Sometimes, the greatest pleasure comes from the simplest of things. Whenever I’m at theme parks, or even just a store like Target or WalMart, I enjoy looking at the stuffed animals. Yes, I even pick them up and feel how soft they are. Yes, sometimes I even play with them and make them growl or cheep. Yes, I occasionally make them talk to my wife.

Simplicity is a concept that has been around almost as long as human beings. Several decades ago, there was a commercial with the jingle, “Life’s simple pleasures are the best…” No, I’m not going to tell you what product was being advertised with that jingle. But you can still find it in the grocery stores. Several hundred years ago, there was a guy named William of Occam. He lived an interesting life, eventually being condemned by the Pope for his arguments and writings about the Church. He was tried for heresy but escaped on a horse in the night. We know his name because of ‘Occam’s Razor,’ an idea that suggests the simplest explanation for something is probably the correct explanation. (To my philosophically minded friends, yes I oversimplified Occam’s Razor). Most recently, Marie Kondo has made a fortune telling us all to simplify and get rid of our junk.

Simplicity has been a basic component of most monastic communities, no matter which religious persuasion they may be. Benedict of Nursia codified his monastic rules, which we now know as the rule of St. Benedict. Francis of Assisi had his own rules, as did many other Catholic church leaders (AKA ‘saints’). The most famous monastic community today is the Mt. Athos community in Greece. There are amazing stories about supernatural occurrences there, which basically draws more and more people to visit the monastery. I suspect that monastic tourism does not make it easy for monks to maintain their simplistic lifestyle.

Many things can distract us from the most important things in our lives. Living a more simple, scaled down life can help keep distractions out of our lives and allow us to focus on the things that mean the most to us. I know I certainly am far too distracted by unimportant stuff. Jesus told us not to store up treasures on earth, so maybe Marie Kondo is on the right track. As for me, I’m heading out to play with some stuffed animals to help me remember to simplify my life and focus on what’s really important.

Personal Parable

from the pen of Jeff Joyner

Jesus shared many parables, but the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, is one of my very favorites. The reason being, is that there are so many parallels in the story to my own life. Few things are more tragic than someone walking away from the one who loves them the most. It’s a lonely place, where we can feel stranded and unsure of how to find our way back. Thinking about this passage prompted me to share my own “Prodigal Parable.”

“There once was a boy named Jeff, who heard the good news of Jesus Christ early in his life. Understanding that Jesus paid the penalty for his sin through His death on the cross, he responded in faith and received Him as Savior and Lord. Unfortunately, once Jeff reached his teen years, he walked away from the Lord and began to live life “recklessly.” After a period of seven years, in sheer hopelessness, he finally hit rock bottom.

It was at that time that Jeff began looking upward. Sensing that his Heavenly Father was there standing with open arms, he returned home where his Father embraced him with love and forgiveness, and assured him that the joy of Heaven awaits. Though life here on earth will still have it’s challenges, Jeff will always have access to the hope and peace that only His Savior can bring.”

“Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish.” Joel‬ ‭2:13‬ ‭

Man of Sorrows

from the pen of Jeff Joyner

I had just transitioned into the position of Worship Pastor at a large church in Southern California. The church had a long tradition of presenting elaborate Easter musical dramas depicting the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Although I had traveled for many years with a contemporary Christian band and had written a lot of music, I had never really conducted a large choir and orchestra. It would be a very steep learning curve.

Out of necessity, I began preparing for Easter several months ahead of time. As I started contemplating which direction I should go for that special Sunday, I began to feel extremely stressed. Easter had traditionally been the church’s largest event, and 3,000 people would be attending. The pressure continued to mount. One day while praying, I thought about the old hymn “Man of Sorrows.” Unable to remember all the words, I grabbed a hymnal to refresh my memory.

“Man of Sorrows what a name

For the Son of God who came

Ruined sinners to reclaim

Hallelujah, what a Savior.”

By the end of the day, I had decided to write an original Easter musical, which would combine songs I had written, along with “Man of Sorrows” and other hymns of the faith. In the weeks that followed, though the songs would come to me, peace did not. It seemed the closer to Easter I got, the more stress I experienced. I literally felt crushed by the pressure to “perform.”

Easter finally arrived. All the songs were written. All the rehearsals were done. Yet I still wondered why I had never experienced peace in the process. Then in the midst of the musical, the answer finally came. As we began one of the songs I had written, I began to watch as a spectator. Directly in front of me, I could see Jesus on the cross. I began to envision the agony he went through on my behalf. I was reminded of his sacrifice which forever bought my pardon. Up to that moment I had only thought of “performance.” But performance could never buy my pardon. Jesus did. As we transitioned into “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus”, I’m sure the choir could see the tears rolling down my face. But it didn’t matter. I was free. Below is a short video clip of that special moment when the peace of God finally returned to my tired, weary soul.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah‬ ‭53‬:‭5‬ ‭

A Place of Joy

from the pen of Jeff Joyner

This is an old photograph of my Grandparent’s house in Virginia. Though the house has since been taken down, many of my memories from childhood still linger. The railroad track was right across the street, and the house would shake with each passing locomotive. The sound of the gravel driveway would always signal a glorious reunion was only moments away. The smell of chicken, ham, or fresh vegetables provided a comfort that nurtured a true sense of belonging. But what permeated most throughout the house, was the love our grandparents had for us.

It was always a highlight for me to sit down for meals, where we would enjoy all the fresh food cultivated on their farm. They would always conclude with some sort of homemade dessert, which my grandmother would lovingly prepare. When we were done, we kids would usually sit on the screen porch, too full to even consider going out to play. Throughout the years, I must have enjoyed hundreds of those meals at my grandparent’s house. Yet there was one meal in particular that always comes to mind.

It was dinner time and we were all called to our seat at the table. Surprised at how much food had been prepared, I asked where it all came from. My Granddaddy proceeded to tell me that they got it all from their farm, which was located outside of town. After hearing this, I blurted out, “I can’t believe all this food is free!” Everybody around the table began to burst out laughing. As a child, I obviously had no understanding of what was really sacrificed to put that food on the table.

I will never forget the sights, smells, and sounds of my grandparent’s house. They will be forever be imprinted on my heart. Yet there is a place which far surpasses that. It’s a place that Jesus has gone to prepare for me. A place I will have access to because of His great sacrifice. A place of joy. A place of peace. A place where the love of the Savior permeates throughout the entire house. A place where the sounds from the streets of gold signal that glorious reunions are only moments away.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home.” John‬ ‭14‬:‭1‬ NLT‬‬

Light Shines in the Darkness

from the pen of Jeff Joyner

As Christmas was approaching, I reflected on all that had transpired the previous few years. It seemed that everywhere I turned, people were hurting, pain was running rampant, and darkness was threatening to settle over the whole earth. As I pondered this for a while, I finally said in a one sentence prayer: “It’s a weary world, Lord.” As soon as I uttered those words, one of my favorite Christmas carols immediately came to mind:

O holy night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the
Dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin
And error pining
Till He appeared and the
Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope
The weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a
New and glorious morn

Fall on your knees
O hear the angel voices
O night divine, O night when
Christ was born
O night, O holy night
O night divine

Jesus is the hope for a weary world. And though it may appear that darkness is settling over all the earth, it’s important to remember, that this Jesus who’s birth we celebrate is the Light of the world. And this LIGHT will come once again, to usher in another “new and glorious morn.”

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” John‬ ‭1:5‬

Make EVERY Effort to Live in Peace

I think this verse points to part of the problem about the lack of peace in both the church and the world. We have to make an effort. Peace doesn’t just happen. We can’t just say to ourselves, “I’ll just leave people alone and they will leave me alone,” and expect to attain peace with others. It would be nice if it were that easy, but it’s not. Wherever we go, there are people. Worse, wherever we go there are people who disagree with us, annoy us, and even deliberately cause trouble for us. I suppose we could just stay isolated at home and never go out, but I think that’s how crazy cat ladies get their start. (apologies to any non-crazy cat ladies).

Human beings are made to live in relationships with each other. We have friends and families. We have neighbors and co-workers. We have Christian brothers and sisters. Being in relationships with these people is critically important to being a human being. Yes, they are sometimes the cause of aggravation (so much aggravation, it seems). Yet God has created us in such a way that we need these relationships in order to function and serve God’s purpose for us. The New Testament doesn’t tell us to avoid people. In fact, it tells us to interact with people. It tells us to inconvenience ourselves in order to interact with people.

That brings me back to this verse from Hebrews. We have to make an effort to live in peace. We need to interact with people and we need to make an effort to do so in ways that maintain peace between ourselves and them. In fact, the verse says to make EVERY effort. Now, I’m often the king of moderate effort. I’ll make a few easy attempts to live in peace with someone, but I have to admit it’s often easier to just avoid them and live without them. The challenge, then: in order to make EVERY effort to live in peace with people, I have to look inside myself and examine what it is about certain people (oh, so many certain people) that irritates me. Even worse, I have to look at those things about myself that irritate others (oh, so many things).

I know, I know. That’s not exactly a Christmas message of joy to the world and peace on earth. Still, Christ came into this world to save us from our sins and to regenerate our spirits. We have the Holy Spirit living within us. We have the Word of God to guide us. It’s okay to look at ourselves and our feelings and thoughts honestly. God is there to guide us, to help us see ourselves clearly, to continually offer forgiveness for our sinful, selfish human elements. If we want to make EVERY effort to live in peace with everyone, that’s part of the process. So we can try to avoid people. Or we can make moderate efforts. Or we can make EVERY effort. That’s what Hebrews says to do.

All is Calm

from the pen of Jeff Joyner

I was having my coffee one morning, a few days before Christmas. To be honest, I wasn’t excited about Christmas at all. In fact, I was already tired of Christmas music, long before Christmas Day had even arrived. Instead of experiencing the hope and wonder of the season, I was filled more with anxiety and concerns for the future. And then, a song came to mind, that I have sung every Christmas, as far back as I can remember:

Silent Night
Holy Night
All is calm
All is bright

As I thought about these words, I began to understand that this song not only describes the birth of Jesus, but also depicts what Jesus brings to hopeless sinners such as us, when He takes up residence within our heart:

He can silence our worried thoughts, even in the midst of our darkest night. He imparts His holiness within us, to bring restoration to our broken lives. In the midst of this tumultuous world, we can experience a peace and calm, that only He can bring. And because He has given us the greatest gift ever given, our future is BRIGHT. We need not fear the days ahead.

Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright. May you experience all this and more, as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke‬ ‭2:11 

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My Peace I Give to You

Continuing my thoughts on peace during the Christmas season, I find myself meditating on the words Jesus spoke to the disciples. He seems to indicate two types of peace. The peace He gives to us and the peace the world gives to us. Admittedly, I have never found the world offering me much in the way of peace. It feels more like the world is generally offering me anxiety, although that could just be my reaction to the circumstances around me.

I suppose the world does have things to offer that bring peace to humans. A walk on the beach. A hike in a forest. A place at the top of a tall hill or mountain with a beautiful scenic overlook. A financial windfall (I’d very much like one of those right now). These types of things are temporary, though. You usually have to go searching for them. When you find them, they don’t last long. You have to return to the busy, anxious place you started from.

Jesus promises a peace different from the world’s peace. He’s telling the disciples that even though he is leaving them physically (his death on the cross is imminent), he is leaving them with peace in their hearts. I think he’s telling us modern day Christians the same thing. Our faith in Christ gives us peace in our hearts. We don’t have to go searching for it. It’s within us. It’s the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s the hope of eternal life. It’s found in God’s written revelation (that’s the Bible) that almost all of us have sitting on shelf in our homes.

It’s good to seek the world’s peace, at times. It’s even better to seek God’s peace, which is available to us if we just take a few minutes to reflect on all that we have as believers in Christ.

Cease Striving

from the pen of Jeff Joyner

Several years ago, I was in a band with CRU, a Christian organization based in California. For over 4 years, I spent most of my time on the road doing concerts, both in the US and overseas. One day, we got news from the national office, that they wanted us to record an album, to make available at our concerts. We were only going to have a limited amount of time to make the record, since we were scheduled to do an overseas tour within weeks.

After several days of preparation, the recording sessions began at a studio in Southern California. We all were feeling major pressure to get the record done quickly, so we could take it with us on tour. Our producer was in a “One Hit Wonder” band in the early 1960’s called The Dartells, so he had a lot of experience working with stressed out musicians. Though the first day was a bit shaky, we finally settled into a groove, and seemed to be on track to finish the project by the end of the week.

A song we still needed to record, was one that I had written, and sang the solo on. As the band prepared to lay down the tracks, I began feeling tinges of performance anxiety. Our producer called me in, and asked if I could sing a practice solo with the band, so they could have some vocals in their headset. Since it would be a practice track for me, he set me up in a hallway with a microphone, and told me to sing the song exactly like I did in concert. As the band played in another room, I sang my heart out in the hallway, feeling absolutely no pressure to perform.

After we were done with the song, our producer called me into the listening room. He had secretly recorded my solo, and wanted me to hear it. When it was done playing, he looked over at me and said, “that’s a take.” He knew that without the pressure to perform, he would be able to get the very best out of me. Though I tried a couple more times to improve what I did in the hallway, I was unable to.

I learned a lot from my hallway experience that day. I saw first hand the futility of trusting in myself, and my own efforts to accomplish what only God can do. Though it’s a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over again, I’ve seen that the more I allow Christ to live His life in and through me, the more I will experience His deep, abiding peace, in the midst of this chaotic and turbulent world.

“Cease striving and know that I am God.” Psalm 47:10

What Happened to Peace on Earth?

We’re starting into the Christmas season this year, and it got me thinking about peace on earth. Or the lack thereof. I’ve already seen news clips of craziness at Black Friday sales (which is why I’m sitting at home with locked doors). Ukraine is at war with Russia, dominating headlines. But many other smaller countries are also at war. We’re often unaware of just how much conflict is occurring outside of our own circle of reference. So (I use that word a lot) I’m going to spend a few posts considering what the Bible says about peace.

In Isaiah, we see the famous reference to Jesus as the Prince of Peace. The promise being that when Jesus rules, there will be peace on earth. My struggle with this concept is that, supposedly, Jesus is ruling in the hearts and minds of his followers. But our Christian churches don’t seem to be getting along all that well as we fracture and splinter over interpretations of the Bible. Many of us who attend church together find it difficult to get along with each other (if you don’t get along with me, I’m certain it’s not MY fault!).

Ephesians 2:14 says that Jesus is our peace. In the context of that verse, the general meaning seems to be that Jesus will heal the rift between Jews and Gentiles. Jesus will bring peace between two people groups who have never gotten along. It’s not too much of a stretch to suppose that Jesus can and will bring peace between our various churches and the various members of individual churches. If there isn’t peace, then we must be doing something wrong. Or not doing something right.

What that might be I’ll explore in my next post.