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.

Lessons From My Mother

I cannot remember a time when I did not want to be a musician.  I have always enjoyed the art of making music.  As a kid, my sister and I would put on variety shows and take turns singing.  (Yes, I was a great big nerd).  As I grew up, so did my need to express my love for music.  I enjoyed the more complex and challenging traditions of classical music.  Through it all my love became deeper and deeper.  I do not sing because it is simply fun.  I sing because I have to.

I was born into a family that was predominantly made up of eager sports enthusiasts.  My mother and I would have horrible disagreements because of my love for music.  She did not understand this love that I had and to which I was so attached.  Some of her statements were cruel and left me hurt and terribly disappointed.  I felt as if who I was would never be good enough for her.  I was the odd man out.
When I was twenty I finally told my mother that I loved her and that I could not major in anything else other than music in college.  We had one of the most emotionally brutal arguments that we had ever had.  We did not talk to each other for almost an entire month.  This was a difficult time, because I lived in her house.  In my mind she had crossed the line and I could not continue by attempting to do anything else with my life.  To not have music as the centerpiece of who I am was unthinkable.
After the fighting and the month of a stalemate, she asked me to sit with her and talk.  I prepared myself for battle, but I was not prepared for the conversation that we had.  She apologized to me and told me that all she wanted was for me to be happy.  She knew that I was capable of becoming whatever I wanted to be and if that included music, then she would support me.  
My jaw dropped.  I did not know what to do.  Here was this very strong woman apologizing to me.  I felt like telling her that it was okay, but I simply accepted her apology.  After our conversation, she became my biggest supporter.  Through this time of conflict, my mother taught me one of the greatest lessons that I ever learned in my life.
As a very young adult my mother taught me how to apologize.  It was okay to make a mistake and acknowledge the error of my ways.  It was alright to be honest in the middle of moments that are not considered one’s best.  I learned that in the middle of anger and resentment relationships can be restored.  I also learned that once someone offers reconciliation it is important to listen to their heart.  Most of the time, in my mother’s case, she wanted what was best for me.
Our mothers teach us not just about life, but how to live life.  Sometimes we find lessons in how someone acts or reacts to an event.  We often learn when actions and/or reactions are negative and sometimes leave us wounded.  Forgiveness becomes more than just a word, it becomes an action.  While we seek forgiveness we also speak truths which often empower the wounded soul.
As I continue to raise my children, I remember this incredible lesson on forgiveness.  I use it frequently.  I search for the truth in my responses and ask for an apology where it is needed.  I hope my children learn this lesson.  I want my family to know that forgiveness is about ownership of any misdeed done and then allowing the truth to come forward as reconciliation and hope are restored.  For this big lesson, I thank my mom for showing me how to truly seek peace.

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.

My Mother’s Legacy – The Definition of Love (1 Corinthians 13)

On a personal note, I offer my gratitude for all who are here today.

On behalf of my family words cannot express the incredible display of love that we have encountered.
My mom’s life lives on through the generous display of Christ’s unending grace that fills this place.
Her legacy is one that stretches far past the walls here.
I once heard a story about a boy who walked by a pet store.
In the window he saw a sign that read “Puppies for Sale $25.”
He anxiously went into the store and asked the owner “Is it true that there are puppies for sale?”
The owner responded, “Yes there are puppies for sale.”
The owner whistled, and out came a dog named Lady followed by seven puppies attempting to keep up with their mother.
Coming from far back in the distance was a little dog who had a physical deformity and could not keep up with the other dogs.
The boy’s attention was immediately drawn to the puppy.
In excitement, the boy proclaimed, “I would like to buy that puppy that had trouble keeping up.”
The owner responded, “That puppy is not for sale.”
“But I want that puppy,” replied the boy.
“Look that one is not for sale.  You are more than welcome to purchase one of the other puppies.”
The boy would not take no for an answer.
The owner finally gave in and said, “I will give you that puppy free of charge.”
The boy was outraged.  “Look mister, I have 25 cents in my pocket.  I will gladly bring you 25 cents each week until you receive the full amount for the puppy.”
Finally the owner said in absolute frustration, “Look son, you don’t understand.  That puppy is very different.  It will not be able to run and jump like the other puppies.  It will always limp.  It will always fall behind!”
Just then the boy raised his pant leg to reveal a badly twisted ankle.
“That’s okay,” said the boy, “I think he will need someone who understands.”
This is a story, much like the love my mother shared with all who came into her path.
Her consistent fight for the underdog along with her passion for life brought a real life portrait to the definition of love as seen in our reading from the book of First Corinthians.
Her life was a testimony to the fact that she believed, as the Apostle Paul wrote, that, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.
I saw this at home, in her family, her union, and her church.
In her work, your cause was her cause.
She would tirelessly fight for those who had little to no voice.
Never did I hear her say to me that someone was not worth the fight.
All the person had to do was express a need, and she was there.
If you were a politician, and she believed in your cause, she was a strong ally and formidable opponent.
She personally took on the successes and losses in a campaign.
She took the journey with those she supported.
In our family, she would insist that arguments could last no longer than two weeks.
She refused to support anything that separated us.
Anyone who knew Ruby Jane knew that family meant everything to her.
Many times I meet people who know my mom and my first reaction is to apologize for having to hear endless stories about my children.
Secretly I loved the fact that my mother adored my children above everything else.
Her unwavering belief in the goodness of others was a life- long lesson about which I still learn.
She taught me, and many others in this room, that there is that divine spark of goodness that calls us to act better and treat each other with kindness.
She hoped at times when all hope was lost.
I can tell you from personal experience that this woman maintained faith in the goodness of all people.
She was a living testament to the Good News of hope.
Ruby Jane Jensen was a true witness to the message of Christ.
She lived the definition of love as set forth in the reading from 1 Corinthians.
Because we knew her, we understood love in a different way.
Our lives would never be the same.
I once read the definition of an angel.
An angel was someone who came into your life for a measure of time and, once leaving your life, you are never the same because they had been there.
Angels can come into our world for a season, an hour, a minute, a second, a moment.
This description sounds like my mom.
While not being perfect, her commitment to life and those she loved created that rare spark of holy love that transcends all obstacles.
I believe that my mom opened her eyes on the other side and the first words she heard were from God as the Divine said, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

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.

The Ties that Bind Us Together

It is approximately 6:20 a.m. and I am sitting in the Midway Airport in Chicago.  To say I am a little anxious is an understatement.  I am flying to Houston to be with my mother through a very difficult time.  She will be undergoing open heart surgery to replace her aortic valve.  I can only imagine how frightening this must be to her as she prepares for the operation.

There is a part of me that is responding to this situation in a very selfish manner.  I am absolutely dreading the thought of going back to Houston.  It is very difficult to be a missionary in your own backyard.  Houston is my backyard.  Unfortunately, it is not the kind of place that I visit to refresh my spirit.  I tend to prepare for spiritual warfare. 
Several members of my extended family do not bring out the best in me.  Matter of fact, the biggest fear I have is not that my mother will have complications from the surgery, but that I will have to encounter particular family members that I have long given up on maintaining a relationship.  You know the type of people about which I speak.  The kind of people that rage into your life like a tornado, only to leave the scene in utter chaos.
I get so caught up in the mundane stuff that I forget that I am a pastor.  I allow the resentments of the past to creep back into my life and keep me in a state of a restlessness and anger.  As a pastor, I am sent into the world to be a living witness to the Gospel of Christ.  That includes being the light of Christ to my family.  That means all of my family.
I equate my journey to Houston like Jonah’s journey to Nineveh.  Part of me says, “I really don’t want to go God.  Send someone else.  These people are not worth saving.  They are horrible.” 
I know that I will surrender to what is right.  What matters is that I forgive those in my family and offer the Word of God to the ones who need to hear God’s message.  I will lay aside my desire to run away from a very difficult situation and stand in the Word.  I know that Christ will strengthen me.  It is just getting to the point where I can surrender to allow God to utilize my life.

A Season of Thanksgiving

My church has claimed the four weeks before Advent as a Season of Thanksgiving.  With that said, I had a very small encounter today that left me with a feeling of absolute gratitude.  I visited my five year old son at school and was overwhelmed by the fact that he said that I made his day.  I knew at that moment that I was very blessed.  I made my son’s day by showing up and being present in his life.

When I taught in the public school system, one of the most satisfying parts of my job occurred when I was visited by old students.  More often than not, the conversation always came back to the importance of the choir program in their lives and how being a part of such a group made a difference.  There was nothing greater than to hear that, for a moment in their lives, the worries of the day were replaced with a willingness to surrender to the act of creating something that was bigger than who they were as individual people.  That was the joy of teaching. 
I call the experiences of my former students “encounters with the sacred.”  There is an incredible sense of belonging to a community where one is welcomed and encouraged to share talents and ideas that will further the development of the self.  Awareness of the soul comes in the state of practicing the idea of love.  That is our common bond that crosses rivers of hate and shame.  Our love for each other invites us to be more than who we are.  We are motivated to grow and live beyond our wildest dreams.
The situation with my son made me start to wonder about all of the other “little” things I could do to share in an attitude of gratitude.  In all honesty, the most important thing that we all crave is the acknowledgement that our lives matter.  It is the love for each other that will carry on long after we leave this planet.  The concept of love is so important that Jesus himself spoke of it as the greatest of commandments.
I appreciated the hug that I received and the absolute joy that “MacDonald the Younger” felt as I visited his class.  These will be memories that I will remember many years from now.  How blessed we are as humans to possess a soul which thrives and celebrates the legacy that we leave with each other.  We are hotwired for relationships.  Love is in the fabric of who we are.
In the spirit of whose we are, let us continue the journey of thanksgiving.  The psalmist even said that “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall always be on my lips” (Ps. 34:1 NRSV).  Let us be ever mindful of the faithfulness of our God.  It is within God’s continuing acts of love that I know that I am so much more than I ever thought that I would be.  The good news is that I am not everything that I will be.
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.