Jonah, the Fish, and Us

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” (Psalm 130 NRSV)

I love the story of Jonah and the great big fish. Whether one interprets the story as a parable or as a literal event, there is no denying one fact. In the deepest most isolated area imaginable, God heard the cry of Jonah. Through umpteen million tons of blubber and a raging storm, God heard an incredible cry of dread.

This is the power of Psalm 130. Out of a sense of fear and in the middle of absolute darkness, God hears the voice of His people. God not only hears us, but God forgives us. In the pit of despair, when all seems lost and hopeless, God delivers and restores us. There is hope in a hopeless situation. This is our story. We are freed from darkness to come into the light.

The psalmist did not stop at individual salvation. The very last portion was an appeal to the whole nation of Israel. The individual and communal natures of God’s salvific works depend on the participation of all believers. This implies that the church, comprised of those who have experienced an individual change, must also seek forgiveness as a collective body of believers.

One cannot argue that the church has failed to be perfect in the world. It is very easy to sight many events in our history which would support the claim that the church has at times been anything but holy. However, at its best, the church has and continues to provide ministries which make a positive and lasting impact on our world. We as a church must petition God to forgive us and move forward to learn from our past. This is the only way that we can build our future.

As for that big fish in Jonah, I am sure that it suffered a whole bunch of heartburn and trauma. How could it not? The good news is that Jonah was freed and the fish could swim easily and happily. Our hope is to be freed from whatever pit in which we find ourselves and discover the radical love and joy of God.

Loincloth, Nakedness, and Shame Oh My!

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gen. 3:7 NRSV).

As I prepare for Lent, I stumbled across Genesis 3:7 and was intrigued at the actions that Adam and Eve took when discovering their nakedness. While I am sure there might be several people who read this post because of some of the words located in the text, I do not believe that the literal interpretation of the story is the most important assumption made.

Before the reality of nakedness, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God and the creation of God without anything to hide. I am not talking about their physical selves, but a spiritual sense of the word nakedness. Their lives were in complete communion with God. They served the land and guarded the soil. Immediately after their disobedience, there was a change in their perception of self and their relationship to God.

There was a need to be hidden. Perhaps out of sense of shame for disobeying, or the realization that something had changed. Perhaps (and I am definitely reading something into the text that is not there) if they could have gone back they might have chosen a different path. The fruit was not as appealing on the other side as it had been before.

We see the first recorded romance with the other side. That romance that eventually devoured Adam and Eve. The truth is, it is easy to point the finger at the first man and woman, but the apple (so to speak) doesn’t fall too far from the cart. We are seduced into situations or people who eventually hurt us. How many times do we fall into the trap of doing the wrong thing with the right motives? The truth is, when all is said and done, the wrong thing is just that regardless of the motive.

Many of us have been wounded in the past in some way or another. We have learned how to travel in secret and hide from ourselves and God the ruined dreams or shattered relationships of the past. This was the only way that we knew how to survive. God wants more from us. God calls us back from the realms of abuse and calls us into a relationship which leaves no room for secrets due to shame or whatever motivation.

I recently read a blog that made me think of how painful it must have been to wear a loincloth made of fig leaves. It was probably scratchy and hurt. We put these loincloths on over our souls. They hurt and tend to make us uncomfortable. We cannot be free of pain until we are free from those things that we have created to give us the illusion that we are covered. Uncover your soul and allow God to fill you with strength, hope, and love.

We are reminded through the Lenten journey to get back to God and bare all that you are to the one who created you. Our relationship with God does not need to possess anything. We simply bring to God our complete selves. Loincloths are not needed.

God the Foundation

10”According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14If what has been built on the foundation survives the builder will receive a reward. 15If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:10-15 NRSV).

Last week I preached on the importance of personal reconciliation, both to each other and ourselves. I spoke of individual responsibility and our commitment to place our personal care into the hands of God. It is with the assurance of our personal salvation that God equips our hearts to faithfully serve our world. By having a renewal of spirit, a change from the inside out, we set our course toward our long walk towards perfection.

This week, the focus shifts towards the communal aspect of grace, and how we live out our faith within the context of a body of believers. The idea of being the architect of our church while never forgetting who laid the foundation can become overwhelming. Think about it for a moment. When we look at the beautiful basilicas and other churches, they we were created for us to look up and be amazed. We are instructed in some sense to take our eyes off of the foundation and look at the beauty of human creation. We tend to worship the building and not the one who laid the foundation.

Anyone who knows me appreciates the fact that I am not a gifted master builder. Matter of fact, I was grateful that I actually built bookshelves for my family. That project was huge for me. What about the one who is building a great work that is in me? My challenge is to follow the blue print that is given to me from the master builder of all master builders. That one is Jesus Christ. I am constantly challenged to surrender my desires to create and make bigger and simply give way to worship. Let the one who truly is a craftsman sculpt me into the man of God who I am called to be.

May we all remember that our works together call for a church which can be restored and made whole. Remembering the chief architect as we build our places of worship creates places in which our world can truly experience the radical love of God. Let us contribute to the building continuously giving credit to the one who gives us our foundation. That foundation that stores within us springs of living waters.

What is schedule?

When I lived in Houston, I remember one of the things that drove me crazy was the complete predictability of my schedule. Every day seemed to be planned out and ordered. I became resigned to the fact that I would live this way until retirement. To say I felt trapped was an understatement.

Then I answered a call to ministry. Since moving to the mountains of New Mexico, I will say that schedule has been replaced by unpredictability. One incident triggers another and I find myself simply showing up and getting out of the way of God’s purpose. God reveals how my day will unfold. Some days are more predictable than others.

While I sometimes long for a remnant of schedule, I have learned that I surrendered my plans to the one I serve. I report to work every day asking one simple request. I ask God to use me so that I may be a vehicle for the Kingdom. Many times that means that my schedule is extremely erratic and unconventional. As I move past my own wants, I realize that my needs are very simple. I need to be the conduit through which the light of Christ may be shared.

I must admit that I sometimes long for the days when I had a sense of schedule in my life. I miss the routine; however, I embrace and enjoy the adventure of unpredictability. While I am grateful for my friends who maintain and thrive within very scheduled routines, I know that my strengths are best played out when I am outside of the box. My hope today is that whether you are like those who best work within a systematic routine, or those who thrive within a system of unpredictability, you may grow in the knowledge that Christ loves and delights in you. Equipped with the knowledge that we are loved by God, the rest matters not.

Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18 NRSV).

When I read this passage I immediately think of the old adage, “Talk is cheap.” The bottom line is this, words are important and words matter. Many people, myself included, have been victim to words that are used like a dagger with pinpoint accuracy to the heart. Once there is a wound the bleeding is tremendous. Words do matter.

In his message to the churches in Corinth, Paul acknowledges that words matter; however, in the case of the cross, our words mean absolutely nothing if not supported with actions. We are called to service. Our interpretation of holy texts and exegetical pronouncements are great, but if such highly intellectual conclusions are not lived out by what we do, then all of the research really means nothing.

We are called to be a people of action. What we do and why we do it must combine to demonstrate the love of Christ to our world. As Christ’s disciples, we must engage the world and lead not only by our words, but by our deeds. If someone is hungry it is far more important to feed them than to lecture and carry on about the wonders of our faith. Through our actions of kindness one can experience the ever present love of Christ. We tap into the power of salvation by letting our lives be a witness to the service of humanity.

It is important to note, as any good Wesleyan minister should, that this does not mean that what we do plays any role in our salvation. Our actions are an expression of that which has changed us from the inside out. God is the one who saves us. Our works flow out of us like a deep flowing well offering the way to everlasting life. We may lead the way to the well, but there is only one who gives the water which sustains us. That one is God. The water which we drink is a free gift offered to all those who thirst. Let us lead others to God so that they may never thirst again. As we lead people to the source, we will experience over and over the radical love that God has for humanity. And in response to that love, God continues to give us a Savior. That one is Jesus. May you experience the Spirit in ways you never knew existed.

I Thank My God for You

This week my sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. I am always drawn to Paul’s opening statements, particularly “I thank to my God always for you” (1 Cor. 1:4 NRSV). While the phrase is wonderful and is great when referring to those people to whom I enjoy the company of their presence, I must admit I fall short of being able to make this proclamation of joy when I deal with those I find challenging. In fact, many times I lack the ability to feel “thankful” for difficult people. (I hope I am not the only one who struggles with this issue).

This is where faith comes into the picture. When asked directly which commandment is the greatest, Jesus said something like this, “Look. Let me sum up every commandment you have ever been given. Love God, and love each other. If you do these two basic things, you will follow every other thing God has asked you to do.” In other words, love must be a verb as well as a noun. We are called into action to worship the Divine.

This action word of which I speak challenges us to connect with something bigger than ourselves. We are to represent God, even when we don’t feel like it. This includes embodying the nature of Christ to those people whom we would rather not speak to as well as those people whom we do not like. I know this is easier said than done, but why not attempt to do what the Master said?

As we put the verb into action our understanding of the noun will grow. The verb moves us to extravagantly worship the noun which is the creator of the universe. Will you be the one in which the love of God, through your deeds, transforms the world, or will you be content to let the one to whom we give praise remain contained without purpose and then make the choice to simply sit back and do nothing? The choice is yours. Say yes to the verb, and then do it. Love each other and in the middle of what you do, the presence of God will fill you with peace.

True Love

We have moments when God reveals God’s self to us in ways that sometimes are very subtle and sometimes knock a person to their knees. I recently had an encounter with the Divine on a day when I least likely expected one. I know a couple who live in a retirement home. They have a lot of illness between them and so they do not live in the same room, but whenever I visit the home I always see them together. They are a remarkable pair who I have come to admire.

She has Alzheimer’s disease and the manifestation of her illness is progressing very rapidly. As typical of the disease, there are some good days and some bad days. Through it all, her husband has been there for her every day. Both of them are well into their nineties and have been married over seventy years. Their story is an amazing chronicle of love, commitment, and honor.

I received word that this dear sweet lady had a stroke and was not expect to recover from her condition. Immediately hearing about the issue, I visited her in the nursing home. Her husband came into the room and we began to talk. I watched him and how he tenderly held her hand and was concerned that his wife knew that she was not alone. He was there just like he had been so many times before.

I sat and watched this holy exchange. I watched the vows of marriage being fulfilled and carried out in a way that took my breath away. Their hands joined together served as a reminder of their love and the glue that connected them together as a single family. I was honored to be in that room. I was touched to be a living witness to this special kind of covenant. I left thinking that this is the promise that I made to my wife. I want to be the person that will hold my wife’s hand and she hold mine.

I was made freshly aware of why I am a minister of the Gospel of Christ. I am invited into those places in people’s lives when the presence of God is so real that you can almost touch it. I am privileged to be a part of the lives of those who call me their pastor. I am allowed to stand in the presence of those around me and to share the message of salvation. Sometimes it is delivered with words, while other times it is delivered in silent witness.

As we celebrated Epiphany this past week, I am grateful that God allowed me to have my own realization. I am grateful for the lives of this couple and the honor to be a witness to their commitment to their God, and to each other. May we all be living Gospels to those who are in need of the Word which came for us, sacrificed for us, and lives within us.

AMEN.

We are living gospels!

Just recently my congregation and I concluded a year-long sermon series in which we read through the Bible. Below is a part of my last sermon of the year 2010, and was addressed to my congregation on December 26, 2010. The focus text was Revelation 22:16-21. I felt like the text is appropriate as we end the year and pray that 2011 is an even better year than 2010. Peace be with all of you.

Here we are at the very end of the Bible. This is considered the final written word of our sacred text. Let me clarify a few things before we continue. As I have said before, there are many theological misconceptions that are out there.

This pericope is no exception. For instance, when John speaks in verse 18, he is not talking about the entire Bible. He addresses this writing, the Book of Revelation, to be the source to which he refers. Some theologies take this verse to indicate that it refers to the entire Bible. I disagree with their conclusions.

When the author of John wrote about this unique vision, there was no Bible. The only thing considered canonical were the ancient writings of the Hebrews. There was no New Testament. Something regarding a New Testament would not come into being for many years. When Paul referred to the gospel, he was not referring to what we know as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He was referring to his own experiences. The Gospels would not be written until after Paul wrote his letters. With the religious landscape in Paul and John’s time, there would be no way that verse 18 could have spoken for a complete collection of writings that we know as the Bible.

So, why is this important? I like to say, so what is at stake? Okay, we move on. This is the end. These are the last words that we hear. Look at the writing. It is filled with hope. It is filled with assurance. And it is filled with wonder.

This may be the ending of what we call the Bible, but to us it is just the beginning. Our own narratives are writings within themselves. Our stories continue this one. We are living testaments to the radical transformation of the love of God.

Just as John wrote of his journey, so we write of ours. We have parts of the story that are filled with hope, longing, joy, sadness, redemption, and forgiveness. The printed text is not the end of the Biblical story. It is the beginning of our continued relationship with our Savior.

We started our journey at the beginning in which God created beauty out of chaos. As we continued on our journey, we explored the unique relationship that God had with His chosen people. We discovered the Messiah was brought into the world to save us all. In this good news or gospel, we found the message of hope. May we continue on this journey towards salvation and wholeness.

What are you going to do with your gospel? Will you simply close the book to the Biblical text, or will you chose to be a living example in the day to day living? You are called to keep this text alive. Let it breathe. Let it live. Let the message flow deep into your hearts and bring you freedom. Don’t close the book. Simply continue it.

Find the Manger

Luke 2:1-20
I can only imagine what it was like the night of the birth. Angels were working in the fields. They were doing what they had done for years. Many were going about the business of their ancestors. This was supposed to be a routine evening doing a routine job.

As the shepherds settled into their mundane tasks, they were visited by a celestial band of angels. Something happened. The colors, the lights, the music. It all was magnificent. Words could never describe it. The proclamation which came from above to those below all told of the one who was promised to the world. God in the flesh was present. We are told that the shepherds followed the angels’ instructions and visited the Holy family.

This revelation still occurs in the world today. Somehow, we encounter God and are invited into a relationship which includes beauty and awe. We are led to find that which is sacred and divine. Once we have this encounter with God, nothing is ever the same.

May this Christmas lead you to that which calls you to the sacred. May your manger experience be one that transforms you and redeems you. Experience the form of God within us and through us. Your life will never be the same.

My Christmas Tradition

I don’t know what it was about last night, but I had a profound awareness of God’s presence as my family decorated our Christmas tree. As my wife placed hangers on the ornaments, she pointed out the various people and places that had so generously given us these little gifts of memories. I hung a big figure skate on the tree from my friend Nora thanking me for the gift of friendship. Nora, if you read this, know that I smiled as I placed that skate up on the tree. I considered your friendship a true blessing. We hung the wonderfully decorated ornaments up from churches past. Wonderful jewels of the memories of service.

We moved our way through the storage boxes as we hung ornaments dating back to the first Christmas that my wife and I celebrated as a married couple. Each of our children hung their first ornaments from the respective year of their own births. Of course, the 14 year old hung his near the top and the 4 year old hung his near the bottom. Seeing my boys hang their own proclamations of their lives made me appreciate how we honor the rituals specially created in our family.

I began to appreciate the many years that I have been hanging ornaments on trees dating back to my own childhood. I gave thanks for the times that I hung an item which sparked a message that God’s hope and spirit are alive and well in my home. Family traditions, at their best, invite us to bring the past into the present. Each year we put up a tree, we touch those who have gone before us. We somehow connect to the many Christmases of yesterday.

We naturally celebrate a season of Advent. It is our hope to move forward by looking back on the gifts which we have received in years gone by. This is where we gather strength in our faith. We know that we can move on because we have before. We press on with the promise of what is to come.

christopherjoiner

Some Thoughts Along the Way

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We take our journey with love and hope.

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

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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.