What Must I Do To Be Made Whole?

“But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:13-14 NRSV).
Many times we tend to approach our faith as something that is tangible and can be physically possessed.  We strive to be made whole and restored by following a list of do’s and don’ts.  We incorrectly assume the idea that we must not only offer ourselves, but our good deeds as the basis upon which we “acquire” healing.  Our understanding of God becomes skewed and we adopt the idea that if we pray hard enough good things will come.  This “prosperity gospel” has become a fabric that is dangerously woven into who we are as God’s children.
In our Biblical story, Naaman was no exception to the “prosperity gospel” regarding faith.  He brought extravagant wealth and riches to the king of Israel in order to be healed.  Naaman lived under the assumption that healing would occur if he found favor with the king and ultimately favor with the prophet.  It was at the prophet Elisha’s house that the fearless commander would hear a way to be radically transformed.  Naaman did not need anything but faith.  It was with this belief in transformation that Naaman entered the waters of the Jordan.  His little mustard seed of faith spurred him onward.   
Naaman was not simply healed in a physical sense, but experienced a spiritual healing that awakened a presence of the Divine in Naaman’s very soul.  His journey led him to the cleansing waters of God.  He left the Jordan River with a new faith and new commitment to his God.  He would take the message of salvation to his world. 
We are very familiar with Naaman’s story if not in the Biblical sense then in our own lives.  We approach God with gifts to earn special favor.  We pledge our lives to change that sound something like this, “O God, if you help me this time I will…even again.”  Time and again we make this bargain with God until our pledges are hollow and represent the struggles born out of a place of desperation.
The good news is that God does not need our extravagant gifts.  God seeks our hearts.  There is no magic, no special cure, and no secret spell that will bring us any more or less healing.  The gift is already given.  God’s grace is offered to us free of charge and without price.  All we can do is accept the blessings which are given by the Creator.  To assume that we have any more agency regarding our salvation is to diminish the gift of God.
In the Gospel of John, the religious scholar Nicodemus found Jesus and began a dialogue that serves as the basis of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The underlying question that Nicodemus wanted answered was short and to the point.  The scholar asked, “What must I do to be saved?”  Jesus (the Master) answered, “Believe.”
Whether we read 2 Kings or skip ahead to the Gospel of John, the word of God proves to be consistent.  Our belief is what heals us.  We are not transformed because our body may be made whole nor are we saved because prayers have been answered.  We are restored to wholeness because God’s gift of salvation changes us from the inside out.  Our wholeness is not a state of being, but a state of worship.  Let us wash our hearts in the waters of everlasting life and be made new people.

Are the Gospel Miracles for Everyone?

This week I am using the reading from the liturgy found in the Gospel of Mark 1:29-39.  I am drawn to the story not as an interpreter of the story itself, but how the message of healing is one that is developed for all people.  We read the miracle stories found throughout the Gospels and at times find the greatest messages in the fact that Jesus “cured” a person or group from a fatal illness.  It is very easy to maintain a personal theology that, in the cases of healing, Jesus answers the prayers of the needy.

What about those whose prayers appear to be left unanswered?  What happens in the cases of those who are faced with life altering diagnosis?  Did Jesus simply say no, or forget them?  In other words, how do those who struggle with physical or psychological issues find empowerment in the stories of healing?  Do they find hope in these stories, or should they simply gloss over those stories of healing mentioned in the Gospels?
These are some of the questions that the text, from the Gospel of Mark, call to mind.  It is my belief that Scripture is complete and for everyone.  We are not invited to simply look and find the stories with which we find the most comfort.  We must apply the overall truth found in the holy writings that speak to our everyday lives.  Our task is not easy.
I enter this discussion by wanting to find the power of God through every part of the Bible.  I want to share with my children that God’s miraculous healings and wonders are important for them as well as anyone that faces struggles.  I want my six year old son to know that these miracle stories do matter in his life as he is hospitalized again and again due to complications from hemophilia.
The beginning of my understanding starts with the central message found in the Book of Job.  Job lost everything that he had.  He lost his health, he lost his family, and he lost his livelihood.  Finally, after many chapters of struggle and questioning, God finally answers Job.  God tells Job that he is asking the wrong question.  The question should not be “Why is this happening to me?” but the question should be “Who will be with me through the suffering?”  The answer to the question will always return to God.
Returning to the Gospel stories of healing, one might apply the answer to Job’s question to the Biblical text.  Perhaps the miracles that occurred were not as important as the fact that the creator of the universe was present.    The outward healings are simply wonders that transcend the very idea of human understanding.  Maybe God’s presence is the very miracle itself.

The Magnificat of Mary Luke 1:47-55

This week I chose to skip ahead in the lectionary and preach on a passage that keeps calling to me during this season of my life.  I am led to the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:47-55).  One of the things that holds my interest is the fact that Mary’s life was in total chaos and she still praised God.  I respect and admire that about this incredible child/woman.  It would have been easy for her to simply curse God and turn away from the incredible journey that she would travel.  Instead, she honored God in the middle of the worst circumstances.

I admire people like Mary who teach me how to live out my faith.  For people like her, faith is not simply a set of rules and regulations, but something incredibly intricate within her being.  She turned to her God to give her strength to get through the most difficult of circumstances.   Her faith indeed could move mountains and then some.

I want that type of faith.  I want my first reaction to a situation to be directed towards God.  I have been struggling this week concerning the death of my mother.  I understand that grief is necessary, but I also understand it is not fun.  One of the issues with which I have struggled has been the frequent phone calls I had with my mom.  We were close and I would call her to celebrate when things were good and to commiserate when things were bad.  I always knew that whatever support I needed, I would get from my mom.  With her passing that support is no longer there.  The silence is sometimes deafening.

Her death reminds me, along with the passage from Luke’s Gospel, of the kind of relationship I want to have with my God.  I want God to be first in my joys and my sorrows.  I want my life to be a living prayer connected to my Creator.  If there is a lesson in the death of a loved one, it is the reminder that when all is said and done, the most important legacy which will last are the times that we offered kindness and love to one another.  Mary did this as she praised God.

It is my hope that we love each other in spite of our human condition.  May we offer words of strength and hope in times of darkness.  May we follow the example of Mary and love with our whole hearts the one who first loved us.  May we be a blessing to our world.

My Mother’s Legacy – The Definition of Love (1 Corinthians 13)

On a personal note, I offer my gratitude for all who are here today.

On behalf of my family words cannot express the incredible display of love that we have encountered.
My mom’s life lives on through the generous display of Christ’s unending grace that fills this place.
Her legacy is one that stretches far past the walls here.
I once heard a story about a boy who walked by a pet store.
In the window he saw a sign that read “Puppies for Sale $25.”
He anxiously went into the store and asked the owner “Is it true that there are puppies for sale?”
The owner responded, “Yes there are puppies for sale.”
The owner whistled, and out came a dog named Lady followed by seven puppies attempting to keep up with their mother.
Coming from far back in the distance was a little dog who had a physical deformity and could not keep up with the other dogs.
The boy’s attention was immediately drawn to the puppy.
In excitement, the boy proclaimed, “I would like to buy that puppy that had trouble keeping up.”
The owner responded, “That puppy is not for sale.”
“But I want that puppy,” replied the boy.
“Look that one is not for sale.  You are more than welcome to purchase one of the other puppies.”
The boy would not take no for an answer.
The owner finally gave in and said, “I will give you that puppy free of charge.”
The boy was outraged.  “Look mister, I have 25 cents in my pocket.  I will gladly bring you 25 cents each week until you receive the full amount for the puppy.”
Finally the owner said in absolute frustration, “Look son, you don’t understand.  That puppy is very different.  It will not be able to run and jump like the other puppies.  It will always limp.  It will always fall behind!”
Just then the boy raised his pant leg to reveal a badly twisted ankle.
“That’s okay,” said the boy, “I think he will need someone who understands.”
This is a story, much like the love my mother shared with all who came into her path.
Her consistent fight for the underdog along with her passion for life brought a real life portrait to the definition of love as seen in our reading from the book of First Corinthians.
Her life was a testimony to the fact that she believed, as the Apostle Paul wrote, that, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.
I saw this at home, in her family, her union, and her church.
In her work, your cause was her cause.
She would tirelessly fight for those who had little to no voice.
Never did I hear her say to me that someone was not worth the fight.
All the person had to do was express a need, and she was there.
If you were a politician, and she believed in your cause, she was a strong ally and formidable opponent.
She personally took on the successes and losses in a campaign.
She took the journey with those she supported.
In our family, she would insist that arguments could last no longer than two weeks.
She refused to support anything that separated us.
Anyone who knew Ruby Jane knew that family meant everything to her.
Many times I meet people who know my mom and my first reaction is to apologize for having to hear endless stories about my children.
Secretly I loved the fact that my mother adored my children above everything else.
Her unwavering belief in the goodness of others was a life- long lesson about which I still learn.
She taught me, and many others in this room, that there is that divine spark of goodness that calls us to act better and treat each other with kindness.
She hoped at times when all hope was lost.
I can tell you from personal experience that this woman maintained faith in the goodness of all people.
She was a living testament to the Good News of hope.
Ruby Jane Jensen was a true witness to the message of Christ.
She lived the definition of love as set forth in the reading from 1 Corinthians.
Because we knew her, we understood love in a different way.
Our lives would never be the same.
I once read the definition of an angel.
An angel was someone who came into your life for a measure of time and, once leaving your life, you are never the same because they had been there.
Angels can come into our world for a season, an hour, a minute, a second, a moment.
This description sounds like my mom.
While not being perfect, her commitment to life and those she loved created that rare spark of holy love that transcends all obstacles.
I believe that my mom opened her eyes on the other side and the first words she heard were from God as the Divine said, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

God Can Handle Our Complaints

One thing that I respect about the ancient Hebrew prophets is their unwavering honesty.  Many times God addressed the people regarding their sin, but sometimes the cries and needs of the people were presented to God.  At first one might think that this type of bantering between humanity and God is not right and even considered blasphemous.  Isaiah challenges God in the lament found in Isaiah 63-64.  In speaking with God, Isaiah says, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.  Now consider, we are all your people” (Isa. 64:9 NRSV).
I say thank you to Isaiah.  I have felt this way on many occasions.  I sometimes ask myself, “What have I done God?  Why don’t you answer my prayers?”  The question of whether we will ever be truly forgiven is always on the front burner.  We wonder, “How much longer will we have to pay for what we have done?” We cry out to God and hear nothing but a deafening silence.
The ancient Hebrews knew the feeling of hopelessness very well.  They understood what it was like to lose homes, family members, health, etc.  Their plight was not so different than ours.  We often times feel lost and misunderstood by our creator.  We feel as if we have nowhere else to turn.  Our hope has left us.  Our God is gone.
This season of Advent reminds us to not give up hope.  God is still present in the middle of the struggle.  Just as Isaiah petitioned God, we can do the same thing.  We are reminded that in this season of introspection, we look within ourselves and have honest dialogue with God.  We are allowed to hold God accountable for His silence. 
God is big enough to handle our sorrows.  As a matter of fact, God is so great that he turns our sorrows into joys.  King David reminded us that “You (God) have turned my mourning into dancing; You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.  O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever” (Psalm 30:11-12 NRSV).  Moving past the gloom and despair of chaos into the creation of joy is the spirit of Advent.  We celebrate the expectation of the miracle which set the world on its ear.  God broke Divine silence and entered this world in the form of a baby.  This incredible event, while at first delivered in a very obscure and remote way, would grow to be the center of our hope. 
Our redemption started with the cries of a baby.  The cries went unnoticed.  This miracle of light broke through the darkness in our souls to restore us to wholeness.  This season is about how we moved from darkness to light.  We remember who we used to be and give thanks that we are no longer the person of our past.  We have been changed and, with the blessings of God, we will never been the same.
As we begin our season of Advent, let us remember to lay all of our cards on the table with God.  Let us talk to our creator about everything that keeps us from worshiping fully and freely.  We should be as honest as the prophets; sparing nothing from God.  Our dialogue can be rich and authentic and sometimes frightening even to ourselves.  It is okay to take that journey.  God can handle it.

Redeemed 101

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Psalm 107:1-3 NRSV).

We are very good at throwing around “Christian” words and phrases without truly understanding what in the world they mean.  The word of the week that calls to me is the word “redeemed”.  What does the word mean?  How does it fit into my life and my faith?  When I say that I have been redeemed, what am I really saying about God?

According to my little handy dandy dictionary on my iPhone one of the definitions of redeemed is “to obtain the release or restoration of, as from captivity, by paying a ransom.” The actual word “redeemed” originated in the late Middle Ages and is used in some combination with the verb “emere” which means “to purchase.”  There was a price that needed to be paid in order to release or restore a person from captivity.

It is important to understand from where we draw the understanding of God’s redemptive love.  Psalm 107 was written way before the time of Christ and is taken from the Hebrew Bible.  The Psalm is one of praise and celebrates the Hebraic understanding of the redemptive power of God.  In Jewish theology, the concept of being redeemed was to be set free.  One of the prime examples of a release from bondage occurred when the people that were called the “Children of Israel” were delivered out of slavery in Egypt and led by God to the land (Canaan) that was promised to the descendants of Abraham.  Another example of the redemptive act of God found in the Hebrew Bible is the return of those exiled in Babylon.  God called them back, or redeemed the people.  This restorative power of God displayed the covenantal agreement between the Hebrew people and God.  In the agreement God pledged that God would never leave His chosen people.  “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6 NRSV).

As Christianity began to spread throughout the world, one of the key foundational components of the new faith was the redemptive gift that God offered humanity in the form of Christ, God’s son.  The idea of a purchase for something to be set free became a critical portion of the Christian understanding of redemption.  To understand the definition through the filter of my own Christian faith, God restored me from a prison in which my very soul was chained and offered Jesus as payment for my release. The concept of redemption further developed as God’s gift to the world (Jesus) became the price for our release from captivity.  We see the nature of the Divine flowing through the miracles that Jesus performed, the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings, and the ultimate sacrifice of Divine bloodshed on the cross.

The price that God paid to ensure our freedom was amazing.  The sacrificial offering of Jesus proved beyond any doubt that God loved humanity in an incredibly radical and awesome way.  Christ’s sacrificial act purchased our freedom from the bondage of sin and renewed our relationship with the All-Mighty.  Praise to the one who freed us from captivity!

When I talk about being redeemed I refer to God’s faithful and incredible effort to pay the ultimate price for my heart.  I often times am very humbled at such a gift.  It is very difficult to understand or comprehend that kind of love.  Praise be to God that I don’t have to fully understand it.  I simply accept the gift of love.

As we offer our gratitude for life during this Thanksgiving season, let us be grateful for our redemption.  Because of God’s gift, we are restored and made new people.  The past no longer matters.  What matters is that today, here and now, we honor this gift with our lives.  We are to share the message of God’s incredible act of mercy with our community and our world.  Thanks indeed be to the God who works a mighty act in me!

The Storm, God and Me

To say that there have been storms in my life over the past few weeks is a drastic understatement to say the very least.  My youngest son has been hospitalized for a week now.  He went through surgery last Friday and is now officially on his fourth port-o-cath.  This is the third summer in a row that my son has been hospitalized due to complications from his bleeding disorder within a bleeding disorder.  In addition to hemophilia he has an inhibitor.  Simply put, the medicine that he really needs to take is not effective in treating bleeding episodes.  The storm of hemophilia in the life of my family is not simply a few thunder clouds with a nice refreshing rain.  It is an all out hurricane that seems to creep into our lives and rage at the craziest moments.

Yes, there are winds and rains all around us.  They are not pretty and often cause an incredibly large host of problems.  We all have them.  We all know what it is like to feel like we are in an unfriendly ocean with fierce and often times catastrophic elements that continue to bombard us.  The only thing we can do is find relief that we are in the boat and not thrown into the unsettling waters of life.

The text from Matthew 14:22-33 reminds me of several things.  First, Jesus modeled a connection to God way before he encountered unsettling storms.  “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up to the mountain by himself to pray” (Matt. 14:23 NRSV).  I must be confident in my relationship with my creator before I ever need to draw on that special source of power.  Communion with God is crucial in building trust and faith.  How can I turn to a faith that I never nurture at a time when I really need a mature and developed awareness of God’s presence?  Without developing oneness with God, I am left without the capacity to weather the storm.  I am like Peter who steps out of the boat only to falter.

After Jesus saves Peter from drowning, both men get into the boat with the other disciples.  After everyone is in the boat, Jesus apparently creates another miracle.  He calms the storm.  This is where I struggle in this pericope.  The truth is that while Jesus calmed this storm, it appears that he does not calm every storm.  Matter of fact I get a little angry and begin to wonder why the storm of the bleeding disorders are not made easier.  I have faith in Christ.  I believe that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.  Why then is my family not getting a respite from the storm? 

While the final portion of the text indicates that the calm brought about a sense of wonder to the disciples, I do not think that the main issue at stake in this story is the fact that Jesus calmed the storm.  I think it is more important that Jesus assured Peter (and us) that the power of God is still present in the middle of chaos.  The presence of tragedy and horrible acts does not mean that God is not present.  In fact, God is present in the middle of the storm in ways that we cannot imagine.  When Jesus first appears to the disciples they did not recognize him.  In fact, “when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear” (Matt. 14:26 NRSV).  It took Jesus’ own words to soothe them along with the miracle of the storm subsiding at just the right moment.

Many times, we do not have the luxury to recognize the miracle that occurs in the presence of God.  We only see the storm.  When the storm remains strong, we begin to question the presence of the Divine in our lives.  Notice that Jesus assures the disciples (Peter included) and tells them to not be afraid.  This exchange of words occurs in the middle of the storm and not on the other side.  Christ is present in the storm and encourages us to remain calm.  The reality of our faith is present in the times of catastrophe as well as in times of joy.

Let Us Cross the Bridge

This past week my family and I attended a symposium in San Francisco.  While the conference was jam packed with wonderful information, we did get a little free time to explore the city.  I was drawn to Fisherman’s Warf.  I could not believe that I was standing on a pier and actually looking at the Golden Gate Bridge in person.  That was definitely something I could cross off of my bucket list.  The other bridge in the harbor was the bridge that connected San Francisco to Oakland.  To keep things straight in my family, we called the bridge to Oakland the Silver Gate Bridge.

The final evening event was a dinner cruise around the harbor.  Unfortunately, we could not travel to the Golden Gate Bridge due to the thickness of the fog.  Instead, we did travel under the “Silver Gate Bridge.”  The temperature was very chilly on the boat.  It was wonderful to have a respite from the horrible heat in New Mexico. It felt, and looked like a wintry day.  This is July.  I was not supposed to be wearing a jacket.

As I stood on the ship and looked at the bridge, I began to wonder about how life would have been different for the people living in the area had there been no bridges to connect one land mass to another.  Life would have been drastically altered.  There would not be a simple jaunt from San Francisco to Oakland. 

Bridges do more than connect things. They provide a way to improve our lives. 
They offer a chance to have a different view, a different perspective.




Our world is expanded as we are able to cross into other places with different ideas and customs.

It all starts by making the pilgrimage to the other side.  We have to take the journey.

Christ is our bridge.  Our relationship to God is restored and reconnected because of the love which is shared through the one who saved us from only our limited view of life.  Our paradigm shifted dramatically.  We connected from our land of selfishness to the land of absolute selflessness.  It takes a bridge by which we can cross into the land of God.

The Truth Will Set You Free Indeed!

I remember the first time I set foot on the University of Texas campus in Austin.  I was excited, and very nervous, about the next step in my journey.  On the main tower of the campus the words of John 8:32 were written.  “…and you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  While I liked the words, I had no clue as to what the Bible verse meant.  It would take many years on my journey before the reality of what it means to know the truth seeped into my life.
Truth is a very precarious thing.  Many proclaim to know a generic truth which serves as a stumbling block to actually discovering our own perceptions of the truth.  I love and embrace the fact that Jesus did not say something like, “You shall know the truth and practice it in this way, and believe it in only this way, and…”  Jesus simply said, “Know the truth and let it liberate you.”
While there is one prime source to truth there are many hearts and minds that seek the ultimate realities of what it means to live in the presence of God.  It is like a house which is built out of brick.  While every block functions as part of the main structure of the building, each brick is distinct in its look and placement in the foundation of the house.
When Paul went on to discuss the various gifts that we all share, he likened us to various parts of the body.  Though we serve many functions, we are created with different ways of achieving one goal.  We are to praise our creator.  We are designed for that purpose. 
Our various gifts remind us that we are not all the same.  This truth in which we are to live is meant to be done with a sense of wild abandonment and not fear or conformity.  We are to serve completely and passionately.  Our reality should be aligned with God.  Out of this sense of unity with the Divine source we are to celebrate and be glad.  This truth sets us free.
I have come a long way since the University of Texas.  Along my journey, I have had many experiences that have opened my eyes to the truth within me.  My discovery of God is unique unto me and does not rely on anyone else.  God radically transformed my life and I serve with a sense of comfort that I am an original work of art.  We all are.  I must remember to allow the master artist to paint the truth of beauty and love within me and all of those around me.  I am not called to judge the work of the artist.  I am called to love the artist and the painting.  Know the truth and let it really set you free!
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