Think on these things.

dandelion-bess

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

                                                                                                                                   Philippians 4. 8-9

Every morning I wake up and the news is enough to send me back to bed. The national and global barrage of information about natural disasters and human hatred is mind-boggling, and our unending political disagreements and disarray only adds to the stress in our lives. That, of course, doesn’t include the personal challenges of family and friends. I actually believe that many people today are living with a persistent low level of depression that causes them to feel constantly overwhelmed. I believe the decline in worship attendance, participation in civic organizations and voting is the result of the state of our current cultural malaise.

What is a person to do? Well, as you might imagine, I have a few suggestions. Mind you, I am writing to myself as much as to you.      First, I suggest that we limit the number of hours we spend watching the news. I believe that we should be informed about what is going on in our world, but when the 24-hour news cycle is broadcasting into our minds and hearts for 24-hours a day, then we cannot help but be anxious. So, watch the news for an hour then, turn it off.

Second, I recommend that we walk away from our computers and put down our phones. Many of us are reliant upon our computers for our work and our phones for communication. Still, taking a few minutes throughout the day to take a walk, listen to some music, write a note (I am here assuming that we still know how to write) or read a poem will surely restore our souls.

Third, let’s add some type of prayer or meditation to our day. It doesn’t have to be a long amount of time, five or ten minutes. That brief amount of time will not take away from our work, but will give us energy.

Of course, long ago the Apostle Paul gave us the best advice of all. Calling us “Beloved” he wrote, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Why? Because to do so means that the God of peace will be with us. Can you believe that? Our God is ready to infuse you and me with peace. Why not try it? We have nothing to lose but our despair. May it be so.

Holy One, refocus my heart and mind and soul. Remind me that you are ever with me. Teach me to think on the things that are true, and just and pure. Show me the way to your peace that I may serve you well. Amen.

 

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Weekly Devotional: A Heart of Peace for 10 Minutes’ Time

Jesus said, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”                                   —  Matthew 7. 24 & 25

Okay, I’ll confess. I am a big fan of HGTV, and I am especially fond of Property Brothers. There is so much I like about their show. I like the brothers and how they interact with each other and the people whose homes they renovate. I also like that they don’t have one style, but that they truly listen to their clients and then develop a renovation and design plan that is creative and unique. But I think the thing I most appreciate is that whenever they begin a renovation project and discover that there is some bad thing in the walls or under the floor that is going to cost their clients more than they planed, the brothers are honest about it. They are committed to safety and good construction, and while they empathize with their clients, and try to find other ways to stay within the budget, they do not compromise on the basics that will keep the house safe over time.

As I was watching an episode of Property Brothers this week I realized that the commitment to paying attention to the unseen repairs by the brothers is much like Jesus’ teaching about those who hear his words and are like the wise man who built his house on rock. It seems to me that Jesus is trying to get us to understand that our attention to the inner workings of our spirit and soul, and our commitment to listening to God and developing relationship with God will be what sustains us over time.

This week we introduced a new column in our New Church Worship Guide entitled, “New Church Spirituality – What you can do!” The goal is to provide our faith community simple ways to “build their house on rock,” by practicing daily spirituality. This week we suggested that we spend 10 minutes in the morning or evening praying for peace. I have been practicing this prayer time this week and the wonderful outcome of sitting in silence and praying for peace is that I discovered my own heart at peace.

Of course, it does not escape me that many people in the wake of hurricanes and earthquakes have lost their homes to these natural disasters. But the thing that is so often inspiring is how resilient so many of the people are, and how often they speak of relying on their faith to get them through the storm.

So, I encourage you to try it. Set aside 10 minutes in the morning, at noon or in the evening and sit silently, listen to music, take a walk, or whatever it is you do in order to focus your mind, and pray for peace. Then when the rain falls, the floods come, and the winds blow in your life, you will not fall, because your life will be founded on rock.

Holy One, help me, strengthen my resolve so that I may faithfully spend time in prayer with you. Then let me turn to my day knowing you are ever with me. Amen.

 

Weekly Devotional: The Point of Pride – Changing Shame to Praise

And God said, “I will gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.”        — Zephaniah 3:19

Last Sunday afternoon was hard as a small group of folks from New Church, along with friends from Central Congregational Church, gathered to walk in the annual Dallas Pride Parade. Dallas was having unusually warm weather for September, and while we waited for the parade to start, the heat was oppressive. Even huddled together under an overpass didn’t seem to make things any better, and the rainbow stole I was wearing added to my personal misery. The parade usually starts at 2:00 pm, but soon we realized that none of the parade entries were moving. Later we learned that the parade officials were having trouble with the barriers that hold the crowd back, and so we waited. Finally, nearly 2 hours after the parade was scheduled to start, we began to move.

As we waited for the start of the parade I was thinking, “Why on earth are we doing this? We are both small congregations and even by joining together we are probably one of the smaller parade entries. Why are we doing this?” Still, as we began to walk, the heat didn’t feel so oppressive, and as we reached the beginning of the parade route the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd began to lift my spirits.

We were carrying signs that we felt were in keeping with the theme for this year’s parade, “Stand Up! Speak Out!” They were signs we got from our denomination, the United Church of Christ.  They said things like: “White Privilege: If You Can’t See It, You Got It,” “God is Transgender,” “Believe in Science, for God’s Sake,” “Looking For Jesus? Good. So Are We.” I could go on, but you get the picture. As we walked along, people cheered our signs and called out to us yelling “Yes!” It was exciting.

Then, as we neared the end of the parade, we noticed a small group of young women looking at us and pointing at us with expressions of wonder. By then Stephanie and I were holding hands. They took out their phones and started taking our picture. It was as if they had never seen two women holding hands in public, or maybe it was that they had never seen a woman pastor and her wife holding hands.

I realized in that moment that they were the reason we were there. It didn’t matter how small a parade entry we had. It didn’t matter that we had waited for over an hour to begin. It didn’t matter that we had been miserable in the heat. All of that faded away when we realized that we had a message to share with the parade watchers. We were there to proclaim with our signs and our very presence that there is another way to understand Christianity, a way that follows Jesus, a way that stands for peace and works for justice, a way that proclaims and works for a just world for all, a way that says, “Church Is the Practice, Love Is the Point.”

We were echoing the words of the Prophet Zephaniah who, speaking for God, said to the people, “I will gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.” So, if our witness and our presence changed one life last Sunday afternoon, if we helped one LGBTQIA young person know that they matter and they are people of worth and God loves them, and that God wants to change their shame to praise and renown, then that was why we were there, and that was enough.

Holy One, just for today remind me that showing up, standing for peace and working for justice, and witnessing to your love is enough. Amen.

 

 

Weekly Devotional: Come to Jesus and Find Your Rest

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”         -Matthew 11:28 (NRSV)

More and more, I find that people I know and encounter are tired—tired mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. As I was thinking about this contemporary phenomenon, I found myself remembering how the pace of life felt so much slower when I was growing up, and I have come to believe that there is something to be learned from reflecting on that slower pace of living.

As I think about our fast-paced living today, I can’t help but believe that our 24-7 news cycle, 24-7 connection to the internet through our multiple electronic devices, our 24-7 work cycle means that our minds, hearts, and souls are never really still. Add to that the threats of global nuclear war, our country divided ideologically, environmental disasters of hurricanes, earthquakes and fires means that we’re in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and stress.

So, last week when Stephanie suggested that we take our lunch break by going to the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration and walk their labyrinth, it felt like an invitation to take a drink of cool water and quench my parched throat. It was as if I could hear Jesus saying, “Martha, Martha (add your name here, “Jo, Jo”) you are worried about many things.” (Luke10.41) When the noon hour came we went to the church and spent 45 minutes walking in silence a beautiful labyrinth in the entryway to the sanctuary, and I came away feeling rested and restored.

Jesus, the Rabbi of Nazareth, often taught using paradox. He called us to come to him and find rest. The paradox is that we think that if we work hard enough and fast enough we will have time to rest when we are done. But Jesus knew that in order to stop the cycle of being “worried about many things,” we would need to take moments in the day to rest in God’s presence in order to still our minds, hearts, and souls in order to encounter what is Holy and Mystery to find true rest.

So, I commend to you a few exercises to try. Why not spend a few moments throughout the day taking deep breaths and praying a prayer Brian McLaren offered in his book Naked Spirituality, “Here I am. Here You are. Here we are together.” Or instead of taking a power walk try walking leisurely noticing everything around you. By the way, this works even in an urban setting. Or, if you just can’t put your phone down, try downloading an app like Aura or Insight Timer to guide you in meditation. Or take the advice of William C. Martin in his devotional book, The Art of Pastoring, “There will be a hundred voices saying, ‘There is more yet to do.’” To every voice that says, ‘Go home’ listen carefully.” Then come to Jesus and find your rest.

Holy One, awaken me to your presence. Help me to stop, listen, and find my rest in you. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: On Hurricanes and Prayer

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by.                                   —Psalm 57:1

The images of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey from Corpus Christi and Rockport, up the coast to Houston, Beaumont, and Port Arthur, and now in states north, is heartbreaking. And if you’re like me you may have had friends and family in the way of the storm. Many times I found myself praying for my family and friends and all the people in harm’s way. I imagine they were praying, too, and that their prayers sounded a lot like the prayer above attributed to King David of Israel. It is a heartfelt prayer for mercy and refuge and safety.

But here’s the thing. Try as I might, pray as often as I did, the storm did not change course. As much as I wanted to storm to move away from Houston, so that the floodwaters would recede and my family and friends would be safe, it didn’t happen. And when I told a good friend of mine that I was going to pray for the hurricane to change course away from land and people, it still didn’t move. And I know that those who were caught in cars and trucks that flooded, and homes where the floodwaters chased them onto their roofs, were praying hard for God to give them refuge. Some people were saved and others died.

So, you might be wondering why we would pray at all. Honestly, I don’t know why some peoples’ homes had no flooding or damage and others’ homes were destroyed. I don’t know why some died and others lived. I know some religious extremists are blaming it on the “gays,” because LGBTQ people are an easy target. I also know that many lived because of people who decided that saving others’ lives matters. I don’t think anyone or any group of people caused the devastation, unless you want to blame it on humanity’s reckless use and abuse of God’s creation. When it comes to natural disasters, I personally believe that we live in a natural world where storms exist and sometimes people lose their livelihood and their lives. So, back to my question, “Why pray at all?”

Well, I think we pray because it gives us comfort and strength and helps us to recognize God’s presence even in the midst of our darkest nights. I am convinced that those who died in the storm discovered that God was with them in life, in death, in life beyond death. And so, it does not surprise me that the Psalm does not end with the prayer for mercy and safety. In fact, that Psalm begins with a plea but it ends with praise. It seems the Psalmist knew the truth about God, who is with us, does not forsake us and is worthy of our praise even then the storms rage. May we also come to know that truth and so let us pray with the Psalmist:

 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens;
your faithfulness extends to the clouds.
(vs. 9 & 10)

Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Make Love Your Greatest Aim

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.                                                                  – Hebrews 13:2

Last week, my family and I had the opportunity to go to Galveston for a last hurrah before the beginning of school. It was a nice respite from the push and pull of daily life. We spent the better part of our time sitting under umbrellas on the beach. While on the beach, we were visited by a flock of small birds. When I was growing up on the Gulf Coast we called them sandpipers, but I think they were more likely killdeer. The flock of birds, whatever their name, were actually a mother and perhaps ten or twelve babies. We watched as they ran along the beach. They would run toward the water, and then as the waves came in they would run away. Of course, this beautiful dance was precipitated by their desire to find the best food uncovered as the waves retreated.

As I watched them, I realized that we are a lot like those little birds, especially when it comes to strangers in our midst. When we encounter those who are different or “other” than us, we often find them intriguing. We watch and wonder about them. We “run” toward them, but if they turn toward us, we become afraid and scurry back to safety. Of course, God is the ultimate stranger, the ultimate “Other.” And isn’t it just like us to run toward God, seeking, desiring to know who this is who breathed life into us. But when God comes close we run away.

Yet the truth of what will sustain us is the ability to find in the “other” a friend. In fact, it may be the only way to save our lives, our neighborhoods and the world. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that by showing hospitality to strangers we may well indeed be engaging angels in our mist. And the truth of our encounter with God is that our very sustenance in this life, in death and in life beyond death, is to encounter the “Holy Other,” to discover the love that is being poured into us and our world.

So, like little birds at the shore, go ahead, run back and forth, toward and away, from and back, toward those who are other, and our “Holy Other,” and discover the life and hope and angels in our midst. Join the dance.

Holy Other, draw me close to you, even when I try to run away. Remind me that there are blessings in offering hospitality to those, including You, who are a stranger to me. Help me to draw close and discover how very much alike we are. Amen.

Weekly Devotional: Encountering God — Wherever You Are

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for your courts, O Lord . . . Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.                  –  Psalm 84:1-3 (NRSV)

I love this song found in the ancient scriptures of the Hebrew faith. For the longest time I believed that it was about going to church. I suppose that is because the Psalmist refers to fainting “for your courts” and laying “young at your altars.” Growing up, I simply couldn’t imagine that there was a place outside of church that included altars. I also suppose it is because church was a special place for me. I grew up in a small town, and our church felt a lot like a family. Many of my classmates and their parents worshipped at the First United Methodist Church in El Campo, Texas. In addition, the Methodists were pretty progressive when it came to church. As children and youth we were allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions about the Bible and our faith. So, naturally it felt to me when I read this Psalm (or heard it read in church) that the person who wrote it and read it were talking about going to church—a place, a building, a sanctuary.

Of course, since then I’ve learned that God has all kinds of altars in the world. Just this week, we had about eighteen from our faith community, New Church – Chiesa Nuova, United Church of Christ (UCC), go to New Braunfels and stay at the UCC’s Slumber Falls Camp and float the Comal River. The water was brisk and the sun bright and the scenery beautiful. I couldn’t help but experience God’s presence in all the nature that surrounded us. There were altars in abundance for sure. But there was something else, as well. There was laughter, and music, silence and conversation, and sharing a meal of sandwiches, puffy Cheetos, potato chips, and watermelon, while we stood in the middle of the Comal River. Those experiences with others were also an altar of sorts, as well as the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. As you go about your weekend, and the week ahead, I hope you will look for all those altars in the world that surround you, both in nature and in humanity.

But I also hope you will come to the sanctuary and worship with us or with others. The story of our faith tells us that Jesus certainly found and made altars in the world, but he also made it his practice to worship regularly. I’m sure he heard the rabbis read Psalm 84, and I’m confident that his soul longed for and fainted for God’s courts. So, I’ve decided that we need both. We need to find God present in our day to day life and in our world, but we also need a time and space set aside to encounter the presence of God in worship, song, word proclaimed, and the covenant of the table among those with whom we share and experience this amazing journey of faith.

I hope you won’t cut yourself short by doing just one or the other. Because I believe God wants to meet you both out in the world and in your intentional presence in shared worship in a holy space.

Holy One, open my heart, mind, and soul to meet you in the world, then help me to have the spiritual discipline to meet you in your courts and at your altar. Amen.