Devotional: Teach me to forgive

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

April 19, 2019

Luke 23:34: Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them; they do not know what they’re doing.”

More than 2,000 years ago today, Jesus was brutally murdered.

I can’t fathom the suffering he endured. I can’t imagine the abandonment he felt that two of his closest friends turned him in and denied knowing him. I can’t grasp the humiliation he was subjected to, as the very people he came to save mocked him, spit at him and cheered as he was hanging from the cross.

Thinking about the crucifixion fills me with emotion, ranging from deep sadness for my hero to rage against those who killed him. But Jesus didn’t show those emotions. Through his immense emotional, physical and even spiritual pain, Jesus found the capacity to forgive.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to never lose someone to murder, but I’m pretty confident forgiveness for the perpetrator would be low on my list of feelings. I find it difficult to forgive those who have wronged me. Like most people, when I’m wronged my first inclination is to seek justice — doing everything in my power to make sure the perpetrator is found and appropriately punished.

But not Jesus. He endured the ultimate injustice, and he forgave. After having bullet fragments in her back and leg removed, Parkland shooting survivor Daniela Menescal forgave the shooter. After spending a year in the hospital recovering from bullet wounds to her stomach, liver and spleen, Rosemarie Melanson forgave the Las Vegas shooter. After losing nine chirch family members, the congregation of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston forgave the shooter.

These examples show that even in the most dire situations, God grants us the capacity to forgive. So why is it so hard for me?

Prayer: Jesus, teach me to forgive.

Devotional: Make room for God

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 6, 2019

Proverbs 29:11: Fools give fool vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.

PBUMC_Pride-400x400I was filled with rage.

I was crippled with anger as the General Conference of The United Methodist Church voted to continue its discriminatory policies on LGBTQ people. I shot argumentative texts back and forth with Carla about leaving the church. I scoured the internet, consuming fiery responses from like-minded Methodists. I provoked social media debates with those who disagree with me.

But none of my actions mattered. The outcome of the General Conference vote didn’t change. The words in the Book of Discipline weren’t altered. I didn’t convince one person to think differently. And quite honestly, I didn’t feel any better.

I was a fool.

In the immediate aftermath of General Conference, I single-handedly took on the issue without God, convinced that my outrage was the solution for the injustice of the day. But my anger did nothing to help the people who were persecuted by the decision — LGBTQ Methodists who were labeled as “less than” by the governing body of their own church.

Don’t be mistaken, I’m not downplaying the importance of speaking out against injustice, but it must be done with God at our side, prayerfully, reflectively and intentionally.

The theme this Lenten season is “Make Room for God.” It’s critical that we take this message to heart as we discern how we — individually and as a church — move forward. Although we cannot change the decision made at 2019 General Conference, if we allow God to help us, we can be confident our way forward will bring calm, peace and love to those who need it most.

Prayer: Dear God, we are hurting today. We are sad. We are angry. We are letting you in. Please guide us. Amen.

Devotional: Recognizing God

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 16, 2018

Psalms 27:4: One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

IMG_5477

“Wow. That is so cool that you have your own flower blooming just for you,” one of my advanced writing students said as she walked into my office.

“What are you talking about?” I asked

“Out your window. You haven’t seen it?” she said as she pointed out my office window.

“Oh. Wow. Yeah. That is really cool. I love that!” I answered.

Of course, this was the first time I ever recognized that flower, or any flower that blooms outside my window. Honestly, I can’t even remember the last time I looked out that window. My attention has been laser-focused on the 1,000+ unanswered emails on my computer screen, the stacks of papers and tests to grade sitting on my desk, and countless students coming in and out of my office for writing one-on-ones.

I had to lie to my student. We just spent the last class discussing the importance of taking in scenes and environments when conducting in-person interviews or covering events. Journalists have to be the eyes and ears for their readers, and in some cases the nose, hands and taste buds. It’s important that writers recognize the entire scene around them, always observant, like a detective looking for clues. But here I am, failing to recognize the scene around my own office, where I spend several hours each day.

Carla often tells me I have “tunnel vision.” I’m good at reaching the finish line, but bad at recognizing the environment along the way. Although this tunnel vision can serve me well in some situations — such as meeting deadlines or coming through in the clutch — it does impair my ability to recognize God’s beauty around me.

Our church has been focusing on “listening” this Lent. I’ve realized that if I take the time to listen, my sense of hearing will not be the only sense impacted by this practice. Focusing on listening allows my other senses to come alive. As I write this on the bleachers of a baseball field, I feel God’s presence in the gentle, cool breeze interrupting the still air. I smell God’s creation in the freshly cut grass. And I can see God’s miracles as children run around with pure joy.

God has flowers blooming for me, all around me. But one place they’re not growing is in my tunnel. I need to make more conscious efforts to peek outside my tunnel and take in God’s beauty with all my senses.

Prayer: God, you are all around me. Arouse my senses so I can enjoy your beauty. Amen.

Devotional: God appears

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

March 1, 2018

Philippians 2:13 (NIV): For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

 “Third place: Georgia Highlands College.”

This is good news, I thought. We finished second last year in the Georgia College Press Association contest, the first time Piedmont College’s student newspaper was named a “General Excellence” publication in more than a decade. And my students worked really hard in 2017. Another second-place finish would solidify our reputation as one of the best small-college newspapers in the state.

“Second place: Berry College.”

Holy smoke! Berry is consistently at the top! When I arrived at Piedmont three years ago, my goal as adviser of the newspaper was to elevate it to the top of the rankings within five years. Could we be two years ahead of schedule? My heart started racing. I could barely contain my excitement. I am the best college media adviser in the history of the world! Here we go …

“First place: Abraham Baldwin College.”

What? My heart sank. As Abraham Baldwin students celebrated and rushed to the stage to collect their award, I could barely make eye contact with my students. I don’t understand this. Over the past year our newspaper raised its standards dramatically, covering issues such as domestic abuse, transgendered student discrimination, guns on campus and the challenges faced by a Piedmont student about to lose DACA protections. What could Abraham Baldwin possibly have covered to earn first place? Was there a cow tipping scandal?

Honestly, I should’ve seen it coming. It was a fitting end to a crappy week. I was on my fifth consecutive 12-hour workday, I unintentionally ditched two important meetings the day before and I was furious at a couple students who bailed at the last minute to make the trip. I was also struggling to get along with anyone in my family – even the dog would snap at me.

I had to hold it together for my students. They needed a good leader, and a good time. We ditched our per diem and drowned our sorrows in overpriced pasta, ultra-rich chocolate cake and gourmet coffee. It was a truly great dinner. The camaraderie of the team overshadowed any disappointment we had.

But the inevitable happened a few hours later. I was alone facing a 55-mile drive home. And the emotions hit me.

I tried to ignore the voices telling me I was a loser and I let my students down. But they persisted.

I tried praying, asking God to help me, but the voices grew louder. Why is God abandoning me?

Tears were streaming down my face, and I was heading down a familiar spiral into depression.

Then I received a text alert on my phone. It was from one of my students.

“Hey Joe. Did you make it home?”
“En route,” I replied.
“K. Don’t text while driving, Just wanted to tell you you are the best. Thanks for being the best.”

My tears of self-loathing turned into tears of pride, and even laughter. How could I get so upset over something so trivial? What’s really important is how incredible my students are, and obviously I’m making a positive impact on them.

The text was from Page, my news editor. In hindsight, I know it was also from God.

Prayer: God, thank you for always being there for me. Thank you for working through other people to influence my life. Help me be a tool for you to impact others.

Devotional: Listen

Originally published on oconeestreetumc.org

Feb. 15, 2018

Mark 4:9: “Let the person who has ears to hear, listen!”

When I learned the theme for our Lenten season is “Listen,” my mind couldn’t help but recount the song of the same name from Atlanta band Collective Soul …

Hey, you now wander aimlessly around your consciousness.
Your prophecies fail, and your thoughts become weak.
Silence creates necessity.
You’re clothing yourself in the shields of despair.
Your courage now impaired.
Hey, why can’t you listen?
Hey, why can’t you hear?
Hey, why can’t you listen as love screams everywhere.

As a former rock radio disc jockey, I’ve probably heard this song more than 1,000 times (it was a #1 rock radio hit in 1997). Its mesmerizing guitar hook and catchy chorus made it a popular song. Ironically, through all those times I’ve played the song, I never actually listened to the lyrics of “Listen.” But as the song was replaying in my head, it took on a much deeper, spiritual, meaning.

I’ve been “feeding my mind with selfishness” for a long time. From the iPhone to the Echo, I’ve always tried to have the latest gadget. From HBO to satellite radio, I’ve always afforded myself with as many entertainment options as possible. From announcing UGA hockey games to joining yet another committee, I’ve always attempted to keep myself busy.

And at the end of the day, before my “thoughts become weak” and I clothe myself in “shields of despair,” I take two different antidepressant drugs and fall asleep … before waking up and doing it all over again.

I haven’t talked to God in a long time.

“Silence creates necessity,” but I haven’t given time for the silence I need to hear God. I haven’t listened to God.

This Lent, I’m going to make the time.

Prayer: God, I know you’re trying to talk to me. But I keep shutting you out by occupying my life, my mind with a million other things. I promise to try, but I’m also asking for you to help me open up, and listen.

Trump, America about to deny Jesus

Deuteronomy 10:18-19 – “For the Lord your God…loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”


Donald Trump is likely going to sign an executive order tomorrow banning child refugees from Syria from entering the United States. Unlike his bans on other nationd that will last 100 days, his ban on Syrians is indefinite, a.k.a. permanent.

This means the families that are in the process of adopting parent-less Syrian children will not be allowed to proceed with their adoption. This means that Christian organizations that relocate child refugees to families in the United States, like Samaritan’s Purse and World Relief, will no longer be able to do their work. These children will likely die.

There is a lot of ambiguity in the Bible. Even contradictions. But the Bible’s stance on welcoming immigrants is clear.  There are more than 50 references in the Bible regarding “aliens,” “immigrants,” “foreigners” or “strangers.”
Remember, baby Jesus himself was a Middle Eastern refugee. And throughout his life, he was very clear on how we should treat refugees. In every instance Jesus comes across the downtrodden, he welcomes them.

His expectations of us in dealing with refugees is clear in Matthew 25: 34-46. This is the well-known passage where Jesus tells us that the key to pleasing God is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. In verse 35 he tells us to “invite in the stranger.” Here, it’s important to note that Matthew was written in Greek, and the original word for stranger was “Xenos,” which can be translated to English as “immigrant,” “foreigner” or “stranger.”

Donald Trump is going to sign an executive order denying refugees tomorrow. And in the process, our nation will be denying Jesus.

Quietly praying

Originally published on http://www.oconeestreetumc.com on March 4, 2016 as part of a Lenten Devotional series.

by Joe Dennis

Matthew 6:5-6
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

In this politically-charged season, as some of our candidates flaunt their Christianity by using public prayer in their political outings, I am often reminded of something a political science professor once told me: “If you have to keep saying you’re running a ‘grassroots campaign,’ then it is likely not a ‘grassroots campaign.’ Likewise, I often wonder about our politicians who flaunt their Christianity.

Being educated in Catholic schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, prayer was a daily, mandatory part of the school day. Students would recite the same rote prayers every day, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m sure they were trying to instill good, Christian (and patriotic) habits in us. It didn’t work for me. Immediately after graduation and through my early adulthood, I abandoned prayer.

When Carla and I discovered Oconee Street UMC in 2001, getting back to the weekly habit of going to church was easy for me. Prayer proved much more difficult. It was during the aftermath of 9/11, and public prayer was becoming commonplace. But just like all those Catholic school days, the prayers felt empty to me.

Then I stumbled upon this verse, and it made complete sense. In order for prayer to work, I need to have a one-on-one connection with God. I need the silence to organize my thoughts to communicate with God. I need to be alone in the presence of God, so God can reach me.

If I flaunt my Christianity, my reward is Earthly: as people around me hear my prayers, they will praise me for being such a good Christian. But if I pray by myself in private, God is hearing my prayers, and my reward is Heavenly.

I’d much prefer the latter.

Prayer: God, thank you for the one-on-one time you give me every time I pray. Amen.