I asked God to find me

Originally published Feb. 18, 2021 as a Lenten Devotional on oconeestreetumc.org

Deuteronomy 1:31
“There you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.”

Footprints (author undetermined)
An elderly man, who had lived his life and left this world to go and meet his Maker asked the Lord a question.

“As I’m looking down on the paths I’ve trod, I see two sets of footprints on the easy paths.

But down the rocky roads I see only one set of footprints.

“Tell me, Lord, why did you let me go down all those hard paths alone?”

The Lord smiled and simply replied, “Oh, my son, you’ve got that all wrong!

I carried you over those hard paths.”

It had already been a long week, even though we were only two days into it. I had not been connecting with the most important people in my life, and was already overwhelmed with work, family, church and baseball commitments.

I woke up yesterday to find my work calendar was filled with back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings, the earliest of which I was already running late for.

Both my personal and work inbox were littered with requests for action items that needed to be finished immediately.

Somehow, I received more than a dozen texts in the span of six hours between 2-8 a.m.

My youngest children were relentlessly arguing. My dog was incessantly barking. And Carla was gone.

I rushed out of the house and into my car, only to find my eldest child left me a near-empty tank.

And halfway through my 50-mile trek to work, the check engine light popped on.

Every mountainous twist on HWY-441 brought fantasies of driving off the cliff. As someone who has learned to successfully live with clinical depression (through decades of therapy), I knew the path I was headed down was dangerous.

Photo by Matteo Di Iorio on Unsplash

I asked God to find me. 

The next eight hours were a blur. I know I successfully taught a class. I was told I impressed a VIP from the governor’s office in one of my morning meetings. I even received a “thank you” email from the parents of a prospective student to whom I apparently spoke with around noon. I managed to successfully lead a very long and potentially contentious faculty meeting. And in between everything, I somehow finished multiple reports that have been sitting on my invisible “to-do” list for weeks.

It was after 4, and I was eager to drive back to Athens to announce the opening day baseball game for Clarke Central and watch Jaydon get his first opening day start with varsity. I’ve announced several sporting events in my lifetime, but this one was special — I never imagined I would have an opportunity to introduce my child in a game.

First pitch was scheduled for 5:55, so I had plenty of time. Walking to my car, I checked my text messages for the first time since the morning. A message at 10:38 a.m. from coach read, “Game moved to 5 p.m. and will be a doubleheader.”

Surprisingly, this did not impact me like my morning did. I accepted that I would be late. I was sad that I would likely miss his first at-bat, but knew there were several other competent parents who knew how to talk into a microphone and do the job for me.

When I arrived at the Clarke Central baseball field, I rushed into the press box and as luck would have it, the first batter I got to announce was, “right fielder, #8, JAYDON DENNIS.”

It gave me goosebumps. And I watched with great pride as Jaydon beat out a grounder up the middle, stole 2nd and 3rdbase, and eventually scored the first run of the season for the Gladiators, as the team swept Oglethorpe County.

As I reflected on my day, I remembered asking God to find me. God not only found me, but carried me throughout the day, and dropped me off at one of the most memorable moments of my life.

Prayer: God, thank you for finding me. Thank you for carrying me when I was struggling to walk. Thank you for gently setting me down to fully experience the goodness of life.

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: 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.