Contrary to what some might believe, I rather enjoy Christmas. I love Christmas music. I very much love the time it affords me to spend with my family and friends. I love the excitement that it brings. I do enjoy Christmas. What I do not enjoy is the hijacking and commercialization that seems to happen earlier and earlier each year. Consider this: Before the Jack-O-Lanterns of Halloween had a chance to become all shriveled and gross the Christmas Commercialization engine already left the station. This happens each year…and we are largely culprits. 

What happens if we declare this season we will take the focus from us and our needs (most accurately, they are probably wants) and put the focus onto Christ and the needs of others? What could happen in our hearts over this Advent season if we remember the significance of that center candle? What happens within our hearts and the hearts of our families and communities when we take seriously the admonishment of Philippians 2:1-8: 1 

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? 2 Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.3 don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. 4 Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.5 You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.6 Though he was God,[a] he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges[b]; he took the humble position of a slave[c] and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,[d]8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. 

This season, let's commit to taking the focus from ourselves and look out to others.  Let's give Christmas away and encourage our children to do the same. Remind our children how incredibly blessed they are and encourage them to consider others before themselves. We just might be surprised by what happens when we Give Christmas Away this Advent. 

Advent Prayer:

Father, on this day, we are grateful that hope has come. Throughout this season, make us mindful of the needs of others. Help us to consider others before ourselves. Holy Spirit, reveal to us practical ways that we might share hope this season. We are grateful. We are mindful. Make us more so. Amen.

One other thing...

Follow along with me this Advent with the following devotion written by my colleagues and me from University City UMC:

Check out UCUMC media page for other tips on Giving Christmas Away this season:

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Last week a video made its rounds on the interwebs (the video is below if you've not seen it). It was a video from CNN's Don Lemon discussing the "n-word". Levar Burton (Star Trek, Roots and Reading Rainbow) spoke of what he (and his sons) customarily do when they are pulled over by law enforcement officers. He essentially said that when encountering a LEO he removes his hat and sunglasses. He then says that he places both of his hands outside of the window in an effort to make the officer more at ease. I think the broader point of "white privilege" that was made has been overshadowed by what Levar Burton said.

I refuse to accept this as my reality. There is no doubt that this practice will make the officer more at ease. Nevertheless, I would *never* do this--nor encourage my son (nor any of my nephews to do this). To do so would be to have him resign to the fact that the onus of making a professional Law Enforcement Officer (LEO) feel at ease is his; it is not. No American should feel this. No American. Strike that. No person should be treated this way.

White privilege is something that is very much real. I have had to experience the humiliation of being followed in a department store. I have had to feel the degradation of being pulled over by a LEO who is concerned for the driver of the car--your brother's white girlfriend--that is filled with three black men. I have witnessed my brother and me being stopped by an officer while walking home from Dudley. Our crime? Walking while black. There are no words to explain what that does to a fifteen year-old black kid.

We need these dialogues. I need for my white friends to feel the discomfort that these conversations bring. That discomfort lets you know that something is wrong. I need for my non-white friends to understand that for every bigoted and scared LEO there are excellent LEOs, like Trooper Travis, (who pulled me over for speeding on my birthday in 2012) who treats folks with respect and integrity. We each need to understand that each person should be judged--as Dr. King so wisely exhorted--by the content of his or her character and not the color of his or her skin. Fact: racism exists across the racial spectrum. Fact: we are inextricably bound; what affects one affects us all--again, wisdom from Dr. King.

How will you have these conversations? How will you deal with the biases that exist within you--we each have them from one degree or another. How will you dig deep and ask the uncomfortable questions.

May we each love. May we each allow others to live as we wish to live. Peace.

Today was my first time watching Paula Deen's  interview with Matt Lauer from last week (I have embedded it below if you have want to watch it). I have thought about this all week (not the video but this particular situation). The first video I saw was the one where she apologized to everyone.

I must say, as a person of faith who believes in the power of redemption: things may have gone too far. The reality is that we are each entitled to redemption. We are perfectly imperfect folks who get it wrong. Many of us have done and said things that are not the least flattering nor appropriate. I have honestly been convicted by this on so many levels.

As a Christian, I hear the words of Jesus ringing in my mind, "He who is without sin, cast the first stone." As a Progressive, I hear my words regarding Anthony Weiner ringing in my head, "The man deserves a second chance." As a lover of Dr. King, I hear him reminding me that we are each brothers and sisters; we are inextricably connected.

There is no excuse for what Paula Deen said; none. It doesn't matter how long ago it was. What most annoyed me last week were my FB friends who were tacitly approving of what she said. One even said since she said it in the privacy of her home then it was okay; it was not.

What I need for my friends of different races to understand is the word, n*gger is never okay. It is a word loaded with hate, oppression and vitriol. It is not enough to say, "Well, the black folks say it all of the time." You are right; many do. However, you must not. It is worth my friends who are black to re-evaluate whether we should continue to use such a loaded and vitriolic word. I know that we have essentially re-branded "n*gger" to "n*gga" but should have we?

Here is my bottom line: Every person deserves redemption. Every person deserves to know that there is hope that their tomorrow can look differently. Each person should know that their past will not haunt him/her in perpetuity.

May we each learn to love. May we learn to forgive. May we learn to choose wisely our words and ask God to search our hearts; from it flow all things.

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Yesterday I had a great time with my friend, Martin. Today, I hung out with my friend, Brennan. Let me explain. Though I have two living and breathing friends named Martin and Brennan; I am referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Brennan Manning. I was able to connect with them through their writings. These men are incredible. They were each broken and imperfect men. They remind me that even in our most debased state, we can be powerful tools of change, hope and encouragement.

Life is an incredible thing. We get this one pass at it. We are made high. We are made low. We breathe. We move. Finally, we come to life's end.

Our lives will live on in the words we share. They will live on in the love we express. In the end, our stuff--the muchness which my friend, Brennan speaks about--will all be found wanting. In the end, our lives will have been lived well if we have lived it for others. If we have lived it making much of Christ and exhibiting his love, grace and hope to a desperate world. As broken and fallen as we are, we have a great capacity to change the world.

May we each live lives that are uncovered, vulnerable and ever mindful that we are--broken and all--Abba's child! May we lean into that truth. We are known. We are loved. We belong!

I encourage you to read, Abba's Child: THe cry of the heart for intimate belonging by Brennan Manning. Get you a copy from Amazon!
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My friend, Martin, is teaching me a lot today. Like the fight for equality of his day, there is a fight for equality today. I am moved by these words:

"It may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition is not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the appalling silence of the so-called good people."

I have been asked by more than one person why I feel so strongly about marriage equality and the struggle of my GLBT brothers and sisters. It is a simple enough answer for me: because inequality sucks! It sucks to be told that in the country of immense freedom and equality that you will be treated differently based on my or someone else's standard. It is wrong and it is whack for me to tell another person that who they are and who they love make them less of a person than me. The fight for equality for all people is one that must be fought. It must be fought even by those who aren't gay.

One of my dearest friends, Tonetta (a lesbian woman whom I have known and loved since elementary school) said to me, (paraphrased) "Ray, this fight needs your voice. It needs the voice of 'straight allies'." I could not agree more. If the only folks who stood up for equality for black folks were just the black folks then I dare say vile Jim Crow and "Separate but Equal" will have fallen eventually but it would have taken longer. It takes the voice of many--and especially the voice of straight folks--to say, "No! Not on my watch. Not in my name. Not on this day!"

In the struggle for justice and equality for all, I want to be weighed, measured and found un-wanting. I want to echo that great Prophet Amos and say (through my actions), "But let justice roll down as waters and righteousness like a mighty river."

This man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., got it. He knew what his life was to be about. I am always so moved when I read his Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

This quote is incredible. May I forever be an extremist for justice!

But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that an men are created equal ..." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Lord, that I not be found wanting. That I would always stand for justice. That I would see that my path is inextricably tied with the paths of others. Especially the others who are so unlike me.

Which type of an extremist will you be?
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I am convinced that one of the main things that makes Ray, Ray is my relationship with Jesus. I know that who I am and the passions and convictions that I have are largely from him. In my imperfect and fallen state, I strive to live my life emulating him. Again, if you are on my team, you know how flawed I am in this pursuit.

Let me take a minute here and define what I mean by "my team". My team are the folks who know me. They are the ones who know that "Happy go lucky Ray" is not always so happy nor luckily going. :) My team gets me. They are the ones with whom I feel most comfortable not being okay. They are the ones who, after knowing me, love me. My team is, thankfully, a diverse group of folks. My team is not a homogeneous group. They have different convictions than me. My team has folks from different denominations, political affiliations, and theological persuasions. However, they are folks with whom I can be open, vulnerable and honest. For these reasons, I say with Drake, "Man, I love my team..."

Today I spent the day with a group of United Methodist clergy and leaders. We were asked to discuss at our table where we felt most content, known or something like that. I said, "When I am with my team. It is the place where I don't have to be this guy that you see now. It is the place where I can be vulnerable." I know how blessed I am to have a team. I know how rare it is in our profession to have folks with whom you can be honest, doubtful and real. I really am thankful to God for that and I do not want to ever forget how big of a blessing and rare that is.

To my team: Thank you. I don't take you for granted. You are each evidences of grace in my life. I love you each.

If you don't have a team, get one. That support group will be necessary to you. They will help you see clearly when your life seems like it is over. That team will love you through the darkest time in your life. That team will give you a swift kick when you need it but also be there to give you a long and awkward hug when you need it.

May we each live lives that are spent on others. May we each be the friend to others that we desperately want and need. May we each bind up one another and carry another's burdens.

Turn your hearts to Jesus and be reconciled to him.

What if we really took seriously the charge to turn to Jesus and away from ourselves? During these long days of Spring what if the Lenten discipline we embraced was to turn from focusing in to focusing outward? Even as we set out to abstain from certain foods, drinks, Facebook or whatever—what if we determined that each of those things would cause us to look outwardly? Lent is a time when we are reminded of our mortality. It is a time when we prepare our hearts for my favorite holiday: Easter. Early this morning I read an article on Huffington Post Religion by Rev. Emily Heath. It is an article that convicted, inspired and—ultimately—had me re-write my entire sermon. Here are some of her inspired words:
            “Each Lent I feel myself called back to community, both human and divine.  And when that calling comes, so does the reminder of those two commands of Christ: Love God and love others as you love yourself. For centuries Christians have undertaken a form of Lenten discipline, which is to say a practice that will in some way turn their hearts to Christ and prepare them for the new life that comes with Easter. For many, Lent is a time to give something up: meat or candy or Facebook. But Lent doesn't have to just be about giving up. In fact, at its best it isn't. Because if our Lenten discipline is only about us, and what we will allow ourselves, we miss the point.”
After all, what is the point of Lent? Is the point to see how long we can go without eating a Twix? Or how long we can resist a status update? Or how long we can go without a porter house? Certainly not. Lent is about turning to him. And that turning to him is what our religion is largely about. James reminds us:
James 1:27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Isn’t that the point: to recommit ourselves to God and not to the world? James says here that undefiled and pure religion is to visit the orphans and widows: living outside of ourselves. It takes the focus from us and puts it where it should rightly be: on others. This Lenten season I challenge you, as Rev. Heath challenged me: abstain from you this Lenten season. Take these forty days to say to self: It is not about you. Take these forty days to turn our eyes back to God. Take these days to turn our eyes to the oppressed. May we say with the Prophet Isaiah in chapter 61 verses 1 and 2: The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. He has sent me to tell all of those who mourn the year of the Lord’s favor has come!

May we take this time to really care.  May we take this time to say, “not on my watch!” May we find that injustice, that evil or that wrong and set about correcting it. After all, another prophet reminds us that God has shown to us what is required of us: To do justice (or right wrongs), to love mercy and walk in humility. Micah 6:8. If we spend these forty days saying to ourselves, “Hey look what I can do” (or what I won’t do to be more accurate), I submit that we have succeeded in missing the point.
Let’s read Matthew 25 again: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:35-46 
You see, Lent is about drawing close to him. It is about preparing our hearts for Jesus. Lent is not about us. It is about him and about others. Our entire lives should be spent as he spent his: on others and doing the will of his father in heaven. We look toward Easter; we are the Easter people!
We are the people who know that though things seem bleak. Though the night is dark and the road seems impossible. Yet is there hope for the deepest despair. We are the one who can boldly proclaim: “Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning”
So this Lenten Season, may we: Luke 12:33-34 Sell [our] possessions, and give to the needy. May we provide [ourselves] with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where [our] treasure is, there will [our] heart be also.
May we spend these 40 days making much of Christ and other because that is where our treasure ought lie.
May our hearts turn toward Jesus and be reconciled.
May we forgive more, judge less, increase love, spread peace and inspire hope.
And in remembering our mortality, may we also remember that we are the Easter people and—in Christ— there is hope for despair and gladness for mourning
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