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.

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!

A Chance to Give Thanks

Recently I traveled to Carlsbad, California and had dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  All I had on my mind was the promise of excellent seafood.  Living in a landlocked state does not afford me many opportunities to enjoy fresh shrimp and oysters. As my friends and I held a glass of wine up in the air to toast a gorgeous California day, we watched as the sun set over the horizon.  I thought to myself; this is a work of art, a true masterpiece of heavenly proportions.  Thank you, dear God, for allowing me to witness this incredible display of beauty.

And so, with the setting of the sun we are called to remember the business of the day.  We give thanks that difficult moments and situations come to an end, and we also rejoice in our accomplishments.  All, fruitful and challenging, falling under the care of God.  The night comes to offer us solitude, and a chance to rejuvenate our souls for the day that lays ahead.  A little Sabbath in which we open ourselves up to new hopes and new dreams.

We need the night as much as we need the day.  There must be times that we can rest and focus our attention on the things that motivate us, our reason for being.  Sacred times allow us to reconnect with the most intimate parts of who we are.  We feed our souls, the places that are starving to come to light.

The truth is, we cannot be complete beings without both the night and the day.  Each one reminds us that we all have different gifts that we must cultivate in our unique ways.  Our attention to divine healing and wholeness encourages us to give proper attention during the correct time of the day.  Our spiritual nourishment should never appear forced but patiently develop and grown at the right time, in the right seasons of our lives.

Today, I give thanks for our Amazing Creator, who gives us every opportunity to enrich every part of our souls.  God offers us the chance to be made new, each and every day. Praise be to God for this amazing gift of resurrection.  We die to self, only to rise again with the hope of what is to come.  Thank you for both the night and the day, for even, You said, “It was good!”

 

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.

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.

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.

 

Divide Us, Smide Us!

I am at my first General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I can only say that within 10 minutes of the first general assembly, I was frustrated and very disappointed. I left the room wondering, “What in the world is in store for the future of my church?” Not only can we not get along, but one side is bullying the other side and attempting to stifle any conversation regarding our differences. “God,” I reasoned, “please speak through your people, in spite of your people.”

I am reminded that we all have different versions or sides to a story. Each of us interprets each act of love and hate in our own way. Our language is not the same. To make the assumption that we all speak of God, in the same way, is to grossly misjudge our sense of individuality and personal sacred worth. We should never assume that we have a monopoly on the truth. We are not God, nor are we appointed to serve as judge and jury regarding other people’s perceptions. Our task is to love God and love others.

Perhaps this conference reminds me that I serve an incredible congregation of believers. My prayer is that we will continue to grow in our tiny part of the world, and not allow those who are governed by politics and hatred to spread their doctrines into the doors of our church. May they take their “stuff” elsewhere. As for us, we will hold fast to the truth that we are all loved by our amazing Creator.

The reality is that we are a loving congregation. We rejoice in the miraculous events that happen in the life of our community, and we mourn with one another when unimaginable events knock us to our knees. Though we are different, we are united in our love and passion for God and God’s people. Praise be to the One, who fashions us in His image and creates in us a new heart and a new spirit.

An Unexpected Mark of Greatness!

On Monday of this week, I had the honor of presiding at the memorial service of one of my great aunts.  It was amazing to stand and look out at the members of the congregation that were made up of cousins that I had not seen in many years, along with family members whom I had never met.  All of us were there to honor an amazing woman, and one who lived through hurt and tragedy.  She did not let her very humble beginnings define her.  Instead, she rose up and had an amazing life.  Blessings to you Great Aunt Jessie.  May you feast to your heart’s desire with family who have gone on before you.  May you smile in their presence, and may God’s light perpetually shine on you, providing you warmth for eternity.

After the service, I visited with people with whom I share a DNA connection.  I looked for patterns of behavior, likes, dislikes, even ways to speak.  I searched for anything to affirm my connection with this group of people.  I shared stories, they shared stories.  We laughed, sometimes shocked, but always grateful to be in one another’s presence.  The power of my great aunt’s life was alive in this very room.  A family can rise above anything and find a connection that is unique and compelling.  The discovery of kindred spirits gave way to a lifetime of possibilities, hopes for new friends and new connections.

Today I am grateful for my extended family.  Thank you for giving me a little clearer definition of my own self.  These amazing people, complete with their own life stories, affirm my own journey.  There is nothing quite like being accepted for who you are by people who share the same blood.  There is a sense of home, of complete and total affirmation.  Praise be to God, when we can catch of glimpse of ourselves in a new and unique space.

Today, I sit in my office, absolutely tired.  I notice I sit with a little more pride, a little more strength.  I give thanks for the path on which I travel.  There are a few more people who eagerly great me with a smile and help me move forward.  I am honored to walk my path with new names and faces alongside me.  My hope is that we all find companions for the journey.

It’s Easy to Get Stuck

I am grateful for my time in Austin.  While attending Austin Presbyterian Seminary, I was able to walk the campus of the University of Texas.  Ah yes, that beautiful campus with the tower.  As I walked down the stairs of the main building, I was taken back to my eighteen-year-old self who was enrolled as a freshman.  I thought of the many mistakes that I made that would drastically alter the course of my life.  Some of my choices left long lasting marks of shame and regret.  I kept asking myself the age old question, “What happened to that kid?  Why those choices?”

What a frustrating place in which I found myself.  No matter what resolution I could find, it would not replace the opportunities that no longer existed.  And then that horrid feeling of being stuck in my inability to fully resolve the issue kicked in.  What a mess.  I knew that in order to move forward I would have to let go of my insane thinking.  You know, the kind of thinking that allows you, in all of your folly to think that you are capable of changing the past.

All of these thoughts seemed to illuminate from my soul as I looked at the past with eyes in the present.  I began to talk to that 18-year-old boy.  I gave him permission to be himself, that he was more than the scars of his childhood.  I assured him that he would move past the effects of the battle wounds that he inherited, and that he would thrive past his wildest dreams.  He was, and his more than the sum of his failures.

So, after dipping my foot into the healing waters of forgiveness, I turned and headed back to the seminary.  It was time to leave the past behind, and continue forward.  I gave thanks for being able to shine a light on the realization that, while I falter, there is always the promise of a new day.  If my heart learned anything, it was a sense of forgiveness of myself, along with the need to keep moving in a direction that guides me to the eternal light of God.

Praise be to our wonderful Creator, who never allows us to remain in the past.  And blessed are we, as we remember that we are all created in the image of God.  That includes who we were, what we are, and what we will be.  May we carry that promise into a future filled with the riches of our amazing Savior.

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