A Time to Live in a Spirit of Thanks

     I must say that my heart is full this week of Thankgsliving. My oldest son arrived in town last night, and the first thing we did was sing together. In my world, there is nothing quite like singing with my very talented son. I know that I am prejudiced, but I can’t help enjoying the sound of our voices blending. There is nothing like the beautiful colors of sound that we share as we make a joyful noise.

     I think of my relationship with Christ and hope that the traits that I share with my son are as close. For example, when I pray, do I pray with the same passion as Jesus? Do I treat others in a way that glorifies the Father? I hope that my faith is so interconnected to the Divine that my actions reflect the Creator.

     Many people tell me that my son’s voice blends so well with mine that they have trouble telling our sounds apart. May that be the same for my God, who guides me on my journey, and me. May this time of Thanksliving be a constant reminder that our gratitude should mirror the source of all good things. I hope that everyone celebrates and lives in a spirit of praise and hope, for the light is in the world and among us.

Oh, That We Might Know Him

Oh, that we might know the LORD! Let us press on to know Him. He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn or the coming of rains in early spring” (Hos. 6:3 NLT).

“Let us press on to know Him.” It sounds like something out of a Gnostic treatise. I like the idea of an all-out search for truth. Many denominations teach a literal understanding of scripture, but we are called to something much more profound than words.

The printed page is wonderful but serves as a conduit through which we journey to the truth. We are called to an immeasurable depth, the heart. I am referring to where faith begins, its head-waters.

And once we earnestly search, we will be made aware of a sacred presence holding us close – Peace at the core of belief. I want to remain in baths of freedom, to be the most valid form of myself.

Holding On to the Past Brings Nothing But Heartache

     I have a confession to make. I hold on to the past to the point that I become paralyzed in the present. I think of events and hurts and play them out in my head as if I might create an alternative ending. I know that I can never change events that already occurred, but something compels me to relive the hurts and struggles that cause me grief. The cycle continues, and I spend unnecessary energy trapped within a wall of shame and regret.

     To move forward, I must put events in the past behind me to embrace new opportunities. Maintaining hold of what occurred yesterday does not allow me the freedom to explore other possibilities. Letting go, while frightening, is the only way to focus on the present. I cannot sing the “Lord’s Song” when trapped in the strange land of regret. Hope propels me forward and into the promise that each day brings.

     My prayer for this day is that we may hold fast to hope, giving thanks for each day. Hopefully, we may let go of the things that keep us bound to yesterday and embrace the opportunities of today. There is no telling what gifts we may uncover as we journey through the day. May we live in the knowledge that the author of hope promises us a future full of blessings. We must remain in the present, free from the chains of the past, to embrace the beauty of today.

Finding Pockets of Rest

     Every day I find the busy-ness of life calls for rapid decisions and constant movement. If I am not careful, I can move from busy to overwhelmed at a lightning-fast pace. I run at 100 miles per hour and then wonder why I have nothing left in the tank. Decisions I make throughout the day control spaces in my brain that need to remain free to finish projects or listen to hearts that need to speak.

     To combat all the noise that reverberates through my mind, I must find pockets of rest, moments to stop and reflect on God’s goodness. While observing the Sabbath over a day or two is excellent, I find that I must stop and observe pockets of mini-Sabbaths to keep me focused and give me mental toughness throughout my day. The more I practice mindfulness and spiritual reflection, the better pastor, friend, spouse, father I become.

     Taking time to rest is not a luxury but a necessity. I need time to fill my spiritual tank as much as I need air. Unfortunately, my busy-ness can get in the way of my relationship with God. That might sound like a contradiction in terms I am a pastor and do the work of God on earth. My work, however, should not be my primary focus. The center of our lives is faith. How can works flow from the gift of grace when the free present offered never receives care?

     Today, I commit fifteen minutes to stop and receive the quiet reminder that I am God’s child. May freedom allow me to experience the presence of the Holy One, who so generously gives love beyond anything I can fathom. I take in the breath of God to exhale goodness, kindness, and understanding. May I remember to stop, even for one minute, and reflect on the mercy of the Holy One of Israel and experience transformation.

Growing Into Another Chapter of Faith

     The term “pistus Christu” (faith in/of Christ) continues to be a source of encouragement and strength on my faith journey. I look at what it means to emulate the faith of Christ and set as a very lofty goal to imitate in my own life the examples of how Christ treated his neighbor and how he loved God with his whole heart. I hope to reach out to those who feel that religion failed them or feel so ashamed of themselves that they could not return to church. I’m talking about those with a constant tape that runs through their heads that says, “What you have done is so bad that God cannot forgive me.”

     I know what it is like to feel trapped by stories that are anything but Biblical teaching. We receive, from Christ, freedom from oppression, only to reject the teaching of hope and fall back to a jacked-up message of condemnation and loathing. I find myself in times of prayer, longing to discover the negative tapes in my head so that I can take them out and replace them with hope and truth. Jesus treated me with compassion, just like he did the woman caught in the very act of adultery. He called me to participate in a meal with him, just as he did Zacchaeus.

     May we go through our days and reflect on the truth of our conversion from darkness to light. Let us celebrate that while we were yet sinners, Christ came to us and delivered us from our circumstances. May our gratitude shine with the brightness of the sun as we give thanks for Him, our Redeemer. In all things, let us remember to reflect on the love of God through our actions. We emulate the best that humanity has to offer. Let us respond in a way that is pleasing to the Holy One.

Moving from Point A to Point B

     Each year, as Annual Conference begins, I remembered my ordination service several years ago. I remember how a boy raised in exceedingly challenging circumstances found his way to a place unimaginable among his family. I represent the struggles to rise out of generational poverty and into a paradigm shift affecting future generations. I look at my cousins and celebrate that while I am the first to start a journey towards endless possibilities, praise God I am not the last.

     I reflect on the difficult road I traveled, knowing that having a goal is one thing, but to achieve objectives requires fortitude, patience, and endurance. It is not easy to move from one set of unspoken rules to another without suffering setbacks and heartache. The journey is rough and requires perseverance and grace. One most constantly battles demons that attempt to keep a person relegated into a life that fights to maintain unwilling victims in a class system that offers little exit.

     Yet, despite all obstacles, I sit in my office, at my pastoral desk, equipped with an education I never dreamed possible as a child. I live by the statement of human worth taken from Psalm 139, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” This statement is my mantra on this journey. I remind myself that I am God’s creation, and therefore I possess attributes that transcend a class structure, filled with unwritten do’s and don’ts. Each mandate attempts to define me and put me in a box, but I refused to surrender.

     Friends, I cannot pretend to know the journey that one travels, but I know who will guide us. Hold fast to the reality that our past does not define us, nor how others attempt to characterize us. We start by acknowledging that we receive our self-worth from God and not from humanity. The rest is greatness, as we depend on the Divine for guidance.

Coming Out of the Darkness

     Over the last few weeks, I find myself grappling with new information about the pandemic and a possible end to what quickly became a strange way of life. On the edge of summer, we look forward to churches opening for activities for children, and mandates regarding mask-wearing drastically changing. Sometimes, my head spins, trying to keep up with following the proper guidelines. Lord, in Your mercy!

     I cannot help but reflect on the darkest of times with my youngest son as he struggled with a never-ending volley of bleeding episodes. I remember looking into my wife’s eyes and assuring her that we will look back on this time and give thanks that these difficult days lay behind us a year from now. I wanted to ensure her, as well as myself, that this is not our new normal. Better times wait for us ahead. I needed to convey some sense of hope to remind us that faith plays a significant role in our most difficult times.

     Last year, I answered an appointment to pastor First United Methodist Church Belen. It proved strange leading a new congregation during a historic pandemic. I believe that we weathered the worst of times together and left a stronger team. I laugh when thinking about the first year of a pastoral assignment as living in a honeymoon phase. This easy season was not the case, as the church’s leadership rallied around each other to help the church move through the darkest of times.

     In this last week of May, let us remember and give thanks for the victories we celebrate as we move forward. We celebrate our resilience and a common respect for one another. We can do anything if we stand united and love one another well. No wonder Jesus proclaimed our compassion for our fellow neighbors as one of the top two commandments. With hope, we give thanks for our deliverance during the worst of times but give thanks unlimited possibilities.

Sharing a Message of Love

     When I grow weary and feel like the world turned against me, I remember one encounter with my mother, leading me back to reality. When my mother waited to receive medicine from the anesthetist to put her to sleep for open-heart surgery, I grabbed her hand and prayed for health and a speedy recovery. She grabbed my face and looked me in the eyes so that I knew that what she said came from her heart. She said, “Joe Keith, you have to know that I love you, son; you have to know.” As they injected the glorious medication that leads you to another world, she still uttered the words, “I love you, son.” I felt blessed to be loved so wholly and completely.

     There is not a day that goes by in my life that my sons fail to hear, “I love you.” My mother taught me that a tiny expression creates a lifetime of joy and contentment. One small sentence yields one significant affirmation of self. I learned that when I speak truth into a person’s life, I bring the good news of faith and hope. All these reassurances stem from a simple lesson taught by a mighty woman, Ruby Jane.

     Today, I carry the lesson forward as I recite the exact words to the woman who speaks the same way to my children. My boys do not go a day without hearing that they are loved. With the affirmation of hope, we lay the foundation of faith and joy. May I carry the good news into the world so that all may find a place of hope. May they hear of unconditional love open to everyone who accepts it. Praise be to God for our Mighty Mammas, who teach us how to be in this world and that love is more powerful than any weapon.

Our Highest Selves

“We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace” (Eph. 1:7 CEB).

     There it is, in black and white, it says, “Our failures.” There is that reads, yes, but…” I find no restrictive language, no exclusion. The Gospel is for everyone, including me. Please read this verse to those who want to keep faith limited to a selected few because it proves them wrong. Jesus included my faith along with everyone else. I am beyond tired of being told the message that my faith is not strong enough simply because of who I am.

     If God forgave all our sins, then are we not all equal? Why then do people continue to justify minimalizing others? I cannot find a way through the fog of judgment and condemnation. This idea of one-upmanship contradicts the notion that God moves in kindness and grace. Our actions must immolate Jesus, who respected others and loved with Divine ferociousness. The goal of faith is to offer our highest selves and move to agape, as demonstrated by the One who showed Divine love towards us.

     I hope one day to see our church bloom, not because we figured out a secret formula on how to entice people into our doors, but by offering love that indeed is “so amazing, so divine.” We grow because God grows in us. May we take up the mantle of Christ and let our actions overwhelm our judgments. Let holy love inspire us, strengthen us, and lead us on our journey to perfection. Maybe with our eyes focused on first things first, can we lead others to the vast riches of the Most-High God.

My First Love

Enclosed is a link to a song that is one my favorites. I never get tired of singing “Bring Him Home” from the Broadway musical Les Miserables. While I am called to ordained ministry, I must admit that music was my first love. It helped me understand that there is a world that is far wider than I ever knew. Singing awakens my soul so that I may express the greatness of God’s love. Find whatever awakens your spirit and follow the joy that guides you down your sacred path.

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