Breathe in, breathe out: meditate

The following was written as a Lenten Devotional for Oconee Street UMC on Feb. 16, 2016.

by Joe Dennis

Psalm 19:14: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

When I was younger, writing poetry was a passion of mine. I would isolate myself in my room, and all my teenage angst, coupled with what I now know was depression, elicited hundreds of poems. Most of them fueled with words of anger and desolation. My emotions were my ammunition for my writing, and it was so easy to get in touch with them.

As I got into college and into adulthood, the focus of my writing became journalistic. As my depression became treated and my angst faded, it became difficult to tap into my emotions to provoke my writing. Even when I was able to find a quiet place, my ability to write poetry was stifled.

Now, with the pressures of work and family, and the constant connectivity to external distractions through my phone (and watch and tablet and computer and TV and radio), finding a quiet place has been difficult for me. It’s been something I’ve been longing to do, especially after hearing fellow church members discuss the power of meditation and prayer. I’ve tried. But even in those rare times I can isolate myself from distractions, my attempts at meditation often end up like this:

Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus on your breaths. Talk to God.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Hey God. It’s Joe. Oh shoot. Did I ever register Jackson for baseball? Wait Joe. Not now. Focus. Breathe in. Breathe Out. Back to you God. So … wait a second. Damn. I forgot to put the empty boxes in recycling. Shoot. Now that will have to wait for two weeks. Joe! Focus! OK.
Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s me again God. I’m trying to focus here. So anyway … Please help me focus. Hmm. Focus.
P-H-O-C-U-S. It’s weird that the Vietnamese dish “Pho” is pronounced “Fa.” It makes no sense. JOE! STOP IT!
Breathe in. Breathe out. This is stupid. I’m going to check on Jackson’s registration.

I cringed when Lisa said at last week’s Ash Wednesday service that we will have time to meditate and work on an activity. With my three kids with me, I knew this would not be successful. My biggest concern would be keeping Jaydon off his phone, keeping Jackson quiet to not distract others, and keeping Matthew from running around. I even contemplated leaving.

But then Maxine took the boys away to do a kid-focused project. So I went to the activity table and naturally gravitated toward the writing exercise. I made sure my phone was on silent, read the prompt, grabbed a pencil and notepad, and started to center myself. And for the first time in decades, I was able to tap deep into my emotions through my writing.

For the first time ever, I feel like I had a heartfelt conversation with God. And it felt incredible!

Prayer: God. I know you are there, waiting for me to get in touch with you. Help me clear all distractions and find the best way to get to you.

New sanctuary dedicated in Aug. 30 ceremony

As The Rev. Gary Whetstone and Pastor Lisa Caine place their hands on the pulpit, Bishop Watson offers a blessing.

Originally published Aug. 30, 2015 on

ATHENS — More than 200 people attended the Aug. 30 worship service, dedicating the new sanctuary at Oconee Street UMC, replacing the historic building destroyed in a 2013 fire.

“Two years, four months, 14 days and 13 hours, but who’s counting?” said The Rev. Lisa Caine, pastor of the church, as she opened the service. “We’re delighted that each of you is here this morning.”

The service was presided by Caine, district superintendent The Rev. Dr. Gary Whetstone and North Georgia Bishop Michael Watson.

“We are so inspired and impressed by your faith, your sense of unity and your faithfulness to God as you have rebuilt,” Whetstone told the congregation.

In his sermon, focusing on rebirth, Bishop Watson also praised the church.

“Glory Hallelujah! We are celebrating today,” Watson said. “Oconee Street stands as a sign of God’s presence among us.”

As Watson prayed, Whetstone and Caine touched each element that was blessed: the building, the baptismal font, the organ and piano, the pulpit, the Lord’s table and the altar rail.

“This building is a symbol of God’s continuing grace and what God can do,” Watson said in closing the ceremony. “And so are you.”

God is always there

by Joe Dennis

“The Lord is near to those who are discouraged; he saves those who have lost all hope.” –Psalm 34:18

Little thought went into it, and it likely took a few seconds to write. It was a text I received on Sept. 11, 2014 from a former student (who was in my class in fall 2011):

I was thankful for the millionth time that I learned the silence interviewing technique from you. Amazing what people will decide to share during a 5-second lapse in conversation. Thank you!

This seemingly nonchalant text may have changed my life, as it came at one of the lowest points of my life. The text came at 7:12 that evening, as I was in the middle of a breakdown. Hours earlier I had just left the hospice where we had transferred my father. With my flight back home in just a couple hours, I had to hurriedly say goodbye to my dad and kissed him on the forehead. I knew that was the last time I would talk to him.

My mom was an emotional wreck so I was trying to stay strong for her while at the same time keeping one eye on my watch to not miss my flight. I knew I had to see Carla and the boys — I had been home so little the last few weeks that Matthew thought I had moved out. Work wasn’t even on my radar. My inbox was so full of angry emails and my suitcase was packed with ungraded papers, that I feared venturing into work.

I sat in my airplane seat as tears streamed down my face. I had hastened my last conversation with my dad. I had evaded my mom’s emotional pleas. I have ignored my wife, my kids, my colleagues and my students. I had failed everyone. I had lost hope.

Then that text came.

It came seconds before I had to shut off my phone, leaving me the 2-hour flight to feel its impact: in a moment in which I’m feeling my absolute worst, I was still affecting someone else’s life for the better. That simple text message was the best thing that could’ve happened to me in that moment.

The message came from a former student, but I know it also came from God, lifting me up when I most needed it.

Prayer: God, in the time when we most need you, you are there. Help us see you, and thank you for being there for us. Amen.

Oconee Street UMC to worship at Tuckston UMC

Originally published on on May 3, 2013.

After holding worship services at Young Harris United Methodist Church on Prince Avenue, Oconee Street United Methodist Church is moving to Tuckston United Methodist Church on Lexington Road, utilizing the chapel which  years ago was the main sanctuary for Tuckston UMC.

“In moving to this we are gaining a chapel for our worship service that looks a little bit like our own sanctuary, although a bit smaller,” said the Rev. Lisa Caine, pastor of Oconee Street United Methodist Church.

An April 15 fire destroyed the church’s 111-year-old sanctuary at 717 Oconee Street, and the congregation had worshipped for two weeks in the gymnasium of Young Harris UMC. “We are extremely grateful for the hospitality and generosity our friends at Young Harris have provided us in this emergency situation,” Cain

e said, adding that the offer by Young Harris was made immediately after the fire.

Although Young Harris’ offer of space was indefinite, the church council of Oconee Street UMC decided earlier this week to move services after an offer was made to use a 116-year-old chapel on the Tuckston campus, located at 4175 Lexington Road in Athens. Since 1969, Tuckston UMC members have worshipped in a much larger sanctuary on its campus. The chapel is used mainly for weddings and special events, but usually is vacant on Sundays. Caine hopes the chapel’s similarity to her church’s former sanctuary, from the wooden pews to the altar rail, will offer the congregation a familiar and “more worshipful” atmosphere.

The Tuckston UMC chapel was built in the same era of Oconee Street, and has similar features to the former sanctuary.

The Rev. John Turlington, associate pastor of Tuckston UMC, said it makes sense for the congregation of Oconee Street UMC to utilize the chapel, noting that there is a strong connection between the two churches, both in location and congregation. “I heard a few (Tuckston) members say that Oconee Street was the first church they went to when they first came to Athens,” he said. “We are also connected by Lexington Avenue and the east side of Athens. We thought that the Oconee Street Church family would feel more at home going to church in their east side neighborhood.”

Caine said it may be months before her congregation is able to move back into their home. Although the fire destroyed the building that housed the sanctuary and the kitchen used by the Our Daily Bread ministry (currently operating at Athens First Baptist Church), there is hope that the education building adjacent to the sanctuary may be salvaged much sooner. That building — connected to the church by a walkway — suffered severe water and smoke damage, but the hope is the structure remains sound and the building can be utilized once the damage is repaired. Insurance adjusters recently completed their on-site inspection of the buildings and it’s expected to take weeks before a final appraisal is issued.

“It’s time to settle down in a more permanent space for the next few months as we begin planning to rebuild and restore our own church facilities,” Caine said. “I hope our members will find the (Tuckston) chapel as comforting as I have.”

Sunday worship services will be held at 11 a.m., preceded by children and adult Sunday school classes at 9:45 a.m.

Caine encourages church to ‘experience moment’ in first service since fire

Originally published on Athens Patch on April 22, 2013.

Roughly 70 members of Oconee Street United Methodist Church gathered yesterday in the transformed gymnasium of Young Harris UMC for Sunday service.

“Last week we met in our building on Oconee Street, and today we meet here on Prince Avenue,” said Oconee Street UMC Pastor Lisa Caine in the opening to the service. “Not much remains of our building, but our church is strong.”

Caine noted how in the aftermath of the fire, the church’s large gold cross hanging on the front wall of the sanctuary remains virtually untouched amidst a collapsed roof and charred debris. “The cross still stands, and we still stand,” she said.

The service – the first for Oconee Street since the April 15 blaze – followed an often-emotional children’s Sunday school class. After gathering as a large group and getting a tour of their temporary church home, roughly 20 children listened to a reading the book, “When our Church Building Burned Down.” With child psychologists on hand, the children broke into their separate classes and had the opportunity to ask questions and express their feelings about the fire. Classes ended with the children working on a project that helped them remember their former church building.

“We thought it was important for our children to have this opportunity to get their questions answered and their feelings heard,” said Carla Dennis, children’s education leader.

Continuing to share memories was a challenge Caine gave to the congregation during her sermon. “Those precious memories – instead of holding us back, will serve as the glue to hold us together, and keep us strong,” she said, citing Jeremiah 29 and encouraging members to also “experience the moment” God has given them in the present, while looking positively to the future.

Caine said that although “the moment” has offered many significant challenges, it has also offered several rewards, citing the numerous offers for help, including Young Harris UMC offering its gymnasium and meeting rooms for Oconee Street.

“People we don’t know, from places we have never been are praying for us right now,” she said, adding that the countless offers for service and the numerous donations “are flooding us with hope and solidarity.”

“In each one of these efforts … this is God coming to us,” Caine said. “God will take of us, and will love as much today, as tomorrow and as yesterday.”

Caine encouraged the congregation to continue to seek God as they move forward. “Today we gather here at Oconee Street United Methodist Church — on Prince — alive and moving forward with hope in God for the future that God has planned for us,” she said.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Whetstone, superintendent of the Athens-Elberton district for the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, helped lead the service with Caine.

“You are absolutely indispensible in detecting the movement of God’s spirit so that you might chart a new course and know which route to take,” he said. “Our prayers are with you as you travel that path.”

Hear Pastor Caine’s sermon by pressing “play” below: