I Look to You

“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy” (Ps. 63:5-7 NRSV).

I admit that while I like the cold, I love more sunlight during the day.  There is an excitement to the impending arrival of spring.  We think of rebirth and the hope of the newness that is to come.  I was sharing my feelings about the night time and how much I enjoy the day when someone in a group in which I was a member pointed out something that I missed right in front of my face.  My friend said to me, “Joe, remember that there is beauty in the night.  You must journey through the darkness to experience the gifts that are present.”

Our Lenten journey reminds us that we were a people who came out of darkness.  We looked at the stars to guide our hearts into the perfect light, the love of Christ.  We know what complete darkness feels like.  It is a place of fear and insecurity.  We, who have been transformed, know that our journey towards the brightness of God began with a tiny light to pierce the dark.  We can call the light a candle, a glow, a star or even a hope.  However the light may come when there is no light, we are never the same. 

This leads to the ultimate question that, since God is present in all things, is there really complete darkness?  Does our journey ever take us into a place where there is an absence of God?   The Psalmist states in Psalm 139 that, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps. 139:11-12).  We are never in complete darkness because God is present in all things.

I struggle with such a bold statement such as the one the Psalmist presents.  I have seen the harm that some people inflict on other people and I am afraid that I am led to more questions than answers.  If God is present in all things, then why is their suffering in this world?  I am encouraged to step even deeper into the heart and determine how in the world such atrocities exist if God is present in all things.

Unfortunately, humanity does not treat the environment (including ourselves and others) very well.  We see on the news everyday what groups of people inflict on other groups.  We don’t have very far to go to see the dehumanization of countless groups in our world beaten and left for dead.  Hunger takes its toll on innocent people.  Cancer and other diseases spread through the lives of those we love and we look at the text written by the psalmist and ask, “Are you kidding me?  Why would God allow this to happen in the lives of those around us?  Not only is our world dark, but it appears that God is not present in the blackness.”

I believe that the claim that is made in Psalm 139 concerning God’s presence is indeed true.  God truly is in all things.  Our responsibility is to share in the divine love and nurture it.  Our darkness is made light when we surrender to the love of the Great Creator.  In our perception of the darkness the Holy One calls us to focus on Him.  As we do, we come to realize that this overwhelming God transforms our hearts and minds and gives us comfort and peace.  What once was a dark place has now become light.

An assuredness of God’s presence is what gives us hope in the middle of the darkness.  When all else fails, there is one small light to break through the darkness of cancer, or the blackness of hunger and abuse.  There is no darkness, for God is in every space and place imaginable.   We embrace the light to guide us back to the incredible light of the Father.  God’s warmth is already here.  Will you recognize it and embrace it, or will you live in darkness and fear?  The choice is yours.

The Land of Milk and Honey

“The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”  (Deut. 26:8-9 NRSV).

There are times in our lives in which the promises of the above passage are as real to us as air.  We catch a glimpse of God’s handiwork in our lives and feel like we stand right in the middle of the “land flowing with milk and honey.”  We feel the presence of the Holy Spirit as a real and powerful source of our strength and hope.  The planets seem to be aligned and all is well in our world.  To sum it all up; life is good!
Then there are times when God’s presence seems so far away that we will never get back to the warmth of the heavenly light.  We struggle to stand up as the wind races through our lives and chills us to the bone deliberately ridding us of our joy.  We are hopeless.  The last place that we feel like we are is in a “land of milk and honey.”
Our hope as we struggle is that God’s promises are true and that our faith in His abiding love will pull us from the pit of despair.  I know what it is like to feel separated from God’s presence.  My youngest son was just recently in the hospital.  One day I was sitting with him in his hospital room and I tried to think through how many times he had been hospitalized in the last three months.  I couldn’t remember.  There had been too many times to count.  I lost track.  It is bad enough that my sons have bleeding disorders, but the constant hospitalizations are overwhelming.  It is hard to feel like I am in the “land of milk and honey” when I am sleeping on a tiny mattress in a hospital room.
When I am stressed beyond all measure I reach for something that will sustain me and give me hope.  That is when I discover God’s presence.  I read that God delivered us out of the land of Egypt where we were slaves and had no place in society.  God radically saved us.  This is where the center of my hope springs out like a fountain.  If God saved the people of Israel from the weight of slavery, I will be rescued from my situation.  The “land of milk and honey” may not look as pretty, but on the inside where it really counts I will know the goodness of God.  This promised land’s source is the Spirit of God.  Divine love pours out of us and through our world restoring life to all that it touches.  We are to be the wellspring by which the Heavenly One flows.

 

A Psalm of Hope

I just purchased a new computer and started looking through some of my files to determine whether or not I should put some of the documents on my hard drive.  As I was reviewing past assignments I stumbled across a Psalm that I wrote for one of my favorite classes that I took in seminary.  I’m posting it in the hopes that it will be a blessing in your life at it as it has been in mine.

A Psalm of Hope

            I will praise the Lord with all of my heart, and all of my soul.

            I will stand amazed at the wonder of His works.

            I will bless the Lord for the gift of music.

            The gift of song encompasses and surrounds me.

            It lifts my spirits up to the very presence of the creator.

 

            In my times of distress, it is the Lord’s song that reverberates through my being.

            That song, that allows me to sing its melodies. Even in a strange land.

            How wonderful are you my Creator, that You would fill me with hope.

            I prayed for refuge and found the promise of new life.

            My hope is built within Your river of overflowing love.

 

            My songs spring from my spirit.

            They exalt You from the inner workings of my being.

            You have set me apart with hope.

            I praise You for the greatness of joy.

            Praise to the Lord, the giver of life!

The Magnificat of Mary Luke 1:47-55

This week I chose to skip ahead in the lectionary and preach on a passage that keeps calling to me during this season of my life.  I am led to the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:47-55).  One of the things that holds my interest is the fact that Mary’s life was in total chaos and she still praised God.  I respect and admire that about this incredible child/woman.  It would have been easy for her to simply curse God and turn away from the incredible journey that she would travel.  Instead, she honored God in the middle of the worst circumstances.

I admire people like Mary who teach me how to live out my faith.  For people like her, faith is not simply a set of rules and regulations, but something incredibly intricate within her being.  She turned to her God to give her strength to get through the most difficult of circumstances.   Her faith indeed could move mountains and then some.

I want that type of faith.  I want my first reaction to a situation to be directed towards God.  I have been struggling this week concerning the death of my mother.  I understand that grief is necessary, but I also understand it is not fun.  One of the issues with which I have struggled has been the frequent phone calls I had with my mom.  We were close and I would call her to celebrate when things were good and to commiserate when things were bad.  I always knew that whatever support I needed, I would get from my mom.  With her passing that support is no longer there.  The silence is sometimes deafening.

Her death reminds me, along with the passage from Luke’s Gospel, of the kind of relationship I want to have with my God.  I want God to be first in my joys and my sorrows.  I want my life to be a living prayer connected to my Creator.  If there is a lesson in the death of a loved one, it is the reminder that when all is said and done, the most important legacy which will last are the times that we offered kindness and love to one another.  Mary did this as she praised God.

It is my hope that we love each other in spite of our human condition.  May we offer words of strength and hope in times of darkness.  May we follow the example of Mary and love with our whole hearts the one who first loved us.  May we be a blessing to our world.

God Can Handle Our Complaints

One thing that I respect about the ancient Hebrew prophets is their unwavering honesty.  Many times God addressed the people regarding their sin, but sometimes the cries and needs of the people were presented to God.  At first one might think that this type of bantering between humanity and God is not right and even considered blasphemous.  Isaiah challenges God in the lament found in Isaiah 63-64.  In speaking with God, Isaiah says, “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.  Now consider, we are all your people” (Isa. 64:9 NRSV).
I say thank you to Isaiah.  I have felt this way on many occasions.  I sometimes ask myself, “What have I done God?  Why don’t you answer my prayers?”  The question of whether we will ever be truly forgiven is always on the front burner.  We wonder, “How much longer will we have to pay for what we have done?” We cry out to God and hear nothing but a deafening silence.
The ancient Hebrews knew the feeling of hopelessness very well.  They understood what it was like to lose homes, family members, health, etc.  Their plight was not so different than ours.  We often times feel lost and misunderstood by our creator.  We feel as if we have nowhere else to turn.  Our hope has left us.  Our God is gone.
This season of Advent reminds us to not give up hope.  God is still present in the middle of the struggle.  Just as Isaiah petitioned God, we can do the same thing.  We are reminded that in this season of introspection, we look within ourselves and have honest dialogue with God.  We are allowed to hold God accountable for His silence. 
God is big enough to handle our sorrows.  As a matter of fact, God is so great that he turns our sorrows into joys.  King David reminded us that “You (God) have turned my mourning into dancing; You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.  O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever” (Psalm 30:11-12 NRSV).  Moving past the gloom and despair of chaos into the creation of joy is the spirit of Advent.  We celebrate the expectation of the miracle which set the world on its ear.  God broke Divine silence and entered this world in the form of a baby.  This incredible event, while at first delivered in a very obscure and remote way, would grow to be the center of our hope. 
Our redemption started with the cries of a baby.  The cries went unnoticed.  This miracle of light broke through the darkness in our souls to restore us to wholeness.  This season is about how we moved from darkness to light.  We remember who we used to be and give thanks that we are no longer the person of our past.  We have been changed and, with the blessings of God, we will never been the same.
As we begin our season of Advent, let us remember to lay all of our cards on the table with God.  Let us talk to our creator about everything that keeps us from worshiping fully and freely.  We should be as honest as the prophets; sparing nothing from God.  Our dialogue can be rich and authentic and sometimes frightening even to ourselves.  It is okay to take that journey.  God can handle it.

Be Still and Watch the Beauty Unfold!

Today was a day that began like any other day. We all woke up and ate breakfast, dressed, and watched a little television before hitting the door. I decided to infuse my youngest son without accessing his port-o-cath. After three unsuccessful tries at sticking a vein I decided to access the port. Now, while all of this was going on, my son was kicking and screaming. Who could blame him? I am not particularly fond of being stuck with needles. Let’s face it. Needles are not that fun.

We finally called a home care nurse who proved to be our angel today. She accessed the port and we were on our way. While my wife and I encouraged our son, I could not help but feel like a failure. I am this child’s father. I should be able to access every time I try. It was very hard to admit defeat. Who really wants to be that far out of control?

As I continued to process the morning, I realized that my thoughts were so self-centered. I began to think about the impending week coming up in the life of our church. Next week is Holy Week. Beginning this Sunday, we focus our attention to Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem, which led to the trial and flogging, which led to the crucifixion, which led to the empty tomb.

I had to admit to myself that I was going down a road through which many of us travel. We turn to our egos. I should be much more grateful that this wonderful nurse helped us. I should be grateful that this medicine is provided for us and that my son’s future is very bright. Why then did everything have to be about me and my reaction?

Now please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that there is not a time to mourn, or a time to grieve. We all must process and journey through things to get to the side of wholeness and healing. The problem is that we can get so caught up in our own “stuff” that we can lose the beauty of a blessing that stares us in the face. This incident with the port reminds me to stand back up when I have been knocked down. Christ did the same for us. When he was knocked down (crucified) He stood back up and defied death itself.

This event with my son reminds me about my relationship with the notion of Holy Week and how we are to progress through the really bad stuff so that we may triumph in the resurrection. Just for this week, I will focus on what Jesus did for me without inviting my reaction to the gift of grace. I will focus on the fact that Jesus could have turned around at any time and said, “I will not continue this. It will be way too painful.” These are things that he did not do. Jesus pressed on. Not only did He press on, but He gave it all that He had. His primary motivation was to do the will of the Father.

Now, as for my five year old stinky boy, he is doing great. He picked up his choo-choo trains and went to daycare. His major concern for the day is what kind of opportunities to play are out there in the wild blue? I ask myself the same question. What kind of possibilities are out there for me to be still and lay witness to the loving messages or grace in my life? What about the constant revelations of faith, hope, and redemption?

True Love

We have moments when God reveals God’s self to us in ways that sometimes are very subtle and sometimes knock a person to their knees. I recently had an encounter with the Divine on a day when I least likely expected one. I know a couple who live in a retirement home. They have a lot of illness between them and so they do not live in the same room, but whenever I visit the home I always see them together. They are a remarkable pair who I have come to admire.

She has Alzheimer’s disease and the manifestation of her illness is progressing very rapidly. As typical of the disease, there are some good days and some bad days. Through it all, her husband has been there for her every day. Both of them are well into their nineties and have been married over seventy years. Their story is an amazing chronicle of love, commitment, and honor.

I received word that this dear sweet lady had a stroke and was not expect to recover from her condition. Immediately hearing about the issue, I visited her in the nursing home. Her husband came into the room and we began to talk. I watched him and how he tenderly held her hand and was concerned that his wife knew that she was not alone. He was there just like he had been so many times before.

I sat and watched this holy exchange. I watched the vows of marriage being fulfilled and carried out in a way that took my breath away. Their hands joined together served as a reminder of their love and the glue that connected them together as a single family. I was honored to be in that room. I was touched to be a living witness to this special kind of covenant. I left thinking that this is the promise that I made to my wife. I want to be the person that will hold my wife’s hand and she hold mine.

I was made freshly aware of why I am a minister of the Gospel of Christ. I am invited into those places in people’s lives when the presence of God is so real that you can almost touch it. I am privileged to be a part of the lives of those who call me their pastor. I am allowed to stand in the presence of those around me and to share the message of salvation. Sometimes it is delivered with words, while other times it is delivered in silent witness.

As we celebrated Epiphany this past week, I am grateful that God allowed me to have my own realization. I am grateful for the lives of this couple and the honor to be a witness to their commitment to their God, and to each other. May we all be living Gospels to those who are in need of the Word which came for us, sacrificed for us, and lives within us.

AMEN.

christopherjoiner

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