A New Start: A New Beginning

Here we are in a new year.  Many of us set new goals, with new expectations in both our personal and professional lives.  Yes, we are given a chance to start over.  We are encouraged to change our way of thinking, our way of managing our lives, our way of approaching problems that have appeared to have no answer.  These are all the hopes and wishes in which we invest as we move forward into 2016.

The problem, however, is that we still bring our baggage along with us.  Many of us, I am pointing the finger back at myself, truly don’t live as if we have a new beginning.  A new start will include some failures, but will never give up until we achieve our goals.  What holds us back are the ways that we cling to the past.  We give up on our resolutions, only to fall back into the very familiar patterns of behavior that we promised to leave behind.  We fail to hold on to the assumption that our fresh start is indeed that, a fresh start.

I could really move from preaching to meddling with the following question: “How does this mirror your faith journey?”  I mean, we start off with incredible energy.  We proclaim to the world that we were not the people that we were before.  We keep this enthusiasm of new life, only to see it fade as we surrender to the pressures and demands of our places in the world.  We continue to drift away, until we wonder where and who we are.

Hear the Good News!  We are a people who have a chance to begin anew every waking day of our lives.  We do not need to wait for something like a new year to initiate change.  Each day for us is a gift, given by the one who encourages you to embrace your life with the passion with which you started the journey.  This is the promise that we are given with each passing moment.  Praise be to God, who gives us the strength to overcome our weaknesses.  May your “New Year” begin today, and may you know the blessings of God, beyond your wildest imaginations.

We Know What We Know

First of all, I have to say that I am a very grateful pastor as I have learned how loving and caring my congregation truly is.  We have been inundated by prayers, food, and words of hope and inspiration to carry us through what continues to be our longest hospital stay to date.  Caeleb will be in the hospital for a full month on Monday.  Within the month, we have been discharged twice only to return to the hospital the next day with complications from a knee bleed that will not stop.  Specialists can’t even stop the bleeding.  They try and try, but without much success.

I must admit that this journey has been very difficult for many different reasons.  It is hard seeing my son in pain and not be able to stop it.  We as parents are “supposed” to fix problems.  When we get to the point that we can’t relieve his pain there is a feeling of absolute powerlessness.  Faith becomes the only option by which to express hope.

I look at faith as part of my life intertwined into the very fabric of day to day living.  I have faith that medicines will work, or I have faith that a certain treatment is the one that will restore my son’s health, or I have faith that God will show up in the middle of all of the chaos and create beauty.  I must say, I cannot separate science from my expression of the Divine.  The merging of both worlds is a rich tapestry of both faith and reason that provides a holistic approach to who I am in my finite humanity and that part of me that is connected to Spirit. Together, that which is seen and unseen fills me with the love and knowledge of something that is light years bigger than who I am in this world.

I see God’s work being done by the love and care the nurses on our unit offer to my family.  Their efforts reinforce the holistic identity of who we are by engaging the spiritual aspect of care as they utilize scientific methodology to provide answers to medical issues.  It is an incredible and necessary dependence on various ways that we can validate the existence of both science and the Divine.  The truth is, sometimes we can’t measure what we know to be true.  It is simply profound and present.

So, today I give thanks for the marriage of science and faith and how they come together to make life complete.  I am grateful for the men and women who continue to make life better for my son and seek ways that not only provide him with medical wholeness, but also feed his spirit.  I give thanks for the many people who touch our lives with material and spiritual gifts.  Your service and your compassion are amazing!

And I say, “Thanks be to God.”

Preserve Our Memories Well

Recently I was visiting with a wonderful man who served in the military during World War II.  He told me some amazing stories of love, sadness and deliverance.  I finished my conversation with him expressing a feeling of gratitude for the memories that he clings to reminding him of his life and purpose.  He maintains a spirit of joy even at the ripe old age of 95 years old.

Even though I am not his age, I do understand a little something about memories.  I made a commitment this year to write everyday for a year.  At the end of the year I want to look at my writing and see if there are any themes that seem to pop up over and over again.  My goal is to find common ground with Scripture and my own story.  I want to answer the ultimate life question, “Where has God been present in your life?” 

It just so happens that I stumbled upon a small cassette tape that I recorded back in 1994.  I had turned 30 years old and wanted to give my mother a gift of memories.  I wanted to thank her for giving me a loving family and share with her the not so subtle of ways of teaching me life lessons on forgiveness and healing.  Some of the stories that I recorded where not easy memories; however, they were necessary reflections to my growth as a human being.

Listening to these stories 19 years later has brought me a new appreciation for my family and the path that I had to journey on to get to where I am now.  As I listened to my younger voice, I celebrated the lives of those who are no longer with me but were a very important part of shaping my life.  I listened to my own process of forgiveness and healing as told in my own words.  There was something incredibly liberating to hear a recounting of the many stories that gave me a sense of identity.  I appreciated the lessons that were handed to me as I struggled to find my own sense of worth.

I recently preached a sermon on God’s presence in the middle of darkness.  I told of God’s faithfulness and existence in the blackest of times.  This tape reminded me of a time that I came out of the fog and into the light of God.  As my World War II buddy said, “Memories are powerful and important.”

We hold tight to our past as a reminder of a time when God led us to be free of the pain that we carried.  Our faith keeps us safe and our memories serve to remind us of our journey.  The Israelites would never have gone back into slavery, but every year there is a celebration known as the Passover Seder to commemorate what God did in the lives of the faithful.  As he did for those in physical bondage, The Holy One of Israel led us out of bondage.  Theirs was a physical servitude while ours was a spiritual captivity.  There is not a year that goes by that we remember that from which we have been delivered, the one who delivered us (God), and the absolute joy we have as those who have been redeemed.  We preserve and celebrate our memories.  They have shaped us well.

Are Our Traditions Inclusive?

I once heard a pastor comment on how his congregation “speaks their own language.”  The key to becoming accepted into this body of believers is to understand and use the language of the congregation.  I started thinking about this bold claim and was a little indignant to say the least.  I began to question whether or not this man really understood the people in our church.  What was he talking about?  There was no secret handshake nor was their unspoken ways that we excluded those who would not follow us in our worship.
Well, I began to think a little bit more about what this pastor said and began to realize that he was not very far off the mark.  For instance, many of our congregations say the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) in our worship.  It has become a tradition that our congregation recites the prayer from memory and assumes that we will hear most of the voices around us saying the text as one body.
What about those who visit who have never been in worship?  This is their first time in a church in years.  Maybe there are those who have never set foot in a church.  How can they join in with us without being considered the “other?”  It is our task to include all to participate in worship.  If that is the case, we need to make sure that we have resources by which all people may fully participate.
How about the prayers of the congregation?  Once again, we are challenged to include the entire body of believers while continuing our established traditions that transcend the word community and develop our sense of family.  We come together to celebrate the risen Christ.  In what ways do we lift up our prayers in worship that seem to exclude new comers?
By suggesting that “first time visitors come back so that they may feel more at home” is a way in which the issue has been previously addressed.  Unfortunately, that does not work in our modern age.  Many times, we have one shot to develop a complete sense of inclusivity in our churches.  Is it possible to provide a platform by which everyone present on a Sunday morning, members and visitors alike, will be able to fully share in the good news of salvation?
I struggle as a pastor to provide the space in which all are welcome.  I utilize media and worship aides to assist everyone who worships with us, but I am still afraid that there are some portions of our worship experience that excludes people who have never participated in our particular church.  The main idea that I want people to take with them is that the Gospel of Christ is for all and not just for those who finally get the language and the unwritten rules of our congregation.  
I am not suggesting that we eradicate those moments in worship that remind us of who we are and what it means to be a part of a particular congregation.  I believe that tradition is very important in helping us to establish our identity.  Liturgy serves to allow us to feel a sense of belonging and a space by which we can call a particular place of worship our home.  I want to honor our history by providing others who visit us the opportunity to call my space their home.  The central message being that Christ came for all and not just those who pray and worship just like us.
As you attend your church this coming weekend be fully aware of times in your service that may appear exclusive to newcomers.  Sit next to someone who appears to be in worship with you for the first time.  As the service continues be that source by which they can be made more familiar with your church’s practices and customs.  Be the one who is that welcoming spirit that delivers the good news of salvation that all are welcome to the table of God.

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.

Our gifts to the world and our gifts to God

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 25:21 NRSV).

The religious scholars knew that they had Jesus right where they wanted him.  They asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matt 22:17 NRSV).  The answer appears to be a very easy answer to the question which the Pharisees asked.  It actually was not easy, it was brilliant.  Brilliant in the sense that Jesus responded in a way that revolutionized thought in the ancient day.  To answer either yes or no would create a sociological and political response that would have shifted the focus from Jesus the Savior of the World, to Jesus the Political Insurrectionist.  The answer to the carefully crafted question left everyone stunned and speechless.

According to those who govern our society, we are to give our taxes for the betterment of our society while according to Jesus we are to give God our hearts.  Now, I know there is just as much unrest in the political arena of today as there was in the time of Jesus.  The issues regarding these unsure and very frightening times are incredibly real and at times overwhelming.

What I am led to in Jesus’ answer is the part where I am to give God “the things that are God’s.”  That is easier said than done; for many times I cannot release the worries and concerns I have regarding the things belonging to the emperor.  We tend to focus primarily on worries like “How am I going to make it to the next pay check?” or “How am I going to find a job?” or “I was going to retire in the next few years, but I no longer have the financial resources.”

In other words, we worry so much about what we are to give to the emperor that we forget about our gifts to God.  Hear the good news (gospel).  We are the gift.  Our hearts are the most important offerings that we make.  Who else brings a living witness to others about the miraculous works of God?  We are the messengers of God’s gift of salvation.  It is our duty to share the Word; it is our gift to each other.

Jesus reminds us to give our leaders and world what we are required to give, but do not let that be our only focus.  Give God what God requires.  The Divine in return blesses the gift and the giver.  We are to pray without stopping, love each other with our whole beings and we are to praise God for all of the wonderful blessings that have come to us.

Let us love one another

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I am reminded of a story from my own life that changed me profoundly.  Long before the terrorist attacks I befriended a family.  They were, and still are, kind and understanding.  I enjoyed their company.  My thought is that most people would find joy in knowing my friends.  I can honestly say that my life is better because they were a part of my life.
One horrible day, my friends lost their three year old child in a very bizarre accident.  I have never seen a community grieve like they did for my friends.  On the day of the funeral, I was invited to pray over the body of their small son.  The men in the group began to shovel dirt into the hole which became a final resting place for the body of this wonderful little boy.  My friend assured me that the soul of their little one continues on and eagerly looks forward to a reunion in heaven.
As I spoke with my friends after the funeral, I asked the question, “How are you able to cope with this loss?”  They explained to me stories of their faith and how that faith sustains them through extremely difficult times such as these.  I stood back and felt the presence of God fill me as I gave praise to my Creator.  I wanted the kind of faith of which my friends spoke.  They had an incredible anchor in the time of storm.
My friends were, and still are, members of another faith tradition.  That day there was no talk of who was right and who was wrong.  There was simply the presence of the awesome Creator of us all.  My limited scope of my Christian faith grew that day, for I realized that our God is bigger than anything we can ever imagine.  Something within me felt enlightened in ways I had never before experienced.  I understood that day that I am not meant to judge another person.  I am simply called to love them.  In the middle of love and understanding God dwells within us.  The most important thing is not that we prove to each other who is right or who is wrong.  The main thing is that we love each other as Christ loved us.  Language will take care of itself.  It is the gift of love that will speak to our hearts more clearly and certainly more profoundly.
I use this story of my friends, because up until the point that I revealed to you their religious system, the story could have sounded like any one of our Christian stories.  I am not saying that we are to water down the Christian message of hope and surrender our fundamental beliefs.  I suggest quite the opposite.  We humble ourselves to accept that the Holy Spirit may manifest its Divine presence in any way God chooses to reveal God’s self.  The truth is I had to practice the gift of love to experience the joy of friendship or to grieve with my fellow brothers and sisters in the sorrow of loss.  God was present in my life when I surrendered my lack of compassion and simply loved as Christ loves me.  God’s love was with me, through me, and revealed in spite of me.
I am a Christian with a powerful awareness that I am not called to verbally chastise the world in absolute judgment, but I am here to transform the world with actions of love.  This love inspires me to continue in service to humanity.  As we come to the time of remembering those who lost lives or those who lost loved ones due to acts of terrorism, let us remember that we must move beyond our desire for revenge.  Our weapon and strength is the most powerful one we can muster.  It is the love and radical presence of our Almighty God.  As the Apostle Paul said, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Cor. 13:4-7).  Let us continue in our journey towards perfection.

When Someone Wrongs You

For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the LORD,
because they have called you an outcast: ‘It is Zion; no one cares for her!’
(NRSV Jer. 30:17)

I recently was doing some volunteer work at my son’s high school. Through a strange turn of events, I was told that I was no longer invited to volunteer my services at the school. I was told through an e-mail and without a meeting (which would have cleared up many of the details that surrounded this comedy of errors). In the process I discovered that someone who I thought was a friend was simply saving himself and did not help defend me. I was very shocked and deeply disappointed that I would not be able to provide opportunities that should be minimal standards of music education in the classroom.

As I came off the event fresh and hurting, I ran across this verse in Jeremiah. I am not at the point of forgiveness. I am not sure how long it will take, but I do know that this verse spoke into my wound. It reminds me that God will be there to refresh me and will comfort me.

My challenge is not to be mired down in anger. I can easily be taken away with the feeling that I was wronged. I mean, don’t I deserve the satisfaction of seeking revenge? While my human weakness screams out yes my heavenly sense reminds me that I need to pray for the situation and rediscover God’s grace alive in the world. That world includes my heart as well as those who hurt me.

I am not ready for that last part. It is my faith which gives me hope that I will move past the anger, into the healing of God, and eventually forgive those who wronged me. I give thanks today that this is a process by which only Divine intervention speaks to me in tenderness gently pushing me to the next level.

The "ands" and "ors"

“Let the moment go, but don’t forget it for a moment though. Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’ when your back to ‘or’ makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before. Now I understand and it’s time to leave the woods” (Lapine and Sondheim, Into the Woods).

This phrase is a favorite of mine for many reasons. First of all, it is from one of my very favorite shows Into the Woods. Second, it is the first show that I saw on Broadway. Third, I was very fortunate to see the production with Vanessa Williams as the Witch along with an extremely talented cast.

I come to the subject of regrets or roads not taken. I am very good at remembering what could have been and forgetting that my choices led me to this moment. I am speaking of the here and now. What about the road that I did choose? Isn’t that road just as special?

I think the things that I truly regret are those choices that I made out of fear and not out of a sense of honor to myself. I regret those times that I chose a path, not because it was the one I wanted, but the one I settled for due to shame or a lack of courage.

My life, in this moment, is about embracing those steps which led me to the path to which I have been called. I can honestly say that I live with no regrets, because I celebrate my choices. Now don’t misunderstand me. I have regrets in the past, but none in the present.

The most wonderful part of life is to embrace the “moments” in life for what they are. They are special. My time, even though it was three years, in seminary was a “moment” in my life. I knew that I had to move forward with a hope that the future would lead to more “moments.” I am grateful that I have chosen this particular journey in which I have a blessed life.

christopherjoiner

Some Thoughts Along the Way

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