentle Spirit Christian Church office at First Christian Church of Decatur will be closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. For an appointment with Pastor Paul, just contact the church office.