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.
“Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near” (Isa. 55:6 NRSV).
The Shakespearean Tragedy “Hamlet” is an incredible search for personal acceptance and an incredible search into the human spirit to discover the inherent principles of human purpose. I believe that the Bible leads us through the same questions however; the answers to the ultimate questions lead us to God. It is in God that we find purpose and meaning. Our reason for existing is to find our way to that place within our spirit where we connect to God. God is within us, but we must find the sacred.
A question that arises out of the Isaiah text is the notion that there is a limited amount of time that God is near. How long do we have? Is there only a limited amount of time in our lives that God’s presence will be available? Perhaps the challenge is to seek God during our time on this earth. The Divine may be found as long as we live. It is with this seeking to find God that makes life exciting. Our need to connect with the Divine invites urgency to life. We are energized to find the Holy Spirit within us.
It has been my experience that when we connect with God there is a sense of finding peace. Hope is finding a Divine spark in the middle of a crisis. This is where God dwells; in the center of our struggles. We find serenity and grab hold of that sacred space. The challenge is to know how to find our way back. We must remain in touch with how to revisit that Divine source that is deep within us. We rekindle our soul by remaining close to that “Spring of Living Water” that flows through us.
The reality of life is that God will sometimes feel distant. We yearn for the time that God’s presence is vibrant and very obvious in our lives. We delight in a sense of peace and joy that guides us and inspires us. Isaiah reminds us to search immediately so that we may experience the incredible reality of God. Let us set aside time for the one who created us. We may find Him in the middle of our very existence and be transformed by His awesome presence.
I am reading a book that accents the power of our own testimonies and how sharing the love of God through our own stories dates back to New Testament tradition. There is incredible power in sharing how we came to realize that God is a necessary and life giving part of our very foundation. We reveal how we have been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I have been taken back to my own story of redemption and how the incredible realization of God’s love set me on a course that radically altered my life. I remember being led into the waters of baptism and rising again with a feeling of being set apart. I was chosen as one who would follow Christ. I was fourteen years old when I was baptized and I will never forget the clarity of purpose and peace that I felt as a teenager.
Unfortunately, I also heard a voice in my head that kept repeating itself saying, “What you have done is so bad that God will never forgive you for it.” That was the voice of an abusive past that proved successful in ruling my life for many years after my baptism. Here I was a child with a profound sense of freedom shadowed by another voice that was judgmental and horribly devastating at the same time. These conflicting messages of both redemption and condemnation spoke into my life for a very long time.
It would take many years before I could reclaim what God did for me in my baptism. It would also take many years before I could calm the voice that spoke harshly into my life. I am speaking about the false messages that seemed to expose me for an absolute fraud. Eventually God’s voice spoke over the chaos of the other voice and calmed the angry sea that seemed to find a home in my soul.
My testimony, as well as countless others, chronicles the journey that we take with God. It is a story of hopelessness which gave way to hope. Our tales are stories of love even when we felt unlovable. We are a collection of the incredible tapestry of the wonder workings of God. While we are not perfect, we have that which is perfect within us. We stand and proclaim that we reflect a change that we could never have done for ourselves. It is only through the workings of our God that we are made new. Today I give thanks for my own story, or testimony. I hope you do to.
It is hard to believe that tomorrow is Palm Sunday. In one short week we will journey into the darkest places of our faith only to celebrate the greatest joy the following Sunday. This Lenten season has been about our walk with God. Our focus centered around the fact that God is present with us even if we stray as far as we can possibly go. No matter how far we wander, God is there. We hold true to this hope. We celebrated our encounters with God through the act of Communion throughout the season.
Palm Sunday reminds us that we stand on the edge of a cliff much like the early Hebrews did. Remember the story? The young Israelite nation looked over the incredible land that God had promised to them with wander and amazing joy. There was one problem. In order to claim the land the Israelites had to walk through difficulties and trials to get into the great promise that awaited them. In the end the Hebrew nation received their reward.
Christ did the same thing. Beginning with the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus knew the prize that awaited him. He knew that God would have ultimate glory in the resurrection story. The only thing was that Jesus had to endure the trial, flogging, and utlimate horrible death on a cross. The reward was in plain sight, but the journey to the prize was difficult and painful.
In all honesty, we stand at the edge of cliffs many times in our lives. We catch a glimpse of the wonderful possibilities that await us, but sometimes never get there because we refuse to journey through the darker more difficult roads that lead us to our reward. The journey changes us and makes our hearts ready to openly receive the gift with much more gratitude than we had when we were simply looking over the edge of the cliff. Sometimes the path is not as dark as others. The truth remains, we still must journey through to get to the beauty that awaits us.
My hope for everyone is that we all realize that we must pick up our cross and walk the road that leads to our joy and hope. We understand and live in the knowledge that continues through the darkest times; that God is on this journey with us. There is no path too dark nor too deep that God’s presence is not an absolute reality. It is nice to stand on the edge of the journey and see the beauty of the promised land, but at some point we must sacrifice our view from the edge of the cliff to cross through the rough parts of the journey so that we can live in the land flowing with milk and honey.
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.
“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.
To the leader: with stringed instruments” (Hab. 3:17-19).
There are times in life where everything appears to be going wrong. It seems that each way we turn we discover yet another obstacle. Feelings of being overwhelmed and submerged in a sea of discontent overtake us and threaten our joy. We feel hopeless.
The prophet Habakkuk identifies what it was like to live in a world where joy did not appear to be present. Habakkuk’s world was about to experience a social and cultural revolution that would rock its very foundation. There was political unrest as the Southern Kingdom was about to be conquered by the Babylonians. Habakkuk prophesized this dangerous message of change, but yet there was still civil disobedience to the teachings of God. It was as if the Covenant was snapped and broken.
We know what life is like in a sea of unrest. Sometimes chaos reigns supreme and we look for anyway we can to find shelter as the storm rages all around us. Our faith is tested. We question the God of our understanding. “Why all of this at once? Why me? Why won’t my life just calm down for at least a few days?”
Habakkuk makes the claim that, although everything around him is destroyed and he has no support, he will continue to praise God. The prophet reminds us to hold on to your faith in the middle of a storm. The good news is that storms pass. Chaos gives way to peace. The most important thing is that the God who provides strength in the time of joy will also provide support in the struggles of life.
We are to remain consistent in our devotion to God. Whatever happens, our faith is to be unwavering. Our devotion is to continue through the most hurtful times of our pain. Even when we can’t see God’s work being manifested in the world around us that does not mean that faith is dead. On the contrary, God’s handiwork is still amazingly alive and vital.
Let us claim the truth of our faith of which the writer of Hebrews spoke. “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5). God’s faithfulness is steadfast and sure. Why should our faith in God be any different? Let us remain faithful and hopeful as we continue on our journey towards perfection.
This week I am reminded of my mission and calling. I am meant to be a servant to the world. I am called to share the Good News to a world in desperate need of God. That is my calling in a nutshell. What happens when the tables are turned and those who are called to serve become those who are served?
My youngest was chosen by the Make a Wish Foundation to receive a trip to Disneyworld. We were amazed at the kindness so wondrously shown to us. We did not earn it, nor did we seek it out. It just happened.
As we are preparing for the trip, several questions come to mind. Are we really qualified to take a trip such as this? Who are we to accept such extravagant generosity? Aren’t we supposed to offer the gift and not be the receivers of a gift?
When my wife was pregnant with my youngest son, the end of her pregnancy was very difficult. She was in the hospital for complete bed rest for the last few weeks of her pregnancy. While my wife was in the hospital a lady called me from the church that I was serving and simply asked me “How many meals would I need prepared per week?” I explained to her that I knew how to cook and that we would be fine. Her response caught me completely off-guard. She said, “So Joe. When I am standing before God, and the Almighty asks me if I ministered to people, my response will be no, because Joe would not let me?” I accused her of not playing fair and made arrangements for the ministry to serve my family. She was a tough cookie!
Most of our ministry is about serving, but we sometimes forget that it is also about relationships. There are times in any relationship that we must give richly and deeply from our hearts. There are also times that we must receive the gift. My family knows that our Disney gift is God breathed and God led. There is no other way around it. Do I then reject the gift that God gives through the ministries of my fellow brothers and sisters in the faith? I think not.
Today, we prepare to leave. As we embark on our great adventure, we will always give thanks for what God allows us to share with each other. Whatever role we are in, caretaker or caregiver, we will lift up the name of Christ. It is through God that we truly experience life. In the end it is not about the gift, but about sharing the Spirit.
Today is the last day of Vacation Bible School at my church. While I am exhausted I am very thankful for the endless possibilities that are available during this unique ministry of the global church. We are not only sharing the Gospel with little ones in the community, but we are also sharing the story with each other. The amazing part about this whole ministry is that we all receive and are made aware of the all-encompassing love of Christ.
For the past two years, we have had the joy of being led by the youth group at St. Paul’s UMC in Las Cruces. The group has come to us and stayed with us and loved our children well. For that there is no amount of gratitude that can ever be worth their ministry. They are a wonderful bunch of young men and women. Their commitment to Christian service is second to none.
Watching the youth take such an important part in the success of Vacation Bible School takes me back to the days that I was in a youth group in Houston. I always looked forward to Vacation Bible School, because I learned the basic components of my faith as a worship leader. I learned that everyone, no matter what age, brings some unique aspect about God to the table. This concept should be nurtured and encouraged to grow.
I also learned how to be a leader among Christ’s people. Leading others to the Good News is one of the greatest blessings in life. I learned how to share hope and purpose. I learned how to be adaptable as lessons did not always wind up as the book said they would. Just like Vacation Bible School, our lives are constantly evolving and changing. When this occurs keep focused on God.
It is my hope that the “Youth” from St. Paul’s will look back on their teen years and fondly remember sharing their faith with the children in Truth or Consequences. I hope that they may grow up and smile as they understand the lessons that they learned will serving in ministry. May they stay close to a church which is in desperate need of leaders who will remain faithful and committed to the workings of Jesus Christ.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2 NRSV).
I know that several of my last postings have been about being quiet and listening for the still small voice of God. Sometimes, when we are still, the voice is not so small. In fact, the voice can be overwhelming and incredibly loud. We are lead to journeys of which we could never imagine. Our entire being is caught up within the presence of the Almighty. We must act boldly.
I think that one of the most incredible times in my life, in which God spoke loudly, was when my family and I moved from Texas to New Mexico. We moved from Houston to Deming with about two weeks notice. We thank God for the assistance of family members who helped pack up the moving van and actually move into our home in Houston. Cazandra and I could not believe how the pieces of our move came together in a remarkable way. We knew this wind that blew into our lives so strongly was the breath of God urging us on in ministry.
We are called to step out in faith. Everyone is not meant to pack up and move away from home like me, but all of us are called to serve the One who created us. Let us listen for the voice that propels us into action and leads us forward. Let us make the choice to rise up and rock the boat. Remember, our actions are an outward sign of an inward commitment.
Today I am very thankful for listening to the One who gives me the strength to continue my journey. My life is still as busy in a town of 10,000 people as it was in a metropolis of over 4 million people. The difference is that I have an inner peace that I never had while teaching in Houston. I know that I am on the path to which I am called. May you answer the voice of God, whether it is small or crazy large, and be changed.
“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15-16 NRSV).
It is amazing to me how God continues to move in my life. I prepared my upcoming sermon early as I would be at Annual Conference this week. I thought that I had finished the task that needed to be done and was off to Glorietta, New Mexico without any worries. My focus was to be placed on my interview for ministry and doing the business of the connected church.
My family stayed back in Truth or Consequences. I do not travel well without the whole family being together. I am in a wonderful area of New Mexico, but it is not the same without my two stinky boys and my wife. Without their presence there is something missing. I have a sense of loneliness that is sometimes overwhelming.
Knowing that I really miss my time with my family, this short phrase that is mentioned above kept coming to my mind. I took some time to review my writing and double checked to make sure that I had a complete sermon ready to go. In a moment I realized that my own life reflected the message which was laid on my heart to preach this coming weekend. This is my love letter to my wife and children. My personal narrative of love and joy merged into Paul’s writing.
“I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” This passage is such a short and simple sentence with passion behind every word. It is the commitment of love. The connection that we share in my house is one that promises that I may not like what you do 100% of the time, but I will never stop giving thanks for you. This love is impossible to measure or fully explain. It is simply present.
It is my love for my family which I easily translate to my love and understanding of God. This radically transforming presence of the Divine is revealed in my life on a daily basis. This love that demands my entire participation regardless of how I feel or what my circumstances may be. This love is vital to my life and empowers me to continue to become something that I never imagined possible.
May you be filled with gratitude and never stop giving thanks for those who are closest to you. It is within the act of loving each other that our God is revealed in our lives. We take the love that we share with those who are closest to us and share that love as Christ did with our community. May the world see and know us by our love for it is in loving that we encounter the risen Christ.