Fear, Faith and Oconee Street teens

Originally published on www.oconeestreetumc.org

This devotional is repurposed from a sermon I delivered on Laiety Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019.

2 Timothy 3:10-17 — You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures,which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

I have the pleasure of working with the high schoolers every Sunday morning as their Sunday School teacher.

With a full-time job, several side hustles, three kids of my own, coaching baseball, and serving as the church’s webmaster, I’ve often been asked how do I find the time in my schedule to teach a Sunday School class? But I can’t imagine not spending each Sunday morning with these students. It’s been the biggest aspect of my faith development.

Clockwise, Melanie, Jackie, Violet, Lucy, Elizabeth, myself and Jaydon.

As I child, I thought of God as some larger-than-life character in the sky looking down on us. While many may envision that concept as comforting, that concept scared the heck out of me. You mean there’s this guy in the sky who knows my every move, my every thought, and there’s nowhere I can go to hide from him? No wonder why there’s mention of “fearing God” more than 100 times in the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16, says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …” I definitely feared God, finding myself terrified every time I misbehaved or even had bad thoughts. At any minute, God could rebuke, correct and/or train me. The Catholic guilt was deeply embedded in me.

So, when I went to college, I developed a practice I’ve since perfected – avoidance. If I avoided church, if I avoided thinking about religion, I could avoid God. And I wouldn’t have to think about God watching over me. In the back of my mind, I knew God was there, but I could shut God out. I was getting really good at that until I fell in love with Carla, who of course had a great relationship with God. Great. It was clear to me that if I wanted to have a relationship with Carla, I would have to have a relationship with God.

Over the past 20 years, my faith development has tremendously grown — and Scripture has become clearer to me. The words of Timothy are striking when viewing religion through the lens of current events. Timothy says that “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

I can’t help but think about the atrocities happening in the world today at the hands of leaders who use God as a prop to gain votes and power. And their followers, who proudly claim Christianity, trade the words of Scripture with the talking points of their political leader. When Timothy says that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for ever good work,” he means that the foundation of all good deeds must be rooted in God. And if you forsake the word of God, you’re in danger of turning aside to myths. You’re in danger of supporting the genocide of Kurds. You’re in danger of advocating for the separation of immigrant children from parents. You’re in danger of promoting cuts to programs that benefit poor children in favor of tax breaks for the wealthy.

Every Sunday morning I get to talk about these issues with some combination of Colin, Casey, Chandler, Elizabeth, Lucy, Jaydon, Violet, Jackie, Melanie and Sienna. Every Sunday they remind me not to keep my faith separate from my deeds, or my deeds separate from my faith. Every Sunday they challenge me with questions I don’t know the answer to, and we talk about it together and maybe don’t come up with a definitive answer, and that’s OK. Every Sunday they confirm to me that God is always with me, but is not some mythical figure in the sky watching over me. God is in them, in me, and in all of us.

Prayer: God, thank you for our children, who challenge us every day to be the best Christian we can be. Help us in our faith development and to not succumb to the myths of this world. Amen.

Leave the Anger to God

Originally posted on oconeestreetumc.org

Advent Devotional
Dec. 2, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4 (The Message)
God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen?

How many times do I have to yell, “Help! Murder! Police!” before you come to the rescue?
Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day? Anarchy and violence break out, quarrels and fights all over the place.
Law and order fall to pieces. Justice is a joke.
The wicked have the righteous hamstrung and stand justice on its head.

A former student recently posted on Facebook a link to a story showing that, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 69,000 immigrant children were separated from their families over the past year. The student wrote, “How are we letting this happen?”

My seemingly innocuous reply resulted in some well-deserved criticism. Another student wrote, “Wow, Joe. Way to give up.”

As someone who teaches journalism, I have to keep up with the news. Each day I’m inundated with stories about another mass shooting, more terroristic threats, governments brutally assaulting protestors, men sexually assaulting women, intentional destruction of our land and water, the President degrading a fellow citizen via a tweet, and the Supreme Court ruling against anyone who is not a rich, white, straight man.

At times, the parade of never-ending bad news elicits one of two emotions: I either get so angry that I want to punch something, or I get so beat down that I want to give up.

The little-known book of Habakkuk makes me feel like I’m not alone. Although Biblical scholars aren’t sure on the exact identity of Habakkuk, it is likely that he was a prophet around 598 BC when the Babylonians marched against Jerusalem. Habakkuk is witnessing substantial evil in his midst and cannot comprehend how God could be letting this happen. He is angry. And he wants to give up.

Habakkuk’s questioning of God does not go unanswered.

Habakkuk 1:5-10 — God’s response
Look around at the godless nations. Look long and hard. Brace yourself for a shock.
Something’s about to take place and you’re going to find it hard to believe.
I’m about to raise up Babylonians to punish you, Babylonians, fierce and ferocious — 
World-conquering Babylon, grabbing up nations right and left,
A dreadful and terrible people, making up its own rules as it goes.
Their horses run like the wind, attack like bloodthirsty wolves.
A stampede of galloping horses thunders out of nowhere.
They descend like vultures circling in on carrion.
They’re out to kill – death is on their minds.
They collect victims like squirrels gathering nuts.
They mock kings, poke fun at generals, spit on forts, and leave them in the dust.

God not only hears his complaint, but doubles down on Habakkuk’s criticism of the Babylonians. What joy this must have given to Habakkuk (which he later expresses in song in chapter 3). Not only did God hear him, but God gives justification to Habakkuk’s anger. Most importantly, God closes his response by noting that the Babylonians will get what’s coming to them …

Habakkuk 1:11 
They’ll all be blown away by the wind. Brazen in sin, they call strength their god.

It’s easy to get angry, and give up hope in the wake of today’s troubles. It’s easy to plot revenge and fantasize about vigilante justice against those perpetrators of death, violence and greed. But that is beyond my human capabilities — I need to let go of anger and leave that part to God. My focus needs to be on spreading love, social justice and caring for God’s amazing creation, in any way that I possibly can. 

Prayer: God almighty, you have given us an awesome world. Although there are people intent on destroying this world, give us the strength to persist in doing the work we are called to do. Help us have faith to know that our work is making a difference, and that you will be there in the end. Amen.

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.