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!

What We Learn on the Journey

Today I am reminded that January will bring about my final semester regarding classwork in the Doctorate of Ministry.  My next step will be implementing and reporting on my final project. My first assignment will be an analysis of several books, with some course work due before the first day of the semester.  While I always feel overwhelmed, I am giving thanks for the program offered at Austin Seminary.  The academic expectations are very high, and for that, I am truly grateful.

With the acknowledgment of the end in sight, I can’t help but recall the years of struggle that I had making it through my undergraduate program.  My head and heart were not in school.  All I knew is that I wanted to sing.  Nothing else mattered.  Making good grades was not a part of my interest in my early twenties.  It would take many years before I appreciated the discipline of academic achievement.

Seminary gave me a perspective that changed my complete outlook on life.  At Iliff, I recaptured my love of history and writing.  I discovered the depth of my appreciation for theological studies, particularly concerning how others expressed their understanding of God and our place in the universe.  I also reclaimed my joy for academic research.  School to me became a blessing, a way of reaching beyond myself and not being afraid to live within a world of unknowables.  One of the most important lessons that I learned was that God, and how humanity expresses the divine presence, is larger than anything I can ever fathom.  The Holy Mystery is vast and amazing.

Our journey takes us to many places that we would never expect to go.  If someone had told me at twenty-five that I would be pastoring a church before I finished my forties, I would have told them they were insane.  Those that knew me back then probably are still questioning the discernment of a congregation to have me as their pastor now.  What no one on either side of the spectrum realizes is that I have walked a road that is distinct to me.  God illumined my path and blessed me for ministry.  For that, I am truly grateful.

It has been a very long journey.  One that is filled with disappointments as well as blessings.  I would never have enjoyed my experiences if I had never chosen to go down the path, one step at a time and one lesson at a time.  Praise be to God for His holy patience and understanding.  This is my story, and I am sticking to it!

 

A Time to Remember the Incredible!

Last week I attended a retreat at Sacramento Methodist Assembly.  The camp is located north of Cloudcroft, NM on top of a mountain.  It is truly in the middle of nowhere.  At night the stars seem to be so close that you could reach up into the air and grab a handful.  I have yet to go up the “Holy Hill” and not be mesmerized by the beauty of the land.

On the last night of the retreat, several of my friends and I did something that I had been longing to do since the first time I attended the camp ten years ago.  At about 10 p.m., we hiked away from the lights and sounds of the camp to a place called Serenity Peak.  We took with us luminarias hoping to capture some incredible pictures while we were in our sacred space.  Our journey was not very far, but long enough to transport us into the darkness of the mountain.

As we journeyed on, I started to fear the possibilities of encountering animals, losing my way, or not being able to see my path clearly.  My anxiety started kicking in, and I thought of possibly turning back.  Camp was secure.  I knew where I was going and could go back to my room, safe and secure.  This was too much of an adventure for me.

Gradually, my worries subsided as we arrived at Serenity Peak.  The stars, while brilliant at camp, held a beauty that I could never adequately describe.  While standing in the darkness and gazing upon the majesty of God’s beauty, I could not help but think of the writing of the Psalmist’s declaration, “When I look up at your skies, at what your fingers made – the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place – what are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them?” (Ps. 8:3-4 CEB).

I realized that there is beauty in the night.  Something that is set apart from the day, which has its own majesty.  God’s wonder is both for the day and the night, neither being better, just different.  I remember that I must take the time to be aware of the sacredness of the evening, and not only rely on all that is in the light of day.  The holiness of the night allows us to remember to stop and look and enjoy a new way of thinking of things, a new way of being in our world.

And as for the retreat, I took an extra few moments to etch into my mind the incredible picture that will help me through times during the day when life gets very busy.  I can reflect on my journey through the night and all of the lessons that I learned, and be grateful.  Praise be to God for the greater light to rule the day, but also the lesser light to rule the night.  Each one, offering a different response to those we love and to our God.

Today, I am very grateful for getting to spend time with my clergy friends, who are amazing people who strive to make a difference in this world.  I thank God for laughter, for intentional retreat, and for opportunities to share sacred spaces.  We have all been called to embrace our world, filled with the light that guides us.  May we remember our stars, our moments of a holy embrace, and as we give thanks may we continue to be made whole.

Freeing Yourself from Shame

Shame is more than a five-letter word.  It can hold you hostage and keep you wholly locked within a prison of your making.  For me, I carry shame for things that were not even my fault.  The wounds pierce my soul with pinpoint accuracy, creating systems of thought that leave a long-lasting effect in my life.  Shame is the most destabilizing of any ammunition utilized.

To the naked eye, shame is invisible, secretly doing its best work in secret.  I didn’t choose one path in life because I was too frightened about what may or may not happen.  I keep hearing the nagging words, “If only I would have….”  The underlying decision at every turn is the shame that continues to carry on in my life.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I love my life.  I am blessed beyond all measure and have excellent resources at my disposal to reclaim parts of my heart that were damaged.  My story is not one of victimization, but of light, healing, and forgiveness.  I continue to look for those places that are still entrapped and rob me of the joy in which I am meant to live.

Surrendering to God means giving up the shame as well.  We cannot hold on to the secret things that hold us back from experiencing the plans that are laid out before us.  Giving up all of our stuff is not easy because it forces us to be vulnerable.  Suddenly, we no longer have control.  God is the one who guides us.

Today I am thankful for my journey.  I am grateful that I have amazing people who walk beside me on my journey, always reflecting the love of Christ, which flows through me, around me, and over me.  I pray that I may be the one who helps others come out of the shadows of shame and into the light of God.  Praise be to our Amazing Creator.

He Remembers!

LasIMG_0245t week was a little too crazy in my life, and so I did not post.  My oldest son moved into his dorm last Tuesday.  I am excited for him and look forward to all that he will accomplish while being a student at the Santa Fe School of Art and Design.  His first week has been filled with anxiety and then joy, as he discovers his capacity to make it on his own.

As my wife and I were helping him unpack, Julian shook a box full of coins in my face.  I asked, “What is that?”  He responded, “Dad, it is the box that Granny gave me.”  That was all that I needed to hear, as I kept my composure long enough to get out of the room.  My son kept a beat up old dilapidated box that my mom gave to him for no reason, filled with pennies.  On the inside of the box was my mother’s handwriting with these words, “Julian, every time I thought of you today, I put a penny in the box.”

Of all of the things that he took with him to his dorm, one of them had to be this box.  It serves as a reminder to him that he was loved before he ever knew his name.  People, angels, and other heavenly beings encircle him to remind of this truth, that he is a child of the Most-High God.  Loved beyond anything he can ever imagine.  All of these important reminders found in a cardboard box.

Julian’s gift reminds me to find an answer to the question, “What am I leaving so that the world may know the incredible love that the Father has for us?”  The answers are not taken lightly.  They build others up, giving purpose to those who need to hear words of comfort and hope.  Store your pennies well!

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.

Remember To Come Home

In just a few short weeks our family will experience a drastic change. My eldest son will be going off to college and leaving the nest.  While he will only be a 45-minute car ride away, it could be thousands of miles for all we care.  Our home will change and be different. We will miss his presence.  Prayers are the only thing that we can offer him as he begins this part of his journey.

So, with his leaving nearing its time, I am trying to think of any last words that I need to impart to my twenty-year-old son.  What can I tell him that he needs to know?  Will he be equipped to live in the big bad world?  Many of you know what I am talking about because you have had the same doubts, worries, and struggles for your children.

I took him to his favorite restaurant today, the Burrito Express.  We were eating the best Tex-Mex food in the state of New Mexico, when I looked at him and said, “You know that if times get tough, you can always call me, and I will come to you, or you come to me.  You know that, right?”  He replied, “Of course dad.  I know you are there.”  I stopped the conversation for fear that I would make a fool of myself in the middle of the diner.

It is crucial that we know that there is a place to which we can return, somewhere that we can be our real selves.  When I kept repeating myself to my son, I realized the same is true for all of us.  We need to know that our Heavenly Father sends us clues throughout the day to remind us that we are loved and fully embraced when we return home. We find our hope in the realization of the divine presence of the Almighty, the faith that God will carry us, and hold us in His arms.

Praise be to God, for all of the gifts lavishly given to us.  I pray that my son will always remember that he can come home, especially when the world gets rough and uninviting.  This is my prayer for my amazingly talented young man.  I wish him blessings of peace and a life that knows abundant joy!

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!

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