Walking alongside of people in the midst of joys and horrendous tragedies are markers of what it means to be a pastor. In the midst of such experiences, over the years, a variety of events stand out for me as transforming and life changing. The memory of one has come flooding back into my mind the last few days, along with tears and a hurting heart.
In my last parish and Diocese, I along with others came to know a seven year old girl named Flor and her mother Rosa. We got to know them through mission work. Due to profound poverty and oppression, Flor’s case of Rickets was one of the worst US physicians had ever witnessed. Through hard work, fundraising, governmental paperwork, and prayer, Rosa and her mother were brought to the US to the community of which I was a part.
Surgeons and medical care providers along with a major medical center donated services and completed rounds of excruciatingly painful corrective surgery to treat Flor’s deformities. It was agonizing not only for Flor, but for her mother and those of us who cared for them. But through God’s grace and amazing human beings, Flor was healed.
After a year or so, Rosa asked if I would baptize Flor. In one of the most moving and Spirit filled services, I had the astonishing privilege of baptizing Flor by the side of a gorgeous lake. It was at that moment I was reminded that we are all children of God, are bearers of the Holy, and that love is the only standard by which we should conduct ourselves whenever we are in the presence of another human being. Flor and Rosa taught me what love means and that what God cares most about is love as God is love (1 John 4).
A variety of Central and South American theologians and clergy have understood this truth. Here is what a few of them have said.
The eternal destiny of human beings will be measured by how much or how little solidarity we have displayed with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the oppressed. In the end we will be judged in terms of love. Leonardo Boff (Brazil).
Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Gustavo Gutierrez. (Peru).
A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that? Oscar Romero (El Salvador)
It is entering into the reality of a child, of the poor,of those wearing rags, of the sick, of a hovel,of a shack. It is going to share with them. And from the very heart of misery, of this situation, to transcend it, to elevate it, to promote it, and to say to them, “You aren’t trash. You aren’t marginalized.” It is to say exactly the opposite, “You are valuable.” Oscar Romero (El Salvador)
And so, to Flor and her mother Rosa along with all others from stricken El Salvador, I say, “You are valuable to me and you have taught me much about love and what it means to follow Jesus.”
So goes chapter 1, verse 1, of the Book of Genesis. What follows these four words is a description of what God did in 8 creative acts over a period of 6 days. It is a magnificent description of God creating the earth and everything within it out of nothing. This part of the Book of Genesis is a profound theological statement of how all things began in an orderly manner. As we enter the New Year, I believe we are invited by God to spend time pondering, praying about, and turning to our creative God. More on this in a moment.
I think it is important to remember that the beginning verses of Genesis are theological and never were intended by the writers to be an exact scientific description of creation. If we allow them to, however, science and theology, in fact, work in tandem when it comes to the creation story. God is the creator and science has helped to fill in a few of the blanks as to how God’s creative process unfolded over time. As I see things, science helps us with the “what” and faith based theology leads us to “why.” But regardless of the timeline of the “what”, it is God who started it all, God who oversees it all, and God who created order out of chaos.
“In the beginning God.” As I reflect upon these words, it strikes me that they may serve as the basis of empowering mantras with which to live each day. These words, if we allow them to, help to refocus our attention and enable us to live lives grounded upon our creator. What if throughout the course of each day we were to prayerfully say things to ourselves like the following?
“As I begin this day, God…. As I prepare for work today, God… As I think about how to approach this problem today, God… Before I go to this meeting, God… As I dial this number to have this conversation, God… When all the possibilities of how this might go enter my mind, God… As this transition unfolds, God… When I have to say goodbye, God… With this new…God…”
How we complete each of these statements and others like them is for each of us to work out with the help of God. As our creator, I believe God invites us to intentionally turn to God with all new beginnings from the small to the large. To focus upon him when something different is about to unfold or we are uncertain how to approach a person, situation, or relationship.
God never intended for God’s creation to be separate from God, nor does God ever want us to try and live each day and move through the challenges in front of us without God. Instead, God wants us to remember that God is there at the beginning of all things, in the midst of all things, and at the conclusion of all things.
“In the beginning, God…” Indeed these are some of the most encouraging words to be found anywhere and remind me of what God said to Joshua just before he led the Israelites into the Promised Land. God said to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be discouraged for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) Because Joshua remembered that God was with him as he began the journey across the Jordan River, Joshua had the strength and determination to bring about a new era for humankind.
It is incredible to think that the year 2018 is upon us. At least from where I sit, the 1970’s seem like yesterday. Countless people across the globe will celebrate the New Year in every conceivable way, some wonderful, others perhaps not so swift.
I enjoy gathering with friends and family to welcome in a New Year. There is something special about parades and bowl games. And I along with many feel that with the arrival of a New Year, there is cause for hope. That said, in general, New Years Day and the events that surround it have not been my favorite compared to other holidays. For a long time I didn’t understand why, but recently I think I have begun to gain some insight.
Over the years lots of us have had the experience of making resolutions for the New Year. Resolutions are not the problem. Often in fact they can be life altering for the good.
The challenge is that we at times seemingly make our resolutions calendar dependent. It is as if a simple change on the calendar gives us the opportunity for a new start that was not present before time moves from the 31st of December to the 1st of January.
If however, we look at change as being calendar driven, we can lose sight of the fact that each and every day we are given by God is a fresh moment we can begin anew, set a new course, change directions, make different decisions, or confront ways of living that diminish us.
Said another way, we need not wait for a new year to arrive to make transformative commitments or to resolve to do this or that. God gives us that opportunity every moment of every day.
Scripture is replete with examples of people making changes, starting anew, or engaging in a new beginning. None of the stories I can think of were calendar driven, but God led. Whether it was Moses beginning his role as a leader or Esther taking on the new responsibility of saving her people, new starts, beginnings and choices didn’t depend upon a ball dropping at midnight.
While it is important to mark the passage of time, celebrate meaningful events and passages, the good news of the Gospel is that we can start fresh at any time. This is why in Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians he writes, “What we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new.” (The Message).
When our lives are grounded in Christ, God’s spirit enables us to get such a fresh start every single moment. The Spirit of God does not depend on a calendar, time, or the day of the week.
It is my prayer for each of us this New Year that we will resolve to awaken each day expectant that our Lord is working through us to bring about not only what is new, but what brings us joy, hope, an opportunity to serve, healing, and purpose.
Happy New Year!
Each year, Christmas arrives in the midst of whatever is happening in life. For most of us, our lives are a mixture of the good and bad, the joyful and hard, the successes and failures, along with what is going right and what is terribly wrong. But wherever we are this Christmas, I have a prayer that something will happen to each of us over the days ahead.
I pray that each of us will receive something from God. Not something that comes in a wrapped package. Not something that is found underneath a colorfully lit tree. Not something we only encounter on Christmas. Something only our Savior can give us. And what our Savior has to give each of us is not only quite special, but very unique, life changing and transforming.
Some of us need strength. We are depleted. Maybe we are in that place where we have learned that relying on our own strength sometimes is not enough and ultimately is not going to cut it. We know we need a power far greater than ourselves to help us and we are in that place ready to finally receive that power, that strength.
For those of us who need strength and know it, “Unto us a Savior is born” and our Savior wants to give us the strength we need for whatever it is. His strength. Our Savior says to us, “Come to me, all of you who are worn out and burdened and I will give you rest. Come to me and I will give you the strength you need.”
Some of us, however, may need something else. Maybe we are in that place where our hearts are heavy and our spirits are troubled because issues of forgiveness are consuming us in one way or another
We know we need to forgive ourselves, but perhaps just can’t. We know we need to forgive another, but it seems impossible. We know we have to let go and that bitterness is doing us no good. And for those of us in such a place, “Unto us a Savior is born.” A Savior who wants to deal with whatever it is when it comes to forgiveness. Our Savior says to us, “Turn the struggle over to me. All is forgiven. All will be well. Let go of guilt. Be free from the weight of it all.”
But perhaps there are others of us whom are filled with fear, worry or trepidation. Maybe we are consumed with angst. Despite our best efforts, living in the moment is a foreign concept and our minds are consumed with all the “what if” questions imaginable. For those of us in a place of dis-ease, “Unto us a Savior is born.” Our Savior wants to free us from fear and invites us to turn it all over to God, to let go, to let God deal with whatever it is, and to receive a strong trust in God that replaces our fear.
Some of us, however, in the midst of all the delight, may be dealing with loss or are really missing someone who is gone. For those of us in such a place, “Unto us a Savior is born.” A Savior who shattered the tomb of death and rose again reminding us all, that through our Savior, eternity awaits us.
An eternity beyond description. A space beyond our five senses in which all is well, all is beautiful, all is the way it is supposed to be. “Unto us a Savior is born” to remind us to live with hope and count on the fact there is so much more going on than meets the eye, so we can go ahead and live right now without concern about the future or those we miss and see no longer.
And finally, may be in need of something that transcends everything and that is love. For those of us who need love, the right kind of love that changes everything, “Unto us a Savior is born.” A Savior whose essence is love.
A Savior who was born to show us that God is love, that all that matters in the end is love, and that the purpose of life is love. That love has been the point, remains the point, and will forever be the point. Loving God with all our hearts, minds, soul and strength and loving other people by what we do moment to moment. And for those of us who need the love only God can offer, a love which is permanent, healing, lavish, deep, profound, and unconditional, “Unto us a Savior is born.”
I know first hand the complex challenges, heartaches, pains and pitfalls of life. I know that there is a heck of a lot of bad in the midst of all that is great and wonderful and good. But through it all, we have a Savior, whose birth we celebrate. We have Jesus who has been given to you and to me to free us to live with joy and confidence.
And we can live with joy because we have a Savior who gives us the strength we need, a Savior who has dealt with and responds to any and all issues of forgiveness, a Savior who empowers us to let go of fear, a Savior who had taken care of death so we can live with hope, and a Savior who shows us the path, the purpose, and the reason for it all, which is love.
John the Baptist is one of the most colorful characters in the New Testament. The story of John is about a man who prepared people for the coming of Jesus. It is important to point out that long before John showed up, the Old Testament prophets of Malachi and Isaiah told of a time when a person would arrive on the scene proclaiming that the Messiah was on his way.
In Malachi we find, “A messenger of God will go ahead of you.” And from Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John the Baptist was the fulfillment of these prophecies. John had a clear purpose in life. To tell people about Jesus, to prepare folks for his arrival, and to encourage them to repent or to turn their lives back to God. He passionately encouraged people to open up their hearts and their lives to God and for what God was about to do through Jesus.
John profoundly affected people around him. He shook people up by what he said, by how he acted, and in fact by how he looked. When people were around John they paid attention.
As a result of John, folks thought about their lives and what was important. They thought about God and what it means to have a God that is fully present. They thought about how they had fallen short and what they needed to do to set things right in their lives and relationships. They spent time thinking about their passions, affections, and attachments as well as their purpose in life.
As I think about John and who he was and the impact he had, I am compelled to offer some questions for each one of us to think about this Advent season.
John’s life proclaimed Jesus. Who or what do our lives proclaim? Who or what do our lives point to? What principles and values do our lives represent? What do people take away from us after an encounter with us? What rubs off of you and of me onto others?
Whether or not we know it or intend it, people are affected by being around us. And what rubs off of us can run the gamut from things that are debilitating to destructive to life changing to healing to leading people to Jesus. So the question is, what do you want to rub off on others as a result of people being around you? What do you want people to take away from being with you?
I know I have fallen short in many ways throughout my life. I have done and said things I regret. Not all of whom I have been has reflected my true values. And sadly, some of what has rubbed off of me onto to others is not what I really would have wanted. Perhaps you have had some of these feelings too.
But I also know that you and I are on a journey. That we can ask God to help us. We can repent and turn back to God. We can take the time to stop and think about the questions I’ve posed and what rubs off of us.
While you and I are not like John the Baptist, there is no doubt that we can have a massive impact on those we encounter. I invite you over the Advent days ahead to take some time to pray, think about, and dig deep within your heart, about what it is that rubs off of you onto others. And my prayer for each of us is that what we exude most of all to everyone we encounter is the love of God, a love so desperately needed at this time in our land.
We now are moving into our second week of Advent. It is a season in which, we as Christians, continue to ready ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birth and prepare and ponder His Second Coming. These themes of the Advent Season cause me to ask another question. Am I prepared for Jesus to come into my life right now?
Perhaps God wants us not just to think about what He did and what He will do, but what He is doing this moment. Frankly, if we spend too much time thinking about what was or what will be, we might not be paying enough attention to what the possibilities are right now.
Long ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote, in effect, “Lord God, we are the clay and you are the potter.”
While Isaiah’s words were to a people who lived and suffered a long time ago, in many ways, his words have a lot to do with us who live in a vastly different place and time. Isaiah said, in essence, “Through it all, the good and the bad, live like a piece of clay and let God be the one who shapes you.”
I think this is great counsel for us this Advent season. We don’t need to wait for His second coming for transformation, healing, or peace within our lives to begin. Jesus wants to come into our lives, come into the changes we are going through, come into the center of our identities and ways of doing things, and have His way with us right this moment.
Are we ready for Christ to come into our lives right now in ways that may change us at our core? Are we ready for that kind of change? Are we truly willing to expand what it is that we are building our lives upon?
Are we willing to finally build our lives around Christ? Not kind of. Not partially. Not sort of. But completely.
So this Advent, over the next days and weeks, I invite you to do a few things.
Have some straight talk with God. Talk to God about your life and especially those places you resist changing the most. Talk to God about those spots you are afraid to let go of. Tell God how you feel.
Ask God to help you build your life around Him. And it you already feel you have done that, ask Him again. Ask God to help you build your life around Him, not stuff, places, relationships, ways of living or a whole litany of other possibilities. Ask God to help you develop a relationship with God in which you are the clay and God is the potter.
My soul is at home in the Mountain and Desert Western United States. It may very well be this way because I was born along the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. It could also be due to the fact that many of my best childhood memories happened in a place where the air is dry, the sky is blue, and humidity is a foreign concept. But perhaps the West is my spiritual ally because of the wide open spaces.
There is something unique about driving along a dusty back road where mountain peaks 90 miles away are visible. And for me, there is nothing like standing on one of those peaks looking out over miles and miles and miles of creation. When you get down to it, I feel the way I do about the mountain and desert West because of the space. The scenery is just so vast.
Space enables perspective. Space facilitates inspiration. Space creates awe, renders silence, enhances the sense of how small we are, and allows us to see things in ways we otherwise would not be able to perceive.
It is only on a mountain top we gain a sense of what a valley is and it is by standing on a desert floor we begin to understand height. Space highlights opposites and exposes differences. Beauty happens because of space.
As I reflect upon geographical space, it occurs to me that space is something that happens within human relationships as well. While space can mean a relationship is strained or that people within a relationship are unhappy, space can also represent a basic truth that all human beings are different from one another. And perhaps rather that seeing such differences as a negative, we should view others who are vastly different from who we are in the same way we view the space of the West.
People from whom we differ offer us perspective, a different way of viewing things, and hopefully enables us to see things in new and varying ways. Topographical space offers us vistas and propels us to ponder and wonder. Wouldn’t a similar reaction to those with whom we differ be just as wonderful and impactful?
If everyone around us thought, believed, and expressed themselves as we do, if would be like living in a cave, a cave in which all people would be the same and life’s beauty and spectacular nuances would disappear. Imagine if the West was flat. Do we want life to be like that?
Recently someone sent me a fascinating article based on some research that has been done at Northwestern University. Apparently, the people we choose to spend time with affects us dramatically. The article notes that “choosing the right friends is important because it causes our brain waves to resemble those of the people we spend the most time with. This means we start becoming alike, and pick up their desirable behaviors and ways of seeing the world without being conscious of it.”
The research suggests that choosing people is more important than choosing what to eat, what to wear, where to go, what to do, or what to order. One person states, “the more important decision we have when going to a restaurant, for example, is who to go with. That is far more important and impactful than the choices on the menu.”
The same person says, “we get on the same wavelength with those we spend the most time with. If people want to make life improvements, such as reading more or getting better at something, then they should spend their time with someone who has those desirable traits and they will naturally pick them up.”
While I find this research fascinating and valid, what if we become more and more like, more and more in alignment with, not just those we spend the most time with, but with whom or what we choose to serve as well.
And the choices of whom or what we serve each day are limitless, both good and bad. We can choose to serve God, assets, an identity, family, our egos, an image, a profession, a political party, or a specific role we have in life, just to name a few. And whom or what we choose to serve impacts everything.
All of this causes me to wonder what might happen if you and I choose moment to moment to serve Christ. What if by choosing to serve Christ our minds get on the same wavelength with Jesus. What if by choosing to serve Christ, our days begin to reflect who God is.
And how might we see the challenges, joys, heartaches, struggles, fears, hopes, dreams, and let downs imbedded within each day if our minds were on the same wavelength as God’s? What might happen if during discussions, meetings, meals, random happenings, and events that occur
I have come to understand that if we want to change our lives for the better, the best place to start is not on the outside, but on the inside. The more we spend time with God, the more we make serving Christ our priority, the more we will find changes happening on the outside. The important thing about all of this is to make daily conscious choices, not only about the people we spend the most time with, but whom or what we are serving. Such decisions will dramatically affect the course of each moment.
We who have lived know all too well that the years we have are all about the ups and downs, twists and turns, good and bad, the pretty with the ugly. Sources of joy and coexisting sorrow are just part of the deal. Said another way. Life is a mixed bag, isn’t it, of great things along with all that is quite the opposite.
In the midst of what is occurring lately, I have found that for many people, including those for whom life is generally good at the moment, a lot of what is happening is creating some fear. Fear over where the world might be headed. Fear over shootings. Fear over massive natural disasters piling up on top of one another. Fear in response to lack of leadership at many levels and within all political persuasions.
Fear over the fact that our children are relating to devices, e.g. cell phones, seemingly more than they are to people. Fear over what our children and children’s children are going to have to live with. Maybe some of us feel not only some fear, but some hopelessness that there is not much we can do about any of these challenges.
Fear is normal, healthy, God given and human. Fear can help us and it is appropriate. That said, sustained fear, fear that goes on and on and on well past the events that triggered it, might, very well, be an invitation from God to go deep inside and explore where it is coming from. “What does this fear tell me about me. What does it tell me about where I am with God? What does it tell me about my faith?” And as an important aside, fear may helpfully prompt us to ask, “is this fear telling me also that I may need some help with it?”
What many have pointed out long before me is that God says, “Fear Not” more than any other command in the Bible. Obviously fear is a challenge for many of us since God has so much to say about it.
Max Lucado, the Christian writer says the following about fear. He said, “Feed your fears and your faith will starve. Feed your faith and your fears will starve.” In other words, the more we focus on trusting God, the less fear we feel. The more we focus on fear and not God, the more we will fear and the less trust in God we will have.
I know this is easier said than done. I get that sometimes things are overwhelming and it can be a challenge to work through fear and to trust God. I understand it takes practice. It took Paul who wrote the letter to the Philippians practice. In fact in the letter he said he had to learn how to be ok regardless of the circumstances he was in, through learning and practice.
And so I invite you to join me in practicing something. Practicing something that will have a direct impact on us as we ride the roller coaster of life with all of its amazing and joyful ups and despairing, freaks me out downs.
I invite us every in the days ahead, to simply say something to God like, “God in the midst of joy. In the midst of sorrow. In the the midst of goodness and pain. With all that is happening. Above all else, help me trust you. Please give me the gift of trusting you. I can’t get trust in you on my own, I know it comes from you. Help me trust you. Life is a roller coaster and sometimes the good and the bad happen at the same time. Yet help me trust you and help me not be afraid. Help me feed faith and not my fears.”
Paul, who repeatedly was in prison in dismal conditions, practiced and learned such a way of being by doing it over and over and over again. And it led him to trust and to know, believe and act upon the truth, that “We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
Way back in the 1960’s, I was a citizen of El Paso, Texas. A citizen of Mesita Elementary School. A citizen of far west Texas and southern New Mexico. A citizen of the United States. I was a citizen of all of those places and my citizenship shaped, influenced, and affected everything about me from the inside out. I was who I was and I did what I did all in response to my citizenship.
That said, how each of us defines our primary citizenship impacts how we go through the joyous, horrible, and boring times of life.
To help us drill down on what I am talking about, let us look at the life of Paul. As we learn in scripture, Paul spent a number of years in prison in various places. And yet, in the midst of this terrible time and others like it, these are just a few things Paul wrote from prison.
“I pray with joy. I am confident. I press on and I do not give up. Rejoice. Rejoice always. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Paul wrote at least four letters from a prison cell we know of and in each of them he says things one would not expect to hear in a letter written from such a place.
So how is it, that when Paul was enduring horrible experiences, he was able to express the kinds of things I just shared. Like, “Rejoice. Rejoice always. I am confident. Etc.” I believe Paul answers this question in his letter to the Philippians. Paul writes, “Above all, live as citizens of heaven.” In another place he states, “We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus lives.”
With this in mind, let’s explore what heavenly citizenship actually means. What is it all about? How do we claim our heavenly citizenship? What does it mean to say we are a citizen of heaven?
First and foremost, when we say we are citizens of heaven, it means we know down deep that we are people that belong to God regardless of what is happening. Here are some verses from scripture to help us unfold this.
“Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. We belong to God. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. We are all children of God. We are a chosen people. We are adopted through Jesus Christ.” And there are many other verses like these all making the same point that we belong to God.
Being a citizen of heaven is all about claiming that our fundamental identity is grounded in God. It is about claiming that we are God’s possession. It is about embracing the truth that whatever we might look like on the outside, regardless of what we do in and with our lives, no matter where we might live, despite job titles and all the other ways we define ourselves, at our core, we are God’s.
You and I belong to God as we were made by God. When we see our primary identity as beloved children of God above all other potential sources, our sense of primary citizenship shifts. We no longer are ultimately defined by things that are temporary, which is everything on earth, things like careers, nationality, status, assets, heritage, and place to name a few, but by God who is eternal.
Through it all, God invites us to claim our heavenly citizenship by embracing that we are each made by God and are God’s beloved children.
What is interesting is that the more we see ourselves as God’s possession, the more we will begin to feel like we are In this temporary world but not ultimately Of this world, because we are not from here, we are from God. This is why Jesus one day, in the midst of prayer said, “My disciples do not belong to this world just as I do not belong to this world.”
Paul says that when we know we are God’s, when our identity is grounded in God, when we take our heavenly citizenship seriously, we begin to live for Christ and our actions begin to reflect our citizenship.
When we see ourselves as a citizen of heaven it means we know where we came from, we know where we are headed, we know to whom we belong, our identity is clear, it becomes evident to us who is in charge regardless of circumstance, our actions and behavior reflect Jesus despite it all, we have the peace of God within us, and we understand that our fundamental purpose in life is to love God and love people until we die and are with Jesus. And when we see ourselves as citizens of heaven we learn to live for Christ knowing we are headed to Christ.