Each year, as Annual Conference begins, I remembered my ordination service several years ago. I remember how a boy raised in exceedingly challenging circumstances found his way to a place unimaginable among his family. I represent the struggles to rise out of generational poverty and into a paradigm shift affecting future generations. I look at my cousins and celebrate that while I am the first to start a journey towards endless possibilities, praise God I am not the last.
I reflect on the difficult road I traveled, knowing that having a goal is one thing, but to achieve objectives requires fortitude, patience, and endurance. It is not easy to move from one set of unspoken rules to another without suffering setbacks and heartache. The journey is rough and requires perseverance and grace. One most constantly battles demons that attempt to keep a person relegated into a life that fights to maintain unwilling victims in a class system that offers little exit.
Yet, despite all obstacles, I sit in my office, at my pastoral desk, equipped with an education I never dreamed possible as a child. I live by the statement of human worth taken from Psalm 139, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” This statement is my mantra on this journey. I remind myself that I am God’s creation, and therefore I possess attributes that transcend a class structure, filled with unwritten do’s and don’ts. Each mandate attempts to define me and put me in a box, but I refused to surrender.
Friends, I cannot pretend to know the journey that one travels, but I know who will guide us. Hold fast to the reality that our past does not define us, nor how others attempt to characterize us. We start by acknowledging that we receive our self-worth from God and not from humanity. The rest is greatness, as we depend on the Divine for guidance.
Over the last few weeks, I find myself grappling with new information about the pandemic and a possible end to what quickly became a strange way of life. On the edge of summer, we look forward to churches opening for activities for children, and mandates regarding mask-wearing drastically changing. Sometimes, my head spins, trying to keep up with following the proper guidelines. Lord, in Your mercy!
I cannot help but reflect on the darkest of times with my youngest son as he struggled with a never-ending volley of bleeding episodes. I remember looking into my wife’s eyes and assuring her that we will look back on this time and give thanks that these difficult days lay behind us a year from now. I wanted to ensure her, as well as myself, that this is not our new normal. Better times wait for us ahead. I needed to convey some sense of hope to remind us that faith plays a significant role in our most difficult times.
Last year, I answered an appointment to pastor First United Methodist Church Belen. It proved strange leading a new congregation during a historic pandemic. I believe that we weathered the worst of times together and left a stronger team. I laugh when thinking about the first year of a pastoral assignment as living in a honeymoon phase. This easy season was not the case, as the church’s leadership rallied around each other to help the church move through the darkest of times.
In this last week of May, let us remember and give thanks for the victories we celebrate as we move forward. We celebrate our resilience and a common respect for one another. We can do anything if we stand united and love one another well. No wonder Jesus proclaimed our compassion for our fellow neighbors as one of the top two commandments. With hope, we give thanks for our deliverance during the worst of times but give thanks unlimited possibilities.
When I grow weary and feel like the world turned against me, I remember one encounter with my mother, leading me back to reality. When my mother waited to receive medicine from the anesthetist to put her to sleep for open-heart surgery, I grabbed her hand and prayed for health and a speedy recovery. She grabbed my face and looked me in the eyes so that I knew that what she said came from her heart. She said, “Joe Keith, you have to know that I love you, son; you have to know.” As they injected the glorious medication that leads you to another world, she still uttered the words, “I love you, son.” I felt blessed to be loved so wholly and completely.
There is not a day that goes by in my life that my sons fail to hear, “I love you.” My mother taught me that a tiny expression creates a lifetime of joy and contentment. One small sentence yields one significant affirmation of self. I learned that when I speak truth into a person’s life, I bring the good news of faith and hope. All these reassurances stem from a simple lesson taught by a mighty woman, Ruby Jane.
Today, I carry the lesson forward as I recite the exact words to the woman who speaks the same way to my children. My boys do not go a day without hearing that they are loved. With the affirmation of hope, we lay the foundation of faith and joy. May I carry the good news into the world so that all may find a place of hope. May they hear of unconditional love open to everyone who accepts it. Praise be to God for our Mighty Mammas, who teach us how to be in this world and that love is more powerful than any weapon.
“We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace” (Eph. 1:7 CEB).
There it is, in black and white, it says, “Our failures.” There is that reads, yes, but…” I find no restrictive language, no exclusion. The Gospel is for everyone, including me. Please read this verse to those who want to keep faith limited to a selected few because it proves them wrong. Jesus included my faith along with everyone else. I am beyond tired of being told the message that my faith is not strong enough simply because of who I am.
If God forgave all our sins, then are we not all equal? Why then do people continue to justify minimalizing others? I cannot find a way through the fog of judgment and condemnation. This idea of one-upmanship contradicts the notion that God moves in kindness and grace. Our actions must immolate Jesus, who respected others and loved with Divine ferociousness. The goal of faith is to offer our highest selves and move to agape, as demonstrated by the One who showed Divine love towards us.
I hope one day to see our church bloom, not because we figured out a secret formula on how to entice people into our doors, but by offering love that indeed is “so amazing, so divine.” We grow because God grows in us. May we take up the mantle of Christ and let our actions overwhelm our judgments. Let holy love inspire us, strengthen us, and lead us on our journey to perfection. Maybe with our eyes focused on first things first, can we lead others to the vast riches of the Most-High God.
Enclosed is a link to a song that is one my favorites. I never get tired of singing “Bring Him Home” from the Broadway musical Les Miserables. While I am called to ordained ministry, I must admit that music was my first love. It helped me understand that there is a world that is far wider than I ever knew. Singing awakens my soul so that I may express the greatness of God’s love. Find whatever awakens your spirit and follow the joy that guides you down your sacred path.
I cannot believe my eyes. I ran to the tomb after hearing that Jesus was not there. How could this be? Where did they take his body? Someone stole his remains. I thought about how I might be guilty until I heard an incredible story. Jesus’ corps was not stolen, but he rose from death. My heart skipped a beat, realizing that a greater miracle came in the middle of the night, in the darkest of circumstances. Live overcame death, and the Divine rose triumphantly. Perhaps this miracle was what Jesus meant all along.
My faith, once shaken, appears to come back as my soul looks to the heavens to proclaim the good news of God. The end of the week is only the beginning of new life. I am a son of the Most-High God. The Messiah had one more title to share with the world. He was, and is, the Savior of all humanity. Such love and devotion to us must hold and strengthen the world. The wondrous love shown to us through the giving of God himself strengthens our hearts and minds for another day. Let us live to make every day count. Happy Easter, you people of faith. May you find joy in the good news this day and all the days to come.
It is Shabbat, and no one would even know that something horrific happened yesterday. The bodies were laid to rest, and the crosses came down, giving the false impression that everything turned back to normal. I asked myself, “What is normal now?” I followed Jesus without hesitation, expecting something great, only to be let down. I try to put the recent events behind me, but I cannot dismiss the sorrow I feel. There is a feeling of emptiness in the pit of my stomach. I go to synagogue out of a sense of ritual, nothing more.
What is next? I search for the answers, praying that God will guide us. “Please, dear God, “I pray, “let the life of Jesus matter.” The light of hope remains within the deepest resources of my soul. I feel that this is not the end, but I have no idea how anything can happen now. Jesus is dead, and nothing can overcome the fact that he no longer walks the earth. But he said something about being with us always. I cry out, “Oh, Lord, show me love in a way that I cannot imagine. Bring me comfort.”
All I want to do is sleep and forget any of the events that recently passed. Maybe if I turn my attention away from everything, I will not focus so hard on my sorrow. Perhaps I can continue with all the gifts I grew to learn about life through the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I walk towards the unknown, unsure of how to remain present in a world that killed the Son of God. It makes no sense to me. For now, I will not rock the boat and wait in the hope for something big to happen.
I am ashamed of what I have done. I followed this man who spoke wisdom and showed me how to live a life pleasing to God. I felt compassion for all those who encountered him and found a new way to exist as a result of their experience. I am to blame for his death. I did not build one sliver of the cross on now which he hangs, but I condemned him nonetheless. I shouted, “Crucify Him!” Just like any other person around me, my voice pierced through with harsh condemnation. I wanted him to do something miraculous. I wanted him to save himself. Now the only thing I hear are people weeping at his feet.
I stare at the sight of a kind man whose body surrenders to the harsh realities of humanity. God sent his son, the most precious gift anyone can offer, and we killed him. Though I feel betrayed, I cannot stop looking at the face of the man subjected to such a cruel death. Gone is the man so full of passion for God and others. Now there is silence. No peace, just a wind is seeming to pierce the moment.
I look up at him, knowing that I stand in the middle of greatness—this tender person hanging on a cross. I look up and ask, “Why his life? He had so much more to offer us. Now we will not know the many lessons on how to love good and each other that still elude us. I hold this moment, hoping to sear it into my brain. This man may not be the Messiah, but he proved himself a devout follower of the Most-High-God. I look up and plead with Jesus, “Please forgive me, my Lord.”
I cannot believe what I am seeing. Someone asks the crowd a question that will haunt me forever. This man, Jesus, faces certain death if everyone responds in a certain way. A man steps up and asks the massive group, “What do you want me to do with this man?” I heard everyone begin to shout, “Crucify Him!” I never saw such hatred, but soon I found myself picking up the chant. What if we provoke Jesus to action by calling for his assassination? This event could be the beginning of hope. We will move him to act and stop this nightmare.
Fighting back the tears, I raise my voice along with the others. “Crucify him!” I shout at the top of my lungs. I continued, hoping that this would change the trajectory of the story. Jesus does nothing. The one I perceived to be the Messiah of the world stands and accepts the punishment given to him.
My hope turned into anger as I realized this man is not who he claims to be. We followed the wrong man because the Son of God would restore sanity. Instead, he stands there with eyes filled with compassion. I took this moment for weakness. How dare he trick me into believing what he had to say. Death is the correct judgment for causing such chaos in the city. My cries turn from hope to downright anger. “Crucify Him!” I join in louder support.
I feel the cold, hard steel of fury running through my veins. How lost I am, and it was under Jesus’ teaching that brought me to a place of despair. “Crucify Him!” I shout. Let him suffer the weight of his sins. I changed my life to follow him. I gave up everything I had because I believed in him. In my misery, I shout, “He must die for his sins.”
I am numb and cannot express how I feel. I smile at those who walk by and pretend that all is well. I make light of my interest in Jesus and pretend that what is going on does not affect me. Inside I am dying, wondering why I followed the man in the first place. If he indeed is the Son of God, why does he not overturn this godless society? It just does not make sense unless he is not the person he pretends to be. I refuse to think that his teachings proved exaggerated at best and lie at worst over the past years.
On this night, I celebrate Pesach with my family. I hope to leave this feeling of dread by turning to what I know, ritual in the story of deliverance for our people. Even in my observance, I cannot help but notice the irony in this entire situation. We tell the story of our redemption when we hope that Jesus is the appointed one to relieve us from bondage at this moment. Still, there is not a word, only silence.
I search for peace in the observance of my custom, but the storm continues to rage. Doubt stands at the forefront of all my thoughts. I feel as if I am slowly dying, unable to gasp for my next breath. I chant, “O come, O come Emmanuel and ransomed captive Israel.” Still, nothing happens. As I sink deeper into despair, I realize God does not answer me. My heart breaks, and I descend into the deepest parts of my soul.