Are Our Traditions Inclusive?

I once heard a pastor comment on how his congregation “speaks their own language.”  The key to becoming accepted into this body of believers is to understand and use the language of the congregation.  I started thinking about this bold claim and was a little indignant to say the least.  I began to question whether or not this man really understood the people in our church.  What was he talking about?  There was no secret handshake nor was their unspoken ways that we excluded those who would not follow us in our worship.
Well, I began to think a little bit more about what this pastor said and began to realize that he was not very far off the mark.  For instance, many of our congregations say the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) in our worship.  It has become a tradition that our congregation recites the prayer from memory and assumes that we will hear most of the voices around us saying the text as one body.
What about those who visit who have never been in worship?  This is their first time in a church in years.  Maybe there are those who have never set foot in a church.  How can they join in with us without being considered the “other?”  It is our task to include all to participate in worship.  If that is the case, we need to make sure that we have resources by which all people may fully participate.
How about the prayers of the congregation?  Once again, we are challenged to include the entire body of believers while continuing our established traditions that transcend the word community and develop our sense of family.  We come together to celebrate the risen Christ.  In what ways do we lift up our prayers in worship that seem to exclude new comers?
By suggesting that “first time visitors come back so that they may feel more at home” is a way in which the issue has been previously addressed.  Unfortunately, that does not work in our modern age.  Many times, we have one shot to develop a complete sense of inclusivity in our churches.  Is it possible to provide a platform by which everyone present on a Sunday morning, members and visitors alike, will be able to fully share in the good news of salvation?
I struggle as a pastor to provide the space in which all are welcome.  I utilize media and worship aides to assist everyone who worships with us, but I am still afraid that there are some portions of our worship experience that excludes people who have never participated in our particular church.  The main idea that I want people to take with them is that the Gospel of Christ is for all and not just for those who finally get the language and the unwritten rules of our congregation.  
I am not suggesting that we eradicate those moments in worship that remind us of who we are and what it means to be a part of a particular congregation.  I believe that tradition is very important in helping us to establish our identity.  Liturgy serves to allow us to feel a sense of belonging and a space by which we can call a particular place of worship our home.  I want to honor our history by providing others who visit us the opportunity to call my space their home.  The central message being that Christ came for all and not just those who pray and worship just like us.
As you attend your church this coming weekend be fully aware of times in your service that may appear exclusive to newcomers.  Sit next to someone who appears to be in worship with you for the first time.  As the service continues be that source by which they can be made more familiar with your church’s practices and customs.  Be the one who is that welcoming spirit that delivers the good news of salvation that all are welcome to the table of God.

Finding Our Way

I enjoy the Gospel of Mark.  I enjoy the way the narrative of Jesus is told as the issue of miracles is deeply embedded in the rich tradition of the text.  The miraculous is witnessed throughout all of the population.  I am speaking about a people that strive to exist in the world and hungers to have the Divine change their lives.  We see the radical changes in the lives of those who Jesus heals.  All of these changes cannot be defined in any terms other than miraculous.
Ah yes, the miraculous.  That space in which there is no explanation for an occurrence in our everyday life.  Somehow that which is infinitely bigger than who we are steps into our lives and we are changed (or saved) as a result of this heavenly occurrence.
Jesus brought this incredible love of God into our world and empowered those who called upon the redemptive presence of God to be living miracles in the lives of all who they encountered.  “Wait a minute Joe!  Didn’t Jesus instruct us that the greatest two commandments are to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves?”  While the answer to the question is yes, I believe that our actual obedience to these instructions to love is miraculous in itself.
How is someone’s life changed?  It is through the interaction with others.  God’s love is displayed in kindness.  Maybe this person has never known an act of mercy.  Maybe violence and abuse have been the barometers by which one may view their relationships with others.  This kind of pattern or cycle is reflected in how someone might perceive God.
We, the disciples of Christ, are called to set people free of all of the baggage that ties one to death.  We are called to be liberators who bring the miracle of truth to those in need.  This truth is grounded in the love and transformative power of Christ.  With the power of the Holy Spirit working through us, and yes even in spite of us, we offer a world the gift of restoration back to the Holy One.
Our calling began with that still small voice inside us.  I believe that is the presence of God in our lives.  Our teachers nurtured that voice.  These men and women of God encouraged us to grow in the knowledge and love of Christ.  We followed their example and now we are the ones to share the good news of faith, hope, and love to our world.
In the Gospel of Mark, we see how the disciples were taught and then empowered to share the incredible power of God by the greatest of all teachers.  We see how Jesus not only talked the talk, but walked the walk.  His lessons left a profound impact on not only a select group of men, but also the entire population who saw him demonstrating God’s love to humanity.  That love is displayed to us today in miraculous ways.  May we take the love that is shown to us and bring the miracle of God to our world.

Our Journey Takes Us North

I love to help people build things.  When performing in shows I loved being a part of the whole process that resulted in a big production.  When I worked in the public school system and in music ministry, I enjoyed working together with people to create the highest caliber of music possible in  each group I directed.  In my life as a pastor, I find that the greatest reward is watching life changing ministry occur in the hearts and minds of the people in my community.  Building souls is awe inspiring to say the very least.

While I have been actively involved in church work for most of my adult life, I can honestly say that the congregation at First United Methodist Church of Truth or Consequences will always hold a special place in my heart.  T or C was the first place I was called a pastor.  It was the place that I learned to spread my wings and truly live into the calling that God placed on my life many years ago.  I entered into a special bond with the T or C congregation that continues to empower our church and community.  Our connectional thread continues to be the Holy Spirit.  Together, we step out in faith knowing that it is through Divine leadership that we are all made new.

Sunday, June 17th, will be my last day with the people of this wonderful congregation.  I will be moving from Southern New Mexico to lead worship in Rio Rancho, NM.  My ministry will continue in a different place, with different people, and different concerns.  I will always be grateful to the people in T or C who filled my spirit full of joy each week as we celebrated the risen Christ.  To say my cup is full of love for you is an understatement.  I appreciate the tools that you gave me to build a place where all are welcome.

It is with the spirit of joy and trust that I turn to my new church in Rio Rancho.  Please know that I am a person who feels truly blessed to have worshiped with some amazing people.  As I acknowledge the presence of God in the lives of those who went before me, I look forward to you and am excited about embracing this new part of the journey.  We push forward knowing that God will lead us as we transform our world with the incredible message that God loves all of us. 

Easter, Half Off?

I was walking through a grocery store the other day and happened upon a sign that read “Easter items, half off!” Inside the sales bins there were chocolate bunnies and various and assorted candies. Everything was marked “for sale.” Naturally the theologian in me almost exploded. I thought about the many times that I raced towards Easter having endured the obstacle course known as Lent. It was as if Easter was the official day of celebration and the race was over. The victory having gone to the winner and everything else was a letdown.

For those of us who worship in liturgical churches, last week only marked the beginning of the Easter season. Our themes focus on the triumph of the Spirit and how humanity has received the most incredible gift that could ever be given. We celebrate God and the incredible workings of the Divine in humanity. Christ has risen indeed.

The early church fathers looked forward to each Sunday as being a mini-Easter. They celebrated the victory of the risen Christ and emphasized the wonder of the resurrection and the power of God every week. Their praises to God were for a lifetime and not limited to one day or even one season. Their lives and understanding of the mystery of God’s gift of love empowers us to keep the faith by telling the story of our God throughout the year. We, like the early church fathers who have gone before us, share our journey that is forever intertwined with the story of how Divine love has changed us.

Easter is not just a day filled with Easter Bunnies and great chocolate. There is no such thing as Easter being “half off.” Our full time joy in God’s wonderful and radical love for us is about a total commitment and not simply backing off after a national holiday. Our wishes for a happy Easter are not limited to one day, but are a living testimony to the glory of God! It is with great joy and gratitude that I wish you a very “Happy Easter!”

We Have To Journey On!

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.

The Journey Continues On….

This last Sunday I stood before my congregation and made the announcement that I am moving and will be the pastor of another church in the New Mexico Annual Conference.  Words seemed to fail me as I stood before this incredible body of believers who have loved me through wonderful times as well as very trying times.  No matter how I attempt to convey my deep love for this unique group of people, I am still speechless.  Anyone who knows me will testify that I am not one to be without words.  As a matter of fact, I tend to use too many words.
Perhaps this difficulty with expressing the bond that is shared with my faith community stems from the reason the church exists in the first place.  Jesus called us in to a deep and everlasting covenant with not only God, but with one another.  This pledge that we take to become a part of the body is interwoven with the fabric of the Holy Spirit.  It binds us to each other as we who are many, and with different talents, lift up one voice to our Creator.  When one member leaves the body, the fabric must redirect itself, but until then there is a feeling of loss and grief.  We stand in hope that God will restore the tapestry of the body and create something better, kinder, more loving than that which was before.
To all of the members of the body of First United Methodist Church of Truth or Consequences, I am reminded of Paul’s words, “I thank my God every time I remember you” (Phil. 1:3 NRSV).  You are a living testament to the power of God when the Holy Spirit is set loose in the church of God.  When I was excited about ministry, you walked beside me and shared the many blessings that we all were given.  When I struggled, you took my hand and walked through the darkness with me. 
We saw our church become a vital force in our community offering a place to those of all walks of life.  We became the true place to express our mission of being a people who are “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.”  Thank you for teaching me how to be a better pastor. But most of all, thank you for teaching me how to be a better human being.

Remove the Veil

“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:3-4 NRSV).
When I lived in Houston, I would be lucky to see four stars in the sky on a clear night.  The city lights placed a veil over the sky so that we could not appreciate the beauty that the constellations offer.  We had to leave the city to enjoy the multitude of stars in the heavens. 
For me there is nothing more sacred than the short moments I have as I walk my car port to my home in New Mexico.  There are no city lights to hide the stars.  I find the sky amazing as I am reminded that I am just a speck at best in this world.  I stand and behold the majestic wonder of God.
Paul acknowledges how the truth is sometimes hidden behind a veil.  After noticing that every single time the gospel is used in this text it is in the lower case, I am reminded that Paul was not referring to the Canonical Gospels, but rather to his own sense of the good news of Christ.  The veil of which he speaks separates those who do not know the truth of God, from the ultimate source itself.  He further explains that there is a god that controls and holds power over this world.  It is actually this false god (with a lower case “g”) that blinds the unbeliever from the true source of light.
The truth is we all have veils which hide us from the truth.  Our veils can be fear, unbelief, regret, un-forgiveness, doubt, etc.  We cannot enjoy the beauty of God as long as there is something which hides God’s love from us.  Our joy cannot be made full, because we cannot connect with the source of all joys.
Paul acknowledges that Christ himself tears down people, places and things that separate us from God.  Once clear, we are free to trust the incredible power of God.  Our good news is right before our eyes and we can celebrate the wonders of what the Almighty continues to do in and through our lives.  We simply remove the veil and follow.
In a traditional wedding, of course I have to add the word traditional because I have taken part in many not too traditional weddings, the bride wears a veil.  Her face is covered from the world and from her husband to be.  The groom cannot see his bride’s face until she is right before him.  When he lifts the veil, there is no longer any mystery as to how beautiful she appears in that moment.  He sees her for the first time as his wife.  That is my favorite part of the wedding ceremony.
How incredibly symbolic is the wedding ceremony to our faith.  Christ as the bridegroom lifts the veil off of his church.  And as we catch a glimpse of the bridegroom for the first time, we are amazed and made to feel as if we become one with our God.  We become a part of the family of God.  We stand back and give thanks for the incredible mystery that stands before us.
I challenge you to allow yourself a very small retreat.  Get out of the city and look up at the stars.  Be renewed with God’s unending vastness.  Allow yourself to receive the incredible love of God.  Nothing else will be the same.

What Must I Do To Be Made Whole?

“But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:13-14 NRSV).
Many times we tend to approach our faith as something that is tangible and can be physically possessed.  We strive to be made whole and restored by following a list of do’s and don’ts.  We incorrectly assume the idea that we must not only offer ourselves, but our good deeds as the basis upon which we “acquire” healing.  Our understanding of God becomes skewed and we adopt the idea that if we pray hard enough good things will come.  This “prosperity gospel” has become a fabric that is dangerously woven into who we are as God’s children.
In our Biblical story, Naaman was no exception to the “prosperity gospel” regarding faith.  He brought extravagant wealth and riches to the king of Israel in order to be healed.  Naaman lived under the assumption that healing would occur if he found favor with the king and ultimately favor with the prophet.  It was at the prophet Elisha’s house that the fearless commander would hear a way to be radically transformed.  Naaman did not need anything but faith.  It was with this belief in transformation that Naaman entered the waters of the Jordan.  His little mustard seed of faith spurred him onward.   
Naaman was not simply healed in a physical sense, but experienced a spiritual healing that awakened a presence of the Divine in Naaman’s very soul.  His journey led him to the cleansing waters of God.  He left the Jordan River with a new faith and new commitment to his God.  He would take the message of salvation to his world. 
We are very familiar with Naaman’s story if not in the Biblical sense then in our own lives.  We approach God with gifts to earn special favor.  We pledge our lives to change that sound something like this, “O God, if you help me this time I will…even again.”  Time and again we make this bargain with God until our pledges are hollow and represent the struggles born out of a place of desperation.
The good news is that God does not need our extravagant gifts.  God seeks our hearts.  There is no magic, no special cure, and no secret spell that will bring us any more or less healing.  The gift is already given.  God’s grace is offered to us free of charge and without price.  All we can do is accept the blessings which are given by the Creator.  To assume that we have any more agency regarding our salvation is to diminish the gift of God.
In the Gospel of John, the religious scholar Nicodemus found Jesus and began a dialogue that serves as the basis of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  The underlying question that Nicodemus wanted answered was short and to the point.  The scholar asked, “What must I do to be saved?”  Jesus (the Master) answered, “Believe.”
Whether we read 2 Kings or skip ahead to the Gospel of John, the word of God proves to be consistent.  Our belief is what heals us.  We are not transformed because our body may be made whole nor are we saved because prayers have been answered.  We are restored to wholeness because God’s gift of salvation changes us from the inside out.  Our wholeness is not a state of being, but a state of worship.  Let us wash our hearts in the waters of everlasting life and be made new people.

Are the Gospel Miracles for Everyone?

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.

christopherjoiner

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