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.

Our Songs of Ascent

Psalms 120-134 are known as the Psalms of Ascent. The title possibly refers to physically climbing the outer stairs of the temple to reach the center square. Songs reflected melodies that started low and gradually got higher with each idea sung. The primary focus reflected God’s elevation and our constant desire to reach up for His guidance.

Our world teaches us to keep our head to the grindstone and get the job done.  While it is important to be productive, the Creator of the Universe wants us to look up and remember to give thanks for our deliverance.  Just as God calls us from the pit of despair, “ADONAI, I call to you from the depths; hear my cry, Adonai!  Let your ears pay attention to the sound of my pleading” (Ps. 130:1-2 CJSB), we are to acknowledge the hope and assurance found in those who are faithful.  The Psalmist expresses a strong dependence and commitment to God’s protection when he proclaims “Those who trust in ADONAI are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but remains forever” (Ps. 125:1 CJSB).

This week I invite you to join me in taking moments to reflect on God’s deliverance in your own lives.  What ways do you stop and raise your head to offer the Holy One your joys and concerns?  Please feel free to share your moments of divine revelation with me by posting a response.  Allow the blessings of God to overwhelm you as you recount all that the Lord has (and continues) to do for you.

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!

 

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.

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!

First Things First

Last night, I was frantically trying to get last minute things done before I begin an almost three-week travel schedule.  This had to be done, that had to be paid, deadlines for articles for the church had to be finished.  I was scattered and anxious at best.  Could I get all my tasks accomplished before heading out the door in the morning?  There was no room for error.  Bills will not pay themselves!

As I continued to struggle and move about, my ten-year-old son entered the room.  He was excited about a little project that he had just finished.  He created his own music video using a favorite song along with his Lego characters.  He was proud of his accomplishment and wanted to share what he had done with me.

Now, I stressed about what to do.  I was on a very tight schedule and could not leave a thing undone.  As I struggled with how to say no as I kept on working, I stopped right at that moment.  Here was my son, proud of what he was able to achieve.  There was only one thing to do.  I put down my papers, gave my full attention to my son, and praised him for his marvelous work.

After two minutes, I went right back to work, this time with a new attitude and a sense of purpose in placing my priorities back in order.  Sometimes, God reminds me that while my work is important and it is good to focus on the tasks at hand, my family’s needs are always at the top of the list.  I forget that little nugget of truth sometimes.  Thank God, for reminding me to put first things first.

Praise be to our God, that in the middle of the chaos of our lives, we are reminded that the spirit of graciousness and love should be our guiding light.  This is where we draw our strength.  This is where we find divine purpose and calling.  May we continue to remember our blessings, even in the middle of deadlines and life’s daily pressures.

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.

When the World Spins Way Too Fast!

Last week I hit the ground running.  My week consisted of running from meeting to meeting, dealing with issues both in the church and beyond, and trying to find some time to write a sermon.  I didn’t even mention fighting for family time.  When each day ended, I felt overwhelmed and unable to feel like I accomplished the tasks that needed to be achieved.

All of the chaos of the week reminded me of what is most important in the life and work of the pastor.  It is maintaining and leading the body of Christ in worship.  I felt stressed because everything that pressed upon my time took me far away from what I was called to do.  While I know that all that I do contributes to the welfare of the church, there are times that I just want to stop the craziness and refocus my attention on the One who called me into ministry.

We all have the kind of weeks that I described.  Our children get sick, we have to manage people who are not so good at managing themselves, or we must press on due to a diagnosis that we didn’t expect to hear.  It is difficult, to say the least.  Whatever the issue may be, we must set our eyes on Christ, who leads us through the chaos, and continues to create beauty.

Praise be to God, who leads us through the rough times.  I remember reading a passage by a writer who once said, “God never promised to stop the storm that a rough sea may bring.  He promised to calm the storm in us.”  This is where the greatest of work is done.  It is performed in the heart.

May we embrace the message of hope that is found in God, and be comforted.  We are children of the Most-High God.  Let us live like it, and remember whose we are.  Through this, we will claim the promise of a peace that passes anything that we can ever hope to understand.

Blessings in a Crazy Week

Last week was an adventure in survival.  I had a paper due for a class I had taken, my wife had back surgery, I flew out of town and back for a meeting, and preached on Sunday morning.  By Sunday afternoon, I was passed out on the couch.  I had nothing left in the gas tank.

Life is like that.  There are times that we just coast through, but more often than not schedules are rarely predictable.  Such is the life of a pastor.  The only thing that we can do is be present in the moment.  Anxiety can sometimes take over, and I can easily forget to simply breathe and enjoy where I am at the moment I’m there.  Now is what counts.

As I rattled off my busy schedule, I didn’t talk about the blessings that came my way as a result of my crazy time.  I celebrated another academic course completed.  I gave thanks that my wife had a very successful surgery.  I met new friends, and spent a few moments with some great friends.  My flights, while adventurous, got me safely to and from my destinations.  Sunday morning was filled with celebration and joy.  These are the wonders that come with a busy and fulfilled life.

I give thanks to God this day for the gift of servanthood, that I was asked to take part in a consumer panel in the bleeding disorders community.  I am grateful that I can connect with a community who longs to hear my story, and the story of my family.  I was honored to hear other’s journeys, and the strength and hope that they find on their paths.  Their stories are an amazing tapestry of an incredible society of men and women who struggle to make their lives rich and meaningful despite the presence of a bleeding disorder.

I think it is safe to say, that we are a part of many different cultures and societies.  It was great to be reminded that I am a part of the hemophilia community.  I struggle, just as those around me, to find normal in a world that involves daily infusions, hospital visits, and a medicine closet packed full of medical equipment necessary to give my children a chance at their best lives.

My hope is that through all of the chaos we may remember to find the beauty in the moment.  Let us never throw away a single second.  Let us give thanks for what we are given.  Praise be to God, who never ceases to amaze his children.

christopherjoiner

Some Thoughts Along the Way

Cazandra Campos-MacDonald

We take our journey with love and hope.

Perseverance Runner

Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.

strugglewell

That marriages in crisis will find Biblical solutions and reconciliation

jefflust

Reflections on leadership and what it means to be the church God intends for the 21st century.