Devotional: April 23

By Erin Barger

For me, the week of celebrating resurrection is the cornerstone of the year. Why this is, I share below. As I know it does for many of you, this week brings closer within my grasp the incredible promise that those who we lost in this life will be restored to us again. The following was written within hours of my sister’s death, to be read at her memorial. Nearly ten years later, I share it with you. Her name was Susie. In her last 3 years of life she cared for 18 foster children, as well as the 4 children she brought into the world. May God be glorified in her death as He was in her life.
John 1:4 — In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.

As the book of John opens we are introduced to an entity named the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us. He brought an omnipotent kind of light to the world, and this light is strong enough to offer us all an otherwise impossible inheritance: the right to be sons and daughters of God. He also came in grace and truth, and from the fullness of that grace we have received one blessing after another.

Knowing Susie Graves as my sister was also one blessing after another. My memories of her begin with knowing a mother like figure. Thirteen when I was born, Susie was more like a mother to me than a sister: as I began kindergarten she was finishing high school. She worked after school jobs and, like my brother, shared her earnings by buying me coloring books and generally spoiling me. I could have had no doubt that I was loved, partially because of her.

As I grew into womanhood, we shared a new bond as sisters. As I recovered from knee surgery in high school, she and my brother were by my side. As they witnessed my first steps as a baby, they were there again to hold me as I learned to walk again. It was a scary time but, yet again, there she was. On my wedding day, she was to my immediate left. On her dying day, I was face to face with her, racing to find just the right words to communicate all that she had meant. Perhaps I should have simply said: “Susie, you have given one blessing after another.”
Within hours of her death, I thought of the story of Lazarus and knew that I would not read this story in the same way ever again. Today I can picture Mary running out to meet Jesus, knowing that His presence could have saved her brother’s life. The book of John says that Mary fell at the feet of Christ. Mary seemed willing to do anything to see her brother alive again, and now I can finally understand how that must have felt. We know that Jesus was so moved by her grief that He also wept. Although Christ knew that He would restore Lazarus to life, his love for these sisters and their grief compelled his perfect compassion. He restored Lazarus to life, and I know He will also resurrect my sister to life. I praise God today, not only for the power that He will share to restore us to never-ending life, but also for the compassion that drove Jesus to cry with Mary that day. This realization is powerful, as I know that today Christ is weeping with me, and that His comfort is perfect and the epitome of love.
Christ also redefined love later in the same book: when He is preparing his closest friends to live without Him, he shows the full extent of His love by washing their feet. Those of you who knew Susie well, knew that she also showed the full extent of her love in a similar manner. By opening her home to a little boy named Cooper whose parents were lost to him; by sacrificing daily for Emily, Caitlin, Hannah, and Amanda; by serving her husband Shayne; by watching over her little sister Erin; by creating a home for children that are often forgotten about and thereby, practicing pure religion: it is in these ways that Susie showed the full extent of her love. I praise God today for His grace upon my sister, which allowed this love to come to life after the example of our Lord.
Death has already been swallowed up in victory the day that Jesus fought death and won. Through this, I know that these memories with my beloved sister are a blink of an eye compared to the life that awaits us in heaven. Perhaps what allowed Christ to stop weeping the day he comforted Martha was, not just his vision of Lazarus coming back to life temporarily, but even more the sight of Lazarus rejoicing by the side of Mary and Martha in heaven. Therefore, we too “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” knowing that if we cling to Christ our own mortality will be swallowed up in life. I praise God for helping me to know Him more because of Susie and for his promise to protect her and keep her safe as a perfect Father until we are together again.

Prayer: God, your promise of resurrection defines our approach to death, and drives our fearlessness in life, as we remain rooted in Your love. Thank you. God, I don’t understand why death is essential, having lost so much as a result. But I look to you, and I trust You with what I do not understand. I believe that whatever I suffer, You suffered it first. Please send your Spirit and humility as a balm; deliver your resurrection promise in ways all who are hurting can see, even today. Thank you for the compassion of Jesus that led Him to restore life, no matter the cost to Him. May I follow in His steps.

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, April 20

By Dee Cole Vodicka

John and I thank God that we were led through the doors of Oconee Stree United Methodist Church! We have been so blessed by your warm and gracious welcome. You are so welcoming, in fact, that you allow a non-member to offer a Lenten reflection. Here goes!

In this season of Lent, I’m taking time to read and reflect on “An American Lent,” from the Repentance Project.  “The Repentance Project exists to encourage racial healing by communicating the systemic legacies of slavery, building relationships, and creating opportunities – through formation, repentance and repair – for a just future.” https://repentanceproject.org/

Each day, I’m challenged to read and reflect on the legacy of enslavement in the United States, and to repent on how this evil practice lives on in systems and structures that benefit me every day. I encourage you to sign up for their daily Lenten readings.

Then I started to think about other systems and structures that call out for justice, particularly the struggle to lift up and affirm the full personhood of my LGBTQ siblings. And, I’m thinking about my place in this struggle, and how to respond as a straight woman. It occurred to me that I might learn something by applying lessons from the civil rights movement for racial equality to the civil rights movement for LGBTQ equality, and that these lessons might also inform us at Oconee Street UMC as we consider “The Way Forward.”

I recently re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1963. In it, he lays out a case for clergy, and all people of faith, to apply Jesus’ teachings to a movement demandingrecognition of the full personhood of African Americans. Please read these excerpts (and read the entire letter, when you have time), and then reflect on whether you see an application to other movements for civil rights.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

……

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

……

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

……

And, speaking of people of faith who stood up and spoke out: Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

Please pray with me in a prayer adapted from this week’s Repentance Project meditations:

God our creator and redeemer, you are holy and just. You love honesty and fairness. You embedded your image in all people.  I don’t know what to do with my failure to recognize this and my failure to act justly with all people – especially people who don’t look like me, or who identify differently from me, except to ask for your mercy and for the courage to be stretched to meet the challenges before me. May your will be done; your ways established; and your honesty, generosity, and freedom openly exchanged among your children —here in our town, in our state, and in our nation. Have mercy on me. Have mercy on us.

Lenten Devotional: April 19

By Joe Dennis

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.

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, April 18

by Nevena Martin

On Tuesday morning, I cuddled my son as he received a breathing treatment in the Emergency Department. Some of the mist aimed at his mouth rolled over his nose, curled up my arm and dissipated in my own face. As I breathlessly observed him, hoping the medicine would ease his effort to breathe, I waited for the tightness of my own chest to slowly release, too. Five mornings earlier a patient of mine, I’ll call him Mr. B, told me he couldn’t breathe. He asked for a breathing treatment. A few hours later, he would be dead.

Haunted, these are the thoughts that ran through my mind as we sat in the trauma bay. Was this revenge? Was it karma? What caused my otherwise-perfectly-healthy son to not be able to draw an adequate breath? How many other people had sat in this room designed specifically for battles that can go either way? What was the driving force of these outcomes? How many miracles had occurred in this trauma bay? How many times was it simply science drawing a natural conclusion?

As the direness of Gus’ situation wore off, I pondered whether God loved him more than Mr. B. Had enough people prayed for his recovery? Was a lamb, off in some distant land, slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice, pleasing God enough to change His mind? Is that the kind of God I wanted to serve:  an all-powerful entity whose mind I could change with enough renditions of “please, sir”? What had Mr. B done wrong, what had Gus done right? Do I praise God on Tuesday but not on the previous Thursday? More concretely, is Death a punishment and a long life a reward? An interesting thought the week before Holy Week.

My thoughts circled back to more of the catch-all mainstream Christian phrases that I often scoff at, and I reconsidered them. Does God have a plan that includes sad, injust incidents as well as acts of unearned forgiveness and redemption? In the battle between predestination and free will, is there a third way? What do we know of Jesus’ ministry on earth that provides evidence for each of these arguments? Is this even a conceptual divide which impacts how one should conduct herself? My thoughts swirled, refusing to settle.

I wondered what I should pray in the moment without realizing I had been praying. Having been conditioned to think prayer looked something like the castigation and implorement of the Joel Osteen’s of the world, I struggled to recognize my ponderance and curiosity of God to be prayer; I struggled to see this as *my* personal relationship with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And then I remembered a bit from a sermon near Christmastime where Joe described the Adult Sunday School class sharing their favorite lines from Christmas songs, and I offered up this borrowed prayer:

Be near me Lord, Jesus, I ask you to stay. Close by me forever, and love me I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take us to heaven to live with thee there.

Lenten Devotional: Monday, March 25

God the Pipe Bomb
by Alys Willman

You thought God was an architect, now you know.
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
—Jason Isbell, “24 Frames” 

You thought God was an architect.  Isn’t that what most of us are taught? We bring God down to our size, try and fit God into the limits of our own understanding. The Great Creator of the universe is reduced to a dude with glasses hunched over a drafting table. The power of the One who surpasses all understanding is focused on helping me secure a nice parking spot.

The truth is, most of probably never stop to consider how powerful God actually is. And that means we reduce our idea of God’s work to the things we consider reasonable.

This Lenten season, I am coming to believe in a God who is capable of things I cannot even begin to understand, a God who is waiting to create through me. I am coming to believe in God the Pipe Bomb. 

On Ash Wednesday, I taped a piece of paper over my prayer space. It says, “What if God is capable of anything?” When I sit with this prospect sometimes, I hear a voice whispering to me, saying things so crazy, so impossible, and yet so tantalizingly exciting I can barely stay still. What if you spent today writing poetry instead of working? What if you learned to juggle? Auditioned for a band? 

Inevitably, these whispers are met with a clamor of protests from the other voice in my head (the one who sounds like my mother, if I’m being honest). Who’s going to pay for this? Are you really going to sit around writing mediocre poems, or playing guitar, instead of picking the kids up from soccer practice? What will people think? These voices sound suspiciously to me like the ones who tempted Jesus in the desert. This Lenten season, I am trying to tell those nagging, critical voices to get behind me.  They have served their purpose and now, well, time’s up. 

I am beginning to believe that my wildest dreams and talents might just be  a gift straight from God.  I am asking myself how I would spend my time if I really believed that. Maybe, just maybe, chasing my dreams could be an act of worship. Maybe writing, singing and creating would be acts of service instead of  guilty pleasures that must be earned and negotiated. 

As we move into spring, my heart is restless at the prospect of a second chance. The resurrection is coming. May we be open to it, ready for God to burn away everything we have built that’s all for show, and trusting that something amazing  will rise from the ashes. 

Prayer: God, I confess I put limits on Your power. You send me gifts, and I send them right back. I am sorry. Obliterate me with Your love, burn away my small self and flow through me, that my life may be a prayer to You. 

Lenten Devotional: Tuesday, March 19

by Daniel Malec

Mark 12:30-31 (NIV):  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

As I reflect on this scriptural reference from Matthew, I am struck by the order that Jesus has laid out these commandments.  Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength comes first. I am coming to realize that these commandments are likely laid out in this order for a reason.  Too often in my life, I make personal commitments to forgive and move on, yet my heart and mind seem to hold on and not let go. This leads to more pain and resentment and it seems the cycle goes on even though my intention is to let it go.

I find myself in the midst of this cycle now. Since we moved into our house over a year a half ago, we have been embroiled in conflict with our next- door neighbor. Throughout this journey of discord, pain and resentment, I have experienced tests to my faith like almost none other.  What does it mean to love our neighbor when it feels like she is constantly attacking us and making false accusations against? How do I practice forgiveness when what I really feel is resentment? Why am I still holding on to so much pain and anger when I keep trying to forgive and move on? This conflict has cut to the core of who Alys and I strive to be.  We desire deeply to be good neighbors – to help build a healthy and loving community. Instead it seems that our life commitments are an insult and an affront to our neighbor.

In my conflict resolution work in schools, I often encounter students that appear to be dripping with resentment.  I often share with them the saying that is attributed to the Buddha: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”  My expectation often is that they will grasp the harm they are causing to themselves and then let go of the resentment. I have found through my own journey with pain and resentment, that this is far easier said than done.  I have gained more compassion and empathy for my students and their burden of carrying resentment.

While I have been trying to forgive and move on from this conflict with our neighbor, I continue to be caught holding the burning coal in my hand.  I can’t seem to let it go. I believe what is happening is that I am trying to do this according to my time and not God’s. My focus should be on recognizing the pain and resentment that I feel and to offer it up to God.  Once I do that, then I believe my duty is to focus on the first commandment so that God can show me how to forgive and love my neighbor according to God’s plan and not my own.

One thing we have known for sure throughout this journey, is that God is in the midst of all of this.  God did not lead us around the country for a year and have us settle next to this particular neighbor for nothing.  There is something in this that is far bigger than us, but I have not been able to understand it yet. I think that is a bit of the point.  God has invited us to trust, period. God has not provided us with the answers to all of our questions, but if I truly believe God and God’s invitation to mercy and justice, then I have to believe that the answers will come according to God’s time.  God is faithful … all of the time 🙂

Prayer:
Dear God,
During this Lenten season, I want to make room for you in my heart and mind.  I want to make space for you, but I want to be honest that you will be sharing space with some unsavory thoughts and emotions.  I offer those thoughts and emotions to you as well. I patiently wait for you to transform them into instruments for your peace and justice.  Transform my heart and mind into a sanctuary for you and your divine light. In Jesus’ name I pray.

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, March 16

by Hope Cook

Mary Oliver says in her poem When Death Comes, “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.”

While we were on the road this past weekend, we stopped at a rest stop and I reflected on “rest stops.”  I watched as people scurried from their cars and speed-walked inside to use the restroom, then hopped back in their cars and sped away.  The only people who seemed interested in resting at the rest stop were either old people with little yip-yap dogs or children.  I watched as a little girl, probably 18 months, toddled around and squatted to look at every root and flower on the ground. She seemed enthralled by the magic of it all.  She then made her way unsteadily towards a tree.  When she came to it, she examined it the way an alien to earth might examine it.  She touched the bark, peeked around it, walked around it, gazed up towards the branches.  She was clearly amazed by this strong stick in the ground.  

Nature is our best way of connecting to the Divine.  This is like Face-timing with God.  You can’t sit in nature, even if it’s sitting on the stoop of your office building, without noticing something about nature.  You might look up at the sky and wonder about the weather, you might notice the temperature or the breeze or the pollen, but you’ll notice.  

At this stage in my life, it feels like I live on an interstate.  There are rest stops available at regular intervals, but I rarely get off and pull in and park.  I’m making it a point during this Lenton season to schedule rest stops.  If I manage to go outside during lunch, it’s like hitting the reset button on my mind.  I’m temporarily not thinking about work, I’m noticing.  Sit and notice …  notice the smells, the breeze, the clouds, the sounds.  Rather than take away sugar or wine during Lent, try adding rest stops instead.  

In Mark 6:30 Jesus even advised his workers to take a break and rest:
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 14

by Sarah Sumners

Corinthians 12: 9-10 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

In the wake of general conference, I find myself experiencing two disparate, yet confounded emotions: loneliness and vulnerability.  Feelings of hope, safety and security have been giving way to exposure, sadness and disappointment — manifesting as uncontrolled weeping and uncomfortable weakness.

But these feelings crowd my thoughts, serving to distract and distance me from God and from those around me, spurring on my discontent. My loneliness persists when I create barriers that separate me from God and from others. Instead, how powerful might I be if only I can risk showing my weaknesses as an offering of love?

The words of Paul and Timothy in 2 Corinthians offer me the instruction I need to understand God’s love for me, telling me to be content in my weakness. If I can delight in hardship and remain vulnerable in the eyes of God, then I can truly receive God’s love, freeing me from my unending search for love from others.

Today I will risk exposure, venturing to love others as God loves me, fully and unconditionally.

Prayer: Heavenly One,
We ask for Your forgiveness for ways in which we have filled our time and thoughts with human endeavors. Guide us towards Your salvation and use us to create space for others to join us so that they may experience the bounty of Your unending grace and mercy. Help us to expose our weakness as a witness to Your unconditional love. In Your name we pray, Amen.

Lenten Devotional: March 8, 2019

Lent and Time

by Leland Spencer

This was originally published on March 19, 2016 and was written by former Oconee Street UMC member Leland Spencer, who is now assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary and Communication Studies at Miami University.

Ecclesiastes 3:1
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”

In this Lenten season, I’ve been reflecting on time, at least in part because I’ve been rereading several of the speeches and writings of Martin Luther King, wherein time functions as a frequent theme. Lent, of course, marks time—40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, not counting Sundays—what a strange way of marking time it sometimes seems.

As Lent calls us to awareness of our own mortality and sinfulness—but never without acknowledging God’s grace and forgiveness, always than our sin—I have reflected on time and my own willingness to wait, to defer, to privilege expedience over the call of conscience. In my work with a speech and debate team, I recently had a run-in with a coach of a neighboring school who wanted to ban debate judges who spoke native languages other than English. I confronted this person’s racism, but only after he’d succeeded in getting some judges dropped from a competition by claiming they were too inexperienced to judge. He hid his true purpose behind the veneer of the rules, but I knew his motive because he’d voiced it at a public meeting months before. In that earlier meeting, I rolled my eyes but didn’t speak up. I didn’t take him seriously, and I doubted anyone else would. I never imagined he would find a way to enact his ideology under the guise of legalistic adherence to letter of the law.

“Silence is betrayal,” King said in his 1967 speech at Riverside Church. Breaking with the Johnson administration for the first time exactly one year before his death, King articulated several reasons why his conscience compelled him to speak against the Vietnam War. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” a few years before, King excoriated white churches and white Christians (clergy and lay) who encouraged people of color to wait patiently for civil rights. King reminded his readers (then and now) that time itself is neutral, not progressive. Furthermore, the forces of injustice, in the call to wait patiently, more often mobilize time to their ends than the voices agitating for social change. The church, writes King, “is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

King’s words convict me of my own silence and embolden me to speak. As I reflect on King’s words about and to the church, I wonder about how our United Methodist Church this spring will act. As General Conference approaches, will 2016 finally be the year that justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream? Or will the church forget the message that “justice too long delayed is justice denied”?

Prayer: Oh God, in our lives, in our homes, in our church, find us faithful in your call to justice. Forgive us our silence in the face of oppression, and grant us holy and sacred impatience in the face of all that harms the people you love. Amen.

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 7

Make Room for God
by Joe Gunby

Adapted from the “An Invitation to Lenten Practices” from the Oconee Street UMC Ash Wednesday service on March 6, 2019.

Luke 6:12 One of those days, Jesus went out to the mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.

In Christian tradition there are three modes of prayer: confession, assurance and petitions. These are central to what Christian prayer is all about – ways of reconnecting with God one-and-one and corporately. These practices of prayer are ancient, but they still make so much sense today.

In confession, we let go of those things we regret – things we are sorry about. We let go of them and let them slip out into the past. It feels really good to unburden our hearts in that way. In Christian belief, any time we say we’re sorry to God, we are forgiven. Assurance is when we’re reminded by the Holy Spirit that God will never abandon us. In prayers of petition, we let go of the worry in our own hearts and entrust them to God. 

Instead of giving something up this Lent, make room for God by making room for prayer. Designate room in your calendar when you will pray. Create physical room in your home where you will pray. And develop spiritual room in your heart and mind for what you will pray. Make room where you can ask God to be with you and hold you near, drowning out the noise of the things that bother you. 

Prayer: For the times when we have been too busy for you Lord, forgive us. For the times when we have filled up our lives with things, so much that we have no room for others, forgive us. For the times when we have been to busy to let our loved ones know how much we care … and to put ourselves in the world for the common good, forgive us. Help us be open to your nudge this season, to adjust to your time for us.