God Speaks Even in Our Exile

We finished the Book of Daniel yesterday, and something hit me over the head for the first time.  This is not my first time reading the text, yet the message revealed to me is quite clear.  Why have I missed one of the most visible messages concerning the passage?  Maybe my spirit was not ready to embrace the idea that, despite the storytelling of Daniel, God worked in the lives of the people even in the exile.

For those not entirely up to snuff about the Book of Daniel, the setting is in Babylon during the time of the captivity.  God moved in the hearts and minds of at least some of the people, and just like Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego, he delivered those who remained faithful to the Divine.  The Hebrew people were not left to their own devices while in captivity.  Their God still searched them out.  They simply needed to call out to the Holy One, and they could receive God’s promise.  Captivity may not have been the ideal way to worship, but at least they were provided with the holy presence of Almighty God.

I further reflected on how the text speaks to me now, here in the 21st century.  There are times when I feel like I am in exile.  When events make me feel like I am forced out of my place of refuge and made to live in a foreign land.  I don’t know how God could find me, but the little glimmer of light that I see reminds me that the Holy One never left me in my exile.  He was there with me; even in the darkest of places.  I turn to the light, and holy hands hold my hands until I am rescued from exile.

Praise be to God that even in the worst of circumstances, we can still find a glimmer of hope; a flicker of Divine presence.  We must look around to see it, but I know it is there.  We must look under the darkest places in our souls to discover that nothing is obscure to the One who gave us life.  Once we find that small light, let us follow it to the brilliance of joy everlasting.

A New Covenant

Devastation and heartbreak surrounded Jerusalem. Disaster followed the Hebrew people. God officially claimed that due to the constant disobedience of the favored nation, the covenant broke. And for the first time in the nation’s history, Divine favor did not exist. No one saved the children of Israel; they submitted to the Babylonians and became exiles in a foreign land. Such proved the plight of the chosen seed of God.

I know what it feels like to be abandoned by God.  I look at some of the many struggles in my life and can’t help but wonder, “I should have made a better choice.”  My actions led to God’s overwhelming silence.  Equipped with sorrow, I push God away.  I say, “Forget about a new covenant, I want a new soul.”  I yearn for a way to start all over again while maintaining the lessons I learned.  I cry out, “I want a do-over, God!”

But wait, through the most horrific part of the story, the Holy-One prepares for another covenant, a new way. God did more than speak through a prophet, the Divine burned within the people an opportunity to follow the road of light. Humanity’s innermost part of their spiritual DNA points to a compass leading to God.

Praise be to the One, who gives us the strength to face the struggles of each day. Every morning we can follow our minds and souls to the very throne of God. Let us serve the world, equipped with heavenly guidance. Make this day count by staying on the path of Divine holiness.

Count Your Blessings

Today is my birthday.  Each year, I give thanks for one more moment, one more second here on this planet.  So, by all accounts, I consider myself a blessed man.  Today I am thankful for:

  1. My wife who continues to love me with a fierce loyalty that knows no ending or beginning.
  2. My sons who are grateful that I happen to be their father.
  3. A career that is filled with many affirmations and challenges.
  4. A life path that is definitely not what I would expect, but for which I am grateful.
  5. People that I call friends that actually know me and love me in spite of myself.
  6. A chance to work hard with a goal of achieving a hard earned Doctorate.  I set the educational standard for my family.
  7. Incredible opportunities to share my passion for making music.
  8. The gift of having amazing teachers in my life who illuminate my spirit with wisdom.
  9. Hope that continues to motivate me to be the best that I can be.
  10. Strength for overcoming every obstacle that stands in my path.  Here’s to being made whole.

We never know how many years are given to us while we live on this planet.  Every blessed day is a chance to make things right; to reach beyond our own understanding.  Time is the gift of heaven.  Life is passionate, and pain is temporary.  We honor each other by the amount of time that we give to one another.

I am grateful for the community around me.  It is with these beautiful people that I understand what it is like to be the person that I am created to be.  Praise be to God for you, for friends, for community.  It is within the recesses of our deepest souls that Christ dwells within us, giving us strength for the journey that lies ahead. Let us travel together, seeking power from the One who strengthens us.

 

Advent and I

As the congregation of my church stood singing carols and decorating the Chrismon tree, I couldn’t help but give thanks for the customs that are part of my United Methodist heritage.  I learned my earliest religious instruction in a tradition that did not observe the church seasons, so I grew up without knowing anything about Advent and Lent.  They were words that I heard for “other” Christians.

When I broke ties with the Southern Baptist church and embraced the United Methodist faith, the one thing that captured my religious imagination was the adherence to the church year.  I celebrated different festivals throughout the different seasons and felt like a new religious language came into being.  My faith experience grew richer and more profound.  The Christmas and Easter seasons became much holier and deeper in joy and meaning as I experienced the awkwardness of Advent and Lent.  What could I add to my life, or give up, that would help me be still and sense the presence of the Lord?

This year, I have asked my congregation to spend this season of Advent in prayer.  I challenge my religious community to be still and let the Spirit of God move within their hearts.  May everyone experience holy transformation. Pray without ceasing, focusing in on the goodness of God.  This call to the Light is our task during the sacredness of the season of preparation.  Be still and know the presence of the One, who delivered you.

And strangely, when I am silent, I do give thanks for my earliest of religious teachers.  Yes, the Southern Baptists.  I give thanks to the mighty men and women of God, who supported me through my very formative years, planting the seed in my heart that God loves even me, a broken and lost child.  God makes it possible so that I can live a life that is meant to be a blessing to others.

My prayer for everyone this Advent season is to embrace light in the middle of darkness. May we all find hope in the midst of despair, and may we celebrate the love and knowledge that our God delivers us from hopelessness.  Praise be to our amazing Giver of Light.  Let us embrace the reality that we are God’s children, and may we live like sons and daughters of the Highest King.

The Best Necklace in the Whole World

I was eleven years old, and my mission in life was to by my mother the best birthday gift possible.  Her birthday was coming up, and I was desperate.  My grandparents took me to a shopping mall in Houston, and I was determined that I would not leave empty handed.  There had to be something in one of the many stores.  I had a whopping $15 in my pocket, and I was ready to do a little retail damage.

As we went into one of the many stores that night, there was something that caught my eye.  I saw a bracelet that shined like I had never seen anything shine in my life.  I walked over to look at this incredible work of art.  Surely it was way too far out of my league.  I was shocked to learn that it only cost $12.  At eleven years old, I wasn’t aware that rhinestones were not the same as diamonds.  The necklace was simply a beautiful piece of jewelry and that it was just what I wanted to give to my mother.

I eagerly asked the salesman to wrap up my trinket and was excited that my mom would wear it soon.  A feeling of pride swept over me as I paid for the rhinestone necklace.  This gift was my idea.  My mom would wear the best jewelry that the store had to offer (or so I thought).

When it came time to open the box, my mother immediately placed the jewelry around her neck and proclaimed it to be the most beautiful gift that she had ever received.  I thought she looked like a queen.  It was even better than I expected.  I was very happy with myself, for I gave my mother the best necklace in the whole world!

As the years went by my mom would talk about her special present and smile.  I was a little embarrassed as I reflected on my younger self. I know that as an adult, my childhood self did not know the difference between fake jewelry and the real thing.  All I knew is that my mom deserved the best that I could give.

Five years ago, almost to the day, my mother died.  I still think of her and miss her.  I am thankful for the friendship that we forged in my adult years.  Not long after she died my sister and I began the arduous task of sorting through her things.  I stumbled upon a jewelry box and opened the top.  In the box was a beautiful diamond and right next to the amazing stone was a little bag.  I unfastened the top of the bag and to my amazement, the little rhinestone necklace that I bought so many years ago fell onto the table.

I immediately teared up as I remembered that brave little boy, eager to give the best that he had so that his mother would smile.  All of the sudden the costume jewelry increased in value and surpassed that big old diamond.  My necklace contained all of the love that an eleven-year-old heart could muster.  Nothing is more priceless than the intention of the heart.

Today I am grateful as I remember my mother this week, and the legacy that she gave to me.  I honor her memory every day of my life, as I hope to be the best husband, father, brother, friend, pastor, and the person that I can be.  I believe that she is with me each and every day and that her memory continues in love shared with those in need of hope and renewal.  Praise God for Ruby Jensen, and her spirit of compassion and joy.

 

A Moment of Truth

When I stand at the altar to prepare for Communion, there is an innate sense of responsibility that flows through me. I think long and hard about every word that comes out my mouth, as I consecrate the elements, inviting the Holy Spirit to speak into the lives of the congregation.  Each member is asking, pleading, requesting God to speak into their lives.

Everyone in the room comes seeking to be made whole, to take a break from a life filled with chaos.  And so, with all of these things in mind, they come to the table.  And there standing beside the table is me; waiting, hoping, praying for everyone that I see. Each person coming with their language, their way of expressing the deep needs of hearts yearning for wholeness.

As I watch the feast at the banquet, I hope everyone stops long enough to realize the moment of truth that Christ Himself calls to each of them to find that for which they are looking.  May the music of redemption fill their ears as heavenly bells ring out that everyone is loved and desired by our amazing God.  The reality of Holy love is the hope of our faith; it is the headwaters of that which we believe.

Heavenly truth reveals to us that we are never alone, that God’s presence is with us always.  We continue to struggle in a world that challenge us with each new day, the foundation of hope is always the underlying part of the victory that we share in Christ.  Love never leaves us.  Love never shames us.  Love is simply and continuously present.  We only turn and embrace the amazing gift of grace.

Today, I am grateful for the gift of God’s grace as revealed in the invitation to a banquet like none other.  I stand there and participate in the meal, confronting the truth that I am a beloved child of the Most-High God.  This reality is at times incomprehensible and overwhelming.  Such grace is offered to someone like me.  How amazing!

Ah! The Joy of Being Human!

I must admit that I have a fear of being found out.  I try everything I can to hide my weaknesses, and many times I am very successful.  I can do this as along as I do not have to get close to anyone.  I can preserve an appearance of being completely the person that everyone wants me to be.  I can smile, acknowledge that I am great, and keep moving forward.

The reality is that I do struggle and wish I had a better skill set in some areas than I do.  For me, this is a major source of anxiety, the notion of being discovered.  So to combat my feelings, I have learned to wear a mask.  It always has a smiley face on it and gives the generic answer that everyone wants to hear from me.  The thing is, the longer I wear the mask, the further I run from getting close to people.

I have just begun my fifth year as pastor of Rio Rancho  United Methodist Church.  Anyone that has been in one place for a while knows that there comes a time when the mask must fall away, and you must reveal you’re real self.  That includes the strengths and the weaknesses.  It is not an easy thing to do.  It takes guts and absolute faith in God’s mercy.

We are all faced with the issue of sharing ourselves with each other.  Taking a step in building trust is the only way that relationships can develop into something much greater than we ever could imagine.  It is also the diving off point for intimacy.  The reliance on faith is the uncomfortable part of being in a place for a long time.  We grow together, relying on God’s incredible strength to mold us into the people for which the church can become.

True wholeness must include vulnerability, acknowledging that there are parts of us that need developing.  If we can do the work together, we can become stronger.  We can live bolder, and we can be richer in wisdom.  Praise be to God, who calls us to live not just as surface level neighbors, but to join in the richness of relationship.

The Power of a Candle

I will not deny that I am a person who has a reputation for being outgoing and very boisterous.  I draw strength from being in the presence of others.  If you have ever talked to me for two minutes, it is quite evident that I am not a shy person.  I enjoy great conversation had over a great meal with a glass of “iced tea.”

While this is true, I must admit that I find my greatest sources of strength from spiritual practices that are quieter and reflective.  In many ways, it is like a candle that is present in a room.  The flame never makes a sound, but fills the room with light.  Its power is not found in a theatrical production, making its presence known.  It is discovered in a holy stillness, illuminating the room without making one peep.

While I am grateful that God created me to be an outgoing person, I hope that I may continue to learn the lessons that one can glean from a candle.  My testimony does not have to be made known with loud, obnoxious sounds, but simply by being present.  My service should speak louder than words.  After all, this is the very foundation of the ministry of Jesus.  His actions spoke bolder and stronger than anything he said.

My hope is that we may light the candles by being the people of God.  Jesus illumines our path.  We are not required to tell people about the love of the Holy One.  We are meant to show by example.  How we treat others is our testimony.  We have the light within us so that it may shine for others to see the way to the Father.  Praise be to God that we might be the vehicle by which the world will know of the tremendous blessings given freely to us.

Truth in the Nuance

I am a pastor in the United Methodist tradition.  It is no secret that our church is going through a very rough time.  The issue of sexuality, and how we as a church express our faith is a topic that threatens to divide us.  I know that we draw battle lines and seek to defend our personal thoughts and feelings regarding this and many other issues.  I pray for the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with clarity and wisdom as we seek how to move forward as a truly “United” faith.

This past week I preached on the story of Mary and Martha.  My hope was to go past the traditional interpretation of the text, and hopefully, gain new and fresh insights from the story.  While not addressing the issue of sexuality in a very open and explicit way, I saw a key ingredient within the scripture that might lead to a possible way forward in how we are to care and love one another.  This crucial understanding of love is the key element of our faith.

This time, as I read the story, I couldn’t help but pay attention as to where Mary sat.  Her positioning was significant to the underlying truth in the story.  Mary was in a place reserved for men.  Most women in first century Palestine did not sit at the feet of the Rabbi.  Such a place belonged to men.  For Jesus to allow such obvious disregard for the cultural norm of the day suggests a new and unique approach to teaching and being called a disciple.  Could this not be a subtle way of demonstrating that the “Kingdom at Hand” is new and different?  The most marginalized of the society could now be called “disciples.” It became possible for all of us to sit at the feet of the Messiah.  Could we look at this lesson as a way forward in how we treat our GLBTQ brothers and sisters?

My hope and prayer for the church are that we may not shun others from sitting at the feet of Jesus.  We must embrace all of our brothers and sisters in the faith.  To banish them, or send them into exile is to operate contrary to my understanding of how Jesus intended us to live.  We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ.  That includes every one of God’s children.

Yes, we can quote scripture and use the holy text to prove our point.  I want to dive under the surface level and go below the water to discover riches unknown.  Perhaps in a thick and rich search, we may come to love and understand that the Bible not be used as something that proves our point, but that the sacred writing may grab us in holy love and transform us into disciples.  That is my story, and I am sticking to it!

Beaten and Broken (Sometimes)

There are times that I feel a little beaten up.  My struggles may come in the form of unkind words, or actions meant to harm me.  There are moments that I want to rise up and defend myself.  I want to shout, “How inconsiderate of you to say that to me!”  There are other times that I want to say, “Stop what you are doing.  It is painful and completely unnecessary.”

The truth is, we all feel a little broken at times.  None of us are exempt from the reality that sometimes people are unkind.  They wage war against us with words that cut like knives, or actions that shake us to our very core.  We leave the scene with emotional cuts and bruises.  We may be Christians, but our hearts can still break.

In times of pain and suffering, God honors my sadness, but also wants me to move past my woundedness.  We are not meant to live in a constant state of bitterness, but we are to live in the promise of new found life. Christ is where our hope lies.  God’s power revealed to us in ways that only holy love can speak.

Today I am grateful for friends that lead me back to the source of my faith.  Praise be to God that people are in our lives who share the gift of the Father’s unfailing love.  Through the kindness of others, we are transformed to bring the presence of love itself into a world that needs to know that holy grace flows back to us, even in times of trial.

 

christopherjoiner

Some Thoughts Along the Way

Cazandra Campos-MacDonald

We take our journey with love and hope.

Perseverance Runner

Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

strugglewell

That marriages in crisis will find Biblical solutions and reconciliation

jefflust

Reflections on leadership and what it means to be the church God intends for the 21st century.