When God Shows Up Unexpectedly: A Devotional

When God Shows Up Unexpectedly: A Devotional

When we are in times of transition, it can be easy to fall into fear. Many of us do not like change. We would rather be settled and know the ground we stand on. We like our second year at the new company. Our junior year of school. Year two of our relationship. When our organization or project is fully funded. Many of us thrive when we feel we’re on a firm foundation, and we’re nervous when we are launching into the unknown. Yet many of us find ourselves at a crossroads and long for clarity about how to move forward.

In Matthew 14:22, we read about the disciples in transition as they launched across the Sea of Galilee once again, headed from one miracle with Jesus to another. They had learned that whenever Jesus showed up in a new town, He created a stir. His presence led to crowds ready to run him out of town, plead with him for healing, press to hear him teach, or follow Him in curiosity.

But things felt uncertain on the sea that day. The Sea of Galilee was not an unfamiliar place–some of them were fishermen, and all of them lived near the sea their entire lives. The feelings of difficulty didn’t come with the place, but from the circumstances. The last time they were on the sea together, a storm almost destroyed their ship, but Jesus was there to save them. But this time they were back on the Sea of Galilee, sailing late at night without Jesus. His absence meant that anything could happen. They found their peace in His presence. Without Him, they felt a little more uneasy about everything. They knew where they were going and where they were coming from. But they were in transition without the presence of the Lord.

And then they saw a figure walking across the lake. They became terrified, and their place of transition became a place of fear. A figure out on the water with no boat walking above the waves was not a pleasant sight–it looked like a ghost. They had every reason to be afraid. We can relate to their fear of the unexpected showing up in the midst of the unknown. 

Then Jesus called out to them, and they understood that what they were seeing was not a ghost. It was the Lord. In the space between the last and the next, God showed up for them in an unexpected way. Their place of uncertainty became a place of the miraculous.

Similarly, God is able to show up for us in unexpected ways when our circumstances change. It may look like we are alone as we move to new cities, start new jobs, or find new relationships. The water can seem unstable beneath us as it flows without clarity, especially when the night surrounds us. But if we remember that God is with us always and can meet us right where we are, we may find ourselves walking on the water with Jesus on the way to our destinations.

 

Honoring Our Heavenly And Earthly Fathers on Father’s Day

Honoring Our Heavenly And Earthly Fathers on Father’s Day

Every year during Father’s Day, a wave of complexity sweeps across the country. Father’s Day can be an great occasion for celebration, a reminder of loved ones lost, a day of sadness for those who did not grow up with their fathers, a day of angst for those who do not like their fathers, and a day of relaxation for the dads who treat it as a break. And every year in churches, we try to figure out how to approach and celebrate Father’s Day. Father’s Day is not celebrated in our society the way Mother’s Day is, and everyone knows it. We know how to celebrate mothers. We know what to get them; the flowers, clothes, crafts, candies, meals, and more are readily available with updates each year. But Father’s Day feels mysterious. We ask ourselves, did we already get this tie? These socks? This outdoor equipment? Why is it that we may struggle so much to honor fathers but find it easy to bless our mothers? The answers are unclear and varied. But if we start with figuring out how to honor God as our heavenly Father, it may help us get better at honoring our earthly fathers.

 

God is Our Father

The Bible refers to God as a father in multiple places in the Old and New Testament. Moses notes in Deuteronomy 1:31 that God cared for Israel in the wilderness like a father cares for their child. The Lord protects and provides for Israel as He leads them out of bondage. He says at the end of the same book that God is to be respected because He fathered Israel by creating, forming, and establishing them, and He mothered them by giving birth to them. Psalm 68:5 identifies God as the Father of the fatherless and defender of widows. God is the Father who cares for us when human fathers are not present. Isaiah 9:6 prophesies that God is the everlasting Father, and Malachi proclaims that all in his audience are children of the same Father God. But Jesus makes this relationship with God even clearer. Jesus calls God His Father, and He is identified as the Son of God in each of the Gospels. In Galatians 4:5-7, Paul explains that believers in Christ are children of God,  and John declares that truth in 1 John 5:1. So it is clear in scripture that God is a Father to all who will receive Him as one. But what does that mean for us?

 

How God Relates To Us As A Father

God is a Spirit and cannot be fully understood or explained using any analogy or even human language. God is greater than any roles we could use to try to explain Him:  father, mother, king, brother, friend, lover, lord, healer, provider, protector, or otherwise. But God chooses to reveal Godself in ways we can understand so we can have a genuine relationship with God. It is because of the descriptions of God relating as a Father in Scripture that we can relate to God a little better and also to human fathers a little better. God relates as a father in many ways but a few key ones we’ve already mentioned are as a source of identity, a protector, a provider, a caregiver, and a guide. God rebukes David and also encourages Him which other biblical fathers do. Hebrews 12 makes it clear that God corrects us because we are His children. Galatians 4 underscores that God blesses us because we are His children. God is present with us in good times and bad times, like any good father. God leads, encourages, provides, protects, corrects, counsels, comforts, and instructs us in the wilderness and the places of plenty as a good Father. Most of all, God loves us as our heavenly Father. God has shown Himself to be a good Father, but how can we be good children to God our Father?

 

How We Honor God Our Father

Jesus gives us the perfect example of what it means to be a good child of God, demonstrating how to honor God. Summed up, it is to love God. We love God through obedience. We love God through spending time with Him. We love God through caring about what He cares about. We love God through giving to other people, because He doesn’t need our money. We love God by doing the work and ministry He has called us to do. We love God by loving our neighbors well. We love God by doing justice. We love God by using our lives to bring Him glory, which is to live in a way that makes Him proud. Jesus explains at length in John 8:31-58 that Father God loves it when we believe in Jesus and do what He said. 1 John 5:1-5 is exceedingly clear that obeying God and loving others is how we can express our love to God. Now that we understand how to honor God as our Father, how do we honor our earthly fathers? 

How Can We Honor Our Human Fathers

Human fathers can never truly compare to our Father God. We shouldn’t even expect them to reach that standard. But they should follow God as the standard, and we should honor them as our fathers if we have good relationships with them. Earthly fathers can be honored in many of the same ways as our Heavenly Father. 

It all comes back to loving our dads. When we care about the things our fathers care about, it makes them happy. It may be sports, cooking, fishing, movies, work, decorating, or some other hobby. When we show care about what dads care about, it brings them honor. We give to dads because they do need our money and gifts, unlike God. Give them something they like, and ask for ideas if you need them. Spend time with your dad if you can. Many people wish they could. If you have an opportunity, then take advantage–it will definitely bring your dad happiness on Father’s Day. 

When young children do what their father says, it brings their father honor and happiness. As a father myself, I cannot tell you the joy I have when my children do what I told them to do without complaining, demonstrating a bad attitude, giving up, or getting distracted. When we are older, this obedience becomes conversational. If you want to honor your father on Father’s Day, ask him what He wants! Sometimes we spend so much time trying to figure out what our dads want instead of simply asking them and then following through. This simple form of relating can bring honor to a father like nothing else. 

But many dads will tell you the best honor their children can give them on Father’s Day or any other day is to live lives that make them proud. Just keep following God your Father. If you honor God with your life, you can rest assured you are making our Heavenly Father and every good dad proud.

Easter Sunrise and the Risen Inmate

Easter Sunrise and the Risen Inmate

Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain, and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds, and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.

Their destination? “Chow call” in the prison refectory or “Meds up!” to the cart the nurse brings on the unit for those requiring morning medication. The stretch of the arms relieves some of the tension from the cell’s hard cot, the eyes crusted literally and figuratively by biology and monotony, the floor’s terrain cold on even the warmest day when one’s address is prison. We do not know how many millions go to church on Easter–but we know how many awaken in state and federal prisons: an excruciating 2.1 million men and women arise at Easter’s sunrise to another day when they seem oblivious to anyone on the other side of the prison walls. Another several million arise in county jails, many not physically far from home but incarnations of “out of sight, out of mind” even to those who are descendants of those to whom Jesus spoke just before his arrest and incarceration “I was in prison, and you visited me.”

Yes, millions have arisen with a purpose: count down the days, occupy the mind, anticipate a visit, and perhaps even attend chapel — purpose is a precious commodity for them. They are inmates, prisoners, convicts peopling America’s jails and prisons in record numbers — over two million in state and federal prison alone — and they arise every morning about the time the Easter Sunrise service crowd shakes the cobwebs from their consciousness to face their annual celebration.

The Easter lens well fits any view of incarceration. After all, when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he was an inmate. We celebrate the truth that God raised his only begotten son from the grave — we overlook the fact that the body which breathed its last before burial belonged to a prisoner. He hung between two thieve or malefactors, but “was numbered” with them as well.

Shame and Stigma of Incarceration

Incarceration in America carries more than the punishment of “doing time.” Shame and stigmatization plague an inmate during incarceration and after release. Those twin maladies spread like a virus to relatives left behind, children separated from fathers and mothers, parents grieving for their children, grandparents serving as caretakers for a generation forty, fifty, and sixty years their junior while fathers stretch their arm in the cell and mothers wipe their eyes on the block. Shame and stigma, contagious and infectious as they manifest in symptoms of silence, rendering the affected loved one incapable of sharing the true hurt with anyone at the Sunrise service in celebration of the Risen Inmate!

It is Easter sunrise…. God listens for the praise of God’s people from the cathedrals and storefronts, the megachurch and mass choirs, parish priests and local pastors, pulpit and pew. But God also listens for the prayers of the prisoner, wrestling with past demons, present conditions, and future uncertainty, all with some hope of the transformation promised by the Risen Inmate who makes all things new. Millions arose this Easter morning to attend a sunrise service. Millions more arose to attend to the business of doing time.

An important connection exists between these two populations — this dual set of early risers on Easter morning. Many of them count people in the other crowd as kin — many who run with one crowd used to sit with the other. Many who heard the sound of the choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or “Praise is What I Do,” this morning once heard “Chow Up,” or the slow grind of motors turning to open a series of cell doors. The cymbal was the clanging of cages, the tambourine the rattling of chains. And some who this morning donned uniform orange, blue or tan jumpsuits once sported matching white or black robes on a morning such as this.

Preaching seldom reaches the pain felt by the incarcerated and their families. The separation traumatizes, the anger and disappointment of those left behind papered over by Sunday School memories of lessons on forgiveness. Many incarcerated parents long to see their children; some allow shame to hold their children at bay. Many who do seek the comfort of the Risen Inmate to dry their tears and encourage their hearts find disappointment in the prison chapel service when the local church sends well-meaning but poorly trained volunteers to preach sermons that the church’s pastor would never allow on a Sunday morning, especially an Easter Sunrise service.

Seldom do they hear that the Risen Inmate ministered to another convict before dying by telling him that he would be in paradise with him. They rarely hear that the Risen Inmate suffered brutally at the hands of the corrections officers, and was raised with evidence in his hands of eighth amendment violations of cruel and unusual punishment. They do not hear about the Risen Inmate’s long march up the Via Dolorosa to “endure the cross, despising the shame” as an encouragement for them to receive strength from knowing that “Jesus knows all about our struggles…” They hear an Easter message that rehearses the resurrection as saving act, but seldom as the sustaining act which brings “a living hope.”

Gospel of the Risen Inmate

The late Rev. Lonnie McLeod, who completed his first seminary degree in the New York Theological Seminary Sing Sing program said, “In all my time incarcerated, I really only heard one sermon: you messed up, you got caught, get saved …” But not only does salvation come by preaching, but also “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the “preaching of the Risen Inmate. After his release, McLeod’s preaching both in and out of prisons and jails acknowledged the pain caused by incarceration. At his passing in 2009, he was working on a Christmas sermon that dealt with the pain of incarceration. I asked him how he could make the connection between the manger and the penitentiary, and the good Dr. boldy remarked: “Trulear, this is Christmas. Everybody wants to talk about the first night of Jesus’ life. But no one wants to talk about the last night. And without the events of the last night, the first night loses its meaning! His incarceration, execution, and vindication make his birth worth celebrating!

This does not mean that prison preaching overlooks the responsibility of prisoners to own their sins. Accountability, indeed, signals a recognition of the humanity The Risen Inmate was executed to restore. The “Adam, where art thou” question lives in the Risen Inmate’s heart, for it is precisely for the sinner that he has come. He has come for the one who uses “wrong place, wrong time, wrong crowd” the same way Adam used “wrong crowd” to describe “the woman that You gave me.” He came for the violent defender of a friend’s honor, and will transform and use him even as he did Moses. He came for the popular musician who conspired to put out a hit on another man so he could have his wife, all while singing, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I see what I want.” He counted the transgressions of a contracted hit man, accessory to murder as his own- and that same man later wrote that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” The Risen Inmate sees their humanity, and for precisely that reason calls the unrighteous, the violent offender to become a deliverer of his people, the lamp of Israel, and an apostle to the Gentiles.

Not only does the Risen Inmate have a word for those persons arising in America’s jails and prisons on Easter, the Risen Inmate seeks to be seen and heard of the families left behind. Families struggle to hear a word for them in the pain of separation. They sit on the Good Friday side of the sentencing of the Risen Inmate, and don’t always see the potential for a reunion in the garden on Easter Morning. “Touch me not” stares from signs in the visitation room. It wells up in the heads on visitors subjected to searches by the corrections officers before and after time with an inmate. It is not a phrase pointing to ascension, but a descent into deprivation, motivated by security and draped in dehumanization. They want a word that addresses the morning they came to visit with new prison clothes, like the women who cam that first Easter with new grave clothes for the Risen Inmate. But when these families are told “He is not here,” it does not point to the surprise turned joy of a resurrection, but disillusionment turned panic in the discovery of a transfer to another facility, or a confinement to solitary. Does the preacher, in the name of the Risen Inmate, have a word for them?

Reimagining Our Prison Ministry

My colleague Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert once asked me to post a sermon on his website The Preaching Project, with the subject being preaching to families of the incarcerated. The message, titled “Preacher, We Are Dying in Here,” makes the case that preaching to the families of the incarcerated is something we already do! They people our pews, tithe their treasure, sing their songs, pray their prayers every Sunday, but suffer in silence. The church may have a prison ministry, but it often does not touch them, or their incarcerated family member. Prison ministry is institution focused, unlike ministry to the sick. If we replaced ministry to and visitation of the sick with the prison model, we would stop visiting individuals and families connected with the church, and just train three volunteers to give a service and a sermon once a month at the local hospital. The Risen Inmate declared that the church “shall be witnesses unto me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” For most, the jail of prison is the uttermost part of the earth; for the family of the incarcerated, it is Jerusalem.

Preaching often overlooks the scars of the formerly incarcerated, wounded by warehousing, roughed up in reentry. They looked forward to their release date as a time to step into the Promised Land, only to discover a wilderness of collateral sanctions limiting their ability to work, find housing, access education and exercise their franchise. The wilderness extends to congregations that either openly reject them, or buy into the world’s stigmatization process rendering them silent. Theirs is a tacit fellowship of frustration shepherded by shame, silence, and stigma. And the ones who come home to this stony reality find a wilderness where they had expected grapes in bunches for two men to carry.

The newspapers and other media champion the need for jobs for ex-offenders. Employment woes dot the pages of those outlets that give the formerly incarcerated coverage at all. Poor training and education wed the stigma and shame of incarceration in a double ring ceremony that morphs from ties that bind into chains that restrict. A word from the Risen Inmate can minister Easter hope beyond incarceration, and encourage the jobless soul on the other side of imprisonment. The Resurrection says that there is life beyond the dank jail, the taunts of guards and fellow inmates, the pain of separation from loved ones. “I have scars,” Jesus declares, “but I am useful, triumphant, compassionate and giving!” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Fear not.” It is Jesus, post-release, who says “Feed my sheep.” The post-release Risen Inmate declares “All power has been given unto me in heaven and in earth.”

And he promises his presence “even to the end of the earth.” There is a word for the ex-offender! A promise of a transformative permanent presence that knows how to look at a former accomplice who turned scared on him to avoid arrest, and tell him to feed his lambs. The Risen Inmate knows something about change, and trusting the formerly untrustworthy. He anticipated the change when he told Simon Johnson that he was a rock. So too does he call the formerly incarcerated by names that spell hope and promise, like the term “returning citizens.” But most of all he calls them human, beloved, and even “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and that, the conspirator who put out a hit on Uriah the Hittite knew right well.

And Remembering the Victims

Is there a word from the Risen Inmate for those who have been victims of crime? What is a bold Easter message for families of victims, by walking toughs of town watch, by drive-by or beef, by violence domestic or street? Does God hear their pain on this Easter sunrise, and what evidence is there in the text expounded to let them know that the Healing God knows. The horrific screams heard on a Florida 911 tape may echo those of the sobs of a mother witnessing the unjust execution of her Son by alleged protectors of the common good. Is there no word for her?

“Woman, behold thy son, Son behold thy mother,” comes from the lips of the Preaching Inmate in a message that speaks hope and application in a moment of deep grief. When the Inmate’s visitors go home, they share space and possessions in a family reconfigured to provide care for her misery. The women received a word — but that word became flesh in the ministry of caregiving John supplied surrounding her, the victim of a horrific crime.

The Risen Inmate demonstrates in three days the woman’s vindication by virtue of the Resurrection. In the background, an Easter choir of formerly enslaved Africans, the old Jim Crow, sings: “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.”

Grabbing Resurrection Hope

Easter brims with the fullness of incarceration and its implications. It celebrates the vindication of the life of a man who did the hardest of time in the shortest of time. It recognizes that the One whose life we celebrate understood the pain of incarceration. Easter brings to judgment our fear of the inmate, our stigmatization of the prisoner, our shunning of those who return for a second chance-or a third chance, or a fourth chance…Simon Johnson elicited a response from the man destined for incarceration of seven times seventy.

Early Easter morning, millions awaken before sunrise with a purpose. The dark skies give faint hint of the sunrise within the hour. A stretch of the arms, a wipe through the eyes, feet reaching downward for temporary covering against the floor terrain and it is time to get moving. Slivers of remaining moonlight provide faint illumination through narrow openings above the bed. The millions have heard the call, and now respond! The time has come to join the line as men and women, even some boys and girls put their feet in the line to the appointed destination to which they are called this Easter Sunday. There they will see familiar faces, hear familiar sounds and may even smell familiar odors. It is a dawn of a new day, and they are on their way.

Early on the first Easter morning, one was risen for all of them.

This essay originally appeared at The Living Pulpit. It is reposted here by permission.

Can Science and Faith Co-Exist?

Can Science and Faith Co-Exist?

Video Courtesy of Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science


So you’re intelligent. You’re a Christian. You love both of those aspects about yourself. It’s not enough for you to just get your praise on, you also get your study on.

You read the Bible, but you also read widely on many other subjects. You are in college and you don’t dread your courseload, except that one class. That one science class.

You imagine a professor opposed to anything that resembles religion or Christianity. You fear being embarrassed or ridiculed because of your faith. I’ve been there. Many of us who strive to represent our faith and use our minds for God’s glory have been there.

For me, it was Anthropology 101. For others, it was physics or astronomy. As science explores the natural world, it is inevitable that questions about who created this natural world come up. The good thing is that science and your faith can co-exist.

They are not polar opposites, and belief and love of one does not cancel out your belief in and love of the other.

In my pursuit of reconciling faith and science, I have concluded that they both have an authority, but their authority is relegated to two different spheres. Science asks, “What’s out there?” Faith asks, “Why are we here?”

Albert Einstein categorized these two questions as questions of fact and questions of value. Although in many ways these two things overlap and play off of each other, I do not believe they cancel each other out.

Science answers questions about what is observable and what we can quantify. In other words, it doesn’t seek to ask questions regarding the meaning of what we observe and quantify. Those things we believe in before we do any experiments or formulate our theories.

We already enter the science lab or classroom with a bias toward belief or non-belief in a Creator. We already have a religious tradition we hold to or don’t. The answers of science bring these issues to the surface, but they can never give the final answer on these issues.

What’s interesting is that the Christian faith helped aid the development of science. Galileo Galilei, who was sadly opposed by the medieval church, was a Christian and believed God had given us our mental faculties to explore the world.

He believed “the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has not intended us to forgo their use.” It was this belief that prompted Galileo to explore the universe and confirm that the planets revolve around the sun.

Ultimately, this discovery would lead to him placed under house arrest by church authorities. Galileo firmly believed in the two categories of facts and value, as he stated, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Although not a Christian, Albert Einstein believed in a higher power. His whole goal in pursuing scientific work was to see the mystery behind nature and to “attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.”

Einstein did not adhere to traditional religion, but had a particular disdain for atheists, considering them to be missing out on the wonder of the world and “the music of the spheres.”

Einstein could grasp science and the existence of something beyond our world. It is this mindset that motivated him to say “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Then there’s the man that conquered the peanut and saved the whole South. A devout Christian man, George Washington Carver always found time to teach Sunday School to the students at Tuskegee University.

His fervent work into the peanut was fueled by his belief of the outdoors being a “great cathedral in which God could be continuously spoken to and heard from.” Carver’s time in the “great cathedral” yielded over 300 uses for the peanut and 100 uses for the sweet potato, as well as numerous synthetic products like the dye still used in Crayola crayons.

When faith and science clash

So what happens when scientific discoveries clash with your beliefs? Discoveries and theories in regards to evolution, cloning, and astronomy may seem to come into conflict with classical interpretations of the Bible.

Here’s what the great African theologian Augustine of Hippo had to say about it:

“If they [the infidel] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learned from experience and the light of reason?”

Augustine here is saying that instead of continuing to promote ignorance in matters of science, we need to be careful with making dogmatic assertions on things the Bible is not concerned about. The Bible contains science, but it is not a science book.

The Bible’s main purpose is spelled out by Jesus in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (NLT).

The Bible is the history of God’s interaction with His people pointing to Jesus Christ. Its purpose is to lead you to Jesus and draw you closer to Him. It is not designed to give you a thorough explanation and summary of physics, biology, or astronomy. It is designed to give you one thing: knowledge and love for Jesus.

When faith and science clash, we have to begin questioning our interpretation—not our faith. When we fail to do this, it only serves to cause those who don’t believe to mock and ignore us.

For example: In Psalm 19, David talks about how the sun revolves around the earth. It rises from one end and completes its course at another end like a runner in a race. We know from science that it is actually the earth that revolves around the sun.

This is what got Galileo silenced and put on house arrest by the church. Instead of insisting that we need keep up the belief that the sun moves around the earth, maybe a different

interpretation is needed. David was not a scientist, but he was a poet or a psalmist. Psalm 19 is an example of Hebrew poetry, and we know poetry is never to be taken literally.

So what can we say about David’s assertion that the sun revolves around the earth?

That the psalm’s point is not to assert that the sun revolves around the earth. It was, instead, David’s way of being in awe of nature—something that scientists and Christians can both agree on.

Science and faith are not opposites. They are just different ways of pursuing different types of knowledge. One deals with facts and the other deals with the meaning of those facts.

They both are needed and can help in our pursuit of truth. So instead of dreading interacting with your professor or hanging out with your really smart friend, maybe you could engage them with humility and an openness to see where science and faith can connect instead of clash.

It just might open up a new understanding and love for God for the both of you.

Pink Ribbon Warriors

Pink Ribbon Warriors

Since 1985, the month of October has become known throughout the United States as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this annual health campaign, charities, hospitals, retailers and others commit to raising funds earmarked for programs that aim at discovering a cause and a cure for breast cancer. Many of these programs also focus on helping women learn what they can do to minimize their risk of ever developing breast cancer in the first place.

Which would you rather do—reduce your risk for breast cancer or race around hoping for a cure? Most women, quite sensibly, would rather reduce their risk for breast cancer as much as possible.  So what can you do to reduce your risk?  Well, there are at least six strategies that are known and proven to reduce the risk for breast cancer:  exercise regularly, maintain ideal body weight, avoid smoking, avoid alcohol, avoid oral contraceptives, and avoid hormone replacement therapy. Let’s take them one at a time. But before we dive into them, let’s first take a look at some important breast cancer facts as they relate to African American women.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African American women and is the second most common cause of cancer death among African American women right behind lung cancer.

In addition, Breastcancer.org reveals on its website that while white women are slightly more likely to develop breast cancer than African American women, breast cancer is more common in African American women than white women in those under the age of 45. Research also indicates that Asian, Hispanic, and Native-American women have a lower risk of developing and dying from breast cancer than African American women. So, why is breast cancer so much more common — and deadly — among African American females?

Scientists are not certain why this is the case. Early studies suggested that African American women have, on average, fewer healthcare resources at their disposal. But further analysis shows that there is a distinctly more lethal form of breast cancer stalking black women. Until doctors can figure out precisely what is causing this different pattern of breast cancer in African American women, it just makes for them to use every means available to reduce their risk for breast cancer. So, while early diagnosis and treatment are important for improving survival from breast cancer, it is a wiser strategy to try to prevent the disease in the first place. And this leads us to the above-mentioned strategies.

Exercise, Exercise, Exercise

Moderate exercise, defined as 30 minutes of brisk walking four times per week, reduces the risk for breast cancer by 30 to 50 percent. A pair of tennis shoes is all you need. No pills; just walk! And if you are a breast cancer survivor, the same amount of exercise can reduce your risk of death by 50 percent. As far as I’m concerned, every woman newly diagnosed with breast cancer ought to be given a brand new pair of tennis shoes and told to use them regularly!

Find Your Fighting Weight

Maintaining ideal body weight is also important. Simply put, it is a matter of keeping extra body fat to a minimum. The reason this is beneficial is that estrogen — which is known to increase the risk for breast cancer — is manufactured in fat cells. So the more fat you carry around, the more estrogen you make. By maintaining ideal body weight, you reduce the amount of circulating estrogen and that will reduce your risk for breast cancer. Here’s a link you can use to calculate your ideal body weight.

Where There’s Smoke …

Steer clear of cigarettes because smoking definitely increases the risk for breast cancer; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  And it most definitely increases the risk of death from breast cancer in those women who do smoke. Although doctors haven’t quite figured out why smoking increases the risk of death in women with breast cancer, there is no doubt that it does.

Rethink That Drink

For reasons that are not entirely clear, but may be related to elevated estrogen levels associated with alcohol intake, drinking increases a woman’s risk for breast cancer. Even half a glass of wine per day increases one’s risk. I know, cardiologists are proclaiming the heart-healthy benefits of drinking red wine, but alcohol increases your risk for breast cancer. So I recommend women steer clear of it.

Other Risk Factors

Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy are also known to increase the risk for breast cancer. As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared them to be Group I carcinogens, which are substances or agents that are known to cause cancer in humans in 2007, as compared to other WHO categories in which the cancer link is either questionable to yet to be confirmed. Although the FDA has not yet included the WHO analysis in the package inserts for these medications, it would be wise to avoid the use of oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy if you want to reduce your risk for breast cancer.

The Good News

Now, here’s some very good news: the world’s first preventive breast cancer vaccine was developed at the Cleveland Clinic in 2010 and is awaiting funding to begin clinical trials to see if it is safe for use in women.  It is a very promising discovery, for the vaccine was 100 percent effective in preventing breast cancer in three different animal studies. The results were vetted by a panel of experts and published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine in May 2010. The scientist who created the vaccine, Professor Vincent Tuohy, received the Cleveland Clinic’s Sonnes Innovation in Medicine Award that same year, and this year the vaccine has become the centerpiece of the Cleveland Clinic’s fund-raising efforts, a mark of the Clinic’s endorsement of Tuohy’s work.

In addition to this amazing development, Drs. Beatriz Pogo and James Holland, scientists working at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, have found a virus that appears to be involved in 40-75 percent of breast cancer. They presented their results to the annual meeting of the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in 2006–a very tough and demanding crowd of breast cancer experts. In fact, Pogo and Holland are just one step away from proving this virus causes breast cancer in women. Both of these areas of research, the virus and the vaccine, are now our best hope for ending breast cancer worldwide … just like we ended small pox and are ending polio.

But in the meantime, exercise regularly and maintain ideal body weight. And don’t drink alcohol, smoke, use oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy. Though nothing can guarantee you won’t get breast cancer, you’ll reduce your risk and be healthier for it.

Resources for the Fight

Visit the following websites for additional information and resources:

1.    National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/nbccedp/screenings.htm
This is a government program created to help low-income, uninsured, and underinsured women gain access to breast cancer screenings and diagnostic services.

2.    Sisters Network Inc. (SNI)
http://www.sistersnetworkinc.org/index.html
SNI is a national organization that strives to educate African American women around the country about breast cancer, as well as provide support to survivors. Visit the website to locate a chapter near you.

3.    Are You Dense Inc.
http://www.areyoudense.org
Formed to educate the public about dense breast tissue, this organization espouses the value of adding screening ultrasounds to mammograms to increase detection of breast cancer. It also has a government relations affiliate, Are You Dense Advocacy, which aims at helping more women have access to an early breast cancer diagnosis and helps them find out what their state is doing to facilitate this. — By Shelley Bacote