Pastor Joey Reflections

Thoughts from North Hollywood First United Methodist Church.

REFLECTIONS: April 20, 2014

What is it about Easter that makes it so important?  Of course there is the obvious–the whole of salvation history summed up by John in 3:16, “For God so loved…”  The love and grace of God is recorded in the Bible for our individual and corporate consideration, participation and spiritual investment; but Easter seems to be more than just a theological construct.
Why do we get up early to hear the story, read and sing the hymns in the cold?  Why do we brave the stiff clothes and the long winded parson at the later service?  Perhaps it’s the beauty of the lilies or the music.  Finally, why do we go through another holiday dinner with the in-laws and out-laws consuming food we ought not and entering conversations we wished not?  Could it be because of the possibilities?  Look at John 3:16 and see the possibilities.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”  Many  think that is the end of the chapter, but verse 17 is more powerful still.  “Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  (New Revised Standard)  The possibilities were then and now that God loves, cares, heals and forgives.  However, those possibilities only exist if we are willing to look.
The core of those possibilities is what John records in chapter 20 v.1-18, the story of the first Easter.  Here he shows us God is not normative.  God is not bound by law, tradition or even science for that matter.  Though the Biblical text is essential, the greater mystery and message of Easter is found in the understanding that faith is bound in story…God’s story with us and our story with one another. The value of the Easter story lies not just in rote memory, but in the hearts re-membering.  The possibilities are endless!
  Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTIONS: April 13, 2014

There is a colloquial phrase which states, “If  it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” yet we devote a good deal of time effort and money endeavoring to do just that. From Aunt Lois’ favorite butter dish to some pottery given us by our grandmother, we seek to mend and fix everything around us.  We have become ingenious people thanks to technology, and science.  The development of adhesives and solvents allows us to fix and repair a wide variety of things.  We know how to get gum out of hair, or off of a running shoe.  We can remove road tar from our cars. We can figure out how to get wax out of a carpet.  There are glues which contain names we cannot pronounce that enable us to repair everything from fine china to a leather belt.  However, what if the broken item is a heart, mind, or soul.  For these we have books, seminars and sessions with a therapist, or spiritual advisor.     
These precious elements can be broken, and mangled as well.  Left, so to speak, at the curb like yesterdays trash, unfit even for the thrift store. What might be done to mend them?  The writer of the thirty-first Psalm knew about the stress and strain of a broken life, and more importantly, was practiced in how to mend and heal things. In verse nine the words are telling. “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.”  This becomes more intense and explicit in verse twelve, and thirteen. “I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.”  Now the repair is told in verse fourteen, as the Psalmist reveals that which will mend life at its very core.  “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are My God.’”  This statement of reliance becomes spiritual glue capable of holding a wreck of a life together says the Psalmist.
Long before Brother Lawrence wrote of “practicing being in the presence of God,” the writer of this prayer was schooled in how a Holy relationship helps us hold on, keeping us whole.  Centuries ahead of the writing or singing the Palmist was, “Taking It To The Lord, In Prayer.”  The inference is as simple as it is real. Fragile human earthliness is no match for the wonder of  Heavenly mucilage.   We may not be able to mouth the polymers employed to put a vase back together, yet when we say ‘O Lord, Thou Art My Rock,’ we mend our very lives.
Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTIONS: April 6, 2014

In Romans 8:6-11, Paul is arguing a common theme found throughout most of his writing.  That faith filled living is chiefly about spiritual ability not physical or intellectual ability.  He is very aware of how the mind can trick the heart and soul.  As a young man, his learned background had enabled him to a legalistic view of faith, and ultimately to help lead in the persecution of the early followers of Jesus.
A spiritual awakening, after encountering the risen Christ, would change him along with the shape of the early Church.  Time and again in the letter to the people of Rome, he returns to the theme that living by human devices leads to spiritual death.  In 3:23-24, “For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by grace as a gift…”  Again in chapter 4 he writes of Abraham as an ancestor in faith who was “reckoned unto God,” not by works, but through faith.  In chapter 7, he shares a personal faith story; 19-24 (paraphrased) ‘For I do not do the good I want, the evil I do not want is what I do…for I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand… Wretched person that I am! Who will save me?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ.’
In this passage he says, “To set ones mind on the needs of the flesh is death, but to set ones mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”  To live by self interest is soul killing for Paul.  We know such people and if we are not diligent we can become so.  In the movie, “Wall Street” the corporate raider character played by Michael Douglas, rallies a stockholders meeting with the phrase “greed is good.”  Insisting that businesses are all about making profits, and the more profits the better for everyone.  The truth is greed is never good, and profits which come at human expense can mutate into some kind of emotional cancer which instead of enriching ones life, robs it of care and depth.  Although we live in a high tech post modern era driven by culture of conspicuous consumerism, Paul’s words still have weight and value.  Self interest over soul interest is a no sale.
Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTIONS: March 30, 2014

Mr. Wally Amos is the founder of Famous Amos Cookies Company.  He invented those wonderful pecan chocolate chip cookies, which would be a sacrament if I were higher up the ecclesiological food chain.  Instead of resting on his laurels or wealth, as a person of faith, Wally writes and speaks to business leaders and students about using inspiration to be effective and successful.

In an October 2001 article titled, “Take Some Tips From Skateboarders,” he wrote for The Costco Connection the following:  “Recently I was talking with my nephew Ian, and his friend Travis, both avid skateboarders.  I asked them what they thought were the essential ingredients necessary to be successful at skateboarding?  Travis said, ‘Fun,’ and Ian replied, ‘you can’t be fearful.’  Aha, I thought the ingredients also necessary for success in life–fun and fearlessness.  How many of us are working at a job we hate, but we justify going to work each day because we fear we will not be able to get a comparable job?”
I Samuel 16:1-13 is the story of Samuel anointing David as God’s choice for the new ruler of Israel.  David does not become King until twenty-one chapters later in II Samuel 5.  First, because King Saul plots to kill him and later because David has difficulty unifying the kingdom.  When God tells Samuel that Saul has broken commandments and can no longer be king, he responds with sorrow.  Then, when commissioned by God to go to Bethlehem to anoint a new king, Samuel fears for his life seeing no fun in the process.  While Samuel does not qualify as a patriarch, he is a forceful Biblical character, a faithful servant of God.  However, he was not fearless in pursuing the task God had given him, and he saw the work as less than fun filled.  In spite of this, he was faithful to and willing to God’s leading his life.
The advice of Ian and friend, Travis, on skateboarding works for a life in the spirit as well.  In faith, we are called to follow God into places where justice, mercy, hope, and peace need to be shared.  We put fear aside knowing that in acts of faith we are never alone, and quite simply if the work of the Church is not for the most part fun, we are doing something wrong.  Of course, to bolster and beautify all we do in ministry, it never hurts to share a bag of Wally’s cookies and a glass of milk.
Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTION: March 23, 2014

We seem to live in a time and space where food, fashion, and fitness have become part of a new religion.  This is not to say health isn’t important, it most certainly is.  In an Associate Press article, writer Mark Sherman cited recent studies by the Journal of American Medicine, The Center for Disease Control and The Rand Corporation having found that in American culture obesity has nearly replaced smoking as the number one preventable cause of death.  The article quotes Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy Thompson recently, “We’re just too darn fat, ladies and gentleman, and we’re going to do something about it.”  What is planned is a national campaign to educate people to eat more healthy food and less unhealthy food and to exercise more.
Another point of the article was that Congress is considering legislation to prevent obese Americans from suing the fast food industry for their condition, and the McDonald’s Corporation ending the promotion of “Supersizing” fries and drinks.  On the other side of this issue are recent studies which have shown that people can be both fat and fit and there are civil rights groups which claim discrimination against over-weight people in business and industry.
Which brings us to Isaiah 55:1-9.  This passage is part of a segment found in third Isaiah where acting as the mouthpiece of God seeks to comfort the people in exile.  This passage is an invitation to a banquet.  Verse two is particularly interesting, “Harken diligently unto me and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness” Of course, lest we rush to the refrigerator, scholars tell us that the text is replete with metaphoric and symbolic language.
The food offered at this feast would be the spiritual variety.  A sip of care, a bite of hope, a morsel of justice, the bread of loving kindness.  The people were under extreme pressure and the prophet offers the spiritual refreshment which is necessary for faith to endure and grow.  In essence the prophet is saying feast on the goodness of God, may your spirit be nourished by encountering the Holy.
During Lent, fasting can be part of the faith journey in our tradition.  Another practice is refraining from eating favorite foods during the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Over the years I’ve given up cake, ice cream and soda pop.  However, after considering Isaiah’s text I had a vision of a hot fudge sundae.  It seemed quite spiritual to me.
Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTIONS: March 16, 2014

Psalm 121 is a liturgy of blessing. The opening verse is “I lift my eyes to the hills.  From whence does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  The next six verses of this brief poem go on to list in specific and determinant ways, the power of God as protector and care-giver.  
The Psalms are a common part of the Lenten tradition for Christians. In the temptation of Jesus, found in Matthew 4:1-11, one of the tests the devil seeks to put Jesus to is taking him to a high place on the Temple saying,  “If you are the son of God, throw yourself off. For it is written He will give his angels charge over you… On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” The scripture quoted by the prince of evil is, of course, from Psalm 91, similar to Psalm 121 though longer and fuller in its description of the blessings of faithfulness to God.  The devil’s attempt to use the Good Word for ill is felled by the response of Jesus, who uses Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” 
Lent is a time of soul searching and soul care.  In this time we seek to know the God of the manger and the God of the Cross.  Here we endeavor to reconcile our brokenness with the power of God to mend us through grace. The Psalms remind us that in the main faith is hard work.  A large measure of that work is worship.  Namely, magnifying and proclaiming the love of God we have come to know and experience.  By sharing our faith with others, our faith then becomes a liturgy (that is) a work of blessing.
A famous television evangelist paraphrases Psalm 121 in the benediction he gives at the end of worship.  In a dramatic fashion he faces the people and the cameras and says, “And now may the Lord bless you and keep you, in your going out and your coming in, in your laughter and in your tears, in your labor and in your leisure…  From this time forth and forevermore.”  Before there was lights, cameras, and makeup, there was The Word, and it is enough.  Our task, as followers, is to make it a workable part of life.  As believers to make it real in us and for others.
Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTIONS: March 9, 2014

The poet Maya Angelou says of life, “Nobody, but nobody gets through without help.”  Think of it, from the time we are born people are around to help us.  Teaching, nurturing, protecting and nudging.  As we mature, part of the natural response within us is to return those helps.


Psalm 121 opens with the line, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From whence does my help come?”  The question is asked and answered by the writer.  All Holy help comes from God alone.  This was an important statement because at the time monotheism was new and communities often had many gods including a variety of household gods for protection and guidance.  The Psalmist is saying only one God is necessary, because one God creates, guides, protects and helps all.


To look at an ancient text like this is sometimes difficult for modern thinkers.  After all, we are independent, self reliant individuals.  With a global positioning satellite, a portable lap top computer and a cell phone we can do just about anything.  So the notion of taking time in contemplative thought to consider how blessed we are might seem unusual.  Yet, that is precisely what the psalmist is saying.  That in a world of transiency, God is constant, reliable, available, creative and creating.


To complete the idea of the poet, we would then be called to live life in the name of justice, healing, hope and peace.  For when the help of God finds a home in the human heart, Holy things happen.


Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTIONS: March 2, 2014

Theologian Frederick Buechner offers some insight into the term Holy.  In his book Wishful Thinking he writes, “Only God is Holy, just as only people are human.  God’s holiness is part of his Godness.  To speak of anything else as holy is to say that it has something of God’s mark upon it.  Times, places, things, and people can all be holy, and when they are, they are usually not hard to recognize.”


To experience the holy in the terms the Reverend Buechner means is to look at our experiences differently; to look at those around us and even ourselves with uncommon expectations.  Jesus moved throughout his ministry with just such a model of faithfulness.  When healing, he focused not on disease but health and wholeness.  When criticized for breaking the laws of faith, he reminded the people that laws were made to serve people, not the reverse; and the ultimate service was toward God.  The people Jesus chose as disciples and later sent as apostles were folks who had seen holiness in him… in his speech, touch, manner and movement.

We experience anew that holiness when we read the story of faith in Scripture.  Be it the story of the patriarchs, the narrative of Bethlehem, the calling of the disciples or the letter of Paul to mission churches, we see and feel the holiness in the story.  We fail as modern believers if we view it as something holy which happened.  The holiness of God which Jesus spoke and the Bible records is happening still.


What does it mean to experience a holy moment?  Most of us have had one if we take the time to remember.  Births, baptisms, communion, weddings, funerals all provide opportunities for holy moments.  However, holiness is not regulated to houses of worship or worship events.  The beauty of a rainbow can be a holy moment.  Wild flowers blooming in the desert are holy.  The sun rising over the mountains is holy.  The sun setting over the water is holy.  You and I, if we dare, can be holy for each other and this world when we allow something of God’s love to show in us.


Imagine if we looked at each other with reverent expectancy, counting on good and glorious things to come from each other.  If you are one who believes holiness happens only in lofty surroundings, take the time to watch a child chase a butterfly or two old folks play chess.  Holiness happens not because of us, but in spite of us due to God’s grace in our midst.


Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTIONS:February 16, 2014 

We have just celebrated Valentine’s Day, a day first celebrated in the 17th century to emulate the ways of St. Valentine; the patron saint of love.  On this day we send notes of love and affection to loved ones, and notes of affirmation and respect to friends.  Much has been written about the nature and meaning of love.  From “How do I love thee…” to “Love is lovelier…” to “Love is a many splendored thing;” words have been used to express the innermost feelings from one soul to another.

The Bible of course is filled with images of love.  The love God has for creation.  The love God has shown in the saving love of Christ.  The love humanity is capable of in following the teaching of Jesus.  Human love is not separate from holy love, but rather woven within the love of God as it is experienced.  The love described in The Song of Solomon is quite human.  It is described in bold and forthright language, sounding at times like a romance novel.  However, those words were meant to be understood and interpreted in the faith community.
When Paul wrote to the people of Corinth about love in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter, he did so knowing the people were confused spiritually, and in their confusion had abused this holy gift.  As an act of inclusiveness he wrote in first person saying, “I could have great spiritual gifts, tremendous faith and spiritual stamina but without love I am empty.”  To underscore the importance of love he listed its qualities as being patience, understanding, non-judgmental, durable and hope-filled.  He closes by saying that while faith and hope are important, the single most important issue for people of faith is love.
The Gospels record that Jesus was put to the test by experts in the law as to what the greatest law was.  Jesus’ response has come to be called “The Great Commandment.”  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”  MT 22:37b-40
Therapist, John Bradshaw, speaking on the importance of love said, “To know and to expand your being, you need to love.  To love is to become another and to take on their being, you need to love.  To love is to become another and to take on their being and to become more than you were.  And that’s the law of life.  We can choose to accept it or we can reject it.  So make your choice.”  Humanity’s role in the cosmos is to act with deliberate loving intent.  To do otherwise is to be out of touch with creation and out of sync with God, whose will for us is love.  Holy love is reciprocal, from God through Christ to us, to the world.  More like a Valentine than a contract.
-Dr. Joey K. McDonald

REFLECTIONS: February 9, 2014

The newspaper recently ran a story about a small child being rescued from drowning.  A man found the youngster floating in the apartment complex pool, pulled the child out and shouted for help.  Two men in nearby apartments came and together they revived the child.  When the paramedics arrived, they offered praise for the efforts of the three men in rescuing the child.  The two, who performed resuscitation, shared that between them they remembered CPR instructions.  One breathing for the child, the other stimulating the heart to pump.  In other words, they helped each other – helping the child to live.  They said they did it because they felt they were supposed to.

I entered a retail store once where a sales clerk looked up and said, “Would you like some help?”  I said, “yes,” only to have the clerk go back to stocking a shelf directly in front of me.  What seemed like a month later, when waited on, the transaction did not feel very good.  I know most of us have experienced salespeople who are too helpful, but no one appreciates being ignored.
We, as a Church, are called to be a place of help.  A church family meeting people where they are offering love and care.  Not dysfunctional help which is co-dependent or intrusive, but sensitive care, respectful of others’ needs and wishes.  Seeing places where we can be of help one to another, and being open to hearing of opportunities to care.
Dr. Joey K. McDonald
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