Text of the Day for World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day. So I’ve chosen for today’s text Luke 7:36-50:

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.

Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher, speak,” he said.

“A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty. When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”

Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”

Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Too many Christians believe in a pernicious Theology of Deserving. It talks about karma instead of grace. It says we get whatever we’ve got coming to us. Those who are rich, healthy, and privileged are that way because they are faithful, and God has blessed them. Those who are poor, sick, and oppressed are that way because they are sinners.

But blessing does not come to us because we are faithful, but because God is faithful. Remember Jesus’ most famous sermon? “Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… those who make peace… those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…” None of these did anything to earn God’s blessing.

In the same sermon, Jesus says God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the just and the unjust, the wicked and the good.

Job’s friends certainly believed in a Theology of Deserving, and they told Job he must have sinned for such terrible things to happen for him. God rebuked them for their lack of understanding.

I grew up as the AIDS epidemic blew up in the 80’s. I heard—and believed—a lot of the most hateful and misinformed rhetoric around the transmission of HIV. Some of this came from the church.

In the mid-90’s, I remember walking in to the church I served as an assistant youth pastor. I said to the youth director, “I just heard on the radio that researchers may only be a decade away from a vaccine for HIV.” She replied, “Oh, no! Then nothing will keep these kids from having sex.”

I just stared. I didn’t know how to respond.

Since they often presumed that people acquired the disease through some kind of immoral sexuality, some churches became barriers to God instead of bearers of God. Like Simon, they presumed that some people were not worthy of Christ’s attention. They found justification for their oppression of LGBTQ persons.

But there were also churches who acted like Christ. Places like GLIDE Memorial UMC saw AIDS as another opportunity to show Christ’s unconditional love. One church I attended, Trinity UMC in Huntsville, was one of the first organizations in the city to develop an AIDS outreach in the 1990’s. And in their ministries they often found Christ was already alive and active among those who the church had neglected.

I’ve certainly changed my mind a lot about theology, sexuality, ethics, and public health since I was a teenager. I am grateful that God has forgiven my sins of being unloving and ungracious.

Let us firmly rebuke the Theology of Deserving with the Theology of Serving. We are not blessed because we are faithful, but because God is faithful. Those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are sick, and those who are oppressed are those who will be vindicated by God. This is the Good News we share.

Text of the Day 11-29-16

Today’s text is from Psalm 51:6:

And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space. (CEB)

I think this verse is about integrity. God wants us solid to the core. Truth is not just about the public appearance or validation of truth, but an inner correspondence between our being and the world.

Truth is a slippery concept in our society. Some people say there is none, that everything is spin, and the only thing that matters is how many people you can convince at any given time. I think this is one of the reasons, as Harry Frankfurt says, we are surrounded by bullshit. He says the difference between a lie and BS is that a lie is a knowing distortion of the truth; but BS doesn’t care what the truth is at all.

Let us be people of integrity. We may not always be able to tell truth from lies in the public world, and the are those who profit by spreading BS and humbug. But we follow The Way, The Truth, and The Life, who will direct our steps.


So, that’s the devotional part. Let me add a few academic notes about the Bible and translation, especially about this particular verse:

This is one of those verses that can be translated several ways. I learned it in Sunday school as a kid this way: “You desire truth in the inward being.” (That’s from the New Revised Standard Version). I liked “inward being,” because it sounds philosophical and mystical.

But you can translate it more concretely. Yet another translation, the New International Version, uses a different choice for “inward being” — womb.  Womb actually makes more sense, especially when you put it in context:

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Another contemporary translation, the NET Bible, uses the word integrity, which I like. But these translators take it in a sexist direction: “You desire integrity in the inner man; you want me to possess wisdom.”

The word “man” is nowhere in the text. This translation was made in 1995, well after translators should have known better. Why not use “person?”

How did we get from womb to a place where women are entirely erased? Does God not desire integrity from women, too? It’s ironic to me that the translation of this verse, which is about inner integrity, illustrates the lack of integrity created by sexism.

Our privilege, our blindness to the ways we are shaped by sexism, racism, and other isms, puts holes in our integrity, in the correspondence between inward truth and the social reality with which we all live. God wants truth in our inward beings, in our deepest selves, because shalom (peace with justice) has to pervade our spiritual lives as well as our social lives.

It is ironic that the translation of this verse provides such a window into how social lies can corrupt our deepest selves.

I’ll say it again: let us be people of integrity.

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Text of the Day for 11-24-2016

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s text is 1 Timothy 6:7-10:

for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

Tomorrow is Black Friday, when lots of retailers do most of their business of the year. We are told that it is almost a moral duty to go out and consume for the good of our economy. As much as we preachers complain about the materialism of Christmas, we haven’t done much to curtail the tradition! We have not demonstrated being content with the basics: food, clothing, shelter, water, and love. And so we’ve given ground to the real religion of our culture: the marketplace.

I’m going to encourage you to boycott Black Friday. Or, if you spend, spend in such a way that brings more justice into the world. Patronize local or minority-owned businesses. Give recycled or upcycled gifts. Choose to seek eternal values, rather than ones doomed to obsolescence.

Our culture tells us what success looks like: more, bigger, shinier, newer. But we take out of the world exactly what we brought into it: nothing. If we are to leave behind something other than trash, stuff that “moth and rust can consume” (Matthew 6:19-20), we have to build it ourselves out of the only resource that matters: people. We invest in people. We build relationships. The gifts of God are all around us as creative, loving, talented human beings.

Of course, gift-giving and sharing resources can be part of building relationships and communities. But this holiday season, let’s think about how we can be generous stewards not only of our money, but of all the resources around us. What kinds of gifts can we give to our community that will outlast us?

Text Of The Day 11-22-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s text is from Mark 4:3-9:

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

There are many ways to read the parables. We often read this one individualistically, and listen for the way it describes our lives: Are we too shallow to produce fruit? Too distracted? Have we had the seed snatched away by forces beyond our control?

These kinds of readings tend to make us feel critical and inadequate. I don’t that is the intent.

As a church planter, I often read this parable as a description of the nascent church movement. There are environments hostile or beneficial for growing communities of faith.

But the action of the parable doesn’t really focus on the seed or the soil. It focuses on the planter, who wildly flings seed around, letting it bounce off of sidewalks and land in bushes. The planter wants to give the whole world a chance to produce fruit, and is not stingy with the seed. We might view it as a waste. The planter does not. The ultimate result is a harvest.

I think the same thing is true of social justice movements that is true of the gospel (and from my perspective, they are very closely related). We know two things: the planter flings the seed, and there will be a harvest. The condition of our own soil and our communities—sure, that’s our business. But ultimately, God gets what God wants. The arc of history still bends toward justice, and the Body of Christ grows the kingdom stealthily, like yeast in bread, or seeds scattered across vacant lots.

Text of the Day 11-18-2016

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

The ToTD is late this week — sorry!

Today’s text is Genesis 2:1-4. This version is from The Message:

Heaven and Earth were finished,
    down to the last detail.

By the seventh day
        God had finished his work.
    On the seventh day
        he rested from all his work.
    God blessed the seventh day.
        He made it a Holy Day
    Because on that day he rested from his work,
        all the creating God had done.

This is the story of how it all started,
    of Heaven and Earth when they were created.

Christians often fail to appreciate the social significance of the sabbath. When they read about Jesus defying the Pharisees and healing on the sabbath, they often think, “Those mean ol’ Pharisees!”

But it’s likely the Pharisees’ thinking was not far from your own doctor’s. If you come in for treatment for a non-life-threatening condition on Saturday, they will tell you to come back when their office is open on Monday!

For a population of people who told the story of escaping from slavery in Egypt, who were forced to live a second-class citizens in Babylon, the sabbath was non-negotiable. It was an emphatic statement that life is more than work, and that every creature is entitled to the dignity of a day of simply being who they are. Their life cannot be co-opted as labor for someone else. Farm animals, even the land, deserve a day of rest to simply be who they are before God.

In this sense, sabbath is about liberation. It is opposed to everything that enslaves and oppresses—including, Jesus reveals, the sabbath itself.

It was a theological statement; not merely a labor law. Here in Genesis, it is written in the fabric of creation. Even the omnipotent God takes a rest, so don’t let anyone steal yours. Make sure that others—especially the financially poor—have what they need to rest. Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent, corporate overlords, or politicians take away your right to sabbath. If and when they do assault your right to a day off, recognize that the destroyers of rest and liberation are held accountable by God.

Text of the Day 11-10-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

I have several texts for you today, depending on what you need.
Here’s one if you need hope and encouragement from Romans 5:3-5:

We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

But sometimes you just need to lament. This is from Psalm 44:

You’ve made us a joke to all our neighbors;
    we’re mocked and ridiculed by everyone around us.
You’ve made us a bad joke to the nations,
    something to be laughed at by all peoples.
All day long my disgrace confronts me,
    and shame covers my face
because of the voices of those
    who make fun of me and bad-mouth me,
        because of the enemy who is out for revenge.

Sometimes you need rage. This is from Psalm 94:

Rise up, judge of the earth!
    Pay back the arrogant exactly what they deserve!
How long will the wicked—oh, Lord!—
    how long will the wicked win?

Often in religious circles, there’s a good deal of smarm and tone policing. Preachers and others who mean well tell you how you should feel about something. Let me share this with you: there is no should when it comes to how you feel. You feel how you feel.

I don’t see a lot of tone policing in the Bible, except from Job’s friends, and they were kinda jerks.

What I do see among biblical authors is a wide range of responses to a wide range of human experiences: exile, loss, homecoming, romantic love, death, injustice, birth, awe, and resurrection. Whatever you need from the Bible today, I encourage you to delve into it and read. It encompasses both human words about God and God’s Word to humans, and it expresses the full breadth and complexity of our lives.

Text of the Day 11-8-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s text is from Proverbs 13:12:

Hope delayed makes the heart sick;
    longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

Of course, I can’t read this Proverb without thinking of Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hope, it turns out, is one of the qualities followers look for in a leader, according to Gallup’s research in Strengths for Leadership. This affirms research by psychologist Martin Seligman, whose concept of learned helplessness has informed decades of study. According to Seligman, the amount of hope language in their speech is the best predictor (90%) of whether a candidate will be elected president.
Hope is what motivates people to work for change.
That’s why, even though the author of Proverbs had no idea what “hope deferred” would mean to African-American people 3000 years later, the words resonate so strongly. Your hope and your dream of the future is what binds you in a web of mutual self-interest with your community. But hope deferred or constantly disappointed makes us cynical and heart-sick.
A church that lives out its mission embodies a community of hope. They share a dream and want to share their hope with others. Jesus said “blessed are y’all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be satisfied.” We encourage each other because our longing for justice is a happy hope.

‘Twas the Night Before Elections…

Twas the night before elections
and all through the house
all the news feeds were stirring
up angst in my spouse.
The pundits were blabbing,
and all talking heads
were parsing minutiae
of what each candidate said.
And though quite a bit
was completely uncouth
we planned to go early
to our voting booth.
When out on our lawn
there arose quite a clatter,
of wailing and cursing
and political chatter.
Away to the window
I tore like flash
tripped over some laundry
and busted my… um, rear.
The moon on the drought-
stricken lawn down below
reminded me climate change
was not just for show.
In a moment an alien
saucer did land,
and spat out an orange man
with the tiniest hands.
His hair was all wispy
his mouth was a-puckered.
His alien language
made me feel like a sucker.
The longer I listened
the dumber I got,
and all of my Sunday school
lessons forgot.
He talked about walls
and he talked about jobs
And he called people morons
and losers and slobs.
In all the dystopian
futures I’d read—
Octavia Butler,
Atwood—all said
That such tendencies,
both sexist and racist
just needed a spark
to rile up the bases.
So I chose to ignore him,
and pay no attention,
which is what you should do
when toddlers throw tantrums.
So he got in his ship
and took off like a speeder
when he saw I would not
vote for him as our leader.
And as the sun rose
and the fingers of dawn
exposed the illusions
there out on my lawn
I saw that the boogey-men,
monsters and haints
were nothing at all;
they simply just ain’t.
So though there are bullies
whose words will disgust us,
the arc of history’s long
but it’s bending toward justice.
Regardless who’s chosen,
I won’t boo; I won’t gloat;
For all those who couldn’t—
and cannot—I’ll vote.

Text of the Day 11-3-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s text is Genesis 1:27:

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

There are three things that are revolutionary about this verse. All of them are about how God values humanity:

  1. It is a statement that directly contradicted Babylonian and Egyptian religion which typically said that the gods made human beings to be slaves, or as the consequence of a divine conflict. In ancient Hebrew religion, God intentionally created human beings to reflect God’s deepest self, not as slaves.
  2. It asserts we are made in God’s image regardless of gender. God’s image apparently incorporates the full spectrum of human gender. It’s a statement about equality and inclusion.
  3. It upended typical religions of the day, which made images (idols) of the gods. God’s command to make no images of God tells us: if you want to see God, look at image of God in the person next to you. It drives us to look for God horizontally, not vertically.

We might sum up these revolutionary ideas with the words “intention, equality, diversity.”

I think our religious practice is still trying to catch up to this 3000 year-old idea. We have a hard time recognizing that every human is made in the image of God. Jesus restated it when he said we should look for him among the poor, sick, and imprisoned.

Think also what it says about you: whatever shortcomings and limitations you believe you have, whatever toxic body image or self image our culture has forced upon you, remember that you are made in the very image of God. You and the 6 billion people who share this spinning rock are alike in that you reflect God’s glory and beauty.

And if we learn to love our neighbor as we learn to love ourselves, we will learn to love God.

Text of the Day 11-1-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s text is from Mark 11:28-33:

They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?”

Jesus said to them, “I have a question for you. Give me an answer, then I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. Was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin? Answer me.”

They argued among themselves, “If we say, ‘It’s of heavenly origin,’ he’ll say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But we can’t say, ‘It’s of earthly origin.’” They said this because they were afraid of the crowd, because they all thought John was a prophet. They answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus replied, “Neither will I tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things.”

Religious leaders have not changed much in 2000 years. We don’t want to alienate anyone, least of all members of our congregations. We cling to the belief that in any conflict between oppression and liberation there is some third way or a mushy middle that will keep our hands clean from human fallibility or political consequences. It’s what led some white Birmingham church leaders to tsk-tsk at Martin Luther King, Jr. for “moving too fast” and “stirring up trouble,” and why his letter back to them is a classic. They could not recognize this audacious movement as a movement of God.

When our neutrality and our authority is questioned, we get butt hurt. “Who gave you this authority?” they ask Jesus. They are indignant precisely because they lack moral courage to name the theological reality in front of them.

If Jesus were a typical religious leader, the only reason anyone would ever want to crucify him is because he was boring.

“Mark’s Gospel originally was written to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about themselves. He does not pretend to represent the word of God dispassionately or impartially, as if that word were innocuously universal in its appeal to rich and poor alike. His is a story by, about, and for those committed to God’s work of justice, compassion, and liberation in the world.” — Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man.

The power to speak truth to power does not come from earthly power. It comes from God, and God is never neutral. And it’s only from this perspective, that God is active on behalf of those who are oppressed, that the good news can actually be heard.

Something to think about: the powers that be fear YOU.