Yesterday my family and I made our annual pilgrimage to the mountains. Labor Day usually consists of a mountain stream and great fried chicken. I will tell you now that my wife is an incredible cook. Her fried chicken is second to none!
This year we explored new territory as we settle into our new home in Rio Rancho. Approximately an hour away from my house there are tremendous national parks along with incredible opportunities for hiking up and down valleys and hilltops. We parked the car, ate some good southern food, and began our quarter mile journey down to a place where the mountain stream emptied itself into a beautiful ravine complete with a waterfall.
The water was cold and very inviting. The four of us took off our shoes and began to wade in the water. My toes were so cold that I thought each one would freeze off. I sat on a rock that was at the very top of the waterfall. We were playing near a 100 foot drop into a reservoir below. Of course, my youngest son was not allowed to join me so close to the falls. It was way too risky for him. He just played a little further back in the stream with my wife. My oldest son sat with me near the edge of the falls. All fears and anxieties seemed to give way as we enjoyed gazing into the falling water as it fell upon the rocks below.
I love being surrounded by the beauty of the mountains. The air is crisp and the hiking trails give way to breathtaking views that startle the imagination and reinvigorate the soul. I still sometimes find it hard to believe that I live near such incredible scenery. It is safe to say that where I live today is quite different than the coastline of my youth. When I moved to New Mexico I realized that I needed two things in my life. I must have mountains and stars. Houston did not afford me those necessities.
My faith is expressed in ways that are very similar to how I feel concerning the wonderful mountain landscape. The majesty of God woos me into beauty. Sometimes I am unable to see the wonder that is just around the corner, but I know that if I continue on my journey I will experience a connection to the Divine that I never knew existed. As I draw strength from the One who brings water that will feed my spirit I stand in awe of the endless possibilities. It is at the stream of life that I find renewal of spirit and great joy. It is surrounded by the presence of God that I find hope. God invites all of us to the water to be renewed and made whole.
I am reading a book that accents the power of our own testimonies and how sharing the love of God through our own stories dates back to New Testament tradition. There is incredible power in sharing how we came to realize that God is a necessary and life giving part of our very foundation. We reveal how we have been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I have been taken back to my own story of redemption and how the incredible realization of God’s love set me on a course that radically altered my life. I remember being led into the waters of baptism and rising again with a feeling of being set apart. I was chosen as one who would follow Christ. I was fourteen years old when I was baptized and I will never forget the clarity of purpose and peace that I felt as a teenager.
Unfortunately, I also heard a voice in my head that kept repeating itself saying, “What you have done is so bad that God will never forgive you for it.” That was the voice of an abusive past that proved successful in ruling my life for many years after my baptism. Here I was a child with a profound sense of freedom shadowed by another voice that was judgmental and horribly devastating at the same time. These conflicting messages of both redemption and condemnation spoke into my life for a very long time.
It would take many years before I could reclaim what God did for me in my baptism. It would also take many years before I could calm the voice that spoke harshly into my life. I am speaking about the false messages that seemed to expose me for an absolute fraud. Eventually God’s voice spoke over the chaos of the other voice and calmed the angry sea that seemed to find a home in my soul.
My testimony, as well as countless others, chronicles the journey that we take with God. It is a story of hopelessness which gave way to hope. Our tales are stories of love even when we felt unlovable. We are a collection of the incredible tapestry of the wonder workings of God. While we are not perfect, we have that which is perfect within us. We stand and proclaim that we reflect a change that we could never have done for ourselves. It is only through the workings of our God that we are made new. Today I give thanks for my own story, or testimony. I hope you do to.
This past Saturday I had to make a quick trip up to the church. When I opened the door I was shocked as I heard the sound of voices in the sanctuary. When I went in to see who was there I saw several people gathered around a big ladder. It appeared that our lights in the sanctuary needed to be replaced. As a pastor, it is one of those scenes that you keep in your soul forever. The kind of moment when God’s presence is felt and noticed. All you here is the laughter of community and absolute joy for this sacred space.
This is the kind of service that motivates me and encourages me as a pastor. I am talking about the ministries that are behind the scenes. They do not seek any accolades in front of the congregation. Without these special ministries, those of us who stand in front of the entire body would not be able to manage well. We would be in the dark without any sound nor visual aids nor refreshments nor…the list continues.
This leads me to a question, “How do you serve God by offering an unknown gift?” It could be in a private conversation with someone or providing a meal to a person. Service takes all forms. I want to encourage you to reach out into the world around you and silently and unselfishly share the love of Christ with someone who might be desperate to hear the Good News.
There is a church that I served that had an incredible food pantry. What distinguished it above other pantries was the openness and non-judgmental atmosphere that greeted everyone who served and everyone who was served. The only requirement to receive assistance was proof of residency in the county. There were no expectations to attend a church service or read a pamphlet. There was just an openness to make a difference in the community.
Many times hope does not come in the form of words. It can be a kind gesture or an unexpected gift. Christ, our hope, can come to us in ways that are bold and incredibly grand. The Divine can also come in a form that is softer than a whisper. Whatever way God comes, let us be open to experience the majesty of that which is greater than who we are. Just like our light bulbs, let us be changed.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.